A New Breed of Activist

Written by Edward Carpenter

More than 40 years after the social upheaval of the 1960s, when protestors took to the streets demanding expanded civil rights and social justice, a new breed of activists have put  down their picket signs but taken up the baton. Among them are USF alumni, self-styled smart activists who have embarked on careers as spokespeople, community organizers, and women’s rights advocates for nonprofit organizations from inner-city Oakland and Washington D.C. to Rwanda. Their fight is waged in churches, government chambers, and corporate board-rooms to transform the systems that perpetuate injustice.

TRAVIS SHARP ’06 has a reputation as spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation for being unflappable in the face of probing questions from the likes of The Washington Post and congressional aides. But, add to his innumerable daily responsibilities the pressure of driving two tough-as-nails Army generals to a televised interview on unfamiliar, winding roads and it may have been inevitable that something would go wrong.

Sharp, who usually has a keen sense of direction and prides himself on having the right answers, admitted it wasn’t his finest hour. “I must have spent 40 minutes driving around in circles when I started to hear groans coming from the backseat,” said Sharp, who graduated summa cum laude from USF with a double major in history and politics.

One of his travel companions, a retired one-star brigadier general, had become carsick after Sharp lost his way on the leafy Greensboro, N.C. roads during an outreach excursion late last year. “We ended up being incredibly late to an interview about Iraq and Iran with Fox News,” Sharp said.

Thankfully, the memory of that detour pales in comparison to the moments he has handled with aplomb, including sit-downs on non-proliferation with 1988 presidential candidate and former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. He has also talked weapons of mass destruction with retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, who led Central Command (CENTCOM) during the aftermath of the Gulf War.

“The most rewarding part of my job is meeting people who would be forgiven, based on their accomplishments, for blowing off a twenty-something kid just cutting his teeth in D.C., but, instead, look me straight in the eye and listen to what I have to say,” Sharp said.

A tireless advocate for the center’s nonpartisan mission of reducing and eliminating weapons of mass destruction, Sharp is just one of many recent USF graduates who have carried into the everyday world the call for “smart activism,” as laid out by USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J. in a 2003 speech.

quoteFor Birte Scholz, JD ’99, the “everyday world” is halfway around the globe in Ghana and Uganda where she works to raise awareness of women’s land and housing rights; closer to home is Casey Farmer ’07, a sociology major, who teaches disabled high school students at east Oakland’s Youth Empowerment School for Teach for America; and in San Francisco Sara Silva-Nolan ’03, a Latin American studies and theology double major, works as a community organizer to ensure that affordable housing, better health care, and violence reduction top the city’s list of priorities.

Though divergent in their concentrations, they each credit USF with influencing their careers. In fact, except for Scholz (who graduated earlier than the rest), each first heard about smart activism through a program of the same name that was introduced on campus more than four years ago as a series of six two-hour workshops for students wanting to impact social justice through thoughtful advocacy. The program—initially designed for living-learning communities such as Erasmus and Martín-Baró Scholars—was a joint effort between Living-Learning Communities, the Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought, and the Leo. T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good to connect students to real life social justice experiences.

Culminating smart activism projects have included graduates and students refurbishing the library of one of San Francisco’s underserved Catholic high schools, working to end sex trafficking through the “Not For Sale” campaign, and engaging communities in New Orleans around issues of race and ethnicity following Hurricane Katrina. Such inventive approaches to social justice have stoked wider interest from faculty and students across campus, resulting in nearly every USF college and institute debuting their own courses with smart activist roots.

“Frankly, if there was a department on campus that wasn’t looking for ways to promote smart activism at this point, I think they’d be out of place,” said Michael Duffy, director of the Lane Center for Catholic Studies and Social Thought.

Today, USF nursing students work in San Francisco’s underprivileged Catholic schools to improve health education, dance students team with law enforcement authorities and inmates to bring art into local jails while learning about jail overcrowding and the social conditions that contribute to incarceration, and architecture students design and help build communities in Mexico and Africa.

Educating and inspiring smart activists to continue their work beyond the university is central to USF’s values of justice, service, and social responsibility, said Patrick Murphy, director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good. “It’s directly at the front edge and harmonious with USF’s mission, because it looks at those at the margins and tries to bring justice to their situation,” he said.

