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Where have all of the Student Activists gone?

This is from a blog that I wrote a month or so ago at another space, thought I might share it here:

 

   Where is the activism from students these days?  This question has been itching me for a while, and it's due time I express it!  I haven't been around on this Earth for too long, but historically haven't universities been hotbeds for progressive thought and action? My generation is by-and-large dropping the ball and it is unprecedented and deeply troubling. My thoughts are echoed by some of my peers and I hear it from engaged and concerned elders as well. The lack of engagement is certainly not for lack of pressing issues; as a student at Huxley College we commonly discuss urgent global environmental crises to the point that it can become almost desensitizing. However we are almost never taught to think critically about adequate responses to ecological and social deterioration. Most of us in the environmental college seem resigned to find our way in to a regulatory agency, or an environmental advocacy NGO. We are taught about the crises but we ARE NOT educated about the causes. Most of us believe that cap-and-trade will be adequate to solve climate change, that governmental regulatory agencies will protect us from unknown chemicals, and that our consumer choice to buy a Prius will pave the way for an environmentally sustainable green industrial future. We are taught to view environmental and social problems in isolation and are unable to see them in their proper context or to understand some of the common causes. 

     One of the most troubling examples of lack of student activism that I have seen recently is regarding budget cuts to higher education. As students, shouldn't we care that even as the quality of education and diversity of classes and programs are being cut due to lack of funding, that tuition will continuing to increase? Or that universities will be forced to market to and accept more out of state students over Washington students because they pay more for tuition? Bruce Shepard, WWUs president was outspoken publicly about the cuts and his statistical analysis was widely published in newspapers on campus and in the local and regional press, including the Seattle Times and Bellingham Herald. The numbers that Shepard provided were that average graduation time would shoot from 4.6 to 5.7 years because of decreasing numbers of classes available for the same or increasing numbers of students. For further context, cuts would be equivalent to cutting Fairhaven, Huxley and Woodring Colleges; another equivalent would be cutting 20% of faculty. As cuts are now official, for the first time in history students will be paying more than the state for public education. One article I read recently said that four years from now WWUs state funding will have been cut by 50%, that is staggering. All of this as average student debt upon graduation is already somewhere between $17,000 and $24,000 based on different sources I've seen. There were a handful of student protests on campus over this, the most publicized and best organized being the Rally to Restore Education. Despite that fact that the rally happened in an extremely public place, on a decent day at midday, and that hundreds of people RSVPed and invites went out to thousands online along with publicity on campus, there were probably somewhere between 100 and 200 people that showed up. One of my profs canceled class and encouraged us to attend because he thought we needed to stick up for the right to affordable education, as he said, “you guys are going to take it up the butt and it's no fault of yours!” From that 60 person class I might have seen 5 people that actually showed.  I called and texted most people in my phonebook, one good friend chose to get lunch instead, while a handful showed up, others chose to study even as their right to study without accruing huge amounts of debt was under attack.  The rally was a pathetic showing. Other rallies were similarly poorly attended: ironically, a satirical vigil for higher education attracted only a couple dozen people. How students can so willingly accept an attack on higher education is beyond me. If an attack on our common education isn't enough to move us to act as a community, then what will? I don't have the answer to these questions but they are troubling to me.

