Students tap technology to create a new form of youth activism

NEW YORK — In Microsoft’s plush headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, about 140 high school and college students, professors, union bosses, community organizers, celebrity philanthropists, policy makers and other concerned citizens are all throwing out ideas.

Dozens of strategically angled cameras and microphones absorbed their conversation, streaming it live to six of seven continents. A visual artist conceptualized the group’s solutions on a whiteboard, keeping pace with everyone’s collective input.

The April conference had the feeling of a town hall, with everyone trying to figure out how to address a broken system. Through hashtags, satellite video feeds and friendly handshakes between suited executives and ripped-jean students, Student Voice is projecting the concerns of students with a new approach.

A year ago, Zak Malamed was a high school senior in Long Island, N.Y., when he had an idea: He wanted to find a way to unify, magnify and centralize the student voice to create real change, to do so in a way that did not intrude on the localized issues of a particular campus movement but rather provide them a vehicle to make things happen.

“We’re all basically doing the same thing, but in different ways,” he explained on a Saturday afternoon in College Park, Md., about a month before the summit. “How are we going to create change? Right now, we’re really trying to figure out how to come together.”

A lanky, soft-spoken college freshman at the University of Maryland, Malamed is joined this afternoon by fellow classmate Marvin Mathew, a fellow Student Voice advocate and senior at Maryland. The two students met, unsurprisingly, on Twitter. We talked for awhile about the campus, greek life, politics, ultimately arriving at what they see as their potential to change society as a whole.

“It’s really about recognizing that every student voice matters,” Malamed said. “I see a growing community of passionate and engaged students on social media and now it’s time for us all to come together on a national scale.”

Mathew’s college studies focus on using rapidly developing technology to bring creative solutions to urban communities and learning algorithms for computer programs so “I can take my ideas and create them, rather than taking my ideas to other people and having them create them.”

For Student Voice, Mathew emphasizes the need for a “golden triangle” of cohesion between the entities of civilian, business and government.

“We need to realize we need to work with corporations, work with government,” Mathew said. “We’re tied to organizations that have the power to change the system. I think this is the place for real change to happen.”

In March of last year, Malamed met Lisa Nielsen at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning convention in New York. Nielsen, an education enthusiast who travels the world blogging and talking about ways to find innovative solutions for students, had recently been asked by Dell to speak at a conference.

“I said, ‘Let me put together this group of awesome kids,’” she said, recalling her efforts to connect Malamed with the company. “I planted the seed and then everything took off from there. They’re speaking everywhere now and writing all over the place and sharing ideas. We’ve been all over the United States to give students a voice in conferences and panels.”

A weekly Twitter chat became reality by May. At the time, Malamed said he and his high school friends were actively voicing their thoughts on the myriad of problems facing public schools, from standardized testing to declining resources and state support.

The students began to chat, and their chats began to trend.

“We all came together through our interest in education policy and our struggle going through the system,” he said. “Everyone came together for a different reason. But we all wanted to have a voice in our education.”

The rest is hashtagged history. Through 140-character vignettes, complaints, suggestions and ideas, #StuVoice started a conversation around the country, then around the world.

“You literally have no excuse not to join #stuvoice chat tonight,” @leenavejr boasted before a recent discussion. “I only got off a plane from Africa 2 hours ago and I made the chat.”

The same excitement that buzzes during the weekly chat also resonates in the physical location of the sixth floor of 1290 Avenue of the Americas, where a morning and afternoon of panels and topic sessions bring everyone to, and put everything on, the proverbial table.

“Young people often think they’re the only one with their story,” Nielsen said. “I think by the students connecting more and more and mobilizing, I think that will make a difference in many cases.”

A new kind of student activism

During the past year, students from around the world have informally rotated duties — managing the website, running the chats, coordinating business and outreach — that have allowed Student Voice to function as an organization. Now, the organization is filing for nonprofit status to provide the necessary finances, structure and oversight, Malamed said.

Their grassroots movement is entering a new phase, one of fundraising, positions and formal titles. With it comes even more potential for partnerships as well as pitfalls as the group attempts to take a common movement to the next level.

“It’s not like the student voice movement didn’t exist before,” Malamed said. “We’re just approaching it in a different way.”

Since as early as the Great Depression, student activism has been a term broadly manifested in youth movements that aim to change the education system. The American Youth Congress is widely considered the first attempt at raising awareness of the need for rights for young people; it advocated for an end to the “economic exploitation” of youth, famously gaining support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the 1960s, in step with the rest of the country’s social upheaval, campuses flooded with student activism — or so it seems, said Angus Johnston, a student activism historian, blogger and professor at City University of New York.

Johnston said the golden age of the sixties is sometimes misremembered and misunderstood by activists today. Even at its peak, which he estimates only lasted a few years, the decade’s campus unrest involved far fewer students and a population that didn’t reflect that of the country.

Students today, he said, are a lot less wealthy than they used to be. They’re also a lot less white and a lot less male. Student unions for African Americans, women and gay students are now “part of the infrastructure” of campus life.

“Doing an apples-to-apples comparison is a lot more complicated than what it looks,” he said. “The deeper you dig in, the more you see that the student activism today compares favorably in many ways.”

