The New York Times has a story up this weekend exploring the increased popularity of community organizing work as a profession-of-choice for college graduates.

A job that has not been all that alluring to college graduates is in resurgence, according to leading community organizers and educators. Once thought of as a destination for lefty radicals committed to living lives of low pay, frustration and bitter burnout, community organizing is now seen by many young people an exciting career.

With their jobs, students envision helping communities address urgent issues — economics or the environment, education or social justice — while developing leadership skills. And these jobs, students say, can actually lead to … well, you know.

“Community organizing has become cool,” said Marshall Ganz, who dropped out of Harvard in 1964 to join the civil rights movement in Mississippi and spent 16 years with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Of course, a tough economy helps attract people to professions they might not have otherwise considered, as does a crusading time when Wall Street has become a symbol of greed, arrogance and irresponsibility.

Peter Dreier, the Professor of Politics at Occidental College who was quoted in the article, wrote an accompanying post over at TPM Cafe discussing community organizing among young people, focusing on the Millennial generation and what he sees as needed policy for this country.

Perhaps because so many of them get practical experience while still in college, working with off-campus groups, today’s student activists are much more pragmatic, savvy, and patient than their counterparts in the 1960s. They are skeptical but not cynical. They are not paralyzed by old ideological battles or identity politics. They respect differences of opinion, including religious beliefs, as well as the right to dissent. They understand that they can disagree with their government and still love their country and its ideals. They want major changes in our institutions and policies, but they know that people need to win stepping-stone reforms before they can envision a different kind of world.

For sure, student interest in political activism and community organizing was going on long before the Obama campaign. In the 1990s, students mobilized against sweatshops and for “fair trade” consumer products, in support of “living wages” for university employees, and around global warming and “greening” America’s college campuses. The AFL-CIO began the Organizing Institute, a summer internship program for college students who want to learn about union organizing. After years of watching the conservative movement spend millions of dollars to recruit and train activists on campuses, and plug them into jobs with politicians, think tanks, and right-wing publications, liberal groups like the Center for American Progress, Wellstone Action, Democracy Matters, the Student Environmental Action Coalition and others began to focus more attention on college students — to invest in the next generation of progressives. In addition, over the past decade, a growing number of colleges and universities embraced the idea of “service learning,” linking classrooms and the community.

I quoted Dreier because of his deeper discussion of the movement among young people to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of others, and because his writing excerpted above deeply (and rightly) contradicts a point the New York Times reporter Sara Rimer tried to make in the main article:

And unlike the 1960s, many of these students don’t seem motivated by partisanship. Drea Chicas, 21, the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, is a graduating senior at Occidental, where she has taken Professor Dreier’s course and worked with teenage girls.

But politics? “That to me is just a distraction,” she said. “When I’m with my girls, that’s the last thing they have on their minds. They’ve seen their boys shot in their faces, violence against women. Democratic, Republican — that’s not even relevant.”

I was feeling this story until I got to the excerpt above, which came out of nowhere. I disagree with these two paragraphs because service and politics, when both are at their best, are inextricably linked. There is no separating the two, because to practice politics effectively, one must serve others; to serve effectively, creating positive, sustained social change, one must practice politics. Rimer’s differentiation between the two appears to stem from a common association of “politics” with a more Machiavellian connotation, more along the lines of “bitter partisanship” than the actual political process.

What Rimer may have been trying to say by including that student’s quote is that young people today don’t like strict, unyielding ideology, and that I would agree with. As Dreier noted above, youth today believe that in order to pursue many of the imposing, systemic issues we face today, we can’t afford to scream at each other and participate in symbolic acts and back-and-forth bickering that don’t accomplish anything. Those squabbles are irrelevant in our current political environment. Instead, our preferred style of activism involves embarking on a long-term construction job, building our ideal society brick by brick, which, to be most effective, must involve the machinery of the government.

The primary definition of politics in the dictionary is “the art or science of government.” When youth service rates surged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the political side of change-making still left a lot to be desired. In the 2000 election, only 41 percent of 18-29 year olds voted, compared with 2008’s 52 percent. But starting in 2003 and moving forward, the numbers increased: more youth immersed themselves in the political process, either by voting, volunteering for candidates, working in government offices/departments, attending rallies, and yes, working as community organizers.

So yes – the politics (irresponsible partisanship) that Rimer writes of is not liked by Millennials. But the legitimate definition of politics — “the art or science of government” — has become an essential piece of the Millennial brand of activism. This version of politics is combined with the service that Millennials are known for, and together, they create the positive social change we need to solve our largest problems and, consequently, inspire a surge in community organizing.

Advertisements