June 21, 2006
By Sarah Singer
In 1690, American colonist Benjamin Harris printed the first edition of Public Occurrences, a periodical which openly criticized not only the British authorities ruling the colonies, but also the Native Americans who inhabited the country at the time.
In 1848, Lucidia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized and ran the legendary Seneca Falls Convention in which they catalyzed the beginnings of the women's rights movement by publishing the Seneca Falls Declaration, a first attempt at achieving equality between the sexes. Beginning in 1870, the infamous muckraking journalists challenged the face of authority through their relentless exposés on government policy, living conditions, and social structure in the United States.
In 1955, the legendary Rosa Parks jump-started the civil-rights movement for equality between the races with her sit-in on an Alabama public bus. In the late 60s and early 70s, the baby-boomer generation rose to the occasion through innumerable protests on issues ranging from the migrant workers picking grapes in California to the increasingly elusive war being fought in Vietnam, as well as civil rights for both African-Americans and women in the country.
Now, it is the next generations' turn to continue the rather impressive chain of activism that has not only generated reform throughout United States history, but has allowed for the creation of commendable role-models who offer important lessons which should be internalized by all young people today.
But how? As children of the radical baby boomers, Generation Y, we have been subject to a rapidly changing world in which corporate conglomerates are growing in number, and computers and digital technology are creating an environment of instant global information dissemination, cultural conformity, and artificiality in which the tendency to have access to the latest and the greatest in music, fashion, and gadgets has become an increasingly higher priority for today's youth. We have been repeatedly criticized for being apathetic towards world events, self-absorbed, and incapable of keeping close track of both world events and our social calendars.
As a college student who is writing this article from a laptop in my bedroom while listening to music which I digitally obtained through my school's file-sharing network, I am not going to completely belittle these claims which sadly, to some extent, are accurate. However, I am first going to explain why the circumstances of today's world are drastically different from the social and political climates of previous decades, making it much more difficult for our generation to act in ways similar to those before us. Then, I will pinpoint a number of examples in which our generation has, in its unique way, taken amazingly proactive roles in dealing with enormous national and international issues such as human rights, the current war in Iraq, the mass-genocide in Darfur, and environmentalism.
While our parents often start conversations with the somewhat aggravating phrase: "Well, when I was a kid…", it seems inevitable and instinctive for them to draw similarities and differences between their own childhood experiences and ours. However, when comparing activism among the generations, they may not realize they are comparing the proverbial apples with oranges.
For starters, the issues that our parents dealt with were directly affecting them, and many hot topics of current debate are not in the same way affecting us. For example, during the Vietnam War, an active draft was in place. Those protesting the war effort were the same people who were at risk of fighting for a cause they did not believe in. There is no such draft in place for the war in Iraq, and while there is a fair amount of student protests which question the war's purpose, the weakening ability of the United States to achieve its goal of implementing democracy into Iraq, and the rising death tolls which are results of our military's presence in the Middle East, the anti-war movement is, on the whole, being led by people not directly affected by the United State's occupation in Iraq.
The same goes for civil rights: the reason why there was a huge movement during the 60s and 70s to achieve equality for African-Americans and women was that it directly affected an enormous portion of the United States population. People were self-motivated to improve their standing in society, and by protesting and actively challenging the government to extend civil liberties to all, they were doing so with their own goals and benefits in mind.
Today many important world issues apply to a narrower segment of the population. Only a small number of Americans feel motivated to protest the war for the reason that a family member unnecessarily died fighting in it. Issues are more complex and require more thoughtful solutions in order to be taken seriously. Yes, promoting environmental awareness is an important issue currently being taken seriously by a number of student groups…but how one should do this is a question which they need to consider as they propose alternatives to the current gas-guzzling, smoke-emitting, and compulsive oil-drilling and commercialism that is currently sending our planet on a path towards self-destruction.
Although marching around important landmarks and picketing in front of stately government buildings seems to be playing a diminishing role in the lifestyles of the current student generation, there are, contrary to popular belief, a number of highly effective student lobbying groups and activist organizations which use different means to take global issues into their own hands.
Since its founding in 1961, Amnesty International has become one of the largest and most effective human rights organizations in the world, and its membership, composed largely of young people, is increasing exponentially. There are currently 1.8 million members of AI in over 60 different countries. The United States alone has 4,000 chapters, most of which are organized through different middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities around the country.
The organization provides a way for students to support international human rights, and works to maintain a neutral status among the world's governments, religions and cultural groups. Students in AI organize letter-writing campaigns, national conferences to discuss important human rights issues and lobbying trips to congressmen in Washington D.C. While the group does participate in some large rallies, they are most effective in their letter-writing and fundraising efforts, which have helped their targets: victims ranging from prisoners of war to subjects of mass genocide, immeasurably.
In addition to human rights, the controversial war in Iraq has caused many strong reactions from today's youth who have taken it upon themselves to not only become knowledgeable about the Middle Eastern conflict, but also to channel their knowledge into provocative campaigns.
The Internet has been an important resource that the student generation utilizes to communicate its controversial ideas. Many organizations spread their messages through slogans, music, and graphic design on their websites. One website in particular, www.notyoursoldier.org, features a catchy documentary film in which it creatively uses a rap song to dissuade people from enlisting in the army. It draws startling connections between the situation in Iraq and the Vietnam War, and uses imagery that portrays the army as a giant beast that devours and excretes soldiers instead of biological waste. Activism today has changed with the technology of the time, as blogs, websites and podcasts enable activists to quickly and effectively spread their message to an enormous mass of people at a low cost.
A third global conflict, which has caused outreach and activism from today's generation, is the controversial mass genocide, as defined by President Bush, taking place today in the western section of Sudan,
Darfur. The constant bloodshed and fighting between the Arab and non-Arab occupants of the region, and the proactive role the Sudanese government has taken in the massacre of non-Arabs, has caused a global outcry and ignited an enormous protest attended by millions of people, many of whom were students and young activists, in April in Washington D.C.
Among the many student groups that formed to spread the word and end the drastic human rights violations currently taking place in the region is an organization based at the Claremont Colleges in Southern California called STAND (Students Taking Action Now for Darfur). It has done an exceptional job of raising awareness about the conflict, and funds to help the 2.5 million displaced victims of the genocide. They raised over $25,000 in T-shirt sales, which they have sent to the victims of this genocide, and made a trip to Washington D.C. in which they met with over 20 congressional members and communicated their concerns about the events currently taking place over seas.
Lastly, today's youth are working hard to ensure that the issue of environmental protection not only remains a high priority on the government's agenda, but also remains a topic of concern in local communities around America.
One example of impressive activism concerning the environment was the Spring 2005 protest that took place at Cornell University over the proposed destruction of a forest for the construction of a parking lot. The students received national media coverage as they camped out in the trees and actively protested against their removal.
Numerous websites and international organizations also exist such as Greenpeace, which has approximately 250,000 members, and is known for its famously painted rainbow ship that travels around the world and promotes environmental causes.
There's Still Hope
As we enter an age in which instant messages replace conversations, video conferences replace meetings, and the Internet can be relied upon to disseminate information rather than printed publications, it is important that today's young generation and the ones ahead use their vast resources productively. As the late author Robert Heinlein said, "A generation which ignores history has no past and no future, it us up to us to continue the growing tradition of youth activism and awareness, and we have more than enough means, initiative, and talent to do so."
Sarah Singer is a third-year intern at The Independent. She is a sophomore at Cornell University, where she studies government and philosophy.