Campus activism makes a comeback

Student activist Susan Misra was in a pickle. Thousands of anti-globalization protesters were about to converge on Quebec City to protest the trade agreement being ratified at the Summit of the Americas. But that very week in mid-April, her fellow Harvard students were poised to begin a sit-in at the school’s main administration building, demanding that the world’s richest university pay a “living wage” to its lowest-tier workers. So much to protest, so little time. “Unfortunately, we had to choose,” says Misra.

Bread and roses at Harvard: The new wave if student
activism is thinking globally and acting locally.

Photo by Bill Belknap/ Courtesy Boston Herald

But so it goes these days on college campuses. A resurgence of student activism is finding voice in everything from “living wage” campaigns on behalf of campus workers to demands that sweatshirts bearing college logos not come from overseas sweatshops. Undergrads are loading onto buses to join demonstrations against global trade agreements they see as giveaways to greedy corporations at the expense of workers and the environment.

But what does it all add up to? Overprivileged kids with too much time on their hands venting a naïve and uninformed moral angst about global injustice? Or the birth of a new generation of critical and socially engaged young people?

James Green, a University of Massachusetts-Boston historian, sees a parallel between today’s protests and the activism of the Progressive Era. “It was all about this sense that corporate power was out of control,” he says of the early 20th century ethos. The author of Taking History to Heart: The power of the past in building social movements, Green says today’s activists, like the Progressives, seem drawn to action less by a fixed set of political beliefs than by a conviction that growing corporate power is “eroding values.”

Robert Reich, Brandeis University professor and former Clinton administration labor secretary, goes further. “We are at the dawn of a new era of student activism,” he declares. “It centers on work, and on notions of fairness at work.” Indeed, when asked what connects the living wage sit-in with globalization protests, Misra–who opted for the Cambridge sit-in over the Quebec City demonstrations–says both are ultimately concerned with “living standards and morality.”

The moral tone that echoes through today’s protests may have a connection to the rising popularity of community service work among students. In the 1990s, volunteerism seemed to take the place of issue-focused activism for young people disillusioned with politics. The new campus activism suggests the two strains may be coming together.

Misra, 28, who completed a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government in June, says many of the students involved in the living-wage building takeover at Harvard had been involved in some type of community service. She has volunteered at the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Eric Schwarz, the co-founder and president of Citizen Schools, a Boston-based after school program that relies on volunteer tutors, thinks there has been “a recoiling from the political sphere, in the sense of people wanting to take direct action on things closer to home.”

“I think now what we’re seeing is a melding of the two,” says Schwarz, “and a recognition by people who have been involved in direct service for a decade or more that…to achieve broader change that is sustained, we’re going to have to meld direct service with political action.”

That sense of civic duty infuses the campus protesters with an adult sense of responsibility that would make Abbie Hoffman cringe. “What strikes me about the student activists I’ve met is they’re still going to turn their papers in,” says Green. “It’s not this youthful devil-may-care attitude. There’s a kind of sober quality to the politics of these young people.”

The approach of the new campus shock troops is not just sober, but savvy. The Harvard sit-in protesters weren’t just playing cards behind those ivy-covered walls. With an arsenal of laptop computers and cell phones, they were stirring up support for their efforts across the country. Ben McKean, a Harvard junior, tapped out an op-ed piece and e-mailed it to the Los Angeles Times, which published his first-hand account of the sit-in campaign while the students were still holed up in Massachusetts Hall.

“Obviously there were student movements before the Internet,” says McKean. “But the Internet does make it easier.”

Also making it easier, says McKean, was the Harvard students’ cause. “The idea of the living wage is compelling and moderate enough that it can be widely accepted,” he says. “It seems sort of intuitive that if someone works full-time, especially…for the wealthiest university in the world, they shouldn’t be living in poverty.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Indeed, intuition, as much as ideology, seems to be driving today’s campus crusaders. If that sometimes makes the new activism seem dreamily unfocused, there is also a refreshing quality to the activists’ lack of certitude. Stephanie Simard, a Simmons College junior who took part in the April trade protests in Quebec City, can reel off a litany of corporate ills she associates with unfettered free trade agreements. She’s much less sure, however, what the precise antidote is for global excess. “I can’t say I have an answer yet,” she says after a long pause. “It’s something I think about a lot.”

Today’s campus activists may not be so cocky as to think they have all answers. But there’s no doubt in their minds that they’re asking the right questions.