The Best of Campus Activism

[Editor's Note: This survey was compiled and written by Leigh Ferrara, Ann Friedman, April Rabkin, Amaya Rivera, Cameron Scott, Marisa Taylor, and Marcus Wohlsen. It appears in the September/October issue of Mother Jones.]

In 1994, Mother Jones ran its first survey of the "Greeks and Granolas and Steeps and Slackers" who were shaking up college politics. Though the last steep (whatever that may be) was spotted in 1997, the progressive campus activist is far from extinct.

Protest of the Year

Inspired by the original Freedom Riders, 33 young activists hit the road for a seven-week tour of 19 religious and military colleges that discriminate against gay and lesbian students. The Soulforce Equality Ride's bus was tagged with homophobic slogans in Tennessee and riders were arrested on six campuses, including West Point, the Air Force Academy, and Brigham Young University, but 24-year-old trip leader Jacob Reitan said the journey was "hugely positive." Riders talked and prayed with more than 10,000 people and met with 10 school presidents. "We need to correct a society that would question gay marriage," Reitan said. "It's about changing the hearts and minds of the American people."

Student Activist of the Year

Well, actually, he's a 24-year-old Yale dropout, but let's ignore that. Billy Parish has helped make fighting global warming this year's hot cause with his Energy Action Coalition, which united green campaigns on 270 campuses. The coalition is urging colleges to fight climate change by screening their portfolios, investing in energy-efficient transportation and buildings, and buying local food for dining halls. And on April 1, the group helped celebrate America's coolest new holiday, Fossil Fools Day.

Cutting for a Cause

More than 3,000 students from the University of Texas-Austin turned out for an immigrants' rights rally on April 10, part of the month of massive marches nationwide. But organizer Rebeca Lopez gave props to the many local high school kids who ditched class to march. "They're the ones that have the parents who this affects the most," she explained. And some paid the price: In one Austin suburb, 200 teens were picked up for breaking curfew.

The War on Slugs

When military recruiters ventured into the University of California-Santa Cruz in April, hundreds of protesters promptly kicked them out, continuing a nearly two-year effort to make the home of the Banana Slugs a no-go zone for recruiters. In response, the Pentagon has resorted to slimy tactics, listing Students Against War, the group behind the campaign, as a "credible threat."

Darfur, Continued

While the genocide in Darfur slipped from the headlines, the nationwide movement kicked off by Students Taking Action Now: Darfur kept pushing schools to divest from companies that do business with the Sudanese government. In the past year, the University of Washington, University of Vermont, and University of California divested completely, while more than 20 schools started pulling the plug on deals that sent aid and comfort to Khartoum.

Oral Arguments

Antonin Scalia dropped by the University of Connecticut in April, prompting students to set up a "Kiss a Queer" booth to protest the Supreme Court justice, who once compared homosexuality to bestiality. Unfortunately, the Secret Service prevented Nino from feeling the love.

Payback Time

Mired in more than $100,000 of student loan debt, Nathan Walker is not alone. This spring, the Columbia University Teachers College student and six others from across the country went to D.C. to lobby for a reform bill that would provide $30 billion in new federal loans while cutting the subsidies and loopholes that make the $76 billion loan biz a bonanza for lenders.

Thinking Outside the Box

There's a Wal-Mart a few blocks away from Southern California's Pitzer College, but in January, the student senate said it would no longer reimburse purchases made at the chain, and the administration has since encouraged students and staff to look for bargains elsewhere.

The Holdouts

When the fundamentalist Christian Legal Society confronted 15 schools that refused to fund campus groups that barred gays and lesbians, all crumbled to its demand for "religious freedom" -- except two. Southern Illinois University and San Francisco law school Hastings College are still defending their nondiscrimination policies against the cls in federal court. Stay tuned as they battle their way to the Supremes.

Leading the PAC

Six Yale students started their own political action committee, Students for a New American Politics, raising $50,000 to provide campaigners for progressive candidates. Twenty-one-year-old director Marissa Levendis says this approach beats traditional get-out-the-vote efforts: "We can say, ‘You should vote for this person,' rather than, ‘We think you should vote for someone progressive on labor or abortion issues,' which is always cryptic."

High and Dry

You'd think University of California-Berkeley students would jump at the chance to torment their local chapter of the College Republicans. But when the masochistic young conservatives set up a dunk tank in March as part of a breast cancer fundraiser, the Bears failed to bite. Dunkee Andrea Rasmussen sniffed, "They hate us so much they won't even help us fight cancer."

Dais of Rage

Graduation remains a favorite time for squeezing in some last-minute agitation. At Boston College's commencement, dozens of grads confronted guest speaker Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with stickers reading "Not in My Name." And at New York's New School, grad-to-be Jean Sara Rohe scrapped her prepared remarks to give a dose of straight talk to keynote speaker Arizona senator John McCain. "Although I don't profess to possess the wisdom that time affords us," she told the Iraq hawk, "I do know that preemptive war is dangerous and wrong."

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