Student Protests Show Real Strength

Posted by Lamar
Sep 13 2015

Last fall, the galvanizing issue for students at Indiana University wasn’t the perennial griping over a shortage of parking spaces or overcrowded classes. In fact, student attention was focused in a rural Mississippi county, more than 500 miles away from the sleepy hills of southern Indiana.

Protest erupted on the campus when the school’s investment body announced it was selling 6,000 acres of Mississippi land that had been willed to it to a corporation planning to build a hazardous waste landfill and incinerator. The facility, designed to take in up to one-tenth of the country’s hazardous waste, is located in a county with a population that is 70 percent African-American and where 42 percent of the citizens have less than a ninth-grade education. At the predominantly white Indiana University, rallies have drawn more than 100 students. And even the usually complacent student senate passed a resolution opposing the land sale, saying it would contribute to environmental racism.

Across the country, other campuses are also shrugging off the 1980s shroud of apathy.

spsrsFor example, last year, students from Texas A&M, Galveston successfully blocked the siting of a copper smelter on land owned by the University of Texas system. In coalition with community groups, the students fought the corporation’s application for water and air permits, forcing state environmental boards to examine the smelter’s potential for pollution more closely.

At MIT, 3,500 students held a 24-hour vigil during the Persian Gulf War, the biggest demonstration in the school’s history.

And at the 3,600-student University of Richmond in Virginia, the last three years alone have brought a student-initiated recycling program that has reduced the school’s waste stream by 20 percent and new student groups on such issues as animal rights and gay and lesbian awareness.

“The University of Richmond has always been the antithesis of what springs to mind when you think of Berkeley,” says senior Greg Asay who heads the campus environmental group, GREEN. “But if all this activism is happening here, it’s happening everywhere. ”

Brian Trelstad, a 1991 graduate of Harvard University, takes issue with the propensity to slap a label of non-questioning self-absorbtion on the 20-something generation, “We’re not Generation X. We’re generation why?” he says.

What’s turned the tide against apathy? “The right wing tried to assault campuses with their agenda, and they failed. We’re seeing a backlash of more than a decade of conservative policies that in the end have alienated many students,” says Tom Burke of the Progressive Student Network.

Students’ assessments of rising activism are also backed up by the statistics. For example, a 1990 survey of nearly 200,000 college freshmen found record numbers of students participating in demonstrations during the last year. At 39 percent, the number is more than double those in the late 1960s of 15 to 16 percent, according to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, which has conducted the annual survey since 1966.

And while rising tuition, abortion rights and racism are all rallying points for college students, the environment ranks as one of the top issues on campuses across the country.

Eight out of ten undergraduates in a 1989 National Wildlife Federation survey cited the environment as one of the top three “problems facing the United States today.” And 88 percent say the federal government is not doing enough to control pollution, according to the 1990 freshman survey.

This survey also found that 34 percent of freshmen think it’s “essential” or “very important” for them to become personally involved in programs to clean up the environment. This number jumped from 26 percent in 1988 and 16 percent in 1986. According to the National Wildlife Federation survey, 34 percent described themselves as active with environmental issues.

In the quarter century since the 1960s student protest movement bloomed on campuses, issues have become more complex and strategies to find the answers more sophisticated. Environmental Action Magazine itself was founded by the organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970 as a means of communication primarily to college students staging teach-ins across the country. Denis Hayes, who was Environmental Action’s first director and CEO of Earth Day 1990, says he sees some striking differences between the student movements of the 1960s and the 1990s.

“By the late 1960s, both the civil rights struggle and anti-war movement were exclusionary – the former had become a black power movement that shunned white participants, and the latter was caught up in an |I am more radical than thou’ trap,” he says. “The 1990s student environmental movement seems more accepting of diversity – perhaps having learned the ecological lesson that different folks have different niches.”

Widening the definition of environmentalism to encompass social justice issues has made environmentalism more appealing to a diverse range of people, including labor activists and students’ rights advocates, says Carry Eskridge, a member of the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC), a four-year-old network with groups on 1,500 campuses. (See page 17.)

“Earth Day 1970 got a lot of people together and gave them information,” says Dana Hollish, an organizer with the National Wildlife Federation’s campus outreach group, Cool It! “We’ve now moved beyond that information phase. We’re doing more leadership training, more organizing for action.”

Brian Trelstad, program director for Campus Green Vote, sees current activism updating 60s voter registration drives. His group, formed last summer, held trainings in September to teach campus leaders how to register voters, hold campus forums and organize students around environmental issues.

“Everything can be traced back to the accountability of elected officials,” Trelstad says. “There’s been a culture of disinterest, but by making the environment a high-profile issue, students have real potential to make a difference in this election.”

An estimated 14 million college students comprise about 8 percent of Americans eligible to vote. At the same time, only 36 percent of the people between 18 and 24 voted in the 1988 election. With a massive registration effort, students could control as much as 20 percent of the vote, Trelstad says.

Still, Robin Templeton, director of the education advocacy group Education for the People, fears that some college-age youth have been irrevocably disenchanted by the electoral process. Templeton says rough economic times have forced a dichotomy between youth today, those who can afford to go to college and those who have little access to higher education.

There are other stumbling blocks to involvement as well. As tuition costs have spiraled, students, whose time a generation ago may have gone into social and political causes, are now spending more hours a week working to make ends meet, Templeton points out. This coupled with chronic underfunding of progressive student causes by foundations has hobbled the real potential for activism on campuses, she says.

Still, the important measure of college activism may not merely be what happens in four years on campus, but how this work shapes life post-graduation. More than 30 schools now include a pledge in their graduation exercises that calls for graduates to consider the social and environmental impacts of any job they consider.

Initiating recycling programs and fighting environmental racism won’t just stop once students depart the ivory tower, Cool It!’s Dana Hollish reasons. Hollish, who graduated with a business degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. last year, holds herself up as an example.

Active in 13 different committees on campus, from the Students for the Environment to the Student Union Board to the Women’s Leadership Council, Hollish tackled a dizzying array of issues. And while she admits she may have been a bit more involved than some of her former classmates, Hollish contends her peers are emerging from schools ready to work for social change.