What role does activism play on a college campus? Does it leave marks on not only the people who participate but the places where it occurs? In the series Growing Activism, UCSD-TV follows two professors as they share with students the history of campus activism at UC San Diego. We asked Professors David Pellow and Jorge Mariscal to tell us a bit more about this project.
UCSD-TV: What do you hope to accomplish by bringing activists to campus?
DAVID PELLOW: We hope to (re)invigorate a passion for the broader relevance of a college education in the United States today. Education, in my experience, should be about critical thinking, engaged learning and listening, and transformative action aimed at improving societies. Anything less than that is unacceptable.
JORGE MARISCAL: We hope to provide models and inspiration so that students will feel empowered to take action on their own. The activists we spotlight believe long-term structural change should be the goal of all activism. Simply put, charity is not enough and faddish protests designed for media attention are counter-productive. Activism is a long-term, often a lifetime, commitment based on hope and courage.
UCSD-TV: How do you personally define activism?
DP: Activism comes in many forms: innovative imagination and thought; engaging dialogue, conversations, speech, and the written word; and the use of persuasion directed at one’s peers and at those who enjoy positions of privilege.
JM: Activists come together around issues of mutual concern with the goal of making change. Activists volunteer time and a great deal of energy in addition to carrying out family and professional responsibilities. This is especially true for student activists who are completing an academic career at a very competitive university while at the same time trying to effect change at that university and in the society at large.
UCSD-TV: How has your own activism informed your work on campus?
DP: I’ve been active in social and environmental justice work for more than 20 years and that experience shapes my teaching, student mentoring, and research everyday because those three things are ultimately done for the purpose of achieving a world that is more socially just and ecologically sustainable. So you see it in the content of the courses I teach and the substance of the research that I do as a scholar.
JM: I first became active in the Chicano/Latino Concilio in the late 1980s. Concilio was created with the goal of making UCSD more responsive to the Latino community. Over the years, I have conducted research and published articles on the history of UCSD. My knowledge of the founding principles of the campus and the structures that have regulated it over the decades allow me to analyze the current moment and to work with others to try to make the campus more inclusive and democratic.
UCSD-TV: You frequently invite guest speakers into your classroom. What have been some of your favorite insights/anecdotes that those speakers have shared?
DP: One speaker from Los Angeles was Saul Sarabia, a legal scholar/activist who does incredible work with university students and communities of color in that city. He reminded students that at the end of the day, if we haven’t taken care of ourselves, then we’re no good to anyone else. Specifically, he mentioned that many activists experience burnout due to overwork, or have health problems because they are overcommitted to “the cause.” He experienced this himself, but he bounced back and has remained an amazing asset for social change because he decided to set limits on how much of his time and energy he could give. As Cross-Cultural Center Director Edwina Welch likes to remind us, “don’t reproduce the conditions of your own oppression.” In other words, if we’re fighting oppression, it makes no sense to do so by adopting methods that end up creating oppressive situations for ourselves.
JM: Most of the speakers have said that individuals alone cannot make effective change. Change comes through collective action. They have also talked about the need to take care of one’s health and family needs as an activist because the danger of burnout is very high. My favorite speaker is probably Mr. Fernando Suarez who lost his only son during the invasion of Iraq. His son was a U.S. Marine who was not a citizen. Mr. Suarez has dedicated himself to the cause of peace. He tells young people that they can make a difference by getting an education and working in their communities.
UCSD-TV: How have students responded?
DP: The students have not only responded, in fact, they’ve been the driving force behind Growing Activism. They were the reason we launched this series. The students have always asked “What can I do?” or “Where can I go to get more involved in addressing this issue?” So that’s been wonderful because the classes, events, and the series itself were largely mobilized from the ground up, by student demand. Their response has been outstanding. Student attendance and participation at many of the events has been strong. In many cases, the question and answer discussion segments have been more interesting and informative than the presentations that preceded them!
JM: Students always respond very positively. There is a tremendous desire among this generation of students to make meaningful change in their society. What is lacking are the conduits for action and inspirational leadership. Although some of our students are cynical, many of them are not apathetic at all. This was quite apparent in the immigrant marches of 2006 and recent organizing around sustainability and global warming.
UCSD-TV: If a student, faculty member, or community member is interested in being more active on campus, where do you suggest they begin?
DP: They can come to the Cross-Cultural Center and get all the information they need to get hooked into a great network of active folks here!
JM: They need to identify what issue moves them the most. They then need to locate others with a passion for the same issue. From there they can either find an existing organization or create a new one. Making contact with off-campus groups is a must because UCSD is the epitome of the ivory tower.