At the heart of smart activism is the “circle of praxis,” a four-stage process of community immersion, social analysis, spiritual reflection, and planning that are essential to effective action for social change. “Our students are taught to ask, ‘How does handing money to a homeless person serve the long-term need?’” said Lorrie Ranck, director of USF’s Living-Learning Communities. Instead, finding a way to address the social and political causes behind homelessness may be a better use of their time and effort, she said.


UNLIKE ACTIVISTS from the 1960s who marched in the streets against the establishment, rallied around protest signs, or took part in letter-writing campaigns to elected officials, many of today’s most effective activists work within organizations —whether they are nonprofits, churches, or governments—to influence change, Ranck said.

And while community immersion, data-driven analysis, and solution planning garner more attention by their kinetic nature, spiritual reflection is never far from most smart activists’ thoughts, Silva-Nolan said. After a 60-hour workweek punctuated by flashes of frustration brought on by the shortsightedness of some leaders, she often takes solace and finds renewed purpose in the Scriptures, Silva-Nolan said. A favorite passage is Isaiah 58:5-7.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

quoteFor Sharp, USF’s role in molding him into a smart activist is irrefutable. “In complete honesty, I don’t think I would be doing this type of work at all if it weren’t for USF,” he said. “When I was 18 years old, I really wanted to be a corporate lawyer and make a boatload of money, but my professors really went out of their way to show me that my skills could be put to greater use in the world of public policy.”

As an analyst of U.S. military policy, Sharp reads 1,000-page defense bills; consults with weapons experts; writes opinion pieces on arms sales for theNew York Times; and keeps a Web log on the Iraq war.

“Whereas traditional activism was based on organizing like-minded individuals, the Internet lets smart activists reach different types of people all over the world,” said Sharp, who spends much of his time in front of a computer doing research and sending emails. “The Internet’s power allows smart activists to transcend the traditional strictures of geography, religion, education, income, race, gender, or sexual preference,” he said. “Broad-based coalition building is the name of the game for smart activists.”

“When I think of smart activism, I think of Fr. Privett explaining to me that the last thing we need are dumb people holding protest signs,” said Silva-Nolan, who helped found USF’s Peace and Justice Coalition in her sophomore year. Now with the San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP)—a faith-based community group that educates congregations on how to influence politicians and institutions on matters of affordable housing, healthcare, violence prevention, and improved public education—Silva-Nolan looks back on Fr. Privett’s comments as a turning point, even a challenge to students and faculty that some immediately responded to.

“Educating minds and hearts is not an apologia for neglecting academic rigor,” Fr. Privett said in a 2003 convocation speech. “It bears repeating that we are about mind and heart, knowledge and love, intelligence and compassion together; we are not ceding pride of place to the latter component in each of those dyads. I repeatedly remind our students somewhat crudely, that the last thing the world needs is dumb activists.”

The daughter of a single mother, Silva-Nolan grew up in a low-income neighborhood in the farming town of Vado, N.M., well aware of the injustices around her. Like many in her situation she faced prejudice because she was poor, spoke Spanish, and had an absent father, Silva-Nolan said. Focused on her day-to-day struggles growing up, she never had a sense before coming to USF that change was possible. “I don’t want that to happen to others,” she said. “Instead of blaming ‘the man,’ I want to help teach people to use their power in an effective way.”

She brushes aside skepticism that organized communities can influence public policy at a fundamental level, because she has seen it happen. In San Francisco, officials recently allocated $8 million from “unexpected revenues” for violence prevention, something the SFOP had pursued under its “Avenues of Hope” campaign. More than $4 million went directly to employment programs for youth and young adults. Then there was the allocation of $20 million for affordable housing development and construction in San Francisco that SFOP leaders worked with advocates and elected officials to see approved, Silva-Nolan said.

Collaborating to solve problems by exercising the system’s levers—whether in the form of lobbying officials, forming a neighborhood watch, or researching statistics for public outreach—is what spurs her on, Silva-Nolan said. “I like putting officials on the hot seat,” she said, a grin spreading across her lips. “People demonstrating their power is the great equalizer.”

In fact, more and more USF alumni are following Sharp and Silva-Nolan’s lead, tapping into the existing power structure through civic engagement, including volunteerism and activism, Murphy said. And they aren’t alone. Universities across the country have begun adding service-learning requirements, living-learning communities, and other curriculum to stem the tide of criticism that they are failing to cultivate and educate citizens to play a fundamental role in democracy, said Caryn McTighe Musil, senior vice president for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Indeed, one-time and ongoing service-learning and living-learning communities appear to promote an increased sense of civic engagement, according to a recent study published by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, The Contributions of Living-Learning Programs on Developing Sense of Civic Engagement in Undergraduate Students (2007).

