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‘Uses of a Whirlwind’ Says Student Activism Isn’t Dead

It’s easy to believe those people who claim student activism is dead and that college-aged people are no longer engaged in radical organizing.

After all, where are the thousands-strong anti-war protests that brought an end to the Vietnam War? Where are the mass walkouts and sit-ins that paved the way for the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements? Where are the takeovers of college buildings that forced university administrators to listen to their student bodies?

But student activism is still alive, even if we don’t always see it, according to the new book  “Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movement and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United State,” put out by the Team Colors Collective earlier this year.

“There is a struggle and resistance present,” says Stevie Peace, one of three editors of the book and also a member of the four-person Team Colors Collective. “The struggle is here now, it’s just taking a different form.”

The book is a collection of essays written by activists of all different sorts, ranging from organization case studies to modern movement strategies to theoretical analysis.

In one essay, the Student/Farmworker Alliance speaks of its recent successes in providing fair working conditions for the undocumented tomato pickers of Florida and other agricultural states. In fact, the organization is famous for its work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in taking down big food companies like Burger King and Taco Bell, convincing them to only buy tomatoes from farmers who can guarantee a fair wage for their pickers. The key, SFA writes, is building alliances (like the one with the CIW), creating an environment of solidarity and maintaining perseverance.

But “Uses of a Whirlwind” is not all successes and happy endings. There are also hard lessons and obstacles within the struggle that are discussed, including “radical patience,” or avoiding burnout.

“How do we keep ourselves going in the face of inevitable disappointments?” writes Chris Carlsson. “How does political action feed us and bolster our stamina rather than sap our morale and leave us feeling used up?”

“The collection is intended to be a space where different struggles and organizations meet, and they see each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Peace says. “This is only one book, but we’re adding to the discussion through it.”

In an age of globalization when it’s easy to feel isolated in the struggle (“Does anyone else even care about this issue like I do?”), “Uses of a Whirlwind” attempts to unite the movement. With members in Portland, D.C. and the Twin Cities, the Team Colors Collective still managed to produce something that forces anyone interested in making the world a better place to look at the state of the movement and analyze their actions accordingly.

The metaphor of a whirlwind in the title “allows us to see ostensibly disparate movements as a concentrated force of energy,” says Priscilla Gonzalez of Domestic Workers United in a review of the book. “The book implicitly and quite rightly challenges us to rebuild a system that doesn’t just shift the balance of power but fundamentally transform social relations by holding our interdependence as human beings as a core value.”

But while the book is a great step toward starting the discussion on modern student activism, it has its drawbacks as well, namely: preaching to the choir.

The book caters to those who are already involved, to the “radical” organizers around the country who would rather stage a boycott than join a non-profit organization to spend their time fundraising.

In order for the book to reach its full potential, the collective will need to share it with the average Joe, and Peace acknowledges this.

“We’re stuck inside the radical crowd,” he says. “It has to break out to the general public.”

“Uses of a Whirlwind” is still an important first step to restoring confidence in young activists and progressives today. In the months since the book went public, Peace and his fellow editors have attended at least 25 speaking engagements around the country, and they’re all very pleased with the response.

“People are responding in ways that don’t shut down the discussion,” Peace says. “The most significant thing we’ve seen, I think, is that people are serious about this, and they’re starting to examine what’s going on in their communities and the problems they’re facing.”

Jessica Newman is a staff writer for Campus Progress.

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