How Do Students Spur Change? PT 1

By Dom Belcastro|May 22, 2018Student Writing|

“What am I going to do with my life?”


Students of all ages and credit levels often ask this while they pursue a degree. The process of secondary education, in a perfect world, would definitively answer this question and give each of us a defined path to success and fulfillment. For most working class folks, that is not how things turn out.

The growing social problems of our country and society require a personal reflection of sorts:

“What is wrong with the institutions around me?”

“How do these failures affect me and the people I care about?”

“Who benefits from this arrangement of power and material wealth?”

“Are there people or movements organizing to change these ills?”

“What work needs to be done?”

“What do I bring to the table?”

“What can I learn from my neighbors / colleagues / classmates?”

Before we can focus our energy on frivolous questions like “what is my place in society?” most of us must wrangle with the less existential, but no less perennial question, “How will I continue to afford rent, food, healthcare, childcare, etc.?” in a country where a meager social safety net fails to serve tens of millions of working people.

Some answers come easier than others. I went through this process of questioning, reflecting, researching, and engaging with people who fight the status quo soon after taking a few PCC classes that challenged me to learn more about the levers of power in this city.

I attended my first mass public protest. I spent time navigating the sea of acronyms attached to the many organizations who work to make change in Portland. I learned to ask more questions, to reflect on what questions are often not being asked, and to talk with people about the things they cared about most.

These efforts did not produce any sort of magical epiphany where all my doubts about my place in the world were erased. What I gained was a better understanding of what being a part of a greater community means, in a practical sense.

Through deliberate choices, I became better at recognizing systemic problems, identifying their origins and formulating an analysis of how they related to the people they affect. I could see my neighbors that I previously ignored or misunderstood in a new light. I could see how everyone around me was connected in subtle and profound ways.

Your journey will look different than mine. I benefit from many privileges that enable someone like me to spend time educating myself, perform unpaid labor, and interact with people in spaces that are not wholly inclusive. Relatively low rents, no dependents, a middle class-upbringing, and all the myriad white cis-male privileges that accompany are the cobblestones that paved my path.

You will struggle to find your place, but that is necessary. You have tangible and intangible assets that will inform your journey. Listen to those around you, but make sure you abide by your own values and priorities. Peoples’ movements need you, not what others want you to be.

In times like these, the adage, “do something every day that scares you,” is solid advice. The problems we face require bold action and sustained growth from all of us. One of the first scary things that we can do is to open our eyes, ears, and minds to the things we ignore. Then talk to someone you care about. Chances are they have been suppressing their concerns about something, too.

Whether the issue is macro or micro, something as big as global climate change, police brutality or economic injustice, or as ‘small’ as a broken streetlight in your neighborhood, the solutions will not be found without engaging the people around you. Start a conversation with someone and keep on starting new conversations until you run out of problems to fix.

Making time to become civically engaged is a constant battle for newcomers and seasoned activists alike. Sometimes the costs of life are so prohibitive there is nothing left to give after the bills are paid, whether that is your precious time or money.

Burnout is a deadly consequence of overcommitment and a lack of support. Organizers who once worked with vigor and purpose become defeated and overwhelmed. I will explore this and other common issues with sustained civic involvement in a future entry.

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