Molly Kirk

Fledgling Activists or Fashion Models?

"This is a wake up call for the rebel inside you. If you want to live a successful life, you have to fight for it. Join with us. Seize the day." You won't be finding an activist yelling this slogan in front of city hall, but you will find it in a magazine advertisement promoting Diesel jeans. Some say sex sells, but Diesel thinks activism will.

Grungy, punk-like models holding picket signs with messages like "More Green Traffic Lights" and "Plant More Flowers" are the focus of Diesel's print ads and website. Of course these "protesters" are clad in Diesel jeans, shoes, and accessories, but that is seemingly beside the point. The images camouflage the fact that they are indeed fashion advertisements by spotlighting mock issues like "Believe in #13" and "Free the Goldfish." While Diesel may argue that their advertisements promote youth action and organizing, real activists aren't buying it.

"[Diesel] ads make fun of activism ... and use it to sell their clothes. Honestly, there are probably people right now organizing against the child labor ... they use to make their jeans in the first place," Venus Rodriguez, an organizer at Youth of Oakland United, says half sarcastic and half serious. Diesel is no stranger to irony; the clothing maker has a long history of tongue-in-cheek advertising. In a description of its "Diesel - For Successful Living" campaign the company warns, "Diesel images ... must be interpreted very ironically: the standard of consumer 'success' found in most advertising is exaggerated and made absurd ... [A]ny suggestion of worthiness is undercut by a final admission that it's all just a joke."

But Diesel's current "Action! - For Successful Living" campaign covers new territory. A European marketing magazine reports that "the print campaign aims to encourage young people to take action, to express their emotions and to speak up and voice their opinions for a better life." However with messages like "Marry Young" and "Share Your Bath Water" Diesel's trademark satirical humor lives on. Some young activists aren't laughing.

"This is something that I do. I'm an activist and I'm an advocate," explains Belinda Bellinger, an intern and youth advocate at Youth Making A Change (Y-MAC). "It's disrespectful to me because [these images] are portraying who I am. [They suggest] that I don't believe in serious issues."

"With youth, [activism] has to be [about] something that relates to them for them to feel it and to want to take part in it.'"

The youth organizer is particularly concerned that young people won't take activism seriously after seeing the ads. "[The] #13 is not a real issue in the community," Belinda says, "with youth, [activism] has to be [about] something that relates to them for them to feel it and to want to take part in it."

Diesel is aware that the issues they promote are trite, but perhaps the company hopes that young consumers will see the images of people protesting and be inspired to take action on issues of real pertinence. Belinda is skeptical about the chance of this occurring. "The ads are dangerous," she says, "because [some young people] will see the Diesel signs and take it seriously." Belinda asks, "why not put real stuff that real people are fighting for on their signs? "

Carolina Salazar, a youth organizer for C-Beyond, agrees with Belinda. "The [Diesel ads] will have a negative effect on the organizing community," she predicts. "The ads make it look so real. I would be confused if I were a kid."

Carolina also points out certain stereotypes that the images perpetuate. "The media portrays young activists as hoodlums who don't know what they're talking about and are just trying to raise a ruckus," Carolina says. "The [Diesel ads] say kids don't care about anything, but 'sharing their bath water.'"

But what about the old adage: any publicity is good publicity? Carolina, like her counterparts, doesn't find the Diesel campaign to be beneficial to the youth movement in any way. On top of trivializing her work as an activist, she says the ads amount to nothing more than "a stereotypical way to present youth."

Diesel ads

Diesel's images of youth as lawless punks, Carolina explains, underscores the generalization that all young activists are mischievous rebels. The truth is that some young people do want to look rebellious, but that doesn't necessarily mean they don't believe in substantive issues. Ironically, while Diesel minimizes the voice of youth activism in its ads, the company exploits the one aspect of organized youth that probably concerns them the least: what they wear. The ads show how Diesel and other clothing makers often capitalize on punk style by making it a fashion trend.

