Youth Activism: What It Is and What It Is Not

by Erin
Written for November 6, 2008

Poverty has, in recent years, been recognized by national governments and not-for-profit organizations as a significant problem that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. Spreading awareness of this issue is the principal focus of several widespread non-profit groups, such as the Millennium Campus Network, a nationwide organization consisting of individual chapters at several universities, and Global Call to Action Against Poverty, which works in alliance with over 100 other organizations. However, these initiatives serve little more purpose than bombarding the public with overused, stereotypical portraits of a child in poverty that any local charity would display to gain sympathy. Illuminating the tragic facts about poverty may be a start to forming a movement to create real progress, but one must follow through with action. Acknowledging the problem by supporting these organizations is only one step above ignorance. Simply acknowledging the problem cannot solve poverty; true activism involving synthesizing and directly participating in solutions must be practiced.

The most widespread movement against poverty is Global Call to Action Against Poverty, with support from over 100 youth groups, non-governmental organizations, trade unions, and other campaigners worldwide, including the international movement Make Poverty History and the ONE Campaign, both of which have been popularized by renowned celebrities. The mission of these organizations is to spread awareness about global poverty and to insist upon action by world leaders to end poverty by addressing several specific issues (GCAP). These groups have gathered a large following, likely due in large part to the advertisement by famous pop culture icons. Today’s youth, especially university-level students, are supporting these organizations, and the media hails them as “activists.” In 2007, Australian students worked to gain 70,000 signatures on the Face Up To Poverty petition in an effort to enlighten the public about extreme poverty (Dart). Earlier this year, students in the United States traveled around the country with the ONE Campaign and encouraged their peers to sign the ONE Declaration, which states their belief “in helping others help themselves and recognized the impact this country can have on global affairs,” as a sort of demonstration to politicians to do something about poverty (Baker). The actions by these students exemplify the bulk of the work done to fulfill the missions of Make Poverty History and ONE.

Despite Make Poverty History and ONE”s strong backing and extensive activity by supporters, the organizations offer no solid ideas as to how to achieve change. The websites simply explain the roots and severity of global poverty, and the only suggestions to help rectify the problem is to promote the organizations and to contact politicians and demand that solutions be enacted (Make Poverty History). However, there are no ideas on how better to reach that change. Criticizing without construction fails to provide solutions and can even be counterproductive. Although reminding politicians of the problem may be useful, there are many global problems that need to be resolved, and pushing to solve one without any idea as to how does nothing to create progress. Without any practical ideas, these organizations are in no way helping governments be more efficient in assisting impoverished nations.

Another similar organization is the Millennium Campus Network, which has bands of students who would like to see change in today’s world. Started by a student at Brandeis University, the network has expanded to several other universities, in which each group acts independently to achieve individual group goals. Occasionally, the groups collaborate on accomplishing common goals. They tell the media that they come together to share ideas as to how to solve the problems that the UN addressed in the Millennium Development Goals, one of which is global poverty. However, when interviewed by The Boston Globe, no ideas were disclosed during such a prime opportunity to disseminate information (Veiga). If their aim is to spread awareness and create a large student movement, why not share concrete suggestions? Publicly stating their ideas for solutions to news reporters would allow their proposals to reach a larger audience, including the many politicians to whom they may not yet be reaching. This could lead to more suggestions to refine their ideas so that perhaps global poverty can actually be reduced.

In addition to the ineffectiveness of these popular organizations, their focus is narrowed only to the extreme poverty that exists in developing countries. Despite the need present in the third world, poverty exists in wealthy countries as well. Although not on the same level as those in poorer countries, the overlooked poor of developed nations need help too. As Diana George discusses in “Changing the Face of Poverty,” the large not-for-profit organizations propagate the stereotypical images of poverty by focusing only on the most severe cases, when the public should instead be educated on the many facets of poverty for a thorough understanding of the depth and extent of the problem at home and around the globe (George).

