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Activism Or Apathy? Student Life In The 80s

Activism Or Apathy? Student Life In The 80s image Activism Or Apathy? Student Life In The 80s image
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The general image of today's generation of college students is one of people immersed in professionalism, elitism, and financial success. They pay careful attention to the way ihey dress. Their role models and heroes are corporate leaders. They are serious students who realize the competitive nature of the job market. Their values reflect the economie status of their parents - the average family income of the entering UM student is over $60,000 The only struggles which concern them are those that occur in corporate boardrooms on Wall Street. There is extreme ignorance and apathy regarding political and social issues. The activism of the 60's has gone to sleep.

Is this image accurate? As two U-M student activists we assert that although the above description does accurately describe much of the student body, it overlooks a significant population of committed activists. Many who were active in the 60s or earlier seem to believe that succeeding generations have lost the ability to challenge the system. To be sure, today's student movement is very different from that of the 60s. Then, the Vietnam War created an atmosphere in which masses were moved to demonstrate. Today we face a very different set of political realities, but our movement is no less committed or active than that of 20 years ago. We have to work through many different channels now because it is difficult for any single issue to galvanize broad student support. In the process, we are striving to institutionalize our ideas. The 60's activists raised the issues and laid the foundation for the type of work which we are now pursuing in the struggle for a new, more just society.

The Latin American solidarity movement has been particularly active on campus by organizing teach-ins, debates, and creative actions. Several protests over U.S. intervention in Central America have taken place on the steps of both the Graduate Library and the Federal Building. Over 200 individuals have engaged in civil disobedience to protest the U.S. backed contra war against Nicaragua over the past couple of years. During a four day period in March 1986, the Latin American Solidarity Committee (LASC) organized a protest in which 118 people committed civil disobedience at the office of Rep. Carl Pursell (R-MI) in protest of his vote in favor of aid to the contras. Many of those same people plus hundreds of others subsequently worked on the Congressional campaign of Dean Baker - University of Michigan graduate student, LASC organizer and one of those arrested at Pursell's office - who ran for Pursell's seal in the November, 1986 election. Although Baker was defeated, he was able to capture 41% of the vote on a platform of "peace, jobs and justice" in a traditionally conservative district. Baker's large vote was the result of much munity outreach and education on the part of campaign workers. After the election, Rep. Pursell changed his vote to oppose further aid to the contras.

Another issue which has been the focus of much student activism is anti-racism. The Free South África Coordinating Committee (FSACC) has been raising awareness about apartheid in many ways, including the construction of two symbolic shanties in the center of campus (similar to those constructed on many other campuses) and the successful campaign for an Honorary degree for imprisoned African National Congress leader, Nelson Mándela. Last spring, in response to a recent rash of racist incidents on campus, the United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR) and the Black Action Movement III (BAM III) were formed. These two organizations presented the University administration with a list of demands to be met in order to combat racism on campus. Rallies, marches, and teach-ins were organized and hundreds of students occupied the Administration Building in order to pressure the University President and Regents into acting on these demands. These activities culminated with a visit by Jesse Jackson in March, which drew nationwide attention to the issue and further pressured the University Administration. Some of these demands which the Administration has subsequently met, include: the decision to grant an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela, the establishment of an Office of Minority Affairs, and the announcement of a plan to attempt to increase minority enrollment. There is still much to be done in the struggle to combat racism on campus, of course, and in society in general. The anti-racist student movement, through raising awareness and creating anti-racist institutions, has displayed the commitment and militancy necessary to be effective in attaining their objectives.

Another accomplishment of student activists has been the establishment of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC). After years of attempting to educate University administrators about the seriousness of the problem of sexual assault on campus, feminist organizers held a sit-in in the office of the Vice President for Student Services in November, 1984. This has resulted in SAPAC, a University-funded project, which provides counseling to sexual assault victims and reaches out into the community by involving members of fraternitics, sororities, dormitories, and other student groups. SAPAC provides educational programs which place sexual assault into the broader context of rape culture. The establishment of SAPAC is another example of how student activists of the 80's are working to create institutions which promote non-violence and equality.

Creativity is an integral concept in the student movement at U-M. The Pinkertons Street Theatre Troupe; a political arts collective of students, faculty, and community members, organizes around political issues and livens up many issues undertaken by activist organizations. The Pinkertons formed in March of 1985 to draw attention to the firing of union film projectionists by the new owner of a chain of Michigan theaters, including three local theaters. The Pinkertons have appeared in University classrooms, on the streets of Ann Arbor, and in various other locations around the state. They function by confronting unsuspecting audiences and forcing them to consider issues ranging from U.S. foreign policy in Central America to military research on campus. In every action, the Pinkertons incorporate members of the group organizing around the specific issue, in order to ensure that the action accurately reflects the group's position and to empower group members with the ability to engage in creative protest.

Education is considered an important arena for social change by today's student activists. The University of Michigan has been the site of teach-ins, lecture series, film series, and forums too numerous to count. Students have taken on the task of educating other students about socially responsible employment through the establishment of an Altemative Career Center. The Lesbian and Gay Male Programs Office, also established by studente, regularly conducts workshops on gay issues and human sexuality. Women's Studies and Latino Studies are two University departments created due to student pressure in the form of the demand for education in these areas. Altemative Action film sponsors a series of films each semester to enhance students' education on political and social issues. The list continúes. All of these programs reflect an acknowledgement on the part of student activists that social change is a continual process which involves educating students, other community members, and ourselves.

Despite the common perception of today's students as self-interested and apathetic, there exists a student movement that is very much alive. It is a movement that does not entirely fit with the perception created by the 60s, rather it operates through many channels, some less visible that others. We try not to merely react to circumstances, but to set the agenda. Our ideology has developed to the point where we're not just saying: stop the war in Nicaragua or stop the racist incidents. We're attempting to implement changes and construct safeguards on an institutional level so that these things are less likely to happen in the future. We are, in the end, a product of our culture. Professionalism can create yuppies, yet it can also create sophisticated and organized activists. The student movement of the 80s has constructed a firm foundation on which to challenge the political realities of our day and will be ready to mobilize the masses of supporters, should another Vietnam-type situation arise.


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