Casey Farmer ’07, who majored in sociology with minors in public service and environmental studies, is a good example. Her Erasmus living-learning experience and the associated internship at St. Anthony’s Foundation—a San Francisco nonprofit that cares for the homeless—helped her to not only see the reality of homelessness, but develop a curriculum on the intersection of mental health and homelessness. “This experience showed me a world I clearly had not experienced during my suburban upbringing in Irvine, California,” Farmer said.

While learning the ins and outs of power politics, gaining the support of gatekeepers, and exposing unflattering voting or campaign contribution records can be frustrating at times in its two-steps-forward-one-step-backward approach to progress, having a bureaucracy to work with at all can be a luxury, comparatively. For some, it’s a lack of systems or profoundly broken systems that people are up against, Farmer said. In the first year of a two-year contract as a multi-subject, special education teacher in one of Oakland’s toughest neighborhoods with Teach for America, Farmer has already been startled by the gaps in special education law, the foster care system, and No Child Left Behind.

“Students need a system that works for them, not against them,” Farmer said. While acknowledging her relative greenness as a teacher, she points out that a dearth of qualified instructors and resources handicaps underserved learners from the start. “I’m not sure that a classroom full of students with reading levels ranging from second to 12th grade is the most successful way for them to learn,” she said, painting a picture of her classroom experience. Ultimately, Farmer hopes her work for Teach for America exposes her to the policy needs of the Bay Area, where she plans to pursue a career in public policy or social entrepreneurship.

FOR SCHOLZ, who recently took a job as a consultant for Women’s Land Rights Africa after a year at the Geneva-based Center On Housing Rights and Evictions, it is the lack of systems altogether that make conditions difficult. That’s why, for her, smart activism is driven by the realities on the ground, not the rhetoric at the top. “It’s not just crying out loud for a cause,” Scholz said. “It is working steadily and often unseen towards a change, hand-in-hand with, not for, those wanting the change.”

It was during her time at the USF School of Law that she realized the struggle had to be waged on a human rights level, Scholz said. Working for both the International Human Rights Clinic and the Civil Law Clinic at USF, she traveled to Geneva to speak before the United Nations and lobby for women’s rights to adequate housing, and helped mediate local eviction cases in San Francisco public housing developments.

“I got into housing rights because of the fact that I have always been disturbed by the fact that homelessness exists around the world—especially disturbing in countries like the United States, where wealth abounds,” said Scholz, who has worked in nearly one dozen African countries since graduating.

quoteFrom training clergy on women’s housing and land rights issues in Nigeria, and conducting a fact finding mission on the inheritance rights of women in Rwanda, to investigating housing evictions in Zambia and Zimbabwe, much of her success in raising awareness has been built at the grassroots level, Scholz said. But, that isn’t to discount the influence she and others have had advocating in front of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, as well as the Africa Commission on Human and People's Rights, she said.

“I believe my desire (for social justice) comes from my faith and my strong belief that we are all equal,” Scholz said. “All of us are God’s children. That is, we are all born with equal rights, equal dignity, equal grace—but an inequality is created through the circumstance of where or to whom or into what situation we are born.”

For many activists, including those like Scholz and Farmer, the future of smart activism lies in pursuing results-oriented policies aimed at building and improving the efficiency of systems. Much as former President Bill Clinton’s foundation has worked in Africa and the Caribbean to cut out middle-men and create buying consortiums to bring down HIV/AIDS medication costs and speed delivery, Scholz and Farmer believe that improved systems are likely to be driven through an increasing number of partnerships between local communities, nonprofits, non-governmental agencies, and governments.

“I strongly believe that social change can come from structurally changing systems to be more socially conscious and effective, while still utilizing current resources,” Farmer said.

The evolving interdisciplinary and interagency approach to activism is also behind current efforts to expand and remake USF’s Smart Activism program. Rather than a seminar for a classroom full of students, faculty organizers envision the next model as more collaborative. The idea is to encourage better cooperation and coordination of various activism approaches across campus—including service-learning, living-learning communities, and student leadership.

“I think there are opportunities that we haven’t even imagined yet,” Ranck said.