The Portland title image
About Us - Subscribe - Contact & Submission info

Front Page > Issues > 2003 > January

Activism strong on Portland's college campuses

The 1960s haven’t returned to Portland college campuses. Today’s activists are building a different movement to match the times.

By Abby Sewell

Don’t let baby boomers fool you — student activism is not dead. It may not be the massive presence it was in the ‘60s, but in Portland a small, dedicated core of student organizers are working to build a movement on their campuses. They face many of the same issues other political mobilizers are dealing with — class and race division within the movement, intellectual bickering, apathy from their peers, and sometimes hostility from the authorities. At the same time, they also have to deal with organizing a student population that is constantly turning over. However, in the face of these difficulties, they have shown adaptability and creativity. Increasingly, they are also working to build unity among the different college campuses in Portland.

At Lewis and Clark, a small private liberal arts college, student organizers complain that many of their peers are “armchair activists” who support social change in theory but are not willing to put in the labor necessary to make it happen.

“Because it’s a private college, I think a lot of people haven’t been faced with certain difficulties in reality — it’s just a project for them,” said Khai East, a student who works with the Black Student Union and the newly-founded Organization for Peace in Politics. She added that because the students are taught to be so analytical in their academics, they often have difficulty coming to a consensus on a course of action even if they have common goals.

Both bureacratic red tape and bickering within the student body get in the way of action. When a student environmental group called SEED proposed a project to make Lewis and Clark the first college in the United States to meet the Kyoto Protocol standards for carbon dioxide emissions, a vast majority of the student body supported the idea. SEED took a referendum to see if the students would support a $10 fee increase for each of them, which was the amount they estimated it would cost to get Lewis and Clark in line with the Kyoto standards. 83 percent of the students approved the fee increase, but the trustees would not allow it.

So SEED attempted to get the money through the student government, but other student groups felt that the money should be going to them. A period of wrangling ensued.

Organizer Julian Dautremont-Smith said, “People on the [funding] board were ideologically opposed to funding Kyoto, so we had to do another vote to see if the students still wanted to do it.”

The vote passed, and as of next year, Lewis and Clark will be the first college in the nation to come in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol.

As part of a new city-wide student coalition called Portland Students for Peace and Justice (PSPJ), the Lewis and Clark peace group organized a speak-out and a day of silence on campus to protest the war. All the schools involved in PSPJ are planning events for the week of Martin Luther King Day. At Lewis and Clark, the events will revolve, appropriately enough, around improving race relations.

Khai East, herself a woman of color, made the point that the peace movement should address its own lack of unity, and especially its inability to reach out to minorities, before it can expect to effect real social change.

“I know communities of color don’t want another reason to be terrorized by the police,” she said. “Also there are issues with their treatment within the groups. Some of the things people say to each other are really ignorant.”

While Lewis and Clark activists are dealing with divisions within the student body, activists at the University of Portland find themselves impeded by censorship from the administration. The Catholic college has a rather unpromising climate for political organization, in any case. With the largest ROTC detachment on any campus in the country, the student body for the most part is not interested in questioning the war in Iraq or the U.S. military in general. At the same time, the administration has cracked down on activist groups which have taken actions that run counter to Catholic doctrine. Although they have a right to do so, as it is a private school, it still creates a difficult situation for students who are interested in progressive politics.

One student group, called Students Towards Awareness and Social Respon-sibility, was disbanded last year after they passed out condoms to students. Ryan Bemis, who has been involved with that group and several others, said that the student newspaper is censored as well. Writers are discouraged from dealing with issues not directly related to on-campus activities, and no one is allowed to put up flyers on campus without approval from the administration.

However, Bemis notes, the lack of activism cannot be blamed entirely on the administration. “Notre Dame [another Catholic university] was able to get a gay and lesbian group on campus because they had a critical mass of students who protested and demanded it...When you don’t have that critical mass, the administration can just laugh at you and they can just wait for you to graduate.”

In spite of the generally unfavorable climate, some students have been able to take progressive steps. For instance, a group of students have formed a feminist discussion group and are bringing “The Vagina Monologues” to the university (to be performed in a dorm because it is not allowed in the theater). Another group, called Students Actively Changing Society, is planning a teach-in for February, with a series of workshops for activists and volunteers. Titled “Jazz up Your Citizenship,” the conference may not tread on very controversial ground, but it is a step.

