home ||| current issue ||| past stories
about The Prism ||| volunteers ||| other sites

Service Could Be the Means to End Activism

by Jen Serio


I saw The Prism's call for input regarding college student activism in the 90's and thought, "Wow! Here's my chance to share what my colleagues and I mull over on a regular basis."

I work with a local non-profit organization supporting national college-based literacy programs. We specifically promote student leadership skills, empowerment, and critical thinking for all stakeholders — most of all, college student tutors and learners who are normally left out of traditional models of program structure, management, and decision-making. My role and our mission make the subject of student activism an actual part of my daily work plan. Rather than grade student activism in the literacy field as strong or weak, I will instead attempt to identify trends I see taking place.

First, it is essential to define terms, which my organization does for better understanding when we meet with new college students. What is activism? To some, the answer is reactionary — "people who are anti-something," as if activism were singularly about protesting and revolt. To others, activism is simply a thing "my parents did," a trend of the sixties. Then there are people who talk about activism as a powerful tool to affect social change.

The majority of college students I encounter are content to "help out" through charitable acts. They often see themselves doing "service." The notion of service implies working in a community; change may be happening on some level, but modern day service providers make a big assumption that doing the work somehow makes lasting change happen. Without consciously thinking of themselves as activists, without thinking of their work and approach as potentially affecting real change, college students are unable to connect with others doing the same kind of community work. Thus, efforts remain isolated.

Today, there are legions of well-intentioned college students "volunteering," "helping out," "doing service," and "trying to make things better," but I believe they fall short of their potential. Busy students show up and put sincere energy into their labor, but they rarely organize, reflect, and connect their experiences to the larger social picture. Just the other day, a service learning student (community volunteerism rewarded and linked to college credit) who I thought was engaged in his work refused to participate in an activity outside his 5 hrs/week required time commitment. Five hours a week! I felt like saying, "get out of your box and then you may learn something through service." Unfortunately as society moves toward a more literal version of (the) individual pursuit of happiness, countless college students are out there virtually alone, either unconsciously or selfishly falling short of fostering long-lasting impact.

It is detrimental when volunteers see themselves doing service work and not activism. Service work can be a sort of "one-stop shopping" approach to what we used to call activism. It promotes a "we and they" dichotomy which is not the proper outlook. Nowadays everyone, including our President, thinks serving is the answer to society's ills. Whether you call it volunteering or serving, the effect is the same — today's college students don't see themselves as activists and don't have the ownership or responsibility of previous generations. They show up, serve for a few hours, and go home. Community service offices become placement centers — not catalysts for change.

The majority of programs I work with are led and organized not by college students, but by administrators. In this new framework college students rarely have any say in decision-making, let alone the opportunity to take the lead. This changes the dynamics, syntax, and energy of college students as agents of social change.

The trend away from student leadership is also compromised in the proliferation of government sponsored programs. AmeriCorps, VISTA, and AmericaReads student members are led by others, and they adhere to a predetermined agenda. Where's the critical thinking? Members are forbidden to sign a petition or attend a demonstration on "company" time. While government dollars can affect positive social change, some current programs are less about long lasting change and more about quick fixes and a good show of community support. The less college students "own" their power, the less they are invested. This phenomenon also has a trickle-down effect on those served as well. What are we doing with our clients if we're not empowering them with critical thinking skills? It's hard for a volunteer to do this if he/she isn't using his/her own.

In my mind, activism is not one-dimensional — it's about being motivated to immerse yourself in all aspects of local and/or national initiatives shaping real change. Activists have many roles and more importantly, responsibilities. An activist works not only in direct service but also in recruitment, process development, decision-making, and public policy advocacy. I don't want to assume every activist has the inkling, let alone the opportunity, to wear all these different hats. I will say volunteerism, leadership, and ownership culminates into ACTIVISM — and this definition was more prevalent ten and thirty years ago than it is today.

It's an easy formula to understand: the more college students see themselves as activists, the more they become invested in their initiatives. This investment results in empowerment and change (a good model for those served, too). Without owning, leading, and politicizing initiatives, today's college students define themselves as volunteers they help out by working for free, but don't realize their own potential.

Who's to blame? The guilt is probably shared and certainly not irrelevant. If more people critically analyzed and did something to strengthen or weaken their roles and power, we might have a more visible legion of activists. Most college students (again I speak mostly from my experience in the literacy field) are well intentioned but easily distracted away from activating their full impact. To be fair, there is a substantial number of college students who see themselves as activists and act like it, too. There are even service folks who say and do activism. But you have to search in alternative media to hear about the current efforts made by today's young social change agents. For obvious reasons, activism without a strong spotlight contributes to the decline of the trade.

Activism, in society at large, isn't talked about much, especially in regard to college students. Until "service providers" and volunteers in the mainstream connect with the minority of "activists" who have for decades carried the burden of mobilizing for real change, we will continue to move too slowly towards social justice for all. People need to work for long-term, sustainable change and empowerment. Those who remain reluctant to fight for this ideal, or embrace their full potential, ultimately undermine the efforts made by activists proud to carry on a tradition of working towards change for the common good. Now more than ever, this world needs people young and old to step up, take a stand, and follow through until all is just. This world needs activists and nothing less.

  Jen Serio is a literacy practitioner and trainer based in Chapel Hill.  

home ||| current issue ||| past stories
about The Prism ||| volunteers ||| other sites

Send comments to prism@metalab.unc.edu.