Whether staging a walkout against tuition hikes, holding a demonstration to oppose a controversial speaker, or protesting a racist meal plan, student activism has become a cornerstone of college campuses across the world. The driving force of a social movement can grasp a student’s interests and thrust him or her into a brave new world.
RIT is not immune to this phenomenon, as it fosters its fair share of student activist groups. In an effort to better understand the state of student activism in this brick city, I sought out an intimate encounter with one of these groups. My journey led me to the Wallace Library’s Idea Factory where a public forum entitled “Socialism: What It Is and Why We Need It” was taking place on the evening of September 17. The event was sponsored by the RIT branch of the Rochester International Socialist Organization (ISO), an organization geared toward laying the groundwork for ultimately forming a socialist society.
The meeting was conducted as an open discussion directed towards dispelling common misconceptions about socialism and to enlighten the audience with the ideas behind it. Throughout the night, those in attendance were able to state their thoughts and ideas across numerous topics, ranging from the banking crisis to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This allowed the conversation to grow and evolve as it moved across the room. The ISO hosts this weekly meeting in the Idea Factory every Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Everyone is welcome.
Since arriving on campus in 1999, the RIT branch of the ISO has been motivating like-minded students to strive for liberty and challenge injustices on both a local and national level. The organization is largely involved with other activist groups in the Rochester area including the University of Rochester’s Students for a Democratic Society (UR-SDS) and Rochester’s Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), amongst others.
In addition to weekly meetings on campus, the socialists are often found conversing with passersby and endorsing the ISO’s weekly periodical, “The Socialist Worker,” every Friday outside the Wallace Library. Activities like these engage students and help open others to new ideas and radical thoughts. With a strong commitment to change and a desire to better society, the socialists have plenty of irons in the fire this autumn.
After poking around some hot coals, I was able to sit down for a pleasant lunch with Ralph Bean, an RIT dual degree (BS/MS) graduate in Computer Science (2009) and active socialist, to discuss some of the upcoming and recent events that interest the ISO members, as well as other social activists in the Rochester community.
Over a couple of steaming bowls of stroganoff at Crossroads, Ralph and I were able to talk about the success of recent events. Since joining the ISO in 2004, he has seen the organization grow and flourish, and he has noted that almost half of those in attendance at “Socialism: What It Is and Why We Need It” were new faces in the crowd. He stated, “Real people in the masses make history themselves,” showing the steadfast nature of those involved with the organization. Additionally, I was informed that many ISO members, like Ralph himself, stay active with the organization after graduating from the university.
Another successful happening for activists in the Rochester area was the “Buckwild for Busses” fundraiser, which provided a night of good fun for a good cause. Held on Friday, September 18 at the Bug Jar, the proceeds from this event will be used to help reduce the cost of sending busses from Rochester to Washington, DC for “The National Equality March.” With a crowd of over 175 people in attendance, “Buckwild for Busses” was “the largest fundraiser we have ever pulled off, by an order of magnitude” as described by Ralph.
On October 10 and 11, “The National Equality March” will unite the masses across America at the Washington Mall to demand full and equal protection for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community under civil law in every state. This march will mark the 30th anniversary of the first LBGT march to the mall, and it hopes to set the stage for a nationwide movement to pursue equal rights for all. As Ralph puts it, “I hope this march consolidates the nuclei of grassroots activism across America.” With 112 local activists signed up already, it is expected that at least two buses will be sent from Rochester.
As our meal continued, we discussed many recent events, including the protests and marches at the Group of 20 Financial Minister and Central Bank Governors summit which was recently held in Pittsburgh, PA. Seven RIT students were given the opportunity to travel to the summit and participate in a mass march with other activists from all around the world. These protests drew large crowds and brought activists from across the nation. When asked about the state of activism since the inauguration of Obama, he replied, “There has not been much of an increase in activism recently ... After Rosa Parks took a seat on that bus, it took almost ten years for the Civil Rights movement to culminate.” This shows that all movements need time to flourish. “I want a revolution,” Ralph explained. “But that revolution must be built on incremental reforms along the way.”
We continued to converse on a variety of issues and upcoming movements that may gain momentum in the near future. Ralph expects to see equal rights, health care and America’s involvement in Afghanistan to spark some interesting debates over the coming months. “Already there are an increasing number of liberal critics on Obama’s handling of Afghanistan, which may leave some skeletons in the administration’s closet,” he mentioned.
One important event for promoting social change is the Northeast Socialist Conference being held at Columbia University in New York City from October 24 to 25. Ralph calls this “the most important political convention in the Northeast,” as the event plans to draw large crowds of student activists and socialists from across the region. Currently 35 RIT students are expected to attend, and tickets are available to anyone who is interested at the ISO branch meetings. Personally, Ralph “hopes the layer of people from RIT come back with the tools they need to bring an increase in activism to the Rochester area.” The conference is a large promoter of activism and will offer numerous workshops with titles ranging from “Afghanistan: Obama’s Vietnam” to “The Capitalist Roots of Sexual Oppression,” which are aimed to help arm activists with a barrage of revolutionary ideas.
As you can see, student activism has not yet gone with the wind. Activists within the RIT community will continue to flourish, as they strive to make the world a better place.