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Defying the tired old stereotype of their generation as spoiled slackers, today's college students are putting their social justice beliefs into action.

One Saturday afternoon last winter, Victoria Welle and a few of her friends from Loyola University took a trip down to Chicago's Niketown store, a virtual temple to consumerism that has surpassed even the Sears Tower as the No. 1 tourist destination in the Windy City. But these college students weren't taking a break from studying to sightsee, or even to pick up a new pair of running shoes. In fact, most of them wouldn't be caught dead wearing the Nike swoosh. As members of Loyola's Students Against Sweatshops, they were organizing a protest to bring attention to the plight of striking workers at a Nike plant in Mexico. Before the day was over, seven of them--including Welle--had been arrested for disorderly conduct.

"We were just trying to draw attention to this labor struggle in Mexico," explains 26-year-old Welle, who is facing a fine, community service, and court supervision for her role in the protest. "These workers are fighting for a lot of really basic issues. There's rancid food in the cafeteria. There's child labor. Some of the union organizers have lost their jobs. Without pressure from the outside, nothing will change."

Welle really believes she can help effect change for these Mexican workers--no small feat in this postmodern era of disillusionment and disconnectedness. "I definitely believe I can make a difference," she says. "I know it's not my job to save the world. But my job is to live my life as justly as I can."

This theology major also sees her social justice activism as connected to her Catholicism. "Having a spiritual faith really energizes me in this work. It keeps me from getting burned out," she says. "When I was stuck alone in a jail cell for seven hours, I thought of all the people who had been arrested--Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, even Jesus. It made me realize I was part of a tradition that was bigger than myself."

This from a member of a generation stereotyped as apathetic, spoiled slackers who care only about landing a high-paying job, buying an SUV, and retiring at 40. Turns out that stereotype is just that, and that students like Welle are not that rare. It's not exactly the Age of Aquarius all over again, but many agree that there has been something of a resurgence of student activism on college campuses in the past several years.

"There's something in the air," says Tom Strunk, a graduate student and another member of Loyola's Students Against Sweatshops. "Part of it is the romanticism of going to a big protest. But there's also a growing awareness on campus that `Hey, I can be an activist. It's not just something that was done in the '60s.'"

That doesn't mean today's activists are just repeating the often overromanticized 1960s and '70s. While you will see bell bottoms and possibly hear "We Shall Overcome" at some 21st-century protests, student activism by today's teens and twenty-somethings differs greatly from that of their baby boomer parents.

To begin with, their issues are different.

Sweatshops, living wages for university workers, and the death penalty are some of the topics that prompt students to skip class and take to the quad. To get young people to care enough about issues to commit to doing something about them, they have to feel a personal connection, explains Strunk. "It has to confront them."

Northwestern University students were confronted with the death penalty when a class project required them to research innocent prisoners on death row. Students at Jesuit colleges and universities feel personally connected to Central American issues because of the 1990 murder of the Jesuit priests in El Salvador. And students at any school that sells T-shirts, sweatpants, and baseball caps emblazoned with their school name and logo often feel responsible for the working conditions under which those items are made.

No sweat

The anti-sweatshop issue, in particular, has really hit home for college students because any business conducted with companies that utilize sweatshop labor is literally done in their name. "It's your community," says Strunk, "which also means you have more influence. We have much more power over clothing made for our university than, for example, whether McDonald's cuts down the rain forest."

Frustrated by their inability to have a real impact on the larger political system, college students often aim their activism closer to home.

"Young people want to be activists, but they don't want to butt their heads against a brick wall," explains Claire Noonan Bates, coordinator of the Focus on Sweatshops Project for Call to Action, a progressive Catholic church reform group.

"They understand that they have some power to leverage as students because the licensing industry is big," says Bates. "And it has very little to do with the government. It's a way to be politically active without buying into the political system."

It's this lack of confidence in not only government, but all institutions, that has led many Generation Xers to choose direct service over working for systemic change. But often, one leads to the other. Strunk started thinking about economic justice issues after having "a slow realization from `Let's feed these people' to `Why are these people hungry?'" when he volunteered at a local soup kitchen.

Other students are inspired by a mentor or a teacher, or by the content of their courses. Dale Weaver learned about some unfortunate by-products of global capitalism in his Introduction to Political Science class at San Jose State in California. That, combined with his own experiences growing up in a working-class family, prompted his involvement in student-led activism, both on campus and at the anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle last year.

"I've had keen personal experience with injustice and inequality. I think I've always known there was something wrong with the system we're living in," says Weaver. "You have to find out what connects people to injustice and then push that button."

Weaver, a 29-year-old graduate student, started with the sweatshop issue on campus but has protested (and been arrested) over homelessness and low-income housing issues. Next year, the student group at San Jose State plans to tackle the issue of living wages for university workers.