According to Carolina, the Diesel slogan "The World Needs More Love Letters" emphasizes yet another stereotype. Often people assume that "our biggest concern [as a young adult] is having a boyfriend or girlfriend," she says. "These are not necessarily the biggest issues in our lives. These are not issues we would try to take to a legislator."

Carolina touches upon a major aspect of the campaign. Traditionally public protest is about issues that concern a community of people. The Diesel ads, however, put personal topics in a public setting by focusing on matters like marriage and romantic intimacy. In one ad, a young woman wraps with her arms and legs around a young man sitting in front of her. Smiling and gazing into each other's eyes, one holds up a sign that reads, "Kiss Your Neighbor." Instead of using sex to sell their clothes, Diesel uses activism about sexy topics to sell their clothes. While the advertising gimmick is eye-catching and provocative, Carolina is quick to point out that these messages belittle the efforts of young people who actually grasp a range of public concerns that effect much more than their personal lives.

As Carolina and other youth activists uncover the hollowness in Diesel's efforts to encourage youth action, the fashion company states on their website that "Diesel has become part of youth culture worldwide. It can legitimately claim to be the first brand to believe truly in the global village and to embrace it with open arms." Diesel attributes its connection to young people to its advertising, which began in 1991. The fashion company claims that their advertisements are "understood and appreciated by the public" as much as they are by advertisers.

Awards like "Advertiser of the Year" in the 1998 Cannes Film Festival demonstrate the kind of acclaim Diesel has received though the years. The company's ads have gained a cult following among advertisers and laymen alike. It seems that neither dedicated customers nor non-Diesel consumers can help but look at the subversive images when flipping through a magazine.

"Strategically they've moved on from self expression and anarchy to 'activism' but only on the surface.'"

But Rachel Gaunt of Underground Advertising is more apt to question Diesel's true motives than praise it for its innovative marketing. After reviewing Diesel's previous campaigns, Rachel concluded that their new ads send the same old message: be yourself but buy our clothes while you're at it. "Strategically they've moved on from self expression and anarchy to 'activism' but only on the surface," Rachel says.

What tipped Rachel off was the website's top-ten list of "Guidelines for Successful Protesting." For example, it ranks "wear the right clothes (no high heels or chicken suits)" as number two and "before you start shouting, use some mouthwash" as number five. "Even the tips for protesting are flippant and not really about serious organizing," Rachel says. Belinda of Y-MAC agrees. "Who cares if your breath is funky or not, you're trying to let some important messages be heard." The youth advocate asserts, "if you're worried about your breath, you're putting a revolution on hold."

Rachel stresses that Diesel has never been associated with social consciousness or true activism in the past and hasn't done anything differently to support their new image. "At worst this can be construed as simply a gimmick to get people's attention, sort of jumping on the socially conscious bandwagon with no credentials," Rachel explains. "At best there may be some genuine altruistic motive, but I for one am missing it."

Rachel is certainly not the only one "missing it." Venus of Youth of Oakland United can't quite seem to find the deeper meaning in the ads either, other than selling clothes of course. As Diesel ads are printed in magazines around the world, youth organizers are not expecting an upsurge in activism because of it. Activists like Venus have a long list of reasons for taking action that have nothing to do with designer jeans.

"For the past five years I have been organizing around homelessness, welfare rights, human rights, police brutality... the list goes on," Venus says. "I organize to unite my people. I organize because if I don't, who will? I organize to stand up for my rights ... I don't organize because it's trendy or because an ad tells me to."

Molly Kirk, 21, a recent UCLA graduate, is a proud native of San Francisco. While she admits to owning a pair of Diesel jeans, she has yet to feel particularly rebellious when sporting them.

Belinda Bellinger and Venus Rodriguez are also active members of the Youth Media Council (YMC). WireTap thanks YMC for their help with this story.

The 2002 Brower Youth Award Winners Speak Up

Amir Nadav, 17, is a high school junior from Eagan, Minnesota. Concerned about his peers' exposure to harmful diesel exhaust from idling schoolbuses, Nadav headed a campaign for cleaner buses in Minnesota. By circulating petitions, rallying on the capitol steps, and personally lobbying for the bill, Nadav succeeded in passing statewide legislation that bans excessive bus idling in front of schools.

