The Common Good
September/October 2008

Talking for Change

by Josh MacIvor-Andersen | September/October 2008

Student activists are finding that sometimes conversation, not confrontation, is the way to make a difference.

Line up the few hundred thousand students currently attending North American Christian colleges. Look for the few sets of eyes that––in an unnerving, hopeful, mischievous way––carry a certain gleam. A glint that says: Jesus is real, radical, and in his name I’m here to rouse a little rabble.

Meet the student activists of the Millennial Generation (those born after 1985). They’re looking up from their schoolbooks and scrutinizing their campuses, considering the economic and social complexities of cleaning-staff wages, the origins of cafeteria food, the destinations of alumni gifts.

They also want to talk. By and large they are trading-in bombastic protests and bullhorns for a place at the decision-making tables of their administrations, anxious to join in the important conversations and help steer the direction of their universities.

“The Millennial student generation, in general, seems to want to work as partners with the administration and be a part of the system, instead of having a significant separatist mind-set that is ‘us against them,’” says Brian Cole, a doctoral candidate at Western Michigan University who is researching contemporary student activism. “These students now seem to want to have a place at the table where the decisions are being made, and do it a little more civilly.”

COLE IS CONTRASTING the placard-waving, chaining-oneself-to-a-tree activism of past eras with what he calls a more “conversational” tone. He is referring to students like Dan Leonard and Sarah Frymoyer, who graduated from Eastern University having helped to mobilize student interest in Darfur and successfully press the administration for fair trade coffee in the cafeteria and café.

“It wasn’t just sitting on a patio with banners and drums and signs,” says Leonard. “It was sitting in offices with people over a cup of coffee and saying: ‘How do we do this? What’s the right thing to do? How do we work together on this in a more collaborative way?’”

Leonard remembers his activist friends as students who cared deeply for the institution. “The social justice network [at Eastern] was, in some ways, calling for our own conversion and for the conversion of the university,” says Leonard. “It wasn’t about just doing good things, it was about repenting and converting as an institution and seeing that as a more compelling way to engage the world.”

Frymoyer, having studied fair trade campaigns at other universities, knew that recent protests over coffee had been clamorous but ineffective. “I noticed the way that protesting tends to polarize and pit people against one another,” she says. “That was the last thing I wanted to see happen at Eastern, so I thought that conversation and listening to one another was a finer route.”

Christian colleges tend to be portraits of homogeneity. It is an unstated expectation that a body of students will enter their freshman year with a similar worldview and, under the tutelage of professors who have all signed the same mission statement, focus outward. But Leonard, Frymoyer, and their friends were looking inward, too, searching their academic community for signs of injustice, and even searching their own hearts. “None of us really knew what in the world we were doing,” admits Leonard. “But we understood that we were involved in a mutually transformative process.” And they had patience. More than a year passed before fair trade coffee was the standard on campus. A year in which activists at Eastern entered into hundreds of hours of conversation with faculty, administration, and the decision-makers at Sodexho, the school’s corporate-run food service.

“We approached the administration with a high degree of professionalism and flexibility,” says Frymoyer. “The attitude that was mirrored back to us was one of cooperation.” Lots of talking, lots of listening. There was pushback and there were complicated logistical questions, but ultimately sentiment among decision-makers at Eastern became so supportive of students that, at one point, the university’s president stood at the café and handed out quarters to students in an effort to offset the higher cost of fair trade coffee.

“The successful campaigns that I see are the ones that are constantly engaging people,” says Leonard. “You’re not fighting a battle––you’re in conversation with people and you’re seeking your own conversion as much as theirs.”

THE CONVERSATIONS, of course, can be hard, frustrating, infuriating. Dietrich Bouma knows. The graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, remembers the tension between faculty, administration, and students as he and his friends in the Environ­mental Stewardship Coalition fought to save a 75-yard-wide woodlot running across the north side of campus.

The blueprints for a gym expansion had been drawn by the administration behind closed doors years earlier. When the current student body caught wind of construction plans, Bouma and a small community of activists saw an instant disconnect between their curriculum and their campus. “It confused us how such a big project with such large ramifications could slip by in the planning stages so quietly,” says Bouma. “But even more, we were wounded by what we perceived to be actions that ran counter to our Christian principles and the beliefs that we were being taught in the classroom.”

Bouma and a few friends were determined to halt or alter the plans for the new building. They quickly hammered out a fivefold strategy to save the woods: “First, understand the issue and its complexities and let influential campus figures know that we care about the building project. Second, use the main media source on campus, the school newspaper, to raise awareness and educate the student body. Third, build alliances with groups of students and faculty that support our stance. Fourth, motivate and mobilize our organization and our allies to directly confront students, staff, and faculty through a petition drive. Fifth, let our opposition know our particular stance and what we would support. Engage them with the reasoning for why we hold these beliefs, and show that our position is grounded in a Christian call to protect creation.”