Taking it off-campus

That has been a logical progression at many campuses, says Carrie Brink, national coordinator of United Students Against Sweatshops (, a national network of student activists on 250 campuses organized just three years ago.

"Workers are workers, whether they're working in sweatshops abroad or what could be termed sweatshops on campuses and in our communities," she says.

Last spring, about 40 students from Harvard University's Progressive Student Labor Movement scored a victory with a 21-day sit-in outside the school's Massachusetts Hall. Their demands: a $10.25-per hour living wage, plus benefits, for the security workers who guard their dorms and the dining-hall staff who cook their meals. After three weeks, the administration agreed to many of the students' demands and set up a committee to study and implement them.

Brink says many student activists cut their teeth on campus-specific issues, but eventually become quite well-versed in the larger problems of globalization and other economic justice issues.

That was evident in the anti-WTO protests in Seattle last year, and anti-International Monetary Fund and World Bank demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and Quebec this past spring. "You can't ignore that these have been mostly led by young people," says Brink. "And folks have to understand that it's not apathy that's driving them."

Those demonstrations made headlines, primarily because of outbursts of violence, although many students feel that portrayal was out of proportion and one-sided. "That was one half of 1 percent of the story, but the media made it the ultimate story," says Weaver, who participated in the Seattle protests.

Weaver believes there's a moral difference between violence against people and violence against property, but he says he avoids both. "Overwhelmingly you'll find nonviolence to be the tactic on college campuses," he says.

Spiritual connections

For some, that commitment to nonviolence is religiously motivated. That's true for Strunk, a Methodist-turned-Buddhist, who definitely sees a spiritual side to activism and believes many other students at Loyola do, too, thanks to the campus University Ministry Office and many supportive Jesuits. "We definitely see ourselves and our destiny as caught up in that of other people," he says.

Bates of Call to Action agrees, noting that many young people see the link between Catholic social teaching and activism at the School of the Americas protest, both because of the visibility of religious men and women at the annual event and because of the deaths of priests and religious women at the hands of SOA graduates in Central America.

But, more often than not, the connection between social activism and Catholicism is not front and center in these students' minds. It seems Catholic colleges and universities, as well as Newman Centers, could be doing much more to help students make that connection.

"For me, it's been gradual," says Welle. "It wasn't a part of my Catholic education until I came to Loyola and began learning about Catholic social teaching and liberation theology."

Bates says schools are often guilty of more than just sins of omission. "Do these students see the church as on the side of the poor? Often not," says Bates. That's especially true when Catholic administrators oppose student demands on justice issues because of a potential financial impact on the school. Then students see the church as part of the problem, rather than on the side of the oppressed.

And nothing rankles young activists like hypocrisy. Many of them have altered their buying habits, purchasing only fair-trade coffee, for example, or have made even more radical lifestyle changes, such as wearing only used clothes or embracing an overall philosophy of "simple living."

"They've figured out that you can't just switch from The Gap to Abercrombie and Fitch, because they both use sweatshops," says Bates.

Although their numbers may be comparatively smaller, the commitment level of today's younger activists is impressive. "Going into a president's office and chaining yourselves together with bike locks--that's pretty serious," says Bates.

"People who protested against the Vietnam War had a vested interest. These kids have nothing to gain from this. They're not ever going to be working in a sweatshop. I think it's admirable that they're so committed to something that won't benefit them."

No fear of commitment

Although the majority of student activists take relatively small risks, especially when protesting on campus where they are under the jurisdiction of campus--rather than civil--authorities, some have had to make substantial sacrifices.

Twenty-year-old Rachel Hayward had to postpone her junior year and withdraw from Kalamazoo College in Michigan to serve a six-month sentence in a federal prison for trespassing at Fort Benning during the School of the Americas protest. She believes her sacrifice is worth it, given the price so many victims of SOA graduates have paid.

"I just feel like it's something that couldn't wait until it's convenient for me to step out of my life and deal with it," she says. "We can't all sit and wait for someone else to do it."

Hayward had been active in both Amnesty International and the Nonviolence Student Organization at Kalamazoo and was inspired by anti-SOA crusader Father Roy Bourgious when he came to speak at her Lutheran parish. She believes young people are perfectly suited for speaking out about injustice.

"College is a time when you have a lot of things going on in your life, but it's also a time when you have to sort out your priorities," she says. "I just decided that doing this was very important to me."

She's not alone. The appearance of tattooed and pierced teenagers at the SOA protest has mushroomed in the past several years, and young people now make up at least half, if not the majority, of the protesters. "We're finding that young people are really passionate about this issue and are at the heart of the movement to close the SOA," says Eric LeCompte, outreach director for SOA Watch.

