By Stefan M. Bradley
“Show me what democracy looks
In the past decade, that is what youth throughout the United States demanded as they demonstrated for the expansion of rights for Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students; LGBT and women’s equality; comprehensive gun reform; an end to abusive policing practices as well as mass incarceration.
Loyola Marymount University will host a historic event when the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates debate comes to campus. There is no better place for discussions of democracy to take place than this Jesuit and Marymount institution.
Our students, who seek to advance the “service of faith and the promotion of justice,” as the university mission says, must answer the call to engage democracy by delving into the backgrounds of each candidate but, more importantly, the issues and policies that create more or less access for others. Along those lines, our students (now and in the future) must be willing to challenge each elected official and policy proposal that threatens the liberty and life chances of humans.
As was the case in the mid-20th
century, when students took to the streets or took over campus buildings,
American youth in the early 21st century have taken up direct-action
campaigns to draw attention to their causes. In the past decade, the methods
and motivations of youth have confounded politicians and elected officials, who
attempted to understand why young people would shut down freeways and malls as
they did in Chicago and St. Louis.
In the cities of California and New York, decision makers did not know what to make of demonstrators who would not leave the offices of university administrators in protest over rising tuitions, institutional affiliation with the prison industrial complex, or acts of racism. Off campus, students checked oil pipelines in North Dakota and detainment policies on the nation’s southern border. Youth even marched on Washington, D.C., to end gun violence. The actions of these young people have forced candidates and officials to publicly address youth concerns.
In confronting decision makers
directly, young people are showing the world that “this is what democracy looks
like.” History bolsters their declaration. Student Non-Violent Coordinating
Committee leader, freedom rider, and Fisk University alumna Diane Nash
explained that voting is the smallest step toward democracy. She asserted that if left to elected
officials, the lunch counters, buses, and schools would have never been
desegregated nor would black people have acquired the right to vote.
It took voting and youth agitation to move the nation toward justice in that earlier period, and it will now.
As the 2020 presidential election quickly approaches, it is once again time for students to take their role in the vanguard of democracy. If our students will be this nation’s leaders, then LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts’ coursework, programming, and development projects must focus on the issues that are relevant to the youth’s lived experiences.
It may seem unfair to place such a hefty burden on the backs of youth and the university, but as Carl Fields, one of the first black administrators in the Ivy League, explained: “If total democracy is to be translated from theory to practice, it will be done first in our educational institutions.”
Stefan M. Bradley, Ph.D., is an LMU professor and chair of African American Studies in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. He is the author most recently of “Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League,” a study of student activism in the 1960s.
Looking for resources on engaged democracy? Check out our Toolkit for Civic Engagement.