Nonetheless, with 19- and 20-year-olds often running the show, mistakes can easily happen, Johnston said. That’s where he steps in to help with today’s movements, offering historical context and continuity so activists today don’t have to feel like “they’re starting from scratch with every new generation.”

Johnston cited Students for a Democratic Society, founded in Ann Arbor in the early sixties, as a historical example. SDS pursued a left-wing, antiwar agenda before later fracturing into a militant wing called the Weather Underground, which formally declared war on the U.S. government, bombing the Pentagon, Capitol Building and several banks.

Johnston said in the sixties, SDS commanded attention from student activists on a national level. They read SDS manifestos and newsletters and participated in SDS rallies.

“But there were also a lot of folks on the campus level whose only relationship to SDS was they had read in The (New York) Times or Newsweek that SDS was the big national student movement,” he said.

The group disbanded in the seventies. In 2006, in protest of the Iraq War, SDS reformed as a national organization, and local chapters began to register again on campuses across the country.

Stephanie Taylor, a member of the SDS national working committee for five years, said their platform mirrors that of old SDS. Members campaign under three ideas: anti-war, anti-political oppression and anti-tuition hikes, with the latter commanding the most focus today as America’s involvement in the Middle East dies down.

The organization’s tactics are much the same as well, although Taylor cautioned against equating the group to its infamous militant faction.

“I think people perceive SDS as these lunatic radicals,” Taylor said. “We consider ourselves very radical, often militant, people who will get arrested when the time and place and conditions are right. But we are in no way an organization that blows up buildings.”

But what hasn’t returned is much of the original structure, which had elected members, paid organizers, nationwide tours and financial security.

“It’s because students are working, trying to graduate within four years,” she said. “We don’t have the fiscal ability to have these big, large things.”

Taylor said this has led SDS to consider forming new partnerships it has always philosophically opposed: taking money from NGOs, government bodies, businesses or “people who have a lot of money.”

The group has even considered applying for a nonprofit status but ultimately decided against it because the fundraising structure of a nonprofit, while financially beneficial, could in her view trap the organization.

“That’s just not how SDS operates,” she said. “The reason we’ve never done it, it seems to me, is that your campaigns and ideas you’re projecting is tied to the money you’re taking … We want to be as free and open with our ideas and actions as possible and have the best message as possible.”

Maintaining the movement

Because of social media, student movements are becoming less isolated and more integrated.

“If you are doing a good job at building up buzz on your campus,” Johnston said, “folks like me are going to find out about it and we’re gonna start sending people to your blog and Twitter feed and all of that — nationally.”

That means both good and bad for today’s student activists hoping to sustain their movement and make the annals of history.

But Johnston said the mystical, glorified path of social movements leads some to believe that present uprisings like Occupy have passed with little effect. They see movements as slowly rising like a grand tidal wave — then crashing and fizzling out. In reality, the ways of assessing a movement as it’s happening, without the separation of history, is incredibly difficult.

One thing is certain, however. Although he was no more than “peripherally involved” in the encampments and occupations scattered public parks and college campuses across the country, Johnston learned from it.

“It’s was transformative for me,” Johnston said. “The stuff that they took away with them is not stuff that goes away. I think there is a tremendous amount of new energy and new potency which hasn’t been fully passed yet.”

Every bit of energy will be needed as the collection of grassroots organizations into a truly national student movement is often nothing more than a “loose confederation,” Johnston said. In order have everyone marching lockstep, a powerful institution needs to not only shape the dialogue but maintain the dialogue, he said.

And Student Voice faces a challenge from the same medium that’s given it life. On social media, he said it’s even more likely that various groups will come together in some times and split apart in others.

“Because of Twitter, you can have these connections which are formed on a relatively fluid and loose basis,” Johnston said. “But the idea of being a movement only lasts as long as that sense of common cause and common shared struggles seems significant or seems relevant.”

Malamed said that although he envisions Student Voice’s reach as international, he doesn’t see the organization taking over and commanding a specific platform on the scale of SDS.

“I would never ask a local organization, ‘Hey, would you like to become the local chapter of Student Voice?’” he said. “They know what needs to get done in their areas and we’re here to help them, support them, and really just provide a vehicle to make things happen.”

Malamed recognized the Occupy movement as a “precursor for something bigger” but thinks it lost steam when its “essential message” became muddled. He asks for the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the masses that most famously filled New York City’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011.

“I think of the the camps, the occupations — but what are they occupying for?” he wonders. “Occupy lost it in the name itself. Our name is Student Voice. We are the student voice. It couldn’t be any clearer.”

It’s a part of a movement’s branding process, he explains. Education is not an “us versus them” issue. Everyone has a stake. But in order for Student Voice to create sustainable policy and a sense of longevity, the movement must remain truly grassroots, a line Malamed admits he carefully treads when networking with foundations and corporations interested in “eating up” their idea.

“Call me an idealist, but I’m a practical idealist — you hit the right buttons of corporations and celebrities, it’s not going to deter what we want it to be,” he said. “If all of a sudden you gave students a voice, for the general population, they would be like, why now? So we gotta give them a reason, why now?”

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer.