11/07/2011 11:32 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2012

Occupy Wall Street and Student Empowerment

As the executive director of Democracy Matters -- a national student organization -- and as an emerita professor of sociology, I spend a great deal of my time teaching classes and speaking on college campuses throughout the country about social change. In the weeks since the Occupy Movement emerged, I have traveled to numerous campuses and spoken with hundreds of students in teach-ins, lectures and informal discussions. I have seen a striking sea-change on these campuses.

The Occupy Movement has succeeded in energizing a segment of the population critical to long-term progressive change -- students. In the past, college campuses provided much of both the passion and the grassroots organizing skill that made the civil rights, women's, environmental, anti-war, and other movements successful. And more recently, students were politically activated by the excitement of the 2008 election, largely because of the hope they invested in Barack Obama as an agent of progressive social change.

Now after three years of quiet, Occupy is again reawakening the college campuses. Since September it has stimulated serious discussions about both economic inequality and the undermining of democracy by corporate money. And at the same time, it has renewed interest in the effectiveness of collective direct action to protest against and remedy injustice.

Students in ever-larger numbers are eager to talk together about their concerns for the future -- about the economy, the environment, the cost of higher education and the burden of student loans, and growing poverty. And they are sharing their thoughts about a political system that they view at best as deeply disappointing and at worst dysfunctional and uninterested in what they have to say. They are angry about much of what they see, disappointed that the promise of progressive social change remains unfulfilled.

Because of Occupy, students are looking to one another -- joining together in groups -- to "do" something about all of this. Occupy has legitimated active political engagement on critical issues by ordinary citizens -- especially young people. It has led to the rejection of the idea that students should rely on the internet alone for information and conversations. They see the power of people joining together in person to make their voices heard.

And finally, the movement's slogan, "We are the 99 percent" has had an important impact in overcoming the balkanization all too common on college campuses today, where students are part of an often bewildering array of separate campus groups, clubs, causes, and volunteer activities. Occupy's emphasis on the common issues facing (almost) all of us is a powerful message. Students are beginning to talk about how they can work together to address their common problems. They are feeling more optimistic and empowered as they learn that the very best hope of solving problems lies in joining together to try.