Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Talking for Change: Student Activists Are Finding That Sometimes Conversation, Not Confrontation, Is the Way to Make a Difference

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Talking for Change: Student Activists Are Finding That Sometimes Conversation, Not Confrontation, Is the Way to Make a Difference

Article excerpt

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 cafe.

"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?'"

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Leonard remembers his activist friends as students who eared 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 cafe and handed out quarters to students in an effort to offset the higher cost of fair trade coffee. …

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