03/14/2012 09:55 am ET Updated May 14, 2012

Student Activism Today

By Lauren Schleimer

Back in October, when the Occupy Movement was spreading like wildfire, The Herald reported that a majority of Brown faculty members think student activism is lower than when they were in college. Among those working here for more than 20 years, 82.6 percent say activism on campus has decreased.

When our parents' generation -- a generation of activists who fought for civil rights, women's equality and ending the Vietnam war -- look at our lack of world-changing political engagement, they see a lack of ambition. Students just don't protest like they used to.

These days, the Internet has made it easier than ever to organize a popular uprising -- social media played an essential role in launching the Arab Spring and organizing the Occupy Movement. But the vast majority of Brown students, while sympathetic to those noble protesters down in Burnside Park, did not occupy Providence or even College Hill.

So yes, our professors are right. Students don't protest like they used to. The social issues of today do not elicit the level of outrage that propelled hundreds of thousands of people to march on Washington for civil rights, equality in education and the right to vote. But students are just as opinionated as ever when it comes to politics, and we express our sympathies freely in the classroom and on the Internet.

In certain situations, Internet activism can even have an impact. In November, a petition aimed at Bank of America garnered over 300,000 signatures, forcing the company to backtrack on a proposed five dollar fee for making debit card purchases. Online, an army of supporters comes fast and cheap. But such vapid endorsement of a cause is just that -- cheap -- and when the stakes are low, we don't always do our homework.

Consider the backlash against the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act -- how many opponents of SOPA and PIPA had a real understanding of the issues at stake, or even knew what the acronyms stood for? Now, how many people tried to use Wikipedia on January 18, freaked out over the blackout and immediately railed on Congress for daring to censor the Internet?

In this year's election, candidates are increasingly utilizing online media to broadcast their message to voters, but when voters make use of those same lines of communication, the politicians are not listening. After the 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama participated in a YouTube town hall where users were invited to submit videos and vote on questions for the President. Eighteen of the top 20 questions were about drug policy, and -- for the ninth such online event in a row -- these questions were categorically ignored.

Unless the Internet giants themselves take a stand, the government does not pay attention to what people say online. Internet activism may effectively garner support for a cause within the online audience, but petitions will never alter deeply ingrained social norms or overthrow dictatorships. The only way to demonstrate real passion for a cause is to put in the time and energy it takes to actually show up.

Real protests make noise. They garner attention for an issue and send a clear and actionable message to the powers that be. But the act of protesting in itself does not accomplish change -- there is always an authority figure on the other side of the picket line. In this way, protesting requires a sort of faith in the democratic process, a faith that the powers that be will hear your grievances and take action from the top down.

Americans today have lost faith in the responsiveness of government and abandoned the expectation that political activism gets results. In an era when political money qualifies as free speech and elections are won or lost on a billion dollar budget, our votes don't count like they used to. What good is a student movement when the political heft of high-paid lobbyists and privately-funded Super PACs controls who can win an election and what they're willing to push in office?

Ours is a generation of individual volunteerism and social entrepreneurship, not collective action. Where civil rights activists fought racial segregation of schools with sit-ins and non-violent protests, students today address educational inequality by volunteering with Generation Citizen or City Year.

We are empowered to take action from the bottom up, but making change on an individual level will not fix the larger structural problems. Bad politics have made a mockery of the American political process, and sometimes the only way to stomach the news these days is when it's served by Stephen Colbert. But restoring the democratic process is a cause worth fighting for.

Unless the government is responsive to the will of the people, none of the issues our generation cares about will ever get fixed. As educated and passionate individuals, Brown students do not need megaphones to make noise or an occupation to take political action. The Rhode Island Capitol building is just a walk down College Hill -- if you want to go lobby for your cause, all you need is a suit.

Lauren Schleimer '12 has lobbied Congress, and so should you.