Activists in training

Today's women activists are changing the universe - and becoming leaders, too

” Seeing people who are apathetic, who don’t think they have the power to change things has energized me, because I can [change things] and I do have that power.” – Kelly McCarthy

If you believe the mainstream media, college students would rather debate the merits of the latest YouTube video than the war in Iraq. While it’s true that some traditional forms of activism are withering on the vine-there is much less interest in student government, and on some campuses, seats go unfilled-we found that women students today are directed, effective and passionate as they go about the business of changing institutions and society.

Taking charge of their power
Kelly McCarthy, who graduates from the University of Minnesota this spring with a degree in English, was an activist in high school, but said it’s her experience with the University’s Women Student Activist Collective that helped sharpen her leadership ability. “Being a student activist has helped me define that activism is a priority, and I’ve gained some good leadership skills and a whole wealth of information about resources,” McCarthy said.

Eliane Farhat, who will graduate from Macalester College this spring with undergraduate degrees in political science and geography, got involved with cultural organizations at Macalester, and ultimately decided to “take the plunge and form the Middle Eastern Student Association (MESA) in the fall of my sophomore year.” Farhat cut her baby teeth as an activist while a student at Minneapolis’ South High. “Initially I had a very narrow understanding of activism,” Farhat said. “The work I was doing was very loud and out there: anti-system, lots of protests and walk outs. I still respect that way of doing things, but I’ve learned that there are lots of different kinds of activism.”

Farhat’s words resonate with Sarah Taylor-Nanista, who earned master’s degrees in social work from the University of Minnesota and public policy from the University’s Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Policy last year. Taylor-Nanista, 32, found herself maturing as an activist in graduate school. “When I was in college, I was rallying, marching, chaining myself to things,” Taylor-Nanista said. While at the Humphrey Institute, Taylor-Nanista served on the steering committee for the International Women’s Day celebration, hosted a Wellstone dialogue, and brought a program for women interested in running for office to the school. When she graduated, she received the Institute’s Paul and Sheila Wellstone Award for Public Action.

Danielle Nelson, a 2005 Macalester graduate, got involved in LGBT organizing through Queer Union, a Macalester student group. “I was a lobby coach for Outfront Minnesota’s citizen lobbying day,” Nelson said. “This is my fourth year doing it.” She also helped organize a women’s sexuality discussion group. “I look back and giggle,” said Nelson, who has a degree in women, gender and sexuality studies. “It was really like an old-school consciousness-raising group” discussing topics like the biology of orgasm, masturbation and sexual relationships. Our posters were so ‘out there.’ I was all over the place, exploring all the ways to be an activist. I did a lot of research on activism, and it made me appreciative of all kinds of groups-large corporate-style nonprofits, neighborhood groups-there’s value in all of it.”

Inside out
Michaela Swanson, who will graduate from the College of St. Catherine in May with degrees in environmental studies and biology, has gained skills in organizing and running meetings through her activism with the college’s chapter of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG). Her ability to lead has impressed Jill Welter, a College of St. Catherine biology professor who’s worked closely with Swanson on a number of environmental issues. “I have learned as much working with Michaela as she has in working with me,” Welter said. “I’ve been in a few meetings that Michaela’s run with administration, faculty, students, all with different perspectives … she is able to sit around a table with stakeholders and push forward, respecting different viewpoints.”

Swanson said she’s learned “big lessons in how to jump through hoops” and early on figured out “I needed to work with the administration … I had a few more years to go, and couldn’t burn bridges.” Among her achievements: By the time she graduates this spring, the campus will likely be switching to serving the free-trade coffee she’s been working to promote.

“Important activism can take place inside the classroom, too,” said Amber Shipley, who graduated from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs last year with a master’s degree in public policy. “Things like how professors frame questions-for example, asking why are we using an example of African American drug use, reinforcing stereotypes when it’s comparable to drug use among whites? That kind of work is really important,” Shipley said.

Bethany Snyder, a classmate of Shipley’s at the Humphrey Institute, suffered a certain amount of culture shock when she moved outside her usual milieu of working with issues-based organizations to asking the university’s Public Affairs Student Association to sign on to a list of organizations opposing a legislative ban on same-sex marriage. Snyder was shocked when what she thought was a straightforward request turned controversial. “It turned into a huge campaign,” Snyder said, “I was bitter about it, I couldn’t believe [it was controversial]. But it got a lot of people energized, and talking about the issue from a human rights perspective. We did end up winning.” And Snyder won, too-the University’s GLBT programs office awarded her its annual “Breaking the Silence” award.

Walking the walk
Today, Taylor-Nanista lives her activism every day as director of StreetWorks, a collaborative of 12 different agencies providing services for homeless youth. “I organize case managers and street outreach workers to advocate at the Legislature,” Taylor-Nanista explained, reeling off a list of legislation she’s promoting. “The most exciting piece is, these are folks who are me, a few years ago-and who better to talk to a state legislator about funding than an outreach worker who had to turn away a 15-year-old girl last night because all the beds at the shelter were full?”

Snyder, too, is influencing public policy at the state Capitol as community advocacy director for the Minnesota chapter of the American Heart Association. “I basically manage the grass-roots lobbying for the state,” said Snyder, who speaks to community groups and citizens about their role in the process. Her goal is to get them to contact their legislators. She also develops volunteers and finds citizens to testify. “What I love is getting people excited about the process, learning that they have a voice. I help them become empowered, and demystify the process.”

Changing the future
“I went back to school thinking I would have a career in nonprofit management, then I took a women and electoral politics class with [Professor] Sally Kenney [director of the Humphrey Institute’s Center on Women and Public Policy] and Sharon Sayles Belton [former mayor of Minneapolis] and started thinking about what it meant to be a feminist, activist public official,” Taylor-Nanista said. “Now, I really want to run for public office.”

Shipley, who has a background in both women’s nonprofits and electoral politics, has left Minnesota for Washington; she is currently a legislative fellow in the office of Minnesota Member of Congress Keith Ellison, and is considering a career on Capitol Hill.

Danielle Nelson is a fundraiser in Macalester’s development office. “When I graduated, I had big hopes of changing the world with my career,” she said. “I used to think that programming, being on the streets, organizing protests were the only ways [to make change]. But there isn’t a place for everyone to be running around on the streets with protest signs. People want to feel like they are doing something important. Giving $50 for a scholarship is important-it helps to be connected to something larger.

“It’s a different level of engagement, but nevertheless it’s so important,” Nelson said. “Nonprofits wouldn’t exist if people didn’t give to them. I tell everyone in my life … skip going out to eat and give that $20 to the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus or another organization that needs it.”