Social Action, Not Self-Interest

The rally for AmeriCorps was admirable, but misguided

In January, almost a million people turned out on the streets of Alexandria in what the world now calls the Egyptian Revolution. This week, almost 100,000 Wisconsin residents continue to rally in Madison supporting the right of public sector workers’ to unionize. And last Thursday, almost 400 students protested outside of the Institute of Politics as Republican House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor spoke inside.

The Harvard protestors were united in their condemnation of the Republicans’ proposed budget, which would cut funding for programs like Title X family planning, AmeriCorps, and Obama’s new health care system. But protestors represented groups targeting different budget cuts. While the Harvard Students for Choice held signs defending Planned Parenthood, the Global Health and AIDS Coalition chanted, “health care is a human right!” and members of the Queer Students and Allies, Radcliffe Union of Students, and Student Labor Action Movement  held signs condemning other cuts.

Mostly notably, almost 350 students marched from JFK Park to the IOP in support of AmeriCorps. Their chant—“1, 2, 3, 4, we support AmeriCorps!”—often drowned out other groups’ cries of “human rights are under attack! What will we do? Stand up, fight back!”

In the same week, Harvard students also rallied in support of the Harvard dining hall workers, walked in support of Planned Parenthood, and marched in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ fight for fair pay. These protests took place apparently in response to a Feb. 23 Crimson staff editorial, which called for American youth to become more politically engaged and take an example from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

To be sure, there is a fundamental difference between overthrowing a dictatorial regime and protesting budget cuts. Nonetheless, the energy, passion, and commitment that Harvard students demonstrated last week not only hit newspapers as widespread as the Washington Post and ABC News blog but also inspired students, faculty, and community members—including me.

However, although the huge turnout for Thursday’s rallies was thrilling, I could not help questioning the overwhelming focus on AmeriCorps. Of course, AmeriCorps is important; it funds Teach for America and VISTA, which allow grantees or volunteers to teach in public schools or fight poverty at the local level. But many of these grants go to Harvard graduates—in the class of 2010, 18 percent of the class applied for Teach for America positions, and thirty-eight graduates accepted offers from Teach for America.

With this in mind, the disproportionate focus on cuts for AmeriCorps demonstrates a self-serving bias among Harvard students. AmeriCorps serves an important role, but the Republican budget proposes dozens of equally devastating cuts, slashing everything from international food and health grants to job training programs to community health centers to Planned Parenthood.

Samuel B. Novey ’11, one of the organizers of the AmeriCorps rally, told the Crimson that “the budget cuts are an attack on our classmates and the work that they do.” Sadly, although the lack of a Teach for America job might hurt the resumes of a few Harvard graduates, the proposed budget cuts go much farther than simply denying Ivy League graduates their “ability to serve.” While we can find other public service jobs at nonprofits, many Americans depend on community health centers and job training programs for simple survival.

Some argue that exerting a concerted effort on one specific issue holds stronger potential for actually influencing policy. But Harvard’s name and reputation gives students the ability to gain attention for broader goals. I admire student energy for and dedication to supporting this important government program but believe that other causes deserve our equal backing. It is disappointing that even given the opportunity, we as Harvard students have failed to create something bigger than ourselves.

We could have used our voices to call for an end to all destructive budget cuts. We could have asked for entitlement reform, for tax reform, or for cuts in defense spending. Instead, the majority of us focused on an issue directly related to our own lives. In the future, Harvard students should take care to employ their activist energies towards the greatest good.

In the end, the fact that 400 Harvard students turned out for a rally at all remains a remarkable and inspiring testament to our political engagement and capability for activism. But ultimately, advocating for AmeriCorps does not raise Americans out of poverty—and it remains very far from a revolution.

Sandra Y.L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.

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