Ask a Washington, DC taxi driver about student activism in the United States and you will likely hear about student involvement in the Civil Rights movement and student opposition to the war in Vietnam. If you push a bit, the driver may mention Earth Day.
Don’t blame the driver for providing you with a snapshot of activism that only deals with the 60s. When it comes to students, the media lens is narrow. It focuses on mega events. And it focuses on the zany: swallowing goldfish in the 50s, Nehru jackets in the 60s, streaking in the 70s, toga parties in the 80s, the Macarena in the 90s and so it goes. News of student initiatives after the early 70s barely captures the tip of the iceberg. Just below the surface, however, there is a vibrant and enduring student movement.
One of the shining examples of this student movement is the student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs). With the help of our organizers, this campus-based phenomenon that started in 1970 has grown broader and deeper on campuses throughout the country. Students in Oregon and Minnesota launched the first PIRGs. After the initial success in these two pioneering states, attorney and organizer Donald Ross and I wrote a book titled: Action for a Change: A Students Manual for Public Interest Organizing. this
This 1971 how-to blueprint helped students in other states organize PIRGs. Today they operate in 29 states nationwide from California to New York, in small states like Vermont and in other states as diverse as New Jersey and Colorado.
Each local PIRG is financed and controlled by students, but guided by a professional staff of attorneys, scientists, organizers and others. Core funding comes from modest annual fees of $5 to $10 automatically billed to all students on campuses who approve a campus PIRG by a majority vote. Once underway, PIRGs work on local, statewide and national issues ranging from improving the quality of subway service in New York City, to making polluters pay for their toxic waste dumps, to reducing fees for banking services, to promoting renewable energy policies. PIRGs are non-partisan, non-ideological, no-nonsense groups that make good things happen with creative approaches and hard work.
In 1983, the state PIRGs banded together and created a national lobbying office and a full time staff of advocates working with the state PIRGs on environmental issues such as preserving the Arctic wilderness, protection of forests, and reversing global warming. The PIRG consumer agenda is as broad as the marketplace. It includes challenging the production of genetically modified food, concentration of media ownership, and safeguarding privacy as well as advocating laws to limit the potential of identity theft. US PIRG also works to prevent fraud and gouging of consumer borrowers and depositors.
And, the PIRG democracy initiatives range from campaign finance reform, to ballot access laws that provide equal access to all political parties, to proportional representation, to open access to government information.
Doug Phelps, a student activist in the 60s and a graduate of Harvard Law School, is the chair of the State PIRGS. Phelps says for, “over three decades in dozens of states on many issues – there is a common thread: research, organizing and advocacy. In each case, state PIRGs began by investigating the problems at hand, building support for concrete solutions among the public, and then persistently advocating change.”
Gene Karpinski, the Executive Director of USPIRG, notes that, “beyond the lobbying, litigation and investigative reports, the PIRGs teach students about the role they can and should have in a democracy.” And, the role is indeed significant.
This country has more problems than it should tolerate and more solutions than it uses. Few societies in the course of human history have faced such a situation: most are in the fires without the water to squelch them. Our society has the resources and the skills to keep injustice at bay and to elevate the human condition to a state of enduring compassion and creative fulfillment. How we go about using the resources and skills has consequences which extend beyond our national borders to all the earth’s people. These words ring as true today as they did in 1971.
PIRGs have taught students that they can “fight city hall” and that they can win important victories for our society. They have published hundreds of groundbreaking reports and useful guides, helped pass scores of important laws in their state legislatures, called media attention to environmental threats and stopped consumer abuses by corporations. But the work of building and improving our society must continue. The injustices of tomorrow will require the next generation of student activists to rise to the challenge of building a more just and humane society. And just as I said in 1971, “The problems of the present and the risks of the future are deep and plain. But let it not be said that this generation refused to give up so little in order to achieve so much.”