Increasing engagement: Implementing lessons learned in D.C. at the College

“I never let school interfere with my education,” Mark Twain once said. Now, school’s a pretty important part of learning, but you’re wasting Williams’ resources if you don’t connect classroom learning with the real opportunities around us. We should be creative and brave in order to bring our academic lives to bear on the activities that are important to us.

Thirteen Williams students attended Power Shift 2007, the first national youth climate conference in Washington, D.C., last weekend along with 6000 other students from all 50 states. Every one of us took away valuable lessons that could not have been learned in the classroom here. The conference had panel discussions on challenging racism, how to develop effective messaging and the first-hand effects of climate change in New Orleans and Alaska. We did workshops on anti-oppression work, media strategy and the dirty life cycle of coal. Four thousand students lobbied the capitol on Monday, Nov. 5, learning how to speak to congressmen and what pressures influence our government.

And these lessons learned won’t stay in Washington: one first-year learned how to conduct a voter registration drive. She has plans to register every Williams student by the next election. Another learned how to build a multi-cultural alliance for environmental justice and she will be working that into Thursday Night Group and other campus organizations.

Personally, I learned a lot about people and political power.

The only way youth will ever have an effective voice in our future, in the policies and laws that will shape the world in which we live, and in the conditions of our economy and society is by building a movement. We’re realizing that movements are not created by somebody else like Al Gore, they’re created by us, and now. And we, the youth who are engaged in the issues of our times, are starting to see that a movement is not just a collection of organizations working towards a goal. A movement is also a commitment. We know that we are not going to stop until we ensure a sustainable way of using our resources and our people.

Even on a more basic level, through our efforts to attend Power Shift, we also discovered exactly what it takes to get 13 Williams students to D.C. for the weekend despite the obstacles of heavy course loads and Purple Bubble syndrome – a lot, it turns out. We are passionate about so many issues, but we must work together to actually be effective. Advocacy work at Williams can feel like herding cats, but determined effort can make a significant impact.

These experiences must be lived to be really learned. We can’t listen to a professor teach chords and scales, tempo and pitch and be expected to know how to play together in an orchestra. Our music department heavily emphasizes doing. The theatre major requires students to direct plays. Biology students are encouraged to take on real research in labs, and environmental studies students do planning projects in the community. It seems that political science could have a doing component – after all, politics happens all around us. Leadership studies should be as much a real training for leaders as a study of past presidents.

This semester I am taking an independent study in the political science department. The subject is how to build the climate movement on campus, and its case study has been Thursday Night Group. Previously at Williams I’ve been frustrated when my professors’ interests don’t coincide at all with the things I think about. This year I decided to change that, to take my education into my own hands. With the help of my advisors and the resources available to academia, I feel like I can turn some of those big ideas into reality.

We talk about how to get 100 students actively involved in climate change, and then go develop a group that does it. We think about things like how the internal dynamics of volunteer organizations create momentum and results. Power Shift and the Step it Up events on campus were sort of a mid-term exam to gauge the effectiveness of these ideas. We’re pushing ourselves to learn from our successes and failures so we can continue to take on bigger and more important goals.

Challenge your professor to help you learn about your passions. Seek out opportunities to connect your classroom insights to what’s going on in your entry. Ask your professor if they have advice on being captain of a sports team. If there’s something interesting going on in your volunteer work, see if you can work it into a class assignment. Or if we don’t offer a class on something you’re working on, turn it into a class and start getting the help and support you deserve. Let’s think big, be brave and, most of all, challenge ourselves.

Morgan Goodwin ’08 is a Chinese major from Keene, N.Y.

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