Not only do the student activists relate to the many younger victims who have been targets of Central American military who have been trained by the SOA, but they also make the connection between First World affluence and Third World poverty.

"Right away they saw the link between sweatshops and how they're enforced by graduates of the SOA," says LeCompte.

For many young people, a trip (often school-sponsored or school-organized) to the SOA protest is their initiation into activism. "For a lot of students, this is their first issue, and it opens the window to see how the military and economic issues are connected," LeCompte says.

He says Hayward's arrest and sentencing is an "amazing sacrifice" that has inspired many other college students. An entire block of students is expected to "cross the line" onto the base at this year's protest in November.

Intergenerational cooperation

But Hayward wasn't alone when she risked imprisonment by marching solemnly onto the Georgia Army base; she was with her mother, Martha, who is old enough to remember Bob Dylan, not Jakob. Although she wasn't on the front lines during the antiwar movement of the '60s, Martha has been a champion for social justice causes--especially Central American issues--ever since traveling to Nicaragua as part of a Witnesses for Peace delegation. Active in her Lutheran congregation and her local Pax Christi chapter, Martha has tried to encourage her children's social consciences in both word and deed.

"We have tried to instill in our children that it's important to be aware of the issues and to speak the truth, even if it means civil disobedience. That's a way of speaking the truth," says Martha, who was the only SOA protester to go to trial and not receive a jail sentence.

Don't tell this baby boomer that today's college students aren't committed to making their world a better, more just place. They may lack the idealism of previous generations, but they're in the trenches, trying to work for change.

"I think young people today are really sensitive to these issues and are willing to make a commitment to changing things," says Martha. "I couldn't be prouder of my daughter."

The younger Hayward admits that some of her generational peers may be somewhat uninformed, though not apathetic. "I'd like to think it's not so much that they don't care. A lot of people aren't aware of the issues. If everyone knew what was going on, they'd stand up and say no."

Many young activists agree. "I hear from people that they just don't know where to start. There are so many issues, it just seems very overwhelming," says Welle of Loyola, who sticks to a few issues to keep from feeling overwhelmed herself.

"There are probably a lot of students who don't understand why we do what we do, but I'm hopeful that there are enough of us who do care and who can make a difference," she says, responding to allegations about her generation's apathy. "I don't think it's any more or less true than it is for baby boomers."

Because today's college students don't remember the 1960s and '70s, they are a lot less likely to idealize the baby boomer as history's most socially conscious generation.

"Young kids aren't any more apathetic than 40-year-olds," says Loyola's Strunk. "They're not exactly out there solving the world's problems either."

But there is little intergenerational antagonism or competition either. At the SOA protest, Grandmothers for Peace mingle with dreadlocked teenagers, and parent-child teams like the Haywards are not uncommon. At Loyola, Jesuits have provided moral and even financial support to students who were arrested at Niketown. And at many protests on college campuses, older professors encourage and even mentor the student activists.

"Some of our strongest allies are people from older generations," says Welle. "It's good to have that history, to know what they've learned. We're not all that different; we just have different histories. It's good to work together."


Social justice is perceived by many young adult Catholics to be a necessary part of their faith, according to a newly published survey of Catholics in their 20s and 30s. Researchers from the Catholic University of America concluded that many young adult Catholics from the so-called "Mother Teresa generation" link spirituality with social justice initiatives and service to the poor.

"In this respect, their spirituality is not a me-centered one. It is a spirituality with important implications for the transformation of society," write Dean R. Hoge, William D. Dinges, Mary Johnson, S.N.D.deN., and Juan L Gonzales, Jr. in Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice (Notre Dame Press, 2001).

In a telephone survey of 800 confirmed Catholics, they found that between 73 and 90 percent of young adults think that Catholics have a duty to end racism, to close the gap between rich and poor, and to live more simply to preserve the environment

Yet less than 10 percent in the sample had attended a meeting of a Catholic social justice group or organization in the past two years, about half agreed that "the church should stick to religion and not be involved in economic or political issues," and only 12 to 16 percent had ever heard of the U.S. bishops' statement on economic justice.

The social consciousness of these young adult Catholics also lacks a connection to specific church teachings or contemporary Catholic theology, the researchers found. "The tendency to emphasize charitable rather than structural approaches to social problems is one indication of this missing connection," they write.

Lack of knowledge about the tradition and the small numbers involved in traditional social justice groups led the researchers to question the strength of their social commitment

--Heidi Schlumpf

HEIDI SCHLUMPF is assistant editor of U.S. CATHOLIC.
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Title Annotation:social justice demonstrations and college students
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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