With a Category 4 Hurricane Gustav bearing down on the Gulf Coast today, there are decent odds that we will be seeing images much like we saw in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina.  Fingers crossed, the disaster relief will be managed much better, and as a result, hopefully many more citizens living along the coast have been able to move inland, but the radar and satellite images are still menacing.  After having worked in Mississippi each of the last two Marches, assisting families in rebuilding their homes and their lives from Hurricane Katrina, it’s tough for me to watch this storm slam into the coast.  The satellite looping continuously on The Weather Channel makes my mind loop back to 2005, and I replay my experience, realizing that the storm had a significant impact on me, but in a larger sense, I also understand that it was an opportunity for our generation to put our collaboration and volunteerism skills to use.  For those that are concerned that Millennial activism is limited to the internet, this post is for you.

First, my story.  In 2005, I was a senior at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA.  As Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast, we had just started class.  I remember attending class and then returning to my residence hall room to watch — in horror — as those tall signs along the coast started to snap off and fly to the ground, and as houses were washed away.  After the storm sailed through, the images were even more shocking.  Bodies were all over the place, even on CNN.  I remember calling my friend as I watched people trapped on roofs, looking up desperately at the news helicopters that were circling; we both were just astonished that we were seeing this in America, and that there was no help on the way.  Along with another friend (who actually took the lead), we put a fundraiser together for the college community.  We set up tables at various locations in the community one Saturday, and we were able to raise about $2,000.  We also volunteered at a telethon at an Erie, PA TV station, and we raised $13,000 within our hour time slot.  We were proud of what we had done and not just because we organized it spur of the moment, but because we worked together for a good cause.

Something Old, Something New -- very fitting.

Something Old, Something New -- very fitting.

After I graduated from Allegheny, I took a job working in Residence Life (supervising RAs) at a small, public school in Northwestern Pennsylvania (which I still have).  As I explained above, the last two years I participated and co-organized an Alternative Spring Break trip to Gulfport, Mississippi.  The first year I traveled with seven students and another staff member.  We worked with the Presbyterian Church and stayed at a “volunteer village” for a week.  Food and shelter was provided for a very minimal fee, and the school took care of transportation.  Each morning, we’d get up and travel to our work sites, which were very different.  We all were able to observe the difference in response between an affluent neighborhood and one that was less well-off.  We met members of the community that were still recovering from what had happened.  As I left that year, already knowing I wanted to return the following year, I remember realizing that it’s not so much the actual physical labor that we offer that is important to them.  It is the time that is invested.  They had stories to tell, and so often, they had no one to hear them.

Stairs to nowhere...

Stairs to nowhere...

We returned the following year (this past year).  The difference a year makes is impressive: as we traveled along Highway 90 the year before, destroyed signs and ruins of restaurants lined the coast; but this year those restaurants had been rebuilt.  But at the same time, there was still work to be done.  Luckily, the popularity of the program had grown; instead of taking just seven students, our institution committed funds for 28 students to travel.  Seven staff members traveled with them, making for a total of 35.  Because our campus is part of a larger state-wide system, we reached out to our colleagues at other campuses and asked them to participate.  In total, approximately 75 people from all across Pennsylvania traveled to Gulfport this year to help with rebuilding projects — and hearing stories.  We received press coverage from our hometown paper, as a reporter and a photographer traveled with us.  We are planning on going again this year, assuming that Gustav’s impact is not so severe that it keeps us away.

But it wasn’t just us.  Youth volunteerism and civic engagement had already shown marked increases over the past few years:

  • Two-thirds of college freshmen (66%) believe it’s essential or very important to help others in difficulty, suggests a survey of 263,710 students at 385 U.S. colleges and universities.The 2005 report, by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, found feelings of social and civic responsibility among entering freshmen at the highest level in 25 years.
  • Volunteerism by college students increased by 20% from 2002 to 2005, says a study released last week by the federal Corporation for National and Community Service.

And after Katrina, financial support and youth volunteers flooded the Gulf Coast region.  A report from The Corporation for National and Community Service speaks to this:

AmeriCorps NCCC, a team-based residential program for 18-24 year-olds, has made Katrina response its primary focus these past three years, deploying more than 4,000 members to intensive assignments in the Gulf. NCCC members have refurbished 9,500 homes, built 1,450 new homes, completed 52,000 damage assessments, and trained and supervised more than 227,000 volunteers.

National service has also fueled the post-Katrina “brain gain” of young professionals who have moved to the Gulf to start new organizations and provide leadership to the nonprofit sector. This is especially true in New Orleans, where scores of AmeriCorps members came to serve and then stayed to work, plunging into jobs and volunteer initiatives to improve their adopted home.

The numbers above aren’t even a totality.  I actually am having a difficult time finding total numbers of youth volunteering for Katrina relief efforts.  10,000 college students went to the Gulf Coast within that first year alone, while thousands more went on trips in succeeding years.

We know that Millennials use the internet as a utility to further their activism; it’s not the be-all, end-all.  The collaborative nature of Millennials, along with their penchant for volunteerism and sheer size, yields a generation of young people determined to make a difference and capable of doing so; the ‘net serves as a conduit through which this difference-making potential flows.  The characteristics of Millennials are geared for events like disasters; in being able to collaborate and work through institutions and organizations to fix problems like the devastation from Katrina, the climate crisis, and the economic recession, the Millennials fuel this nation’s evolution — they just so happen to use the internet and social networking sites as tools to do this.

Yes, this activism differs from that of the 1960s.  Youth today are not parading around college campuses with placards, staging sit-ins in administration buildings, or burning flags (by and large).  But that doesn’t mean the sense of urgency isn’t there.  If you talk to many young people today, we’re engaged because this country’s trajectory is so… alarming.  And with this generation’s addiction to immediate gratification, it’s not surprising that volunteerism has become so popular — young people today want to see the immediate results of their actions, whether it’s loading that next web page, or appreciating the outcome of their latest good deed.

Going back to Sally Kohn’s essay in the Christian Science Monitor from June, the actual outcomes of the Millennial Generation’s social activism are blurring too much with the focus on technology.  Sally accurately outlines what she asserts was the social activism found in the 1960s.

On their own, for example, none of the activists in the civil rights movement had sufficient power and influence to end segregation. Coming together in local committees, led mainly by young people, they used the tools of face-to-face community organizing, developing shared strategies to address shared problems. And they took shared action; in sit-ins and Freedom Rides, they formed groups that were more than the sum of individual parts.

Emphasis added.  The bold and italicized is what Millennials already do today; so I don’t think it’s any wonder why many Millennial activists, like Daily Kos’s georgia10, were confused by Kohn’s piece.  In fact, this model was represented in many volunteer efforts all across the country, especially along the Gulf Coast the past few years.  Youth came together in groups, whether they were students, church members, or responsible citizens, organized around a problem they wished to solve, and they took action.  And yes — what they accomplished in those groups was far more than what they could have done individually.

As Gustav strikes this week, please remember that while there will be people suffering, and those horrifying  images of three years ago might be on our TV screens again, another army of youth — along with others — will be waiting to serve.  I know no better example of Millennial activism.