THE BLOG

The Next Generation of Activists Is Keeping Us Honest

04/28/2014 05:11 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2014

"In 2007, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that he was "baffled" that people of my generation are so much less radical and politically engaged than we need to be."

I'm not sure which students Friedman was talking about, but I couldn't disagree more. First, I think his (and my) generation was not nearly as engaged or radical as he thought, and secondly, he doesn't know what the heck he's talking about when it comes to contemporary students. Their activism may take different forms than in the past (Occupy Wall Street may have changed his opinion), and, they are smarter and more strategic in how they do it.

I've been doing "movement" work for most of my life: as a high school and college activist, in a community-based NGO, and for the past 23 years, in a campus women's center. I know that each college campus has its own culture, and that our students are drawn to certain colleges because of that culture. It may be true that some campuses are not as "active" as others. But one thing I know about college students: if they believe that what they are learning in the classroom matters out "in the real world," apathy disappears. From where I sit, today's youth are far more engaged, far more concerned and truthfully, more prepared to deal with roadblocks than my generation, and they expect to carry on that activism after graduation. The good news is: they do.

In my dissertation, now gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, I studied Women's Studies majors who considered themselves to be activists, and asked whether or not they carried on that commitment to social change beyond commencement. Overwhelmingly, they did; the only life event that changed the nature of that activism was children -- yet even then, they continued that activism as best they could.

When I check in (through Facebook, of course) with former student activists who were engaged in anti-violence work to see how they are doing, I find Susan Youssef, film director ("Habibi"); Maria Pulzetti and Jesse Gilliam, co-founders of the National Day of Silence (in their day jobs Maria is a human rights lawyer and Jesse is a trans activist); Tomika Anderson, writer; Gordon Braxton, anti-violence educator, and writer; Areshini Pather, prosecutor; and that's just a handful out of many. Anyone who works on a college campus can list students, past and present, who are articulate, smart -- no, brilliant -- passionate and committed to social justice.

This younger generation of activists also keeps us honest. While we may have been committed to anti-oppression work in many of its forms, I see younger activists embracing a deeper and more inclusive sense of social justice wholeheartedly. Intersectionality -- the understanding that when we look at human issues we see gender, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, economic status and other markers as intertwined -- isn't just an abstract concept to them. They expect us as their teachers, advisors and supervisors, to be as inclusive and as action-oriented as they are. They challenge us, as they should. They do the same with their school administrations, public leaders and elected officials. When they don't find the resources they need, they found new organizations to help students organize, such as SAFER and Know Your IX.

In my own moments of despair, when I believe that gender violence will never end, my faith is restored by the young people I encounter in my work. Whether it's organizing events in observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month; being invited to participate in a gathering of student leaders at the White House; creating a Bystander Pledge campaign with enthusiastic participation by a majority of fraternity members; meeting with state legislators; cosponsoring a field day fundraiser for the local sexual assault crisis center with the NROTC; or giving advice to a panel of university presidents at a national conference, the student activists I know expect everyone to work toward ending gender violence in all its forms.

This week, my campus will observe Take Back the Night with events ranging from "How to Date a Survivor," and a Mock Trial, to an Arts Slam, the big rally/march and Speakout, winding up with a Day of Wellness and Healing. An army of students has taken responsibility to organize, promote, and recruit their peers to attend -- and they largely do it on their own. Next month, I will watch with overwhelming pride as Emily, Karina, Staige, Evan, Nia, Blake, Megan, Matt, Danny, Lyra, Morgan, Lydia, and many more students prepare to shift their activism onto a larger stage. I have no doubt that they will continue working toward ending our rape culture. I know that several of them plan to do just that.

And if they forget to keep me up to date, I can always check in with them on Facebook.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Take Back the Night in conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month. To learn more about Take Back the Night and how you can help prevent sexual violence, visit here. Read all posts in the series here.

Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.