As students we are often perceived as slackers, stoners and just plain lazy. Some studies have shown that this generation is the most politically apathetic ever – a tough hurdle for the budding policy wonks among us. But in this cynical world of war, radicalism and backward thinking, it is getting harder to sit idly and watch our opportunity to incite change pass by.

The college-aged population has been continuously left out of the policy debate. Few realize, however, that we are an untapped resource. As students, we have every tool at our fingertips – new technology, access to an abundance of information, brilliant academic mentors and inquisitive minds. Why can’t we be the ones who influence the policy of tomorrow with the skills we are developing today?

The Roosevelt Institution, the nation’s first student think tank, has sparked the beginning of a policymaking revolution by fostering a progressive outlet for college students. Across the country, Roosevelt Institution chapters have been established at more than 70 universities and formed a well-connected network of college students, working together to have our policies heard and voices legitimized.

The University of Michigan chapter – founded in the winter of 2006 – began as 12 kids meeting at a greasy table in the Union Tap Room. In a little more than a year, we have grown into one of the largest chapters in the country with more than 100 members and a reputation for being one of the most active student organizations. We attribute our success to the draw of our unique form of student activism

We are the new student activism. We seek to redefine the image and role of students in the public policy arena. Instead of the traditional protest/activist culture, we have adopted a proactive approach, using policy solutions to directly bring about the change we wish to see. It is a positive activism that promotes the innovation of concrete solutions to combat the problems and injustices in our world. Roosevelt Institution members research, write, publish and implement policy ideas based on their interests and passions. We also aim to form a base of progressive leadership and use that to cement our place in the policy debate.

Our philosophy of student activism is simple: Yell as loud as you want, as long as you have facts to back it up. While we want to draw attention to the pressing issues on the national policy agenda, we also seek to make student activism more intelligent, more legitimate to policy makers and more effective through policy solutions and fact-based initiatives.

As a student think tank, the Roosevelt Institution’s ultimate goal is to be a resource for student organizations and work with the existing activist community to put on original, inspiring and informed campus awareness events. We hope to explore the issues of interest to our members, student groups and the activist culture on campus, and work on addressing solutions to those problems together.

The University chapter of the Roosevelt Institution made a name for itself last semester with “Roosevelt Relief: Hurricane Katrina,” a four-month-long project in which all six of our policy centers worked together to identify solutions for Gulf Coast disaster relief. Our members produced 10 innovative polices like long-term mental health funding for victims, soil amelioration and levee reconstruction techniques. Forty Roosevelt fellows were published in the Roosevelt Relief Policy Publication, which has been distributed widely and viewed by advocates, charities and politicians across the country.

The project culminated in April 2007 with a week-long summit, in conjunction with the Gulf Coast Civic Works Project and universities across the country. The week of events included movie screenings, a Policy Event Challenge and a keynote address by Lt. General Russel Honoré, leader of the Katrina Joint Taskforce. In the end, the University chapter of the Roosevelt Institution was able to gain national attention through the GCCWP and donate more than $1,000 to Gulf Coast charities and advocacy groups. Most important, the Roosevelt Relief student policies made an impact on the ground and contributed to the positive change for which their authors advocated.

This year, the Roosevelt Institution is looking to capitalize on last semester’s success by working on a variety of initiatives. In the fall, we plan to facilitate a campus-wide discussion concerning community development and urban planning in Detroit. In addition, we introduced a new policy center looking specifically into China, an economic project focusing on Africa, a voting rights policy initiatives and a regional project related to Great Lakes restoration.

As the membership and scope of the Roosevelt Institution increases, that aforementioned epidemic of student apathy seems more and more like a myth. Campus activism continues to thrive as a student-generated policymaking revolution, and the Roosevelt Institution is at its heart.

-Stephanie Somerman and Hilary Doe are co-presidents of the University chapter of the Roosevelt Institution.

This viewpoint is the second in a series about the present state of student activism.

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