After Ethan Schaffer survived lymphoma cancer at the age of 15, he went to New Zealand to work on organic farms. Schaffer's experience abroad opened his eyes to sustainable living, which he believes is the key to good health for humans and the environment. Schaffer, now 21, established Organic Volunteers. A national program providing outreach and education for sustainability and organic food systems, Organic Volunteers has over 2000 members in 41 states.

17-year-old high school student Stefanie Lacy established the first ever paper recycling program in Bandera, Texas. The Bandera County Paper has redirected 280 tons of paper to a recycling plant in San Antonio 35 miles away. Not only has Lacy's program successfully saved 4, 600 trees by diverting Bandera's paper waste from landfills, the project has also raised almost 6,000 dollars towards The Friends of the Library of Bandera County and The Animal Welfare Society of Bandera County.

For the last three years, the Earth Island Institute (EII) has recognized youth between the ages of 13 and 22 whose work embodies the principles of conservation, preservation and restoration, for which David Ross Brower coined the term "CPR for the Earth." This year the awards, named after Brower, went to six young activists from around the country who have gone above and beyond expectations to spearhead local campaigns, start organizations, and bridge the gap between environmental and community issues.

David Ross Brower's long life of environmental activism began when he joined the Sierra Club at the age of 21. He led the fight to preserve wilderness areas throughout the US and abroad and founded several organizations aimed at promoting environmental and social justice before his death in 2000 at the age of 88. Since then, the Earth Island Institute, which Mr. Brower founded in 1982, has sought to carry on his legacy by supporting young leaders taking action.

This year, in addition to receiving a cash award, the winning six spent several days in Yosemite National Park, and attended an awards ceremony in Berkeley, Calif. WireTap tracked down three of this year's winners and spoke with them about what it took to get their projects off the ground, the challenges facing youth activists today, and what they have set their sights on for the future.

WireTap:Did you grow up in a household where environmental issues were important? Is your high school environmentally conscious?

Nadav: My high school isn't particularly environmentally conscious. Environmentalism and the like were never really a big thing in my household either. My mother always used to love taking us out on trips to state parks. I think those trips instilled in me a sense of respect and care for nature and the environment.

Lacy: I did grow up in a household where environmental issues were important. My family and I were always recycling and doing something to help the environment. It wasn't until we moved out here to Bandera that we did not have a local recycling program. My high school was not environmentally conscious until I approached them about getting the school involved [in a recycling program.]

Schaffer: I grew up in a household where environmental issues were important in a theoretical sense. My father was very political; an unwavering Democrat. I was taught to support the ideas of environmentalism. I grew up in rural Idaho, both of my parents enjoyed the outdoors. I was encouraged to enjoy the natural beauty of the world. However, there is a big difference between enjoying nature and living in line with it. Our lifestyle was not in line with nature; it was similar to most American lifestyles. We depended on the car, used toxic household chemicals and ate meat and pesticide-drenched food. I went to a boarding school in California, Cate School. There the dichotomy was even worse. Although it was considered "liberal" we were living far outside the carrying capacity of the Earth. I'm grateful to have lived that dichotomy because it taught me the difference between beleiving in something and acting on it.

WireTap:What was the first step you took after realizing you wanted to do something about this issue?

Nadav: A week or so after the first Sierra Club meeting I attended, I met with the Sierra Club organizer, and another student who was interested in working on this campaign. Together, we drafted up a petition calling for cleaner buses. We also planned out posters that we'd hang up in our schools a week or so before we would start to circulate the petitions. The purpose of that was to raise the awareness a bit, and get people ready for, and expecting the petition.

Lacy: I met with Mr. James Graham from the San Antonio Post Office Environmental Division. He [met me in] Bandera and told me how I should approach the city and citizens for their support. I contacted Mr. Graham [after] I found out that [two local post offices] were involved in a paper recycling program.

