|In a genuine democracy, people would have a real voice in the decisions affecting their lives. Politics would be a dynamic, active,
creative process in which people meaningfully participated. Governments
and corporations would be directly accountable to the people they
Unfortunately, many of us do not feel like we have a voice in governing our society. We may be too busy to participate, or we may lack information. We may think that no one else feels the way we do. We worry about what other people will say if we act, or whether we'll jeopardize our prospects for "success." Our cultures teach us that women should defer to men, and our society teaches us that the people in charge are usually white. We are encouraged only to sit in front of the TV, trust the "experts," and once every few years vote for the lesser of two evils.
Despite all these obstacles, people do act. The changes that most improved our lives were not gifts bestowed by the "experts," but the hard-won results of organizing by ordinary people. The 40-hour work week was not made by wealthy industrialists, but by rank-and-file union organizers sick of working 60 hour weeks for subsistence wages; the vote -- and rights to property and abortion -- were not granted to women by men, but won by female suffragists over many decades of struggle.
Our history books often emphasize the "great men" who held positions of power and prominence. In fact, history is made by all of us. Before Martin Luther King, there was a legion of Black leaders who stood against the oppression of the African-American community. The large- scale, glamorous victories which we all hear about stood on the shoulders of smaller victories and the lessons of defeats experienced by thousands of grassroots organizers.
When we act as individuals, our actions may seem small and insignificant. But when we act collectively, anything is possible.
Why work for peace and justice on campus? Because the campus brings us into physical and intellectual proximity with others at a time when we are questioning and formulating our ideas about the world around us. Students of all races and often from many different countries live together in dorms; working-class students will sit in class beside rich kids. In a society where individuals are increasingly isolated, the campus provides an unusual opportunity for discussion, organization, and community.
Not surprisingly, students have been in the forefront of most major social movements. In the 1930s, students picketed with striking workers; in the 1960s, they opposed the Vietnam War and fought for civil rights; in the 1980s, students opposed U.S. military intervention in Central America.
While campus activism may concern issues or conditions which exist outside the campus, our colleges and universities are themselves political institutions where internal controversies mirror those in the larger society. Do students have the rights to free speech and assembly? Which students can afford to attend your campus? Who teaches? What subjects are taught? How is the campus climate for women and people of color? Asking these questions can lead to more questions about social justice and the meaning of education, deepening our understanding of ourselves and society.
Colleges and universities are also very strategic arenas of power in our society. Research performed by professors is used by politicians and corporations in shaping policies and in developing weaponry. University professors serve on corporate boards and as advisors to governments. Our colleges support the dubious activities of many large corporations by investing billions of dollars in their stock.
The anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980s, which involved tens of thousands of students and faculty members, forced over 150 universities to divest from companies doing business in South Africa and was a part the world-wide movement that catapulted Nelson Mandela, the former political prisoner, to the South African presidency.
Organizing on campus is not just play-acting or a support effort for an "adult" organization, but a real contribution to helping make a better and more democratic society.
Finally, many students will go on to other positions of influence -- families, workplaces, and communities -- where they can either perpetuate the status quo or fight for progressive change. Your campus organizing can make a difference for years after you graduate.
Making the decision to participate in public life is no small thing. It demands commitment, sacrifice, and an openness to change. But the rewards are many: new skills, a sense of purpose, awareness of how our society operates, and a feeling of community that comes from working together with others for a vision.
As one activist put it, "After I became an activist, I wasn't afraid of the world anymore."