Reed College is politically the polar opposite of the University of Portland. The private liberal arts college is well known for its leftist-leaning student body and its administration’s permissive attitude. The student peace group, Reed Student Peace Action Network (RSPAN) had no trouble getting a hundred students or more to come out for the Oct. 5 and Nov. 17 peace rallies. However, when the rally is over, the majority of students go home feeling they have done their part; only a small number stay continuously involved in the movement.

RSPAN has held lectures, video showings, and discussions all semester to give students information about the proposed war in Iraq and other U.S. military actions, but organizer Ira Woodward feels that they need to do more to get people committed to the peace movement.

“I think part of our problem is that we need to focus more after the events on getting people connected and involved,” he said. “They just get some information and leave.”

He sees the creation of PSPJ and the focus on coalition-building as one of the most positive steps by student activists in the past few months. In conjunction with the other PSPJ schools, Reed is holding events in the week of Martin Luther King Day, including a presentation on Iraq by local peace activist Dan Handelman.

In the past semester, there has also been an increasingly powerful labor movement at Reed. A new group has been attempting to organize both students and other workers who are employed on campus. Among their current campaigns are bimonthly paychecks for student workers (who currently get paid only once a month), a living wage of $8.00 an hour for anyone who works on campus, and setting up a grievance procedure for all workers so they can get mediation if they are having trouble with the management.

Although organizer Todd Goodenow says that students have generally been supportive, he feels that classism is a problem at Reed. “People from a privileged sector of society don’t understand that some people really need these jobs in order to get by... They think of it as a welfare job that Reed gives to us as a favor.”

Goodenow and another student, Ame-lia Imler, will have an opportunity to hone their organizing skills in January at the World Social Forum in Brazil, a meeting of grassroots activists from all over the world. Members of the student body successfully lobbied the administration to provide funding for Goodenow and Imler to go to the forum. When they return, the two students will hold a multi-media presentation and a teach-in with workshops to disseminate the techniques they learn at the forum.

Portland State Univer-sity is different from these other schools, being a large state university. Its student body tends to be more representative of the population of Portland. People who go to PSU, unlike people who go to Lewis and Clark, or Reed, or the University of Portland, have often lived in Portland their whole lives. They have deeper roots in the community because of this. Often, they also have jobs, families, and other commitments that keep them from getting involved with groups on campus.

Elias Silvernaile, an organizer with Students for Unity, admits that this can make it difficult to convince students a project is worthwhile, but he adds, “That’s good in a way, because it means we really have to address issues that matter to the community if we want people to get involved.”

For example, Students for Unity is currently working on a campaign to get money from PSU’s $14 million investment fund moved into a separate fund that would go to local, community-based businesses rather than large corporations like Nike and Raytheon. If the project is successful, about $140,000 will go into the new community fund.

“That’s quite a bit of money out of Raytheon’s pocket,” Silvernaile noted.

Activism at PSU often mirrors activism in Portland as a whole. The students have their own independent, left-wing newspaper, The Rearguard, and recently opened a student-run restaurant on campus. Called the Food for Thought Cafe, it serves all organic and locally grown food.

There are two strong minority student groups at PSU, MechA, for the Latino community; and the Black Student Coalition. As of press time, we were unable to reach anyone involved with MechA, but according to Silvernaile, they are currently planning a national conference. The Black Student Coalition is involved in planning events for Black Heritage Month in January. These will include a “freedom” symposium, with topics including “freedom and resistance education,” and a discussion on reparations for slavery, among other things.

When asked, most of these student organizers did feel that activism on college campuses has grown weaker since the ‘60s, perhaps because Americans as a whole have become more politically apathetic. However, with the rise of the anti-globalization movement, and more recently, the anti-war movement, the political climate is beginning to change, and college campuses are still among the first to reflect this. With a variety of tactics, with creativity and energy and a desire to engage their peers in a discussion, the student organizers in Portland are in it for the long haul.

Students are important to social movements because they will go on to become the lawyers, politicians and businesspeople of the next generation, and the ideas and values they pick up now can have a large impact on what the world looks like in twenty years. More immediately, campuses are a good place to hold events, to network, and disseminate information. Like churches and labor unions, colleges hold a large pool of people who can be easily contacted and mobilized. The student organizers in Portland are trying to build awareness in their communities so that, when necessary, this pool of people will put its time and energy behind the growing movement for political change.

Abby Sewell is an intern with The Portland Alliance and a student at Reed College.


Back to Top


The Portland Alliance 2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Questions, comments, suggestions for this site contact the webperson at

Last Updated: December 30, 2001