The diplomatic campaign to halt or alter the project gained momentum and a little bit of ground, but ultimately saved only about 30 percent of the woodlot. “So did it work?” asks Jeff Bouman, one of the faculty members who helped steer the activism of his students. “I think so, but the woods are gone … and it’s a daily reminder for me of what was lost and can never be recovered.” The success of the campaign, says Bouman, is that despite the loss of the woods, student activists at Calvin developed a maturity, a patience, a kind of seasoned hope through their activism that might never have come through a classroom lesson.

“The question isn’t about effectiveness necessarily in the short term, but overall effectiveness in the long term, and what effect does this have on the student,” says Bouman. “It has clearly shaped the trajectory of [Bouma’s] life and how he is going about his work of kingdom-making and kingdom participation.”

Bouma, who is currently doing community-based research in Nepal, has no regrets. Despite a rollercoaster ride of activism that ultimately dipped, there was a sense that what he and his friends were doing was “prophetic.”

“We felt like what was taking place on campus was simply a microcosm of the wayward planning schemes that were chewing up farms, open spaces, and natural areas around Grand Rapids and throughout the country,” he says. “We thought that Calvin should be held to a higher standard than the bottom line.”

FOR RACHELLE FRIESEN, a recent graduate of Canadian Mennonite Univer­sity, whose work with the Peace and Social Awareness Committee there included campaigns against violent toys, for alternative Christmases, and mobilizing solidarity for Iraqis affected by the war, the conversation is as much with other students as it is administrators.

“Keep your ‘radicalness’ in check,” she says, reflecting back on her years of trying to mobilize a campus community that was, at times, divided almost down the middle. “To be radical is good––it means you are willing to take risks for what is right, you are willing to face the consequences for what is good. [But] it is important not to be radical for the sake of being radical. Let the message guide you.”

Friesen recalls trying to harness the energy of a group of friends who were so excited to start a peace group that they wanted to chain themselves to fences and trees without having a clear sense of the issues or their demands. “They were so keen on the ‘actions’ [that] they had lost the message,” she says. Instead, says Friesen, it is a deeper, more holistic witness that will draw other students into activism and create a contingent that will work for peace, social justice, and environmental awareness.

“We want people to look beyond themselves to see human need, human pain, and environmental pain and work for its resolution––not for themselves to feel better, but because as Christians we are called to care for creation and care for our neighbors,” says Friesen. “There are no ‘band-aid’ solutions of throwing money at the problem, or driving environmentally friendly cars, or turning food into fuel. Rather, it takes a complete transformation of lifestyle and a completely different way of thinking and responding to problems.”

Friesen’s is a kind of activism that invites participation from the disengaged while challenging those already fired up to be patient, cautious, and to listen. “The word that jumps out at me is ‘contemplative,’ or having the ability to reflect and also act,” says Joe Modica, chaplain at Eastern University. “What we try and encourage as an administration is to have that [activism] come from the deep well of contemplation and reflection on the world. If it doesn’t come from that, it can collapse into almost a vice of trying to save the world, or a kind of workaholism.”

Modica remembers the fair trade coffee efforts of Leonard and Frymoyer. “I think that was a wonderful example of student activism done in a way that allowed the institution to embrace it,” he says. “It was done with some diplomacy and some critical questions being raised. What we try and do with students is never thwart their enthusiasm for social change. We want them to be, in many ways, working with us on these things. At this university we have learned much from our students and their activism.”

GENERATIONAL LABELS seem to sweep through evangelical communities like seasonal winds. Every few years there is new buzz about “wall-repairers” (The Nehemiah Generation) or “wall-destroyers” (The Joshua Generation). Indeed, labels are slapped onto generations like bumper stickers.

But how would Millennials describe themselves? “I’d say that we’re a Micah 6:8 generation,” says Bouma. “Or else we read closely to Colossians––It’s an ‘Empire-reconstructing’ or ‘system-reconstructing’ generation.” Leonard wonders if his peers aren’t more deconstructing than re. “I think the word that has gotten a lot more play in our generation would be ‘progressives,’” says Leonard. “[But] I think we’ve done way more deconstructing than progressing. And we are ironically probably a movement uncomfortable with labels.”

Leonard wants to give it a try anyway. “How about: ‘Confidently confused and contemplative activists who feel more inspired by Thomas Merton than Karl Marx and who are more comfortable working for change by drinking fair trade coffee with administrators than standing around with angry signs, but who sometimes do that anyway, because, hey, we have an image to uphold.’”

Friesen, on the other hand, would vote to keep it a little less complicated. “Seeing as how I live in Palestine,” she says, “I’m hoping we are wall-destroyers.”

Josh MacIvor-Andersen, a graduate of Eastern University and a former Sojourners intern, is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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