Life Lessons 017: College Activists in Their Own Words

by Rebecca Spilke

If you're looking to make a difference on campus but don't yet have the know-how or the spark, don't give up. Take inspiration from these four campus activists:

Cara Fisher, 22, recent grad, University of Texas at Austin: Cara never saw herself as an activist. "In my first few years of college I was really disengaged," she says. But after her summer internship at the Reform Movement's Machon Kaplan program in DC (which combines social activism with the study of Jewish values) "I understood how influential the progressive faith-based community can be," she says. One Saturday night her group of thirty Machon Kaplan students spent the night in front of the White House listening to the personal stories of men and women who'd lost their jobs and were now homeless. Then they befriended a homeless man and accompanied him in handing out toiletries and food to men and women living on the streets. Back in Austin, Cara worked with the development director at Congregation Beth Israel to plan a community-wide Israeli Fine Arts festival, honing her writing and marketing skills for what would be her next challenge--writing "action alerts" and planning political activities for local primaries and in support of immigrant rights while interning with People for the American Way. At UT Austin she worked with other students to plan events highlighting the importance of reproductive choice and updated KESHER's resources on the topic. This fall, you'll find the new college grad back in DC as a Religious Action Center legislative assistant, writing press releases, tracking legislation, and learning the ropes of DC advocacy.

Matt Adler, 20, junior, Washington University, St. Louis: Matt calls himself a "growing, learning activist dedicated to gay rights issues on campus." After spending last winter break with the Urban Mitzvah Corps, a project of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago, he's now bent on "really taking ownership of religious texts, using the Torah and rabbinic literature as tools for Jewish activism." Urban Mitzvah Corps was a "life-changing experience," he says. "More than anything else, it gave me the skills and concepts necessary to run a social justice campaign." He learned to start by identifying a specific problem; then, he says, you take the next steps--identifying the target audience; recognizing allies, partners, and opponents; and creating a realistic timeline to develop and implement strategies to enact change. He's also grown as a leader, he says. "I learned there is a time to not be confrontational and really listen to other people. You need everyone to have a successful movement."

At WU, Matt now advocates on campus for worker's rights, holding sit-ins and gathering petition signatures. He's trying to get a ballot initiative passed which will increase Missouri's minimum wage and tie salary to inflation. In addition, working in conjunction with the broader St. Louis gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) community, Matt is committed to countering the "ex-gay movement" (which tries to hetero-sexualize gays and lesbians). When an "ex-gay" group held a conference in a hotel a few miles from the WU campus, Matt organized transportation to the opposition rally held outside the hotel, making it possible for students on campus (most without cars) to join the GLBT locals and raise their voices in protest. He's also proud of the group's pre-rally teach-in on campus in which a sociology professor, a campus administrator, and a student mental health professional taught a group of fifty students about the hazards of the "ex-gay movement."

Suzanne Lipkin, 21, recent grad, Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York City: Suzanne got the activist bug in high school after being one of twelve Jewish students who joined with twelve African American students in "Operation Understanding," a tour of the deep South sponsored by the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Jewish Committee and the Urban League of Greater Philadelphia. By the time she was a freshman at Columbia, all she needed was to see a poster announcing a spring break trip to El Salvador with Columbia/Barnard Tzedek Hillel and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and she was ready to pack. In El Salvador, she and her thirty-nine peers and Hillel staff learned a wide array of skills, from how to plant mango trees to the basics of international development. Back on campus, she took on the responsibility of Tzedek Hillel advisor for all Columbia Hillel social justice programs--and then signed on to a seven-week AJWS summer voyage to a small Amazon community in Peru, where she and fourteen other students built a barbed-wire fence (to secure supplies) and toilets for a site to train women to become health care advisors/providers, all the while learning about Jewish approaches to justice. Upon her return to Columbia, Suzanne promoted awareness on campus about the genocide in Darfur. "I'm trying to get Jews interested in global social justice issues," she says simply. "It's a Jewish obligation, we can all participate, and each person in the world deserves to be valued."

Elissa Froman, 22, recent grad, George Washington University, DC: From her first days on campus, Elissa sought out opportunities at GW to pursue justice and build campus coalitions. By the end of her freshman year, she'd started the Jewish Progressive Political Association, which worked in coalition with the Muslim Student Association, the Islamic Alliance for Justice, and the Newman Center (the Catholic student group) to explore different religious perspectives on civil rights and to protest the Patriot Act's oversight of student library records. "Ultimately my goal is to use my privileged position in society, my vote, my power, to make change," she says. Over last winter break she participated in a Hillel trip to Israel and chose the Tzedek track, which is geared toward hands-on community volunteering. In the development town of Dimona, she painted walls, patched holes, and talked to community leaders. "So much human initiative exists there, and the community members (comprised of Jewish immigrants from Ethiopia, Russia, Morocco, France, and the U.S.) are incredibly supportive of one another in an area with limited resources and underemployment," she says. "It's a real lesson in communal responsibility and leadership." Elissa now encourages others to take on the mantle of leadership. "If you step up and offer your time," she says, "that's a way of displaying leadership, and other people will follow and become leaders too."

--Rebecca Spilke, former campus activist at the State University of New York in Albany, now program coordinator for the Union for Reform Judaism

Union for Reform Judaism.