News: The Kids Are All Right

Student activism makes a comeback on college campuses

Apr 5, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Eliza Combs doesn't understand people who aren't involved in social and political movements.

Did you know you can buy a human being for $90? Neither did Abbey Steele until she read a book that changed her life. Now she is literally in the business of setting people free.

Steele, a senior at Miami University, is part of a resurgence in student activism. Campuses might never again witness the kind of mass demonstrations that rocked colleges during the Vietnam War. For students interested in matters more pressing than grade averages, frat parties and the latest styles in sunglasses, the issues vying for their attention are more numerous — and more complex — than the singular clarity evoked by the draft.

But signs of restiveness are on the rise. When Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader visited the University of Cincinnati last year, he packed the house. When racial slurs were scrawled in an office in 1998, Miami students blocked traffic in a noisy protest. The use of sweatshop labor for consumer goods and threats to the environment are increasingly on students' minds, according to Heather Zoller, who teaches communication at the University of Cincinnati.

"Once students know about this, they want to become very involved, much more so than 10 years ago," Zoller says.

People for sale
April 4 was National Student Labor Day of Action, when students across the country gathered to support workers' rights and demand economic justice. For Steele, a political science major, the call to action came in reading the Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy by Kevin Bales.

"I was just completely amazed anything near slavery existed anywhere," Steele says.

Steele didn't toss the book on a shelf when she was done reading it. She contacted Bales and arranged for him to visit Miami. About 200 people turned out to hear him.

Twenty-seven million people live in bondage, according to the American Anti-Slavery Group.

"That is about twice the number of people taken from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade," Steele says. "I think modern slavery is very different than what Americans think of as slavery."

The components of slavery, according to Steele, are still very much in evidence — people working without compensation, held by violence or threats of violence, with no control over their lives. Slaves can be bought for as little as $90 in Thailand, she says.

Steele helped found the first university chapter of Free the Slaves. The group has hosted discussions and educational sessions, including presentations by former slaves and experts on the slave trade.

Steele's interest in organizing other students came when she studied at Miami University's campus in Luxembourg. Foreign study jolted her out of her comfortable environment, she says.

"People talk about it all the time — how we just kind of live in the Oxford bubble," Steele says.

But students are bursting that bubble. Student activism is growing, with about 50 Miami students highly active in social causes and many others occasionally joining.

"I think it must be a cyclical thing," Steele says. "Just between the time of my first year and now, there has been a huge increase in activism."

Steele says other groups, such as Miami University Amnesty International, are taking an active role on campus. Students for Peace and Social Justice, Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Miami University Greens are communicating their plans through the Internet and working with the Young Democrats to organize campus events.

"I think we are starting to make connections between our different causes," Steele says. "People are starting to look at globalization and understand how it affects everyone's lives."

Art is political
Eliza Combs' art isn't meant for hanging on a wall; it's passionate and full of life, like its creator. A student at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Combs is involved in a variety of movements — and doesn't understand people who aren't.

"What frustrates me more is not that people are unaware of things, because they can be educated," Combs says. "It's apathetic people."

Complacency is not in her. Last month Combs helped organize a rally on Central Parkway in support of Tip Top Magazines and Elyse's Passion, businesses indicted on obscenity charges by a Hamilton County grand jury.

She considers the cases homophobic, anti-woman and anti-sex.

"I'm very pro-pornography," Combs says. "I feel it's an adult's choice and an adult's thing. I feel the whole obscenity thing is BS. I think what they're trying to do is not have any adult kind of places in Cincinnati."

Combs is not in favor of obscenity; she just defines it differently.

"There are lots of things in Cincinnati that are obscene — more than pornography," she says.

Combs' concept of obscenity includes police brutality and the Ku Klux Klan using Christianity to justify racism. Combs participated in Cincinnati protests against the TransAtlantic Business Dialogue. (See this week's related Cover Story, "Political Profiling," on page 20.)

"The things that people need to know are the things that corporations don't want you to know," she says. "I did a lot of research on that and it really frightened me — groups of corporations who were giving suggestions for these trade policies which were undemocratic."

Combs grew up in Alabama and moved here at age 14. Her later studies in New York City, she says, opened her eyes to social issues.

"I really saw the class and race issues magnified," she says.

When Combs shows her screen prints and puppets, she includes information on the political causes they illuminate.

"My relationship to art is changing — it used to be a really therapeutic technique to help me find myself, and I found out at a certain point that was really narcissistic," she says.

Now she is trying to raise the consciousness of others as well. Combs says she sees growing interest in working social change, both on and off campus.

"I think a lot of people do care, and I'm not sure our institutions really teach us to be invested in those ideas unless we're going for political science," she says. "We live in a culture that rewards us for doing practical things to make money, because we think that's what we need to do."

Not with our money
Brian Loewe's complaint about the cafeteria service at Xavier University is not about the quality of the food, but about the company that serves it. Loewe is active in a campaign demanding XU to terminate its contract with Sodexho Marriott Services.

Sodexho Alliance — Sodexho Marriott Service's largest shareholder — owns shares in Corrections Corporation of America, a company that operates prisons. In addition, Sodexho Alliance provides detention and correctional services in France, the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. Sodexho Alliance has stated it plans to divest its interest in Corrections Corporation of America when the time is right.