Contrasting these glamorized charitable institutions, programs such as Syracuse University’s Scholarship in Action involves direct involvement in service and solutions. Syracuse Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s vision for the school is an example to be modeled by others because the students use what they have learned in the classroom to help those in need in their communities. For example, Scholarship in Action collaborates with the World Bank in an effort to lessen poverty for approximately 400 million people with disabilities in third world countries. On a local scale, Scholarship in Action works with the neighboring communities and helps aspiring entrepreneurs by offering business planning, training, and support services. By doing so, area residents are able to establish and effectively maintain businesses, thus avoiding unemployment or low-wage jobs. Although the work of students involved with Scholarship in Action may impact a smaller group, it is indeed progress, unlike the work of other organizations that simply acknowledge global problems and advocate for change, while not actively creating change. Scholarship in Action does not stop at the progress it has already created, but rather Nancy Cantor is expanding its horizons by setting up programs throughout the nation, such as the office already established in Los Angeles (Cantor). By branching out geographically, Scholarship in Action is able to benefit disadvantaged people in other cities in America and around the world.

The activist spirit of Scholarship in Action is not limited to Syracuse University. Cantor also cites examples of service done by other schools such as the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California, both of which are impacting their local communities. Over the past decade, the University of Pennsylvania has endeavored to improve the living conditions of West Philadelphia, an area that has been plagued by poverty and unemployment (West Philadelphia Data). Penn’s extensive efforts to make the area a better place to live include time devoted to construction, services, strengthening public education, and creating employment opportunities (Cantor). By undertaking such a tremendous task, the University of Pennsylvania’s partnership with the community has provided West Philadelphia inhabitants with a safer, better environment in which to live.

The University of Southern California has also ventured to help its local neighborhoods. Members of Southern Cal’s university community have addressed problems afflicting the area by concentrating on the issues most important to the region, such as immigration. By understanding the unique concerns of individual cities and towns and actively engaging in the communities, the University of Southern California has been able to provide relief and assistance to its surrounding districts (Cantor).

The actions by students involved with Syracuse’s Scholarship in Action, Penn’s partnership with West Philadelphia, and the University of Southern California’s engagement with the community are examples of real activism. These students not only acknowledge the problem, but they actively work to provide and practice solutions to local poverty and, in the case of Syracuse’s collaboration with the World Bank, extreme third world poverty. Although celebrities and the media less often highlight these collegiate programs, their work is certainly more noteworthy. It is not the large gatherings of students protesting for governments to acknowledge problems or the charities with superstar figureheads that constitute activism; it is the direct involvement with disadvantaged people and the solutions they need that defines genuine activism.

Widespread poverty is a significant problem that clearly has not gone unnoticed. Many organizations worldwide, such as the Global Call for Action Against Poverty and the Millennium Campus Network, have recognized the issue and acknowledge that something needs to be done to resolve the situation. The media and celebrities salute these organizations and their supporters as activists for their recognition of the problem, yet none of these people actually work on the solutions they demand. The true activists that deserve the fame are those openly involved in creating progress. Students from Syracuse University’s Scholarship in Action, along with students from the Universities of Pennsylvania and Southern California, are examples of true activists. If the large-scale charitable organizations modeled their agencies after those of these institutions, then remarkable progress could be made. However, as the situation exists presently, the youth involved with the glamorized anti-poverty networks are only feigning activism, while those less recognized who vigorously engage in service to those in need are performing genuine activism.

Works Cited

Baker, Joanie. “One Vision: Nationwide campaign to change attitudes toward poverty makes a stop at an already active WKU.” McClatchy – Tribune Business News 9 Oct 2008.

Cantor, Nancy. “The Two-Way Street of Scholarship in Action.” Syracuse University. 30 Oct 2008

Dart, Jonathan. “Putting your face on the line to fight poverty.” Canberra Times 25 Jun 2007: A Pg 5.

George, Diana. “Changing the Face of Poverty: Nonprofits and the Problem of Representation.” Popular Literacy. University of Pittsburgh Press: Pittsburgh, 2001.

Global Call to Action Against Poverty – GCAP. Global Call to Action Against Poverty. 5 November 2008

Make Poverty History. Make Poverty History. 30 Oct 2008

Veiga, Manny. “A new focus for networking students: global poverty Brandeis group leads efforts to harness activism.” The Boston Globe 10 Apr. 2008: Reg1.

West Philadelphia Data & Information. University of Pennsylvania. 6 Nov 2008.

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