     One of the major problems that I see, which I touched on briefly earlier, is that many issues are viewed in isolation when in reality there are very similar underlying causes. When there are SO many social, political and environmental problems that seem disconnected, how do we have the time or the ability to address all of them? I know that when I feel overwhelmed I shut down, and I wonder if the sheer scope of the problems that face us shut us down politically, and if a simpler framing of the issues could reengage more of the population. If we are taught to think critically about them there are many common threads between them. As an activist, I know that I need to be more deliberate and skilled in how I frame issues I am concerned with, and frankly I need to be more educated on them. I can argue about why we shouldn't burn coal and why we need to address climate change until I am blue in the face, but the real problem seems to me to be the force driving climate change and coal burning. I don't think that it is effective anymore to point out why we shouldn't burn coal, enough of us understand the insanity of burning fossil fuels to make the political decision to stop, the problem is that we allow it by not confronting the drivers of coal burning. Relating this to the proposed coal terminal that is on so many of our minds, while the coal dust, diesel particulates, potential for shipping accidents, the insanity of burning coal, and the impact of trains are totally valid reasons for opposing the terminal, I believe we need to frame the issue differently. So let's start by asking why there is an incentive to put a coal terminal at Cherry Point and who is driving this? The people of Whatcom County did not, of their own accord, propose this project. This project was proposed out of self interest and opportunity for profit by large firms including SSA Marine, Peabody Coal, and BNSF, but let's not forget about the multinational corporate beneficiaries of this project in China, who will benefit from cheap energy – including many Western companies. This project serves to benefit those companies, and they will do all they can to throw their weight around in government at all levels, by buying media outlets and paying for propaganda campaigns, by influencing regulatory processes, whatever. They have all the resources to do that, while we do not; further, they are effective in convincing us that it is in our best interest to allow these projects. These companies do not exist to satisfy moral principles or to benefit our county or any communities really, they exist to turn a profit, and to provide returns on investment to shareholders, however possible. It is a sick system that rewards cutting corners and avoiding responsibility. In my current view coal dust, train traffic, noise pollution, destruction of habitat all seem to be symptoms of a sick and amoral system, and it is the system that needs to be addressed more than any individual issue. From this perspective the drivers of the coal terminal are not so different from the drivers of GMO seed production, which are also corporate profit and control, I can explain this more if there is a need. I recently attended a panel on environmental racism at WWU, which is a term used to describe the environmental exploitation of disenfranchised minority groups; examples are the dumping of toxic oil waste in Ecuadoran rainforest because the people lack the political and legal power to do anything about it, or the shipment of E-waste to any country that will take it, or the burying of toxic PCBs in minority counties. Issues of environmental racism are also very similar to the coal terminal and GMO issues because the institutions and market pressures that drive that exploitation are the same.

100 or more of us that didn't fit in the capacity of the Municipal 
Courthouse for an EIS framing meeting with mayor Dan Pike

      I am very encouraged by the broad community engagement in the dialogue related to the Gateway Pacific Terminal (see photo above!). However, I hope that community engagement on similar issues will not fall off after we collectively make our decision to reject the terminal, and I believe we will. I love the dialogue in happening in the Living Democracy group. I also love other critical groups like Fertile Ground because they are looking outside the box, for systemic solutions to the causes of the pervasive social, political and environmental issues that are all coming to a head (see climate change, revolution in the Middle East, and protests in Wisconsin). These are only my thoughts and observations, but I believe that we, as activists, concerned community members, and conscientious human beings need to be more critical in our approach to these problems. This means understanding and stating that coal dust, genetic contamination, climate change, and human exploitation are symptoms of systemic problems that need to be confronted systemically. My education on these issues is probably not as thorough or is different from some who might be reading this blog, and so I ask for your contributions, insights and objections. The question that I am seeking to answer in this post is, why the lack of political activism especially among young people, and how effective will re-framing issues that demand addressing by their underlying causes be in uniting activists and in engaging more of the public?

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Tags: activism, apathy, college, students

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Comment by J. C. Walker,Jr. on July 13, 2011 at 5:37am

Erik,

Thanks for your work with the coal train issue and thanks for your honesty in this latest post. I was on FB the other day and clicked like to something Roots Action had posted when I came across a comment asking how clicking like was going to make a difference. I wonder if people have a "what good will it do" mindset to a lot of issues out there. I also wonder If, on an unconscious level, folks aren't a bit overwhelmed by the magnitude of what's predicted in the climate change scenarios. Denial seems like a feeble attempt at a defense mechanism, and I've stopped debating climate change and instead started leaving people alone with it, trusting their own internal mechanisms and the weather channel are doing the hard work of consciousness raising. From my viewpoint age wise, I look at who's in it for the long haul. So many of my activist friends from the past seem to only be able to contribute the latest photo of their grandchild on FB ( I can't tell that much difference from the one posted last week ). Again, I try to give people space to grapple more internally than to stand up and be counted. I may be making excuses for everyone, but it's more like that way overly used Margret Mead quote with the concerned citizen part switched out with environmental activist. Thanks again for your involvement and remember, three people can keep a secret if the server is down... J.C.

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