Tim Fernholz

November 27, 2007

“Do you think this is the right stereotype?” asked the journalist. “I don’t want it to be all funky when we pin it on.”

“Looks good to me,” her editor said, without even glancing at the article.

Meet the new face of journalism’s anti-youth activism movement. Courtney Martin, a young author, speaker, and adjunct professor, has recently penned a series of articles for the American Prospect attempting to document the political proclivities of Generation Y, the Millenials, or, in short, us kids. Her latest, “The Problem With Youth Activism,” shows just how far she is from understanding what the current generation is doing.

Martin would like to see today’s young activists adopt the tactics of the 1960’s student radicals–protests, theatrics, and the like. Martin’s complaint is that young people today are too complacent, too safe, and too co-opted by “the man.” We’re just not angry enough, she argues. But today’s young activists are angry–they’re just too busy attempting to create meaningful change to sit around waving signs. Martin, despite her travels around the country speaking to college students, doesn’t understand what a new generation of activists is doing to effect political change. In fact, she doesn’t even understand who today’s young activists are.

There’s no doubt that too many Americans, young and old, are apathetic about politics and the world around them. But the fact is that young people are politically active on and off campus and more involved than many other demographic groups around the country. If you judge by their voting patterns, activism, organizing, and use of new technology, young people today are doing more now than in previous decades. Martin says we need to take advantage of our “raw power–the priceless power of being young and mad.” We already are young and mad, but we’re smart, too. Young progressives have moved beyond superficial displays of anger to spend more time changing the world than complaining about it. This isn’t to discount the strides our forebears made in the golden age of the student movement; it’s simply time to realize we don’t have to fight their battles all over again.

Martin’s first mistake is to restrict her view of young people to those who attend universities–the ones she has met. Mike Connery, a blogger who focuses on young people’s role in contemporary politics, points out that only 21 percent of all 18-29 year-olds currently attend college; even fewer are enrolled at the elite institutions at which Martin speaks. Two recent examples of successful youth activism were driven by activists who don’t fit Martin’s mold: The protests in support of the Jena 6 were brought to national attention thanks to youth-produced online campaigns, and the massive immigration protests in 2006 were successful in part because of online youth organizing, including the more than 100,000 high school students who walked out of class thanks to MySpace organizing. This isn’t to mention work by, for example, the League of Young Voters, an explicitly off-campus organization, and many other groups that engage young people without a campus focus.

But let’s play by Martin’s rules and restrict our definition of “youth activism” to “student activism.” Martin conflates cooperation with university administrators with selling out. But today’s college students aren’t dealing with the same school administrators as their ’60s-era counterparts. Many schools retain a commitment to social justice, and when they don’t hold up their end of the bargain, students hold them to it, as with University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman and affirmative action. Further, there’s no shame in using university money to agitate, especially, as Connery notes, when students are the ones who distribute it. And, as any organizer knows, it’s not always smart to view the powers-that-be as enemies: Young activists must change administrator’ minds and polices through pressure and sound arguments–not just piss them off.

Martin proves to be completely unaware of the effective student activism taking place today. For example, at my own college, Georgetown University, students have organized a successful living wage campaign that led to the unionization of sub-contracted workers and helped negotiate a raise for security guards. They also started STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition, an activist group that has chapters on 600 high school and college campuses. LGBTQ students and their allies forced the administration to enact plans to hire a full-time LGBTQ resource coordinator–which is a big deal for a Catholic university. And this is just in the four years that I’ve been here.

Around the country, organizations like Campus Progress fund issue campaigns that are conceived and organized by students on issues from stopping the death penalty and global warming to ending the war in Iraq. Some students have recently organized to support affirmative action. As Connery points out, other students at Harvard University and New York University have protested for a living wage and against bad immigration policies. And these are just the examples that make it into the national media. Despite Martin’s condescension, students who raise awareness of issues large and small on campuses across the country are engaging in meaningful activism, too. This might be part of Martin’s problem: Many community-centric activists aren’t involved in monolithic national movements. But these students aren’t voting on buttons–they’re passionate about working to change the world.

And it’s not just activism. Thanks to the work of our baby-boomer forebears, young people have a place in politics today. They work on political campaigns, in think tanks, and in government. They seek to expose problems and advocate for change through journalism and blogging. They even run for office. They are part of groundbreaking campaigns like the Oregon Bus Project and Forward Montana. Our generation is also taking the lead in online organizing, from Facebook to MySpace. Do you think that the YouTube debate, arguably the best of the election cycle so far, would have happened without our generation’s influence?

The fact is that my generation is more politically active than most in the media realize: Forty-nine percent of youth voters went to the polls in 2004–over a million more youth voted nationwide than seniors. That number has increased for three years straight. In the 2006 mid-term elections, 24 percent of us turned out, to make up 13 percent of the electorate–a four percent increase from the 2002 midterms. More importantly, young Americans voted overwhelmingly for anti-war candidates in congressional races, which led to a change in congressional control. But, for Martin, a change in political control doesn’t count unless someone’s waving a sign.

Martin and other critics of student activism point to the fragmentation of the anti-war movement as key evidence of our generation’s failures. In another piece for the Prospect, filled with similar wishy-washy generalities, Martin laments that our anger about the Iraq war hasn’t resulted in much action to stop it. Of course, she doesn’t suggest what this action ought to be. That’s because there isn’t much agreement on what to do–the war is bad news, but no one from the grassroots up knows the best way to end it. Protests won’t help, especially ones led by fringe groups like ANSWER. Like the generation before them, activists today have helped turn public opinion against the war, and they’ve elected a Congress with a mandate to end it–and it’s taken them about the same amount of time as it did for students in the ’60s. But the executive branch has the most control over foreign policy, and only when its occupant is against the war will we see real progress. Until then, young people must work on defining what type of foreign policy our generation should support. Luckily, some “complacent” college students have already founded an organization dedicated to getting student ideas on policy issues into the public discourse.

Martin says she would rather see young activists spend their time placing “viruses in campus administrators’ computers with pop-up windows demanding no more expansion into poor, local neighborhoods,” creating “mock draft cards [to send] home to their parents,” and organizing “a dance party–1 million youth strong–on the Washington lawn.” All of Martin’s suggestions have one thing in common, besides their sheer inanity (what, exactly, is “the Washington lawn?”): They would achieve nothing, except to further the stereotype that young people don’t understand politics. But then again, neither does Martin. As my generation works out how to make our own impact on the political system, we don’t need a ’60s wannabe telling us we’re not angry enough.

Tim Fernholz is a senior at Georgetown University and Editor-in-Chief of The Georgetown Voice. He is also a member of the Campus Progress Student Advisory Board.