The Kids Are Alright: College Students Engage With Politics in The Age of Trump

Adam Jones & Josh Scott

ALLENDALE, Mich. — 2016 marked for a lot of millennials the first time being politically engaged, even if it was just casting a vote. It’s normal for twenty-somethings to get politically involved, but in an environment dominated by anger, apathy, and anxiety over the future, young people today are engaging in a number of unique ways to make a difference.

20170126_122112Even in a quiet city like Grand Rapids, the nights came alive with anti-Trump banners and the shouting of slogans as concerned citizens, many of them young people and students, marched around Grand Rapids. It felt electric and flammable, like anything or anyone could kick off something bigger. The protests have died down, and some of the tension has dissipated, but people are still looking for a way to get involved. The question now is what is the solution?

“I think there’s a difference with this generation and its protest moment compared to mine. The access students have to social media eliminates the gatekeepers, so that a movement can spread with no organized central leadership.”

Millennials are the generation born from the 1980s until the late 1990s. The cohort is recognizable for being the most educated, least religious, and largest generation since the baby boomers. They also grew up as smartphones and internet culture came to the forefront of the national consciousness.

The generation now matches the number of baby boomers as a share of the electorate, and their political views and the way in which they perceive engagement is shaped by the prominent issues of there upbringing and their sophisticated use of technology. They came of age when the increasing political partisanship dominated the national scene, the first black president occupied the white house, and the United States was engaged in seemingly endless conflict under the threat of terrorism. Many had seen there families personally effected by the financial crash of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession. They have higher rates of entrepreneurship and tend to marry later than previous generations. Now At Grand Valley State University, along with colleges across the country, many of the 75 million millennials are making their way through institutions of secondary education and flexing there political muscles.

To Protest and March

Protests are a time tested way for students to get engaged with the political process. On January 31. a group of 30 students crowded into the main atrium of Kirkhof center for the “Sit-in Against Trump.” The event was meant to as a response to President Trump’s immigration ban and restrictions placed on travelers from a dozen majority-Muslim countries. The students chanted “No ban, no wall, this country is for all” and “Show me what democracy looks like – this is what democracy looks like”, waving signs as pedestrians passed through the hallway.

The organizers also wanted to send a message to university president Thomas Haas, who sent an email out to the student body, that they wanted more action taken to protect foreign and undocumented immigrant students. “We wanted to send a message, and that was the best place on campus, you can’t really avoid it,”  said Chelsea Ayotte, a participant in the protest.

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This protest was just one of several planned from the time of the election of Trump into the weeks after his inauguration. On December 10 students marched through the campus chanting “Not my President.” Later a largely student group rallied in support of immigrants and refugees on the blue bridge near the downtown Devos Campus on January 26. The 2016 election and its aftermath spurred the largest outburst of protest that the Grand Valley campus has seen in years, if not decades. A number of student have been motivated to bring activism to their campus  by the success of nationally staged protests such as the March for Women or Sanctuary Campus movement which seeks to shield illegal immigrants from deportation at universities.

“I think there’s a difference with this generation and its protest moment compared to mine,” said Louis Moore, a History Professor at Grand Valley. “The access students have to social media eliminates the gatekeepers, so that a movement can spread with no organized central leadership.”

Moore said that he believes the widespread use of smart phones and unprecedented political climate is driving students to become engaged with activism. “There’s multiple causes that have really come to the forefront,” said Moore. “The space is open for people to get there ideas out there to the public.”

Electoral Politics

Minutes away from where the Kirkhof sit-in took place, other students engage in a more buttoned-down approach to political participation. The Grand Valley student senate is an elected body of students that plans events, addresses student concerns, and controls funding for activities as different as intramural sports and greek life. The senate’s general assembly meets every Thursday throughout the school year in the Pere Marquette room of Kirkhof Center.

Many students participate in their schools electoral bodies, but this group is often just a small segment of the student population at large. Still the various committees of and panels of senators have attempted to reach out to the college community by holding conferences, like when a string of sexual assaults took place in Allendale in the fall of 2016, or allow concerned individual to attend there meetings and voice there concerns.

Sean O’Melia is was a student senator for the last three years. He was interested in getting involved with student senate because he thought it would give him experience of working as a team with other people and achieving different projects for the student body. “Its been really fun. It was the best decision I made in college and I got the opportunity to plan events and really go over the budget in a way that was important to alot of students,” said O’Melia.

Some students have even taken the leap into local politics like junior River Gibbs. Gibbs ran for a seat on the four-person Georgetown Township board of trustees in the 2016 election. He was spurred by a lifelong interest in politics to run for student senate and then find a way to represent young people in his hometown. “Its very uncommon, I was the youngest person to run,” said Gibbs. “It was mortifying.”

