By now, every student has heard the critiques before. We’re lazy. We’re entitled. We don’t want to take our eyes off our Facebooks or our butts off our couches. Yeah, we know.
UCR students have shattered that misconception.
The last few weeks have been a frenzy of activity. Most notably, ASUCR held its annual elections, during which students posted record turnout numbers. More than 50 candidates for elected office in our student government shed blood, sweat and tears for more than two months to make the cut. Students matched that enthusiasm, turning out in record numbers to engage in the democratic process. This year, 38 percent of students voted in the ASUCR elections, nearly matching the 41 percent turnout rate of voters during the 2010 midterm elections. We were just as involved in electing our student leaders as the entire United States was in electing its governors and senators.
This comes at the tail end of a year’s worth of protests. First we protested Janet Napolitano’s ascension to the presidency of the UC. Then we joined AFSCME strikers demanding better wages and working conditions in a strike that virtually shut down the UCR campus. After enacting a housing resolution that many considered discriminatory to students, we hit the streets and took the battle to the city of Riverside’s front door.
We have been engaged in the world around us, making our voices heard by engaging in electoral politics and protesting when the political system didn’t listen. Nowhere was this more evident than during ASUCR’s recent meeting that discussed divestment. The senate chambers could not accommodate the turnout, so the meeting was moved to UNLH, UCR’s largest lecture hall. Over 150 students spent five hours during a week filled with studying and midterms to debate the merits of divestment. Students held posters high. Students made their case to their elected representatives. In short, students did exactly what participatory democracy expects of its citizens: We participated.
Setting aside the merits of divestment as a whole, it’s important that so many people were involved in the conversation about divestment in the first place. People both for and against the resolution strode down the aisles to speak their minds and engage in the debate democracy is designed to foster. People exchanged and debated ideas, and though the vote was held by secret ballot, senators could not avoid hearing from their constituents. They listened.
This is how democracy is supposed to work, and UCR students made use of the democratic process to achieve their goals. Participation, after all, is the difference between a society where elites listen only to other elites and a society where elites listen to the people; the difference between democracy and an oligarchy. During the divestment debates, UCR students showed that participation works, using democracy the way it was meant to be used.
It’s great that students are enthusiastic and engaged in politics. However, we may want to consider what the results are of the actions we place so much effort in. UCR has no obligation to respond to the resolution. The vote certainly is symbolic, and it does place some pressure on the administration to take action, but for the time being it seems like it will have little if any practical impact.
This isn’t to say that it hasn’t been useless. Authorities can no longer complain that students have been too busy waving signs and haven’t used the political process to make their voices heard — we have done so. We are contributing to the discussion in our own way.
And yet, other issues affecting students have sometimes gone unnoticed. Imagine the same amount of students turning out to support lowering tuition. The people who showed up to the meeting are close to the issue of divestment, but the mountain of student debt anchored to our feet is just as close, if not closer. Just as an active, energetic core of students took action on an issue important to them, other students can show up en masse to support a decrease in tuition. Or to advocate for more state funding for the UC. Or to support affirmative action. Or to oppose affirmative action — whatever causes students feel are important.
Let’s not let the energy surrounding divestment be a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. The momentum of dialogue and conversation cannot cease with divestment. It must continue forward, with students carrying the banner to advocate for the issues they find important. Students can effect real change. We just have to be tenacious and energetic enough to seek it in the first place.
It’s all too easy to fall back and be complacent. But students must not rest on their laurels, however hard-earned they may be. There is always another battle to fight, and we must be prepared for those battles. Choosing to kick back and relax is an abdication of responsibility to ourselves and society.
Now, it’s up to the rest of us to take that hypothesis and turn it into a law of nature. Let’s champion our causes and oppose injustices. Change is possible. But not if we don’t get up off the couch every once in a while.