On Nov. 7, America — college students especially — voted for change. Throughout the country, young voters shifted decisively to the Democrats, playing a major role in the electoral realignment that wrested Congress from Republican hands. Here at Yale, students were particularly active. A coalition of groups led by the Yale College Democrats and Students for a New American Politics PAC registered hundreds of students to vote and coordinated efforts that achieved record on-campus turnout. That same coalition also knocked on thousands of doors and made thousands of phone calls in key congressional races throughout Connecticut, including the state’s second district, where Democrat Joe Courtney won by a mere 91 votes. This was clearly an example of students getting involved and making a major impact. But as Election Day 2006 fades into an oh-so-pleasant memory, we should remember that it is far from the only such example.
Indeed, tangible victories achieved through student activism seem increasingly common as the concept of “activism” at Yale continues to evolve and grow. Beyond this Election Day, one could point, for example, to the successful campaign by Students for Clean Elections to pass campaign finance reform in Connecticut. Or the work STAND did to convince Yale to divest from companies that may be linked to the genocide in Sudan. Or last semester’s Yale College Democrats lobbying campaign in favor of the anti-poverty Earned Income Tax Credit, in which students played a pivotal and at times decisive role in pushing important legislation. That campaign exceeded all expectations by nearly passing the bill in the first session it was introduced, thus laying a strong groundwork for ongoing efforts on the issue. All these successes, and many more, have been achieved within just the last two years.
How has this happened? In part because, as the community of activists has expanded, a diversity of tactics and methods has developed that represents a major landmark for Yale’s progressive community.
Students who want to create change, on campus and in the world around them, now have a tremendous range of options. The traditional forms of activism, like protesting, still exist, and can be very valuable in certain circumstances. But students can also get involved in efforts like lobbying, which offers students the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with state and local leaders and talk to them about important issues. Not only will this form of activism appeal to a different spectrum of students, but also, depending on the goal and the circumstances, it can be more effective.
One of the most important developments in the campus political scene over the past couple years has been the rise of what I would call this “establishment activism”: working within the system to create change. The phrase may seem a contradiction in terms to some — it is in fact formed by combining two elements of a false dichotomy that was used recently in the campus press, much of which still seems to labor under the assumption that it’s not activism unless it involves yelling into a megaphone or occupying a building. But those of us — and there are many — who have seen the good this kind of activism can do and the achievements it is capable of know how important it is.
The second major reason that activism at Yale has become so successful is that progressive groups on campus are working more closely together than ever before. This is a remarkable development and an impressive feat: At the same time the activist community has expanded, it has come closer together to achieve common goals. This does not come without occasional friction, to be sure. But it is worth it to the extent that it brings more students into the process, focuses energy and resources on important projects, and allows a broader diversity of viewpoints to be heard.
The word “activism” conjures up many images, but fundamentally it is about creating positive change in the world. That is something all Yale students should be interested in. And the many recent successes achieved by groups working at the campus, local and statewide levels have demonstrated that getting involved in creating that kind of change is well worth students’ time. Instead of hiding behind stereotypes of activists or the old, disproven idea that they can’t change things, Yale students should join the large and growing number of their peers who are making a difference every day.
My yearlong term as president of the Yale College Democrats has now come to a close, and it is no longer my responsibility to exhort students to political action, participate in lobbying trips or urge my friends to take up a cause. But I will continue to do these things, and anything else I can, because I have witnessed — up-close — student activism and the results it has achieved, and I know how much good it can do. If you come see for yourself, you’ll see what I mean.
Brendan Gants is a junior in Morse College and the former president of the Yale College Democrats.