The Problem With Youth Activism

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The American Prospect

The Problem With Youth Activism

The institutionalization of activism on college campuses is a key culprit in the absence of visible youth movements in this country.

"Do you think this is the right color ribbon?" asked a petite brunette, her hair pulled back in a haphazard ponytail, her college sweatshirt engulfing her tiny frame. "And do you think these are the right length of sections I'm cutting? I don't want it to be all funky when we pin them on."

"Mmm ... I'm not sure," said the guy next to her, sucking on a lollipop, his football-player physique totally evident in his tight band T-shirt.

"Looks good to me," his roommate said without even glancing over at the ribbon or the girl.

Meet the college anti-war movement.

I just got back from a two-week campus speaking tour during which I had the privilege of hanging out in a women's center at a Catholic college, eating bad Mexican food with Mennonite feminists, and chatting with aspiring writers and activists at a college in which half the students are the first in their families to experience higher education. I heard the stories of transgender youth in Kansas City, jocks with food addictions in Jacksonville, and student organizers who are too overwhelmed to address all the world's problems in Connecticut.

When my plane finally landed with a resounding bump at LaGuardia, I felt totally inspired by the earnest enthusiasm that beamed out of almost every student I encountered -- and also terrified that the university system is sucking the life out of them. At the risk of biting the hand that feeds me (I am usually paid to speak, in part, by student organizations and women's centers), I have to attest that the institutionalization of activism on college campuses seems to be a key culprit in the absence of visible youth movements in this country.

The scene above illustrates just the kind of vibe you can find at an anti-war or nonviolence club on college campuses any day of the week. It is sweetly collaborative, mainly focused on raising awareness among students, very keyed in to particular dates (Love Your Body Day, Earth Day, Black History Month), and most of all, safe. This is not terribly surprising considering that these clubs are sanctioned and funded (sometimes with upward of thousands of dollars a year) by the school administration through a formal application process. They are structured to legitimize but also to domesticate student passions and actions from the start.

And students do have passions, contrary to what some hippies-turned-well-paid-pundits argue. A survey conducted just this year by the National Association of Campus Activities (NACA) found that 98 percent of students at their annual meeting saw the war in Iraq as one of the issues most important to them. Erin Wilson, the director of communication for NACA, reports that student involvement in campus activities is increasing all the time and adds that among their 1,040 member schools, a yearly total of $150 million is spent on campus programming.

As great as it might seem that colleges and universities are supporting student causes, I actually believe that it has tamed the critical energy necessary to be young, outraged, and active. When you're being funded by a team of white-haired academics in suits, taking real risks -- acts of civil disobedience like sit-ins, hunger strikes, boycotts -- don't seem like such a smart idea. Students rightly wonder whether they will "ruin it" for the next class if they cross the line and lose the school leadership's support. Plus, it's so much easier to just eat the free pizza and cut the three-inch ribbons than to mastermind a rebellious and potentially dangerous student uprising.

The academy, in general, encourages specialization, intellectualization, civility -- not exactly the key ingredients for effective social action. Students are surrounded by professors reminiscing about the glory days of youth activism, when groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the Weather Underground, and the Black Panther Party really ignited social change. But the professors don't seem to make the connection that none of these were school-sanctioned organizations.

Today's youth activism is largely enacted within the gated fortresses of higher learning. Students are overwhelmingly and often motivated by applying to law school or resumé-building. (How do you think they got into these undergraduate institutions in the first place?) They funnel their outrage into weekly club meetings and awareness campaigns that look good on paper -- activities that convey to future employers and institutions that they are socially involved and aware but not at odds with the system. Students seem to join sanctioned, existing clubs, rather than launch their own radical actions, without much resistance or critical questioning. Perhaps they've been socialized to accept the status quo, but even more, I believe they simply don't have the time or energy to start innovative revolutions from scratch because they are so busy taking standardized tests and building their resumés with internships and assistantships.

I watched a group of them sort through a brightly colored stack of anti-war quotations to make sure that every single one, literally, bore the stamp of approval from the college activities office so they could hang them around campus without getting in trouble. It made me cringe. This is where their energies were being diverted during the deadliest month yet in the Iraq War.

It made me reflect on my own undergraduate days -- just about five years ago now. I wasn't a rah-rah student government officer, but I certainly did my share of club activities: school newspaper, writing fellows program, resident assistant, volunteering at a Harlem preschool, even the hip-hop club (talk about taming outrage). I remember feeling so busy, so responsible, so important. Now I realize that there was a real cost to that frenzy of school-sanctioned productivity. I rarely thought beyond the borders of folding tables that lined the student activities fairs. I rarely put my body or my future on the line. While I was tutoring fellow students in grammar and composition and making door tags for my residence halls, I missed the escalation of a bogus justification for a messy war in my name.

In one of the largest studies ever conducted of Generation Y, psychology professor Jean M. Twenge found that college students "increasingly believe that their lives are controlled by outside forces" -- called "externality" in the psychology field. Twenge writes, "The average college student in 2002 had more external control beliefs than 80 percent of college students in the early 1960s."

Is it any wonder? We were raised to organize our adolescent lives in pursuit of external approval: church awards, athletic scholarships, and college admissions. More than any generation in history, we've been signed up, roped in, and overscheduled. When we get to college, many of us rush to join clubs in an attempt to recreate this safe feeling of sanctioned activity, of organized energies, of potential approval by authorities. Our innate passions and spontaneous actions have essentially been bred out of us.

The LearningWork Connection, a consulting firm on youth issues, reports that from September 2004 to September 2005, 79 percent of first-year males and 87 percent of first-year females described themselves as "volunteers." They add, however, that "Gen Y is less engaged with civic and political activities than they are with other causes."

Which prompts me to ask, what are "causes," really? The word stinks of bureaucracy and timidity, of the most educated, wanted generation in history sprawled across standard university furniture -- not planning the next revolution, but eating free cookies and voting on whether buttons or ribbons will be less destructive to students' clothing.

I saw the surefire glimmer of pure passion in these students' eyes. I know they are capable of great and ingenious uprisings, a type of protest that is totally 21st century, a trademark Generation Y invention. Viruses in campus administrators' computers with pop-up windows demanding no more expansion into poor, local neighborhoods? Mock draft cards sent home to their parents? A dance party -- 1 million youth strong -- on the Washington lawn? It all seems possible.

They need to stay out of the student center long enough to figure out what their version of outraged activism really is. Small as it may sound, big change would happen if college students today could protect their purest intentions from the pacifying force of free pizza and resume kudos. Our generation needs to step into our raw power -- the priceless power of being young and mad. We need to stay hungry long enough to get angry.

Courtney E. Martin

Courtney E. Martin is a writer and teacher living in Brooklyn. She is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body (Simon & Schuster's Free Press). You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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