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.
Even 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.