Last spring, I came to the conclusion that political activism, in the stereotypical sense, is dead.
This realization came after the intense backlash to the Plan A protesters. Sure, they chained themselves to John Carroll during a Georgetown Admissions Ambassadors Program weekend. But despite Georgetown’s Jesuit identity, many students actually agreed with Plan A’s stances on contraceptive and reproductive rights. When I think of strong political activism, my mind conjures up images of huge demonstrations, sit-ins, people chaining themselves to things (like Plan A) or fasting – basically any huge public statement with a large amount of personal sacrifice involved.
That type of activism rarely happens anymore, and if it does happen at a place like Georgetown, the community turns its back on the cause, putting loyalty to our school before personal opinions. This is surprising, considering that the majority of students drawn to Georgetown are motivated by a desire to improve their communities, either on a local or global scale.
Our generation, however, manifests that desire to improve society in very different ways than those of past activists. You won’t see the stereotypical hippie protesters (to borrow from a Vox Populi commenter, “Sandals McDreadlocks”) around Georgetown, and many of the tactics you might expect from those determined to enact change have been largely abandoned by their usual champions: student organizations.
But let’s not jump to conclusions. One reason student activist groups are not so visible on campus is the fact that many are out in the surrounding area actually making a difference. Many student groups are focused primarily on the people living around us, making it easy for them to go off campus and directly affect those in need.
Groups like D.C. Reads and Grassroot Hoyas take students to schools in the area. The organizations operate relatively independently of Georgetown’s administration, especially Grassroot Hoyas, whose mission of educating D.C. youth about AIDS prevention conflicts with Georgetown’s Catholic approach to the issue.
If groups aren’t off campus, some have achieved success by using simple means to make a difference instead of relying on dramatic, attention-grabbing tactics. Grab `n’ Give demonstrates how a group of students can choose one simple action, swiping an unused Leo’s meal, to directly improve the lives of D.C.’s poor. In the end, it is only when students try to address issues remote from us, such as the situation in Sudan, that they use a strong campus identity and presence to make an impact.
But regardless of student activists’ goals, it’s clear that Georgetown’s community doesn’t welcome or encourage activism that is seen as “extreme” or “radical,” such as sit-ins, hunger strikes, banner dropping, occupying of public space or any of the other go-to methods for calling attention to an important cause. Maybe we associate these actions as outdated, or reservedly unique to activism of times past.
It’s counterintuitive that Georgetown does not foster a more activist-friendly environment, considering the general interest of students in world affairs and social change. That’s not to say that students campaigning for different causes don’t care – there remains intense passion behind students’ efforts. But the ways in which organizations relate to the campus community to achieve their goals have changed. The question is whether this shift came from thoughtful choice or out of necessity, due to hostility toward traditionally successful activism tactics.
For many groups on campus, extreme appeals aren’t necessary because their goals are generally accepted (no one is going to argue against helping feed the homeless), but for others, pressure is necessary to enact change. The Plan A protesters effectively pressured the administration by choosing to provocatively draw attention to their cause during GAAP weekend, but the negative response was so swift and widespread that few other groups would attempt something similar.
I came to Georgetown hoping to make a difference in the world, and I often imagine what our experience here would be like if student groups were freer to raise awareness in unconventional ways. But despite the fact that many tactics of traditional activism have been abandoned, it’s encouraging to see the success of so many student organizations on campus, even if that achievement lacks the commanding presence of the “radical” demonstration of the past.
Elise Garofalo is a junior in the College. She can be reached at garofalothehoya.com. Tin Can Telephone appears every other Friday.