Many blogs focusing on politics and the Millennial Generation have written about comments made by former public officials, New York Times columnists, and others that criticized Millennials for their lack of activism (equating activism with the 1960s-style protests) and that encouraged them to get offline and start demanding change.

Al Gore’s comments about the Millennials:

“I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers,” Mr. Gore said, “and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.”

New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman’s comments:

I just spent the past week visiting several colleges — Auburn, the University of Mississippi, Lake Forest and Williams — and I can report that the more I am around this generation of college students, the more I am both baffled and impressed.

I am impressed because they are so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be. I am baffled because they are so much less radical and politically engaged than they need to be.

The Iraq war may be a mess, but I noticed at Auburn and Ole Miss more than a few young men and women proudly wearing their R.O.T.C. uniforms. Many of those not going abroad have channeled their national service impulses into increasingly popular programs at home like “Teach for America,” which has become to this generation what the Peace Corps was to mine.

It’s for all these reasons that I’ve been calling them “Generation Q” — the Quiet Americans, in the best sense of that term, quietly pursuing their idealism, at home and abroad.

But Generation Q may be too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s own good. When I think of the huge budget deficit, Social Security deficit and ecological deficit that our generation is leaving this generation, if they are not spitting mad, well, then they’re just not paying attention. And we’ll just keep piling it on them.

America needs a jolt of the idealism, activism and outrage (it must be in there) of Generation Q. That’s what twentysomethings are for — to light a fire under the country. But they can’t e-mail it in, and an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won’t cut it. They have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention rather than just patronize them.

Sally Kohn (Director of the Movement Vision Lab at the Center for Community Change) had something to say as well, in an essay published in the Christian Science Monitor:

Today’s American young people feel a deep connection to people in Tibet and Darfur, want to hold corporations accountable to environmental standards and worker justice, and value the role of government in meeting our shared needs. Yet the Internet tools that help Millennials appreciate our interconnectedness may actually erode the community values they seek.

Internet activism is individualistic. It’s great for a sense of interconnectedness, but the Internet does not bind individuals in shared struggle the same as the face-to-face activism of the 1960s and ’70s did. It allows us to channel our individual power for good, but it stops there.

This is great for signing a petition to Congress or donating to a cause. But the real challenges in our society – the growing gap between rich and poor, the intransigence of racism and discrimination, the abuses from Iraq to Burma (Myanmar) – won’t politely go away with a few clicks of a mouse. Or even a million.

To avoid eroding the values Millennials so appreciate, and to truly influence the world around them, they must transform their online activism into off-line communities and build an effective movement for change. From church basements to campus meetings to voters’ doors, Millennials need to add face-to-face action to their innate sense of community.

All of these comments are ignorant and miss many things.

Georgia10, from DailyKos, wrote a fantastic rebuttal to Kohn’s essay this past Sunday, pointing out many of the mistakes Kohn makes in coming to her conclusions.  Michael Connery at Future Majority, has taken down these intellectually lazy comments many a time at his blog (I highly recommend it).

But in this post, I wanted to show an example, a case study, of student-created positive change that happened on a college campus without the kind of demonstrations Thomas Friedman advocates.

Harvard University’s president, Drew G. Faust, has just announced a commitment to reduce Harvard’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by the year 2036.  From the Crimson:

Faust announced the formation of a student and faculty task force in February to study cuts in Harvard’s greenhouse gas emissions, giving the committee until the end of the academic year to outline a set of recommendations.

In a statement today, Faust praised the group’s recommendation for a 30 percent cut as “ambitious and far-reaching” and “reflecting both the urgency of the climate problem and Harvard’s opportunity to show leadership in addressing the issue.” The sizable reduction target and the very aggressive timetable make the goal among the most ambitious that any university has committed itself to.

Student organizing efforts in recent months have focused on pressuring Faust to sign a pledge committing Harvard to “climate neutrality.”

While Hunter said that student activists “still would have preferred” such a pledge, they were pleased with the outcome because the task force’s recommendations will put Harvard “on track to achieve climate neutrality even before the 2036 timeline that the EAC originally advocated.”

While reading about this effort, I decided to dig a little deeper.  I e-mailed the Crimson editor-in-chief Paras Bhayani (a contributor to the story) to ask whether or not the student organizing efforts had started as a result of Faust’s pledge or whether they had led to it.  Paras noted that Faust’s task force (which included four students) was a result of the student organizing:

The organizing efforts have been going on for years so they predated Faust’s task force by some time (indeed, they actually predate her presidency!).

For example, the initiative that got the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (the central part of the university) to commit to an 11 percent reduction below 1990 levels was a student enviro-sponsored referendum that ran as a ballot initiative during the student government elections. There was also a student push to get Faust to sign the university presidents’ commitment to climate neutrality. As a result, the task force included four students.

Not only were the students engaged; they used technology to do it! A Facebook group called “The Harvard Climate Change Colloquium” had 161 members as of today’s post.  The Harvard Environmental Action Committee, which appears to be the primary climate change organization on campus, has a very nice and organized website with a lot of information for students, faculty, staff, and anyone else that might be interested, from events and resources to contact information.

Here is an effort in which Millennials identified something they wanted to be changed, they worked within the system, were patient, compromised a bit, and came out with a pretty good commitment.  Technology was used to organize this effort.  This wasn’t a Facebook group or a website merely dedicated to hosting diatribes about Harvard’s use of greenhouse gases.  The technology was a vehicle for an organized, interpersonal effort offline that was successful.

I understand that some Boomers have the natural instinct to march in streets, demanding change.  After reading Nixonland, I can understand why they had to do that.  The society and establishment was not responding to any petitions for change.  Working within the system was not an option for them because, to them, there was no system.

But we do have a system.  Even if John Mayer laments the system’s molasses-like qualities, we do have a system with which we can work.  Harvard has proved this.

The other thing we can take from this is that Internet activism is not limited to the web.  As the National Conference on Citizenship report notes, internet use is a signal of engagement among young people.

Contrary to predictions that the Internet might replace face-to-face participation, the survey finds no trade off. In fact, the netizens are much more likely than other people to attend public meetings in which there was discussion of community affairs (38 percent versus 23 percent), attend a club meeting (72 percent versus 47 percent) or take part in a protest or demonstration (31 percent versus 15 percent).

Student organizers used the tools they needed in order to better organize their offline efforts.  The real change ended up taking place face to face in some meeting room on Harvard’s campus.  As Paras pointed out, because of the students’ efforts that predated Faust’s presidency, they were given four seats at the table at those task force meetings.  Students showed that they were more civically engaged than merely clicking a mouse or typing on a keyboard.

Advertisements