Hot-Wiring High School | The Nation


Hot-Wiring High School

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But in a chapter meeting discussion in the student lounge at Brattleboro Union High in Vermont, other students thought today's activism was far more compromised, far less challenging than that of the sixties. Because it's Vermont, many of these students were taken to protests as toddlers, and others grew up in communal households. According to Anna Hecker, "Activism is more cynical now than it used to be, more cautious. We're trying not to get arrested when we do protests. We sort of know we can't make a difference without appealing to other people. We're not, like, bombing buildings." This prompted a longhaired student named Brian Hodgdon to write "BOMB" on the agenda, item number four, after "What's Next."

This article is part of the Haywood Burns Community Activist Journalism series.

About the Author

Liza Featherstone
Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City. Her work on student and youth activism has been...

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It was a comic touch; these students know enough history to understand what the fundamental tactics of the sixties movements were. Yet they shy away from direct-action protest. The Brattleboro ISAA has been working with the National Labor Committee to raise awareness about child labor overseas, and last year it held a rally in front of Sam's sporting goods store, Vermont's largest Nike distributor, to protest Nike's use of sweatshop labor. But mostly the chapter holds educational events--last year, for instance, it also sponsored a rock concert/teach-in on sweatshop labor--and lobbies the legislature. As member Colin Bentley explains: "By this point, protests have almost been overdone. I think they've sort of lost their edge and don't get people's attention." Indeed, ISAA has staged only two other demonstrations in its three years of existence. "We try not to be too confrontational," says Smilowitz.

All of the ISAA students I spoke with stated unambivalently that the experience of the sixties favors modest reform, that activists must focus on tinkering with the system, not reimagining it. Like earlier youth activists, they have a strong faith that those in power can simply be persuaded to do the right thing. Many say that working with ISAA has taught them that the system works. Erin Klein from Storrs, Connecticut, who was active in ISAA's state Board of Education campaign, told me, "It's totally changed my outlook on politics. It always seemed so shady to me." Still, most ISAA members I spoke with weren't hankering for careers in electoral politics, though Smilowitz does seem to be headed in that direction.

In one of Smilowitz's meetings with the CCLU's Joe Grabarz that I sat in on, Smilowitz earnestly proposed an idea for defeating drug testing in Winston-Salem: "We'll say we're a students' rights group, so it's against our beliefs." He cited the precedents on his side, then pronounced confidently, "So they can't do anything." Grabarz was amused: "Well, Ben, just because you're right doesn't mean you'll win. I mean, that's the history of liberalism in America, being right and losing."

When an organization's political indignation--and public appeal--is grounded in its members' youth, what happens when its activists grow up? Most ISAA activists assume they'll be politically engaged beyond high school. (Smilowitz and other graduating leaders, for instance, plan to start college chapters.) But it's far from clear what those politics will be or whether a wider progressive movement will develop to help shape them. Though there is exciting organizing happening everywhere, it is fragmented. So it's not surprising that teenage activists are unaware of related struggles: against college tuition hikes, corporate influence on public education or unequal school funding. The ISAA already knows how to win some concrete political victories, yet its members seem uncertain about how boldly to imagine change. Jamie Rinaldi talked to me at length about the lack of school funds in his hometown of Terryville, Connecticut, compared with richer school districts in the state. But when I asked him if ISAA should fight such inequities, he said, "Well, you'd need socialism to fix it. I'd like to see that, but it wouldn't fly."

At a conference of the Junior State of the Union, a nationwide high school debate club, at Columbia University last year, potential recruits barraged West Virginia co-chair Anna Sale and Ben Smilowitz with questions about the ISAA. One student called the difference in spending on rich and poor schools "one of the greatest injustices" and asked what the organization's position was. Smilowitz was uncharacteristically unprepared. "Something should be done at the state level," he offered, "but not at the federal level; that would get crazy." Then he added that in West Hartford "we have students bused in from Hartford--we have no problems." The questioner was troubled: "Don't you think...that's not a long-term solution?"

The history of mainstream rights-based groups--gay, feminist, black--shows that many end up limiting themselves in exactly the way that ISAA is in danger of doing: politely requesting inclusion. But the history of student groups also shows that the system tends to disappoint. The Port Huron Statement, founding document of SDS, written in 1962 by students only a few years older than those in ISAA and, like them, "bred in at least modest comfort," reflected the poignancy of disappointed faith--and its potential to politicize people. Those earlier students expressed the belief that "the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life." They had little else to fall back on and, in that way, they were in a situation similar to ISAA's--facing a left, and a country, with a yawning vision deficit: "Beneath the reassuring tones of the politicians...is the pervading feeling that there simply are no alternatives, that our times have witnessed the exhaustion not only of Utopias, but of any new departures as well."

How ISAA's politics will evolve in part depends on the larger left, on whether there will be "any new departures" to pass on. The organization is full of clever tactics, and it is attracting hundreds of kids who know something's wrong. The ISAA is building the beginnings of one kind of national youth movement. It's an exciting project, but "viable alternatives," now as in 1962, aren't part of the national conversation, and without them it's unclear how much even the smartest and most articulate kids can do--wired or not. Still, we shouldn't underestimate the ISAA students. They've built an impressive organizational structure, won several legal and legislative victories, raised consciousness about growing national problems--all before the founders' eighteenth birthdays. The ISAA may yet become a movement concerned with the teen mother who, under "welfare reform," can't afford childcare or the student whose McDonald's supervisors make him work the late shift even on a school night. And that kid from the Columbia conference may yet get his "long-term solution.

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