A New Breed of Activist

By Edward Carpenter

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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.

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