BY WILSON SINK
It was an organized chaos. The police had closed the street at both ends. People crushed together, barely able to move. Others shouted, the cacophony mingling to form nonsense. Groups banded together, lobbying for power and support. And into this madness dove roughly 3,946 first year students. This is what the University of North Carolina calls “Fall Fest.” This is how the vast majority of UNC student groups begin to recruit new students for membership and activism. In general, though, with 700 registered organizations and the consequent competition for members, funding, attention and impact, the state of student activism may be equally as chaotic.
“It was overwhelming at first,” first year Brooke Davies says, “Every organization feasible was crammed onto South Road, accosting you with signs, sign up sheets, performances, and food.” Fellow first year Townes Bouchard-Dean echoed the overwhelming nature of fall fest. “It was pretty hectic,” he mentions, with a “myriad of clubs and groups.” Bouchard-Dean, though, saw the benefit of exposure to different ideas and organizations. Both he and Davies would commit themselves to these different groups in an attempt to make an impact on campus.
But, can all student groups be effective in achieving their goals? According to Davies, yes and no. “Productivity is largely due to the type of people in charge. When the core leadership loses that drive to innovate and sustain its dynamism, it only breeds inefficiency and conflict.” Bouchard-Dean attributed that same inefficiency to the large quantity of clubs. In his mind, with so many groups, it’s difficult to determine “What are good uses of your time? What’s pertinent to you?”
Alec Guettel echoed the same concerns. “As a state/regional/national voice, [student organizations] are rarely effective,” Guettel says. Now the Social Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Campus Y, Guettel is no stranger to activism. As an undergrad at UNC, Guettel and his friends founded the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC). Despite the admitted “haphazard” process of forming a campus group, Guettel and his team soon established SEAC as the largest student-run organization at UNC. Not too long after, SEAC had a national presence. Just a year after the organization was founded, “more than 1700 students from 43 states and over 225 schools came to Chapel Hill” for an environmental conference according to the group’s history. The next year, more than 7000 students came to Champaign, Illinois.
Guettel looked back at his impact as undergrad with mixed emotions. At SEAC, he says, “We were effective in training and deepening the commitment of many thousands of students…[and] we helped some great local programs across hundreds of campuses and deliver some positive change.” However, in Guettel’s mind, “we were never able to coordinate our efforts in a way that I think legitimately affected larger policy-making.” The effectiveness of student organizations was often limited to the local community. Today, these issues are exacerbated by “two things,” in Guettel’s opinion. “First, students are so turned off by the political process that they seem reluctant to even try to influence policy,” limiting the scope of activism’s impact. “Second, there’s such an emphasis on resumé building and being a ‘founder’ that students seem to want to start their own organization rather than being part of something bigger.” With the muffling voices of 700 individual groups, one clear student voice has been “eliminated…in the political process.” However, Guettel believes these challenges are “solvable,” but “it will require exceptional leadership by some individual or group of students to rally diverse organizations to join together.”
Now, Sophomore Alex Wilhelm is one of the co-presidents of SEAC. “SEAC used to be the largest student-run organization on campus and it slowly died off, but we hope to bring it back,” according to Wilhelm. Starting with monthly newsletters and a speaker series, SEAC is trying to educate students on environmental issues. After that, Wilhelm says, “We hope to…create one common movement for change.” SEAC has a proud tradition of activism. However, there are no mass conferences today. “Apathy is a significant issue on campus… students are busy with school work and simply do not have the time to devote to clubs,” Wilhelm notes.
The sheer number of clubs also hinders progress. With many individuals working on individual projects, collective action and its power for change are lost. In the environmental field alone, UNC has groups and acronyms galore. RESPC, the Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, funds and supports efforts in renewable energy and sustainability on campus. The SSC, the Sierra Student Coalition, has devoted its efforts toward coal divestment in the past. The EAC, the Environmental Affairs Committee of student government, aids a number of special projects, from Tar Heel Bikes, a bike sharing program, to the organization of Earth Week. SEAC, meanwhile is attempting to unite these disparate groups, and that is just a sampling. These are groups with different goals and agendas, working on similar yet separate ends. Students can only devote their time to so many projects.
Perhaps though, activism has taken a different form. Mass conferences and protests are out of style, yet people are still informed and involved. At a place as diverse as UNC, there will always be diverse interests, with diverse student groups to match. In some ways, that’s a positive. Davies noticed activism in her JStreet events. “We have witnessed record turnouts to our speakers this year,” she says. At UNC, “we love to grow,” she notes happily. Students can now express their passions in more and more specialized ways, growing and affecting the community. As Guettel mentioned, “Student energy is the basis of a TON of great local progress and programs.” Groups now face the challenge of connecting these varied groups to affect national problems. Wilhelm believes SEAC is on the right track. “We are beginning to unite these students…who really want to make a difference.” Just like the chaos of Fall Fest, student activism is messy. Fortunately, students still care, and UNC’s 700 organizations, both individually and collectively, are making an impact, just at different scales.