Schaffer: : In the winter of 2000-2001 my girlfriend and I hitch-hiked all over New Zealand working on organic farms. As soon as I had experienced sustainable living first hand, I started to clearly see what needs to happen in the world. I realized the obvious fact that it is not enough to talk about sustainability, we need to practice it. For humanity to be sustainable every human, myself included, must learn the sustainable arts and implement them on a personal level. That's where I came up with the idea for, a way to give everyone access to an education in sustainability, free of cost. I explained the idea to my brother, Grayson, who was learning how to build webpages and databases at the time. Within two weeks the website was up and running and we were calling organizations and networking like crazy!

WireTap:What issues do you think top the list of concerns for your generation? Is the environment one of them?

Nadav: It's hard to speak for a whole generation of people. From my vantage point, it seems like the environment is definitely a major concern. I think that there's a lot more awareness about how our modernized world affects our health, and the health of the planet. The more people know about these issues (such as pollution, global warming, etc), the more urgency there is to speak up and do something about it. I think that another big issue is tolerance. Our society is more diverse than ever, and people are having to deal with people who are different on an everyday basis. So I think that another big issue is learning to accept people who are different, and just be more tolerant in general.

Lacy: Yes, the environment is one of the concerns of my generation ... because over the years people have become so naive that the world doesn't need saving. Environmentalists and activists [are] not enough. We need to make people aware that one person can make a difference, but a hundred can make a huge difference in helping to save the world.

Schaffer: : Sex, drugs and music. What else? Maybe college, cars and money. The baby boomers do a good job controlling the minds of my generation through pop culture, mainstream media and mandatory education. There is, however, a commited group of youth who are throwing apathy by the wayside and taking action. All humans care about the environment. We all want good food to eat, air to breathe and clean water to drink. The activist youth of today are concerned about the environment and what makes them different from past youth movements is that they're seeking out hands-on experience in the application of sustainability. I've seen thousands come through They're learning about organic farming, renewable energy, natural building and they can't be stopped. The world will change; just give us time.

WireTap:What challenges did you come across in your process ? How did you solve them?

Nadav: I think the biggest challenge I came across was getting started. I had always been interested in environmentalism, but I never knew how to get involved. When I got an invitation from the Sierra Club to attend one of their meetings, I was pretty hesitant. I didn't know how they'd react to a random high school student showing up to one of their meetings. Obviously it paid off.

Lacy: The recycling company was not very supportive of my idea. [Bandera is a 70 mile round trip from San Antonio. The company was wary of committing because of extra business expenses regarding man-power and transportation.] They gave me a 30 cubic yard recycling bin for a three month pilot program. During these months Bandera had to collect the minimum tonnage [of]10 tons a month. Bandera has always exceeded the minimum tonnage.

Look for opportunities and sieze them when the arrive. I know it's not always easy, because you don't know how people will accept you, how it'll be, or what to expect, but things will fall into place, and at the end of the day (or month, or year) you'll be really happy you swallowed your pride and just took a chance.

Schaffer: : We are faced with challenges everyday. Staying positive, focused and working diligently and patiently has helped us tremendously. When we have been faced with large challenges it has often helped to seek out the right person or organization to help us with that challenge. When I wanted to build the website I went to my brother. When we needed funding we enlisted the help of our friend to write grants. When our server was getting overloaded with traffic we asked North Carolina State University to host the site. We're grateful they accepted. Making alliances and friends in the sustainability movement has helped us a great deal and most organizations have been more than willing to work with us.

WireTap:Did your work open your eyes to new issues you would like to do something about in the future?

Nadav: Definitely so! Working on the school bus diesel campaign got me much more interested in pollution issues in general...I think that working on this issue just opened my eyes to all the pollution sources around us and what havoc they wreck on the environment and on human lives. I've become a lot more interested in clean and renewable energy sources, as well as "green transportation".

Lacy: Yes, it encouraged me to show people that they can also start a paper recycling program or do something [to help the environment] in their communities. I plan to major in environmental issues when I go to college.

