New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls us “Generation Q” – the “Quiet Americans.” Facing important issues like global warming and the war in Iraq, we rarely protest, rarely march and we generally don’t make enough noise. Instead, we content ourselves with passive, symbolic efforts like joining political Facebook groups and wearing ribbons to raise awareness about breast cancer.
Or at least that is the common perception.
Friedman was right to point out our generation’s idealism. According to an online study conducted by Cone Inc and AMP Insights published in USA Today, 61 percent of young adults ages 13 to 25 “feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world,” and 81 percent have volunteered in the previous year alone. A 2005 report published by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles cites that about 66 percent of college freshmen “believe it’s essential or very important to help others in difficulty,” and among incoming freshmen, feelings of civic duty and social consciousness are higher than they’ve been at any time in the past 25 years.
This generation of college students may not organize mass marches or stage sit-ins reminiscent of the 1960s, yet these poll numbers show that students have not fallen prey to apathy. We are not lazy, but the traditional methods of student activism have changed. Student activism has not disappeared – it is being redefined.
Clearly, protests and marches are not working for this generation. The organizers have good intentions, but protests usually fall victim to the same recurring problems. In many cases the numbers are disappointing, such as the recent student rally for increased funding to higher education at the Michigan statehouse in Lansing. Between all of Michigan’s state universities, only 300 students showed up.
Other times the protesters are uninformed about the issue at hand. Take, for example, the hundreds of middle school and high school students bused to the Diag last year by By Any Means Necessary to show opposition to Proposal 2. By most accounts, the protest was more chaotic than productive.
Finally, sometimes the protest simply doesn’t have enough student support to succeed, as with the University’s temporary ban on Coca-Cola products in 2005. Students have become jaded with these methods and instead have started to channel their efforts into different actions.
The new student activism is based on knowledge and small change enacted from the bottom up. Our generation finds it more effective to be informed on an issue and then go out into the world to try and change it rather than protesting en masse. It’s no less activist for The Roosevelt Institution to publish a paper critiquing a facet of educational policy than it is for Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality to stage a sit-in at University President Mary Sue Coleman’s office. Both groups are demonstrating two valuable types of activism; the only difference is the use of traditional and non-traditional methods.
Teach For America is perhaps the perfect embodiment of our generation’s new definition of effecting change. In the program, college graduates are placed in different urban and rural areas across the country to teach in low-income, under-privileged school districts for two years.
While Teach For America doesn’t fall under the traditional activist framework of protests and marches, it does encapsulate our unique brand of activism by combining our generation’s desire to change the world with our tendency to strive for progress by making small changes at ground level. Teach For America is not a perfect program, and neither does it present a magical cure-all of problems of educational inequality, but it allows young adults to take a stand in their communities in more engaging, meaningful ways than holding another disappointing protest.
Those who say that student activism is dead are not looking in the right places. Students may not be marching on Washington or protesting in the Diag as much, but we are working for the causes we care about in clubs and volunteer organizations at both a local and national level. We may not gather together to yell and picket, but we do gather together to inform ourselves and make a difference in our communities.
Future viewpoints in this series by campus activists will help show that although the old form of student activism may be dead, student activism itself is most certainly still alive. Whether or not our efforts are as effective as those of previous generations, though, is the real question.
Rachel Wagner is an assistant editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.