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After finding out about an opening on the board, Gibbs received the 1500 signatures necessary to get his name on the ballot. Running as an independent in a seven person primary, the college student was given a variety of reactions to his candidacy by those he approached. “Most of the time they were like ‘okay kid’ or laughed, but sometimes they were curious about why I was running,” he said. Gibbs felt pride when he first saw one of his campaign signs destroyed, quipping that at least voters were taking his candidacy serious enough to be angry at him.

While Gibbs lost the election, he says that he did gain insight into how to further his political career, and balancing it with other priorities. “It was otherwise really surprisingly uneventful to actually run,” said Gibbs. “Still be very cautious. If you’re a student and not 100% sure you want this, don’t do it!”

Wesley Wilson was another student who ran for elected office, and won it. Wilson joined the board of Mona Shore Public Schools last year after running unopposed. “I initially was not going to do it because I thought there is no way I could get elected and I would be busy with school,  but I finally decided to put my name in and run because at the time I was thinking “what’s the worst that could happen'” said Wilson.  He said that the seat wasn’t known by anyone to be open but it ended up being so when he asked the school clerk. “I stayed up all night of the filing deadline to see if anyone else did when they refreshed the page at 10 and I saw I was the only other person and I realized then I got the seat,” said Wilson. He thinks that the board is a feasible way for him to understand procedure for a position in the future and the ability to represent young people effectively since the majority of members are in there 40s or 50s.

Clubs and Civic Organizations

Many students opt to engage with politics through various clubs and chapter organizations at the university. The most notable ones are the student democrats and young republicans, but there is an array of different groups that agitate for change and promote activism apart from partisan politics. There is Turning Point U.S.A., a group devoted primarily to protecting free speech and libertarian ideas, as well as the philosophy club which holds events downtown and encourages dialogue. The Black Lives Matter matter movement has sprouted up throughout the country spurring action on behalf of people of color in neighborhoods and college campuses against police abuses and systematic racial disparities.

gvsuuuGVL/Kevin Sielaff

“My cause for service is informing and fighting again racial inequality, racial equity, addressing these issues within the institutions around me whether that’s GVSU, Southfield, or in my classrooms” said Antoinette Jackson, former president of the Grand Valley chapter of the National Association for The Advancement of Colored People. (NAACP). Jackson became involved with the group after encouragement from the professor of her african-american history class.

Jackson said that the experience of being a student of color, particularly a black woman, can make experiences on the overwhelmingly white campus uncomfortable at times, but that she hopes through activism and education that she can bring awareness to the issue.  ” I hope that GVSU students can keep the ball rolling long after I leave and work to create a better culturally aware, sensitive, and “WOKE” campus. My first Rally I organized was with NAACP “standing in solidarity with MIzzou”, that inspired me to unite and learn to stop what your doing and stand with your brothers and sisters,” said Jackson.

Social Media and Free Speech

Across the country the rules of how free speech should operate on college campuses is under intense debate. After a string of cancellations and protests over incendiary right wing figures such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulus, and the rise of social movements on campus in recent years, the limits of free speech and where it should occur are taking place. One place that took place was at Grand Valleys Allendale campus. Tim McKeeby and Joe Tucker were two students affiliated with the libertarian leaning Turning Point U.S.A. group mentioned before. They were handing out pamphlets when university police officers  told them that they couldn’t do so out of the free speech zone. The zone was designated around the Cook-Carillon clock tower within the range of a dozen feet.

The two students sued the university over grounds that the restrictions violated there first amendment free speech at a public university. ” I was shocked that the school did anything, free speech is a no-brainer so when they threaten us with expulsion and arrest I was surprised,” said McKeeby. “I pay money to attend this school and live here and they wanted to kick me out for following my Constitutional rights.” A district judge ruled in favor of the two students, and the university was forced to rewrite its protocol for free speech in order to make locations more accessible for political action.

Social media has made it easier for more people to get engaged in politics. A shaky video taken on an iPhone at the right time shows police brutality. Black Lives Matter chapters can pop up anywhere in the country thanks to coordination online, and they can protest in both the real and digital world. Millennials, feeling barred from traditional routes of political engagement can go online to find communities and participate in a way that, whether it produces results or not, feels genuine. The use of digital platforms is extremely utilitarian and democratic, but it has demonstrable consequences when used without hesitance.

Social media is a double-edged sword for both producer and the consumer. Take for example a Grand Valley student, Patrick Borum. On April 4, 2017, he hopped on Facebook, and decided to make the incendiary statement, “Rape culture is not real.”

Cue the backlash.

In a matter of hours, the angry digital hordes descended on Borum and bombarded him with a mixture of colorful suggestions and evaluations. This coincided with a town hall meeting concerning sexual assault awareness at Grand Valley. Borum resigned from the Student Senate without the need for the traditional avenues of debate or demonstration. This is but one, local example of using the digital space to affect the real political space.

