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Mass Student Protesting on the Decline

<e once was a time when the college quad was the place to change national political matters. Carleton was no exception in the “go-go years” of the late 60’s and 70’s, a period when University students in the grips of the Vietnam War filled quads in hordes to express their discontent. But the method of student protesting has mellowed out since the 60’s.

“It was a crazy time period. There were marches about Vietnam, about the bombing in Cambodia, the mandatory war draft. Then there was the Kent State shooting,” recalled Fred Rogers of his years at Carleton from 1968 -72. “It’s the closest I’ve ever come feeling like the world just ended. There was no Internet. People just didn’t know what was going on. It was a very scary time.”

Rogers, Carleton’s Vice President and Treasurer, recalls a very politically-charged era, where students marched from Minneapolis to St. Paul, hosted massive sit-ins at the Federal building in Minneapolis, and occupied the Bald Spot several times a term. According to Rogers, student activism has changed.

“Since I’ve been here I haven’t seen huge protests like that,” he said.

While prior generations were defined by sets of political events – Vietnam was in the American psyche until 70’s, Contra and apartheid in the 80’s, sweatshop labor and global warming in the 90’s – it has become more difficult to put a finger on the millennial generation’s source of angst.

“I haven’t seen students get up in arms about the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Nobody here feels personally like ‘I’d have to go,’ ” Rogers said.

“In some ways I think people in our generation are a little more hesitant to actually put themselves out there and go protest,” said Patrick Burke ’14. “I think they’re a bit skeptical that their individual actions can make a difference. That hesitancy can make a difference.”

But Burke ‘14, who is head of Carleton’s Wellstone House of Activism house (WHOA), as well as leader of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE), and Carleton’s Organized Radicals and Leftists (CORAL), also believes the movement away from mass public protesting is more “tactical and informed.”

“Towards the end of the 60’s and 70’s, I think you had this caricature of the ‘angry student‘ that morphed into this negative image of riots in American cities, and that scared people. I think there are still some bad feelings associated with the ‘student activist,’” Burke explained. The evolution of the student activist has shifted focus, Burke believes Carleton students take an active role to work with the school administration, not against it.

“People are targeting the administration in more creative ways.” Burke, along with other students, has been active in an ongoing campaign to eliminate paper cups from the dining halls. “We’re seeing a more direct engagement with the administration instead of just going out and taking a more adversarial position.”

Other students agree. “The Carleton administration is hyper-sensitive and hyper-reactive to issues on campus,” explained Matthew Fitzgerald ’14, former President of Carleton’s Student Association (CSA). “The quality of life at Carleton is pretty high.”

Fitzgerald helped organize a diversity rally in reaction to a series of racist remarks published in Carleton’s CLAP last spring. “We were able to access high-level faculty really easily. We worked with CEDI and OILL and had a lot of support.” The rally, which had a turnout of over 200 students in front of upper Sayles, opened a fresh dialogue about diversity on campus, but its momentum did not carry into the new academic year.

“There are challenges on this campus that make activism really difficult,” explained Fitzgerald. “It’s hard to operate under a 10-week schedule, and even harder to compete with academic rigors. Plus, we’re in rural Minnesota. Occupy was difficult to sustain, for example, because we couldn’t go to D.C.” 

Despite being in the town of “colleges, cows and contentment,” students have found different, less public ways of being active. Surveys, signatures, and direct interaction with the administration have become popular. In the past year, small activist groups were able to eliminate trays from the LDC to preserve energy, gender-neutral bathrooms were introduced, compost bins and organic farming implemented, and the endowment made transparent.

“Carleton students protest local issues,” said Rogers. “The problem is, protesting local issues, like going trayless, doesn’t address the fundamental issue. I’m okay with the first, but it’s not okay to stop and think that’s enough. You really do have to keep a broader perspective.”

Yet “broader” requires more organization.

“We need to redefine what modern activism looks like. In many ways, I think our generation is smarter about the tactics we use. I think we’re still trying to figure out how to use social media to protest,” Burke said. Burke doesn’t believe the millennial generation has grown more apathetic, but rather, it hasn’t discovered its voice yet.

“I hate all of those NY Times think pieces about how millennials are so spoiled. I think part of it is just not understanding what activism looks like.”

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