The right time is right now, according to Loewe, a member of the Not With Our Money Campaign. The campaign has about 10 to 12 core members, and support for their effort is growing — as is a larger movement toward social activism on campuses.

"Every time I turn a corner, I hear more and more student support," he says. "The universities aren't listening, but the students are making their voices heard. They haven't been listening because we haven't been loud enough."

Loewe says XU requires underclassmen living on campus to carry the campus meal plan, forcing students to give their money to a company whose practices they find objectionable.

Loewe got his start as a student activist in high school. His older sister took him to a protest when he was a sophomore in high school.

"My first protest was rallying outside the D.C. city council to save the last family homeless shelter they were closing," Loewe says.

Sister Alice Gerdeman and Steve Schumacher, organizers of the Coalition for a Humane Economy, say Loewe is not alone. Concerns about the globalization of corporate power are attracting students who aren't even in college yet.

Schumacher says he was impressed by the relative youth of demonstrators against the TABD last November.

"One of the things this confirmed for me is this is really a youth movement," Schumacher says. "There were high school students. There were junior high school students."

Each new spurt of activism seems to generate more. Gerdeman says she is seeing students becoming politically active on campuses that have shown little activity in the past.

"Northern Kentucky University has a sweatshop group," Gerdeman says. "Thomas More College has a little tiny group looking at sweatshops and at the death penalty. To my knowledge, they never had a group like that."

According to Loewe, college is a perfect place to try to make a difference.

"I think college campuses have been and always will be a hotbed of activism, because you have young, dedicated students," he says.

Standing up for others, he says, is to be encouraged.

"We want to make this a culture of resistance," Loewe says.

Resistance with reverence
Resistance is at best a subculture on campus, according to Gene Beaupre, who teaches political science at Xavier University. Students who are activists are in the minority, he says.

"I think there are many more students involved in community service than there are social activists," Beaupre says. "The ones that are involved are pretty passionate and they have a strong point of view."

He defines activists as students who want to make systemic changes. Beaupre says both volunteering and political activism have value, but he tries to encourage students who are interested in community service, such as working in soup kitchens, to take a look at working for social change as well.

The majority of students who are interested in politics look toward the national government, but Beaupre says local government also has something to offer students. Students should examine local government, he says, because it sets standards for the community and can have a more direct impact than what happens at the national level.

In his classes on campaigning and state and local government, Beaupre sends students out into the community to take action. Although he's not sure if it's because XU is a Catholic school, Beaupre says he thinks faith plays into students' desire to take an activist approach.

"They often frame issues around matters of faith and social justice," he says. "I think many of them are acting on their religious beliefs and what they think justice is. Whether you agree with them on any given issue or not, you have to respect what they're doing."

During the heyday of student activism, the Vietnam War era, getting people's attention was a bit easier, according to Beaupre.

"The issues today, I think, are much more complex," he says. "When we fought the war, you were either for them or against them. It's not that easy anymore."

Students trying to highlight social issues don't always accomplish their goals as well as they would like because of limited resources and the busy lives of those they are trying to reach, Beaupre says. The message has to be dramatic, because it has to compete with grocery shopping, mortgage payments and soccer practice.

Two efforts at XU seem to meet Beaupre's prescription — Shantytown, a collection of cardboard box "homes" to remind people of homelessness, and the hundreds of crosses placed on campus by students opposed to abortion.

"When we were talking about the war, there were pictures of body bags every night on the news," Beaupre says.

The message was simple, passionate and penetrating. Today, however, we don't just watch the 6 p.m. news; we can get news 24 hours a day. It's harder to grab public attention and have a lasting impact. The message, Beaupre says, has to hit close to home to be effective.

"Why does somebody in Anderson care about a homeless person leaning against a tree in Over-the-Rhine?" he says. "But if their son or daughter was getting shipped to Vietnam, it was a lot easier to relate to."

Steve DeLue, associate dean of Miami's University College of Arts and Science and a political science professor, agrees students have a harder time promoting a cause than in the past.

"I think students today are different from when I was growing up in the 1960s," DeLue says.

Great galvanizing issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam War are not involved. Environmentalism could become such an issue soon, but it, too, might lack the seeming simplicity of segregation or the draft.

"It's hard to attack big issues like that, because a lot of people ask, 'Who do we attack?' " DeLue says.

The question of who to attack — and how — discourages some students from activism, according to DeLue. He says many students are cynical about politics, knowing the squeaky wheel with the most money gets oiled first.

"Everybody knows you get leverage through money," he says.

Many students like to see the results of their work immediately. A student who helps to build a house for a family in need can see that house when it's done. This isn't usually the case when attacking global issues. DeLue believes, however, that if each person would work to get one person out of slavery, there would eventually be no slaves.

DeLue says his students have good hearts and want to lend a hand, but many choose to lend that hand to a neighbor rather than reach around the world. Most students, he says, think, "Let's stay where we are at home, and do something decent for our neighbor."

Clinton Hewan, professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University, says complacency still predominates on college campuses.

"The activism of the 1960s or 1970s — I've seen nothing on campus that would compare at all," Hewan says. "I would argue that there is a level of apathy among students that is so much a part of the university scene today it's frightening. It's a level of contentness that breeds contempt for issues that do not touch on the immediate lives of the students. It makes you wonder if students today are conscious of their responsibility to their fellow human beings. Their silence is deafening." ©