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Activism methods evolve with time

Eileen Duffy | Friday, March 30, 2007

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a three-part series examining activism at Notre Dame: its current role on campus, how that role has changed and what those changes mean for the future.

From the 1960s – when students took those first tentative steps out on the quad, pickets in hand – to now, when activism has cemented its role at Notre Dame, the list of issues hasn’t changed much.

War, international humanitarian crises, women’s rights, gay rights, racism, abortion, the death penalty and workers’ rights have continually tugged at the consciences of Notre Dame students over the years. What has changed, however, is the method of protest.

Rare are the students who want to sit cross-legged defiantly in front of administrators’ offices or torch buildings.

“The students of the 1960s tended to believe that almost anything and any structure could be changed, and that individuals made a difference in those changes,” said professor George Lopez of the Notre Dame Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, pointing out that the world, from Second Vatican Council to the Civil Rights Movement, was in constant flux – Notre Dame students included.

Those fervent protests and strikes in America even attracted the attention of students across the ocean, most notably French ones, in 1968.

“The American protests were really a point of reference for many student movements in France, especially for the anti-racism, anti-feminist movements,” said Olivier Morel, an adjunct French instructor who was born in France and lived there until 18 months ago.

Despite the influence of young Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lopez thinks they were a bit “big-headed.”

“The truth is,” he said, “that individuals probably made less of a difference than they thought they did. I think this current generation has a more balanced and maybe realistic view of how much change individuals can bring.”

For Notre Dame students now, he said, the war in Iraq seems like an inaccessible conflict. Far fewer Notre Dame students have connections to those serving in Iraq than at other local institutions like Ball State University and Indiana University, he said, where many students join the National Guard and serve time in order to finance their educations.

“The days of turning 600,000 people out for marches on Washington and campuses that are protesting – that doesn’t go anymore. Those days are gone,” he said. “I have some friends who think you can recreate that, or that the war will end once we recreate that. But I don’t think that’s the direction among college students.”

Rather, Lopez said, students are turning to local charity efforts in a “think globally, act locally” mindset.

“They look for a strategic situation where they can actually have an effect,” he said.

But Michael Shaughnessy, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1971 and was active in the Vietnam War protests on campus, thinks older methods can still be effective for the war in Iraq. Shaughnessy, a high school theology teacher in San Francisco, participates in marches, sit-ins and letter-writing campaigns in town. He’s worried about Notre Dame students.

“Oftentimes working for justice is controversial,” he said, “and I think many students at Notre Dame [in the late ’60s and early ’70s], and from what I read, now, too, are more concerned about job résumés than changing the world.”

Aaron Kreider agrees that Notre Dame students can do more when it comes to activism. He felt so strongly about that as a graduate student here in 1998 that he founded the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA), which earned official club status from the University that same year. Since earning his master’s degree in sociology in 2002, he has founded a Web site called campusactivism.org – a massive networking site for activists that he compared to myspace.com and friendster.com.

While Shaughnessy laments the lack of student action in international issues, Kreider identifies problems right on campus that Notre Dame students should address. He wrote a handbook entitled “The Notre Dame Disorientation Manual: A Guide to What’s Really Going On,” targeting issues from heterosexism to militarism to the heavy influence corporations hold over Notre Dame, especially its Board of Trustees. The manual is linked to campusactivism.org.

“Activism should be strong on a college campus because it’s a community. It’s important for all communities to have people who believe in progressive social change, in making their community a better place, a place that is more just and more loving,” Kreider said. “At Notre Dame, activism is weaker than at your typical nationally ranked top university.”

But groups like Students for Environmental Action, Circle K, PSA, Amnesty International, CLAP, the Africa Faith and Justice Network and Right to Life beg to differ. Recently, it’s been off-campus groups unaffiliated with the University – like Soulforce and the Midwest Catholic Workers – who have been attracting attention for activism at Notre Dame.

Do members of Notre Dame groups need to get arrested in LaFortune for people to believe they’re making a difference on campus and in the world? Or do their actions speak for themselves?

“I don’t see [today’s students] as any less active than prior generations of Notre Dame students, or students who mobilized protests in the last big war, like the Vietnam War,” Lopez said. “People are more levelheaded, and may be more judicious about the use of their own time.”