While it is tempting to say that someone who shows a lack of empathy and good judgement should be immediately ejected from office, the question is, is this the way to do it? Yes, what Borum said is inexcusable and should not be tolerated, but is the hive-mind the new way of handling political engagement? The same tactic could, in theory, be used for less-than-noble reasons, and this incident with the senator proved the concept of using a concerted digital strike to take down someone in a matter of hours.

What if a local hate group decided to target a local activist? What about an unwitting bystander who caught their attention with a simple tweet or post?

Mob justice, and this is an electronic mob, is satisfying, but it can get out of hand and have very real consequences…

The Fourth Branch of Government

In a democracy, one of the primary conduits between the government and the people is the media. Basically, the media is a way to be politically engaged without being direct participation. This applies from the national level down to the local level.

There has been a shift in political coverage, though, which means a shift in the understanding of politics and how politics are covered.

Tanda Newland, an editor at the Grand Rapids Press, explained, “More politicians are using social media to reach their constituents. That information can be easily accessed and shared by journalists, which is especially helpful for people who are not online to get the news from their legislators. Also, social media has helped us pinpoint more easily what issues are resonating with the community, giving us the starting points for many more stories that better focus on the concerns of constituents.” On the one hand, this streamlines the process and makes the democratic process more efficient for all involved, but on the other hand it can lead to shorter stories where it is difficult to find nuance.

“Especially in the wake of Trump’s victory it will become more important than ever to address it locally…These issues that are global are truly comprised of a hundred thousand locales.”

There has also been a steady creep away from the local in favor of the national and international. Len O’Kelly, a professor at Grand Valley State University and a radio veteran, described the situation in that field, “Consolidation in radio all but wiped this out after 1996.  Small independent newspapers exist in the corners of the country able to support them, but have disappeared in other places…The homogenization of radio programming, for example, favors national topics. Rush Limbaugh isn’t going to come to the defense of a local school board, because the national audience won’t care. Syndication of programming has led to making the programming appeal to the widest possible audience, and local coverage has suffered.”

Part of this could be due to the erroneous belief that national issues have more impact on our day-to-day lives, or it could be simply because national political stories are more interesting and salacious. “We need vegetables, but choose candy,” as O’Kelly puts it.

While it is quick to assume that these changes don’t affect millennials because it’s “old media,” the reality is that millennials are still part of the changing media landscape and are reacting to it in different ways.

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One possible way of dealing with this is the formation of smaller, grassroots organizations to cover local political issues. In Grand Rapids there is The Rapidian, an all-volunteer citizen-journalism outfit, and there is a new publication coming to Grand Rapids.

The magazine, Borderless, started by Joel Campbell, a graduate of Grand Valley State University’s journalism program, is an attempt to bring the lofty, and often times distant issues down to a local level and make them accessible for an average citizen. He explains it as a “way of looking at issues such as trade, climate change, and war from an average citizen’s perspective.” He goes on to give the example of how climate change is covered. “Large media outlets will castigate the average driver for contributing to climate change, but they cannot address the specific nature of the problem in smaller locales. To put it frankly, does anyone from the New York Times know how to navigate Grand Rapids’ construction maze? Not to my knowledge. Sure, climate change is a problem. Especially in the wake of Trump’s victory it will become more important than ever to address it locally…These issues that are global are truly comprised of a hundred thousand locales.”

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It shows a recognition that we are now living in “a global village,” but a platitude like that doesn’t mean anything if action isn’t also being taken at the local level, and sometimes that’s the only way to deal with a problem. If the national government, or even the international government, will not or cannot address an issue then it falls on smaller communities to tackle the problems on their own.

This is helping, right?

The other question that comes to mind when talking about the state of political engagement is, is this a healthy amount of attention? It’s important to shine a light on political engagement, or the lack thereof, but at what point is it just running in circles? Once the problem is established it becomes more crucial to focus on how to remedy the situation rather than continue to address it. In all fairness, this could be due to the problem being so complex and sprawling that addressing the entire issue is daunting. It’s like trying to deal with an infestation of weeds: you rip one out only to realize there’s still a yard full of the things. It would be easier to sit on the porch and complain about the situation rather than start to tackle it. Still, any progress is better than no progress.

Maybe part of the issue is that political coverage tends to be a dry slog through facts, figures, and quotes that lack entertainment value. We are living in an entertainment culture, which means that it might be necessary to adopt some of those techniques without sacrificing the quality of coverage.

Do Your Part

So, now what? The answer is that it’s fine to protest, and sharing something on Facebook or Twitter helps with exposure, but the place where the rubber meets the road is less glorious and exciting than fantasies of storming a modern Bastille. It means consistent involvement with a group that meshes with your personal ideology. It means paying for local news so that they can cover local politics. It means showing the same concern for municipal elections that is shown for the presidential election. It means donating to a local candidate that you took the time to research and canvassing for him, or her. None of this is particularly exciting, and most of the time it’s disappointing and tedious, but for a democracy to survive it means the people, especially the youth being involved in the process.

It means doing your part.


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