Student Activism Is Not Dead, Just Changing

By Guest Blogger, Judy Hopelain

Recently, I was in a conversation about student activism. Participants were mostly folks who remembered the ’60s fondly. The majority view seemed to be that student activism is dead…that most of today’s students don’t want to make waves, and are more concerned about paying off loans and getting a job than about the quality of life in the world around them.

I think they have it completely wrong.

As a lecturer at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, I have the opportunity to get to know 40-50 juniors and seniors fairly well over the course of a semester.  Students in my class come from a variety of majors including business, communications, engineering, design, and American studies. They do care about paying off loans and getting jobs. And their class participation and projects show clearly that they are also concerned about more than themselves.

College students are fluent in the language of social responsibility – not just the CSR type initiatives that are just a thin veneer.

They have little use for those, and can smell a “green washing” from a mile away. No, their passion is for brands that have built doing good into their business models. And they choose class projects that allow them to figure out ways for other brands to do good, too.

TOMs Shoes success on campuses across the country is a case in point. Students love this brand for its integrity and honesty, and they want to help it succeed in its mission to give away a pair of shoes to a shoeless Third World child for every pair sold. As part of a class assignment, my students came up with a number of ways to extend the brand’s meaning, broaden its reach and increase its impact like creating more of a connection between the giver and the recipient community – allowing givers to go work on community development projects in those communities, creating an app that would allow givers to ‘track’ the gifted shoes from factory to recipient like Domino’s allows customers to track their pizza from store to door.

American Apparel is better known for its provocative imagery and sexual harassment lawsuit-laden founder than for its idealism. Nonetheless, my students recommended ways to refocus the brand on worker rights and its made-in-America heritage to reengage consumers in American Apparel’s historical activism. Inspired by Chrysler’s highly successful Eminem commercials, they recommend that American Apparel, which has its only factory in LA, open a second factory in Detroit (as soon as it addresses its cash flow issues).

True, students are not protesting wars or throwing rocks at the police or other forms of the establishment. But this form of activism is no less heart-felt or legitimate, and it’s also likely to be more enduring.

Isn’t it about time boomers got over themselves? As Steven Colbert’s segment on Ted Nugent on June 27 illustrates, the ‘60s were a VERY long time ago.