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Activism at USC: Introductory Points

August 28, 2011

As USC students, we’re constantly inundated with rosy images of USC’s present and past. While we don’t deny that USC does some good things, we think there is a lot to be critical of that gets swept under the rug. The purpose of this zine is to lift up the rug, shake it, and examine the dirt that comes out.


What we mean when we say USC is doing harmful things


We’re gonna say some bad things about USC and we want to take a second to clarify what we mean. We understand that most of you, especially first-year and transfer college students, are pretty ecstatic about attending an elite school like USC, and we don’t intend to kill any of that buzz. Getting to USC is a formidable accomplishment in itself and something to be proud of. Also, USC has a ton of great professors and opportunities and you’ll likely leave college with an expanded view of the world, deeper capacities for critical thought, and new creative energies. We wouldn’t still be here if we didn’t love the people who are a part of USC.


What we mean when we say that USC is a bad institution is that many of the roles it plays in society have negative effects on people’s well-being and capacity to control their own lives. To take one instance, USC has used eminent domain and other unsavory practices to expand its campus that are destructive to local families’ abilities and rights to live in their own neighborhood. In its role as an educational institution, USC may serve a good purpose in giving you a good education, but as a real estate developer, USC has privileged its own expansion over neighborhood concerns of community self-determination and affordable housing.


We think USC plays similarly harmful roles in its capacity in researching war technology, as an employer that disrespects and underpays workers, as an institution that has few channels for internal democracy, as a huge consumer of energy that doesn’t value sustainability, as a seller of clothing that takes few precautions against sweatshop labor, and as an endowment that invests its money in destructive companies around the world.


There’s nothing particular about being an elite university that makes any of this inevitable. Rather, all of these negative roles could be radically remolded, and USC could be an institution that promotes social well-being and freedom beyond merely its students.


Use USC’s great people and resources for all it’s worth, but we think it’s equally important to be critical of its wider societal impacts and to work to mold the university of our dreams.



Stereotypes of political activism


Political activism has a lot of stereotypical baggage attached to it. At the mention of activism, one’s mind inevitably wanders back to the 1960s and a bunch of long-haired, dirty, and drugged hippies shouting at rallies about this, that, and the other thing. One can get the impression that activism is just about yelling and holding up political signs. These reductive images do a tremendous disservice to what political engagement on campus can be like.


In the end, political activism comes down to caring about other people and wanting peoples’ lives to be better. To want this not just for yourself and those you know personally, but also for people you don’t know and never will. It’s this attitude and the work of our predecessors that have paved the way for every freedom gained, including the noteworthy opportunity of people who are not white, male, and from the economic elite to attend college. There are numerous organizations and campaigns later profiled in this zine that represent these very ideals, so take a look and hopefully you will find a few that you’re interested in.


Most importantly, we hope to break the negative connotations attached to political and social activism, and instead turn it into something in which we can all take pride.



Activism as another education


In college you’re always setting and working towards goals, consciously or unconsciously. Acquiring increasingly complex mental tools and strategies to overcome problems and reach these goals are perhaps the most fundamental skill-set you will develop in college. Another important function of higher education is the exposure to new ideas and perspectives.


In these aims and any others one can imagine, student activism can be just as educational as your in-class experience. In any political campaign, you have to collaborate with lots of other people. You have to analyze the problem that you’re dealing with. You have to lay out a plan with strategies and tactics. You have to learn to communicate well with allies, to be persuasive in talking with people you’re reaching out to, and to negotiate with those who you are struggling against. These are all the kinds of “real life” skills that aren’t often taught in classrooms but are part of the daily experience of working for social change.



Good and bad kinds of student activism


There are many kinds of activism and political student organizations around and we think some are (much) better or worse than others. If you’re not constantly being challenged and creative and your role is merely to create facebook event pages, have people sign petitions, and fundraise for your organization, you’re in the wrong org. If decisions about the political stance, the goals, and the strategies are made by a small group of people that head the org while the majority mostly just carry out the former’s ideas, you’re in the wrong org. If your involvement isn’t fulfilling your desire to be creative, helpful, and productive, you’re in the wrong org.


This isn’t to say that there is that one perfect student activist group out there for you. Every group has its own problems and internal conflicts, but some groups are always looking to better themselves through self-examination and inclusion of new members and ideas while others are rigid in their structure and practices.


We hope you find some organization on campus of value to you and there’s a number of them discussed later in this guide. But if nothing in the current field appeals to you or there’s some issue you’re passionate about that’s not being addressed, we encourage you to start your own group and we’re happy to assist you in any way we can. If you do start your own group, feel free to contact us ( with any questions you might have.



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