Analyzing declining student activism on IC’s campus
Like many incoming students, Kirstie Ingmundson got involved with a service club, IC Habitat for Humanity, during her first year of college because she saw it as a way to make a difference. However, only about 10 students plus the officers attend general meetings, and six to seven students attend builds each week.
Many service clubs do not draw large numbers for an abundance of reasons. However, this cannot be simply chalked up to apathy among Millennials. As students are questioning conventional strategies of activism, they are struggling to find new ways of creating social change.
A February Boston Globe article noted, “Where their boomer parents may have been inclined to put their idealism and energy into protest and rebellion, today’s young men and women are civic-minded, less determined to change the social order, and more inclined to make the world a better place, even if it means doing it one load of laundry at a time.”
Nationally, the nature of student activism is changing. It may not necessarily manifest itself in a typical protest culture, such as through creating posters and picketing. More students use social media like Facebook, Twitter, CREDO action and Change.org, to agitate for change instead of engaging in conventional grassroots organizing.
In these ways, our generation is involved in doing various kinds of service. However, the bar is set much higher for Ithaca College students since the institution is associated and marketed with liberal politics, including sustainability and LGBT rights. The actual campus might not always live up to these expectations of an activist-minded protest culture.
To an outsider, IC’s campus seems involved. IC Link, a website that student organizations use to maintain rosters and send out information about events, lists 267 active organizations.
Theresa Radley, assistant director of Student Leadership and Involvement at IC, said that, on the whole, students at IC have the drive and initiative to start their own organizations.
“Students want to make a difference, and the culture of Ithaca is all about helping and doing so much, even just the college in general,” she said. “Ithaca is giving back. Ithaca is doing so much to help, and the students see that and want to continue that.”
Radley also said Ithaca College often recruits students who have already been involved at their high schools and who continue to contribute to campus life while at IC.
However, in certain areas, student activism on the Ithaca College campus has waned. There might be many clubs to choose from, but actual membership and attendance in those organizations are declining. Participation in learning communities in the residence halls has also plummeted. The Sustainably Conscious Community in Terrace 2 used to take up an entire building. Over the years, the community has been reduced to a single floor.
One reason for declining activism is simply apathy among some students. Class may also play a role here, since generally, wealthier populations tend to be more individualistic. As upper-middle class students are more isolated, they may not consider their lives as being connected to larger social movements. They may not necessarily see the connections between different structures, and their immediate lives do not seem to be affected by gross injustices anyway.
In other cases, students might feel overwhelmed when they learn about social problems. The issues seem so large and the inertia of present social structures so vast that students cannot think of anything they can do. The reality is that often, social movements can be slow. This sometimes-glacial pace can be exhausting.
Additionally, students are not always disengaged because of a lack of enthusiasm; rather, they may not be drawing connections to the politics of what they are involved in. Alicia Swords, an assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College, said Ithaca is not in a movement phase, partially because we lack frameworks to see how social change works today.
“In the way that the media presents activism, the images that we often see of activism are of the civil rights movement,” Swords said. “We tend to mostly hear about the public figures, the great leaders of the movements and the big public demonstrations. We don’t actually hear very much about the behind-the-scenes work.”
Because this knowledge is not emphasized in the historical narrative, students may feel alienated if they don’t meet the qualifications to be “leaders.” The overemphasis on priming students to be leaders may dissuade them from playing support roles or prevent them from seeing the importance of the less-glamorous organizational tasks, which ultimately make or break movements.
Perhaps a significant roadblock that prevents movements from growing more potent is the lack of intersectionality across student movements. Students are encouraged to have a hand in everything, which may lead to a very fragmented experience where they spread themselves too thin. While many student groups may tackle similar issues, they might not pool their resources to get more collective actions done. Swords noted that this separation prevents people from working across disciplines to combine knowledge production and come to conclusions together. While students may be involved in many organizations, they may not see how issues are related to one another.
“There are all these pressures to take on different kinds of volunteer work and wear lots of different hats,” Swords said. “And yet we also don’t look at the ways that they could reinforce each other and overlap, and build coalitions and networks, and come together around an issue or event.”
Until the campus community engages in a conversation about how to collaborate and create change on a large scale, students will continue to see declining attendance at service clubs. But students should not restrict themselves to just building houses for homeless people—they should try to build a new activist movement.
Cassandra Leveille is a senior writing major who is thinking about starting a club about clubs. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.