Schaffer: : Sustainability needs to be brought to every aspect of human life so therefore connects to all issues. The impending war in Iraq, for instance, is over the unsustainable use of oil in the United States. As always, my main job is to lead a life that respects the bounds of natural limits. I want to start an ecovillage and create a working example of how people can live together peacefully, in line with nature and with an abundance of food, water and energy. I want to show people that sustainable living can be far more prosperous, fun and beautiful than the average American lifestyle.

WireTap:What advice can you give other environmental activists in high school or college?

Nadav: Like I said before, the worst thing you can do is do nothing at all. ...Look for opportunities and sieze them when the arrive. I know it's not always easy, because you don't know how people will accept you, how it'll be, or what to expect, but things will fall into place, and at the end of the day (or month, or year) you'll be really happy you swallowed your pride and just took a chance. Another thing I think is really important to stress is that anyone, no matter how old he or she is, has the right to speak out and take action. Just because someone is too young to vote, doesn't mean that person is too young to speak his or her mind or fight to make this world a better place.

Lacy: If you have an idea go with it. You can't let people stop you from doing what is right in the world. This is the only world we have so if we don't take care of it now no one will and it will be to late to save this great place.

Schaffer: : My advice to all activists who want to make change is to first change oneself. Start on the inner level by taking a Vipassana course. Vipassana is a totally non-sectarian meditation practice to bring about peace of mind. It's free. Then gain some practical experience in sustainability by coming to Organic Volunteers and finding an opportunity that interests you. Visit as many places as possible since no farm or site is perfect. That's what I did, anyway, and it certainly got me moving down the right path.

Students Demand Dell Recycle Computers


Students and Dell computers. These days, the two go hand-in-hand. Or that's what Steven, Dell's half student/half surfer spokesperson would have us believe. With his obnoxious antics and continuous presence on televisions across the country, Steven is drilling catch phrases like, "Dude, you should have bought a Dell!" into the minds of the next generation of college students. Whether they relate to him or not, the Steven campaign may just be helping Dell corner the college market.

Since the campaign began just over a year ago, Dell reports a 100 percent increase in consumer sales. While young customers may be drawn to Dell's affordable prices and catchy marketing tactics, they may be overlooking the fact that the company is counting on them to buy a brand new computer in a just few years. When this happens, their outdated or defunct computers have to be thrown away or recycled.

That's where the Computer Take Back Campaign comes in. The campaign's new site,, calls on Dell to become a leader in environmental responsibility and offers up a wealth of information about the need for computer recycling programs. The site uses Steven's newly-famous chesire grin and, in a subversive play on his gimmicky teen language, reads: "the computers on your campus are totally toxic."

Tens of millions of computers become obsolete in the United States every year because of growing sales and shorter life spans. One of the largest known sources of heavy metals like lead, mercury, and other pollutants, discarded electronics threaten public health and the environment. Campaign organizer, Kara Reeve, explains that because of "the growing amount of electronic waste, the high levels of toxins found in computers, and the issue of exporting computer waste to third world nations" the Computer Take Back Campaign intends to target Dell as a leader in the computer industry and to demand responsibility for the duration of their products' life span.

"The corporate world has too much leeway without facing any consequences. It's our responsibility to step up and say 'no, we aren't going to take it!'"

What would this mean exactly? Well, instead of donating used computers or putting them out the street, the Computer Take Back Campaign wants companies like Dell to make it easier for computer owners to send their equipment back to its producers at no cost. Basically the campaign is asking Dell to offer the same programs in the United States as it offers its European customers. In Germany, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Denmark, Dell provides programs that take back computers for free. The computers are then reused, recycled, or disposed of appropriately according to each country's environmental standards. European producer responsibility laws require companies to offer such programs to ensure that valuable materials are recycled and their products do not end up in landfills.

Because of Dell's efforts to gain college-aged consumers, the Computer Take Back Campaign is especially reliant upon student activism to launch this movement. Kara explains, "Dell is the leading seller of computers to government agencies and educational institutions. Since we are organizing on campuses and many colleges have contracts with Dell, students can put pressure on their school to negotiate contracts with Dell that include Take Back."

