Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Lessons learned in campus activism

Lessons learned in campus activism
PERSONAL POLITICAL / Don't turn off critical thinking after the classroom

Ariel Troster / / Wednesday, January 09, 2008

I'll never forget the first time someone called me racist. I was 20 years old, and the editor of the student newspaper at Concordia University in Montreal. A self-proclaimed activist, I had joined every leftwing group that I could when I first set foot on campus in 1998. My answering machine was routinely choked with messages from various collectives seeking my volunteer labour — including one group that spent months constructing giant chicken puppets to be used at a demonstration against genetic engineering.

So you can imagine the shock on this Jewish girl's face, when a six-foot tall white dude with green hair stormed into the newspaper office and angrily informed me that I was in need of an anti-oppression workshop.

This was after I'd run an ill-informed editorial about the Palestinian solidarity group on campus, and managed to upset hundreds of people. But as a budding journalist, I was still invested in the questionable notion of journalistic objectivity, and was seriously miffed at being challenged on my story-gathering prowess.

Within a few weeks, the situation got out of hand. After a very public campaign under the mantle of "accountability and democracy," a group of students delivered a petition to me, with over 1,000 signatures, demanding that I resign from my position. I refused. That led to months of heated arguments about who was censoring who. And believe it or not, the student radicals on campus accused me of being, well, not radical enough. After a very public turf war, I was happy to spend my last year of university quietly buried in the library stacks, swearing I would never again go to another demonstration or write another column.

So, what's changed? I graduated from university and got involved with a local neighbourhood association that ran a food bank and organized tenants to fight back against slum landlords. I read whatever books I could get my hands on about the successes and failures of various activist movements. But more importantly, I finally left campus, and realized that there was a wide spectrum of activism and community involvement out there that hadn't been apparent to me from my ivory tower perch.

I thought about this when I heard that students at McGill University students had successfully booted Hema Quebec off campus, protesting against their donation policies, which explicitly ban gay men. When I was a student, I would have celebrated this as a major victory, but now I'm not so sure.

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