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Campus struggles with activism, apathy

Eileen Duffy and Meghan Wons | Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Editor’s Note: This is the first 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.

With the war in Iraq potentially stretching on longer than the one in Vietnam over 30 years ago, last week’s fourth anniversary of the United States’ invasion shone a spotlight on college campuses – once the sites of passionate anti-war activism.

At Notre Dame, the only protest that took place last week was organized by members of the Catholic Worker movement – a group from outside the University. While students were involved, the lack of major student organization for the event seemed to reinforce the stereotype that Notre Dame lacks activism.

To many, the question remains whether or not Notre Dame students are making their voices heard when it comes to human rights, the war in Iraq, the genocide in Darfur and other pressing concerns of today’s generation of college students.

But to some students like junior Stuart Mora, a member of Campus Labor Action Project (CLAP) who is also active with the South Bend Center for the Homeless, loud arrest-focused protests are not the only effective ways to show activism.

For Mora, student participation in “concrete things” – such as service projects at home and abroad through the Center for Social Concerns and the high number of hours Notre Dame students spend volunteering – is proof that activism is “still here [on campus] … and maybe stronger than ever” in a different form.

“I think activism has changed,” he said. “I don’t think we have the marching around with placards anymore … I think people are looking to do more concrete things.”

But just before spring break, it was that “marching around” activism that was seen on Notre Dame’s campus.

Soulforce, a national gay rights group, stopped at Notre Dame as part of its cross-country Equality Ride, a 32-stop bus tour intended to protest the intolerance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people that it believes occurs at Christian colleges.

After University administrators denied the group’s request to visit in the fall, citing a policy that reserves such demonstrations for members of the campus community, Soulforce members notified Notre Dame that they would nonetheless arrive March 8 – and they did.

The 25 riders marched into LaFortune and were soon met with Notre Dame Security/Police (NDSP) officers who, when Soulforce members refused to cease and desist, issued trespass notices to six group members for restricting foot traffic, speaking in loud voices and interfering and disrupting normal business activity. Trespass notices, said Assistant Vice President of News and Information Dennis Brown, carry with them a request never to return to campus.

The next morning, March 9, six group members attempted to walk down Notre Dame Avenue with a wreath, intending to deliver it to the statue of Tom Dooley, a gay military hero and Notre Dame graduate. Near the vicinity of the old post office, the members were again stopped by NDSP and this time issued arrest citations, with a likely request to appear in court. Brown said policemen then gave the group a ride back to their bus.

“We checked with other universities where Soulforce had conducted its activities. We’re aware of what [the group’s] objectives are,” Brown said. “Now they’re able to publicize that they were arrested at Notre Dame, which is sort of their goal.”

Soulforce – which counts many college students among its members – has continued to face resistance and arrest at subsequent stops on its Equality Ride. A handful of Notre Dame students took part in the Soulforce event, but many campus activist groups seem to favor talking, if not yelling, about their causes – and many are listening.

CLAP has staged protests and written reports in support of a “living wage” of $12.10 an hour for every employee at Notre Dame.

The Progressive Student Alliance (PSA)’s “Week of Action” brought Liam Madden, an honorably discharged marine and leader in the anti-war movement, to DeBartolo Hall – and 170 people flocked to hear him. Another of the week’s events, a talk on the correlation between biology and homosexuality, drew a standing-room only crowd.

Sophomore Michael Angulo, vice president of the PSA, said he received good feedback from students and faculty regarding the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit displayed on South Quad to raise awareness about the Iraq War.

The display was brought to campus by the PSA through the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which organized the traveling exhibit and supplied the public display of boots honoring each U.S. military casualty. The exhibit featured a field of shoes, a multimedia display exploring the “history, cost and consequences of the war” and a Wall of Remembrance to memorialize the Iraqi citizens killed in conflict, according to the AFSC Web site.

“It’s really important to have an attitude of reaching out,” senior Katie Rose Hoover said of promoting awareness and education about issues on campus. “Rather than being exclusive to people who share the same ideas, values and mindset.”

Hoover, an active member of the Notre Dame Peace Fellowship, Amnesty International and CLAP, said that such groups are making an impact. She also said campus activists have changed her own attitudes about many issues.

While Notre Dame has historically been identified as a campus lacking activism, junior Katie McHugh – a member of both PSA and CLAP – thinks the University is underrated in terms of activism.

“We have many politically-minded people on this campus, as political science is the most popular major in Arts and Letters, as well as a peace studies program that may be the most well-respected in the nation,” she said, adding that Notre Dame has one of the best collegiate social concerns centers. “There is a deep-seeded obligation [among Notre Dame students] to help those in need around the world and in the South Bend community.”

Still, that obligation doesn’t inhabit a large portion of Notre Dame students.

Angulo said he thinks Notre Dame students are not necessarily apathetic, but that oftentimes they “don’t have a forum” to express their concerns and discuss issues of social justice in constructive ways.

The bureaucracy of Notre Dame and the University’s history of not being an activist campus, he said, are two big hurdles for students involved in efforts such as the ones the PSA advances. McHugh said she questioned whether “the real problem isn’t apathy, but bodies of administrators that silence the beginnings of discussion or controversy on campus.”

Both PSA and CLAP sometimes feel “hushed” by Student Activities, which takes measures to prevent controversy, she said. PSA was put on club probation a few years ago for illegally handing out condoms, she said, and CLAP “was not allowed to hand out coffee, donuts and information on workers’ rights because they were denied permission by Student Activities.”

But the level of activism has varied over the years. The second part in this series tomorrow will examine the historical context of activism at Notre Dame.