While the campaign is just beginning, some students are rising to the challenge. "The corporate world has too much leeway without facing any consequences. It's our responsibility to step up and say 'no, we aren't going to take it!'" says Karl Horberg, a second-year at American University in Washington D.C. Every computer at AU facilities is a Dell and every student receives an email from university administration at the beginning of the school year encouraging them to buy a Dell. Karl, who is also working as an intern for Ecopledge and Freedomplanet this fall, says he hopes that students who feel targeted by Dell ads will also get involved in the campaign.

Karl launched the Computer Take Back Campaign at AU with a press release to local newspapers and radio stations on September 18. In addition to petitioning, Karl plans to use alternative campaign measures to reveal Dell as an environmental slacker. Some of his plans for the semester include changing campus computer homepages to and leaving informative flyers on computer keyboards.

The AU activist is particularly confident that his peers will get involved because of a history of toxic waste on campus. The U.S. Army is currently in the process of cleaning up arsenic under the Athletic Field at AU, leftover from a weapons testing facility that was located there during World War I. As a result Karl and his fellow students are forced to live with the debris and disruption involved with the toxic waste cleanup.

Because they go to class facing the reality of toxic waste daily, Karl believes AU students are particularly alert to toxic issues like the ones highlighted by the Computer Take Back Campaign. "Say 'toxic' to AU students, and they will relate," he says.

Lindsay Green, an Ecopledge Project Coordinator at the University of Colorado in Boulder, does not face a toxic clean up. In fact, Lindsay describes her campus as "greener" than most, or at the very least non-toxic. One major reason Lindsay expects 10 percent of CU students to sign an Ecopledge petition calling for Dell recycling programs is that the university community is already environmentally conscious. "Because you have the mountains less than a mile away," she explains, "there are so many people who are on their bikes all the time and just being really active. In general, being environmentally friendly is a big deal in Boulder."

"These corporations are spending millions and millions of dollars targeting people our age right now, because we are the people who will work for them, buy stock from them, and buy from them for the rest of our lives."

While Washington D.C. and Boulder, Colorado offer seemingly opposite backdrops to college campuses, AU and CU share a common thread. Like AU, Lindsay reports that her campus also has a business relationship with Dell computers along with Macintosh. Lindsay says she does not have a problem with CU making arrangements with corporations like Dell, she just wants such deals to take environmental issues into consideration. "It's not that we're not supporting Dell computers." Lindsay asserts, " in fact, Dell has been environmentally friendly in the past. We target Dell because we want them to take it a step further and to really catapult to the number one environmental leader in their field."

In addition to Dell's contracts with universities across the country, Kara, a campaign organizer, explains other reasons for targeting Dell over other computer manufacturers. "Dell is a $32 billion a year company controlling the largest share of the global personal computer market...If Dell meets our demands, then other companies will fall into line as well." Kara also points out that "Michael Dell is a highly visible CEO who has built a company that knows every customer by name and can easily contact them." Kara explains that these circumstances allow Dell to adopt Take Back programs almost effortlessly.

Lindsay has confidence that Dell and other computer companies will pay attention to students as activists as much as they focus on students as consumers. "These corporations are spending millions and millions of dollars targeting people our age right now, because we are the people who will work for them, buy stock from them, and buy from them for the rest of our lives."

The CU activist says that harnessing students' economic power is the key to Ecopledge's success with over 100, 000 students getting involved. With two campaigns competing for the attention of college students nationwide, one boosting the profits of a corporation, the other mobilizing activists to demand computer recycling programs, the question remains, will 100,000 students be enough?

Students interested in participating in the Computer Take Back Campaign can contact Kara Reeve at or sign up to be a Campus Chapter Leader at

Molly "Dude" Kirk does not own a Dell herself, but has gone through two laptops in her days as a college student. A recent UCLA graduate, she still uses one to search for employment on the Internet. The other sits in her closet waiting to be recycled.

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