By: Greg (Halstead) Halzen, class of 2004
Looking Back on My First Activist Experience
Some time ago I was a student at Elon and I was hungry. It was Y2K and I was hungry for freedom from the limitations of living with my parents, the barriers in my hometown, and the rivers yet uncrossed in my own youth. I was also hungry for good food.
My freshman residence was in Danieley Center, which was fairly new. It felt like a food desert at the time. These were times before Colonnades, so the closest place to get meal options was far enough away that we often found ourselves choosing among several fried meals with few healthy fruit and vegetable options. Maybe I wrote an email to someone in administration, or maybe I went straight to someone’s office one day, but I’ll never forget the encouragement I found to set up a meeting. I remember making fliers and having about 20 friends and acquaintances show up to a meeting with the dean.
The discussion we had was meaningful, but it did not result in changes that year. We also had no idea what to do after the meeting. It seemed as though we were heard, but we felt powerless to make a change that would improve our situation. Instead, that same dean offered some pretty amazing opportunities to keep me busy. For example, this same dean had the incredible vision of creating online student portfolios. He had me organizing on campus to set-up a social media system before facebook, linkedin, myspace, or even friendster (and you thought all that came about in a bubble up in some Harvard dorm?!).
Yet, looking back I have to wonder if I sold out on the issue of our health.
My distraction on this new project basically meant that we didn’t involve more students on the healthy food issue. Why did it take 7 years for Colonnades to offer healthier options to that side of campus? Was one of the main issues our own inexperience and unbridled passion as incoming freshman?
I wonder what issues Elon students are facing now, 14 years later, and how you are feeling empowered to find your voice for positive changes in the community. I wonder how students can be involved in experiential learning programs set-up by the university faculty and staff as well as work together on grassroots initiatives?
Experiential Learning Meets Grassroots Community Democracy (Activism)
After that initial community organizing experience I ended up in all kinds of Elon programs and initiatives. It was an incredible education… and I don’t regret any of it. There was the online student portfolio project, studying in El Centro and abroad in Uruguay and Ecuador gifting me with bilingualism, and working with Elon Volunteers! on service trips to the Dominican Republic, Florida, and North Carolina. I also worked on a study of the economic impact of Elon University on the surrounding Burlington and North Carolina economy and developed skills in the Isabella Cannon Leadership Program and as the ODK leadership honor society president and North Carolina student director. It wasn’t until my last semester that I worked with Students for Peace and Justice to return to grassroots a couple small campaigns like the campus fair trade coffee effort and the tax day educational campaign.
I wonder how it would have been if I had learned of ways to practice my energies of active grassroots community participation more fully. Maybe I wasn’t ready. Did the experiences I had and the initiatives I worked on make a real change at Elon or did they continue the status quo? Where is the balance between being a community member at a private university and being an adult citizen of a democratic government? Who has the power to make real change?
There were some real changes… like that one incredible professor that created an endowment to help continue the international service trips that were started by a Dominican student. But looking back I think the most transforming part of that experience was going to my classmate’s country under her leadership. It was an action based on her initiative to improve her own community. Would future trips even come close? Others that went on the second trip we took, which I organized, might disagree, but I don’t think it was close to being as transformational. Even with all the celebration and success I felt, I wonder if something even more transformational and humanizing* might have happened.
*See “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire for some amazing explanation of real transformation and humanization in our world of historic and current oppression.
Peace Corps, Dual Language Education, and Community After Elon
Moving on from Elon, I worked in the Balkans in an incredible setting of clashing cultures, histories, and economic status that struck me as incredibly oppressive. The Roma people of Europe have been and are in the middle of a human rights struggle that very few of us hear about even though it goes back hundreds of years. It was in that setting, seeing school-aged kids be literally locked out of their school because they did not speak the language of the majority, that I reflected on my grandfather’s experience of losing our family’s language. I started asking myself why bilingualism wasn’t acceptable for him and his family. Why did his teacher feel she needed to change his name so that it was “more American”? Since I became bilingual during my times at Elon, I started to wonder about ways I could use my talents with kids in the USA and join in efforts to make a change.
When I returned to the states, I learned about bilingual education and how it was possible to work in schools where kids learn in two languages. In other words, instead of only having the opportunity to study foreign languages in secondary school, elementary and middle schools were working to teach half (or at least part) of the school year in English and half in another language. For kids speaking English at home, this gives a big advantage in a country where less than 20% of the population reports speaking another language. For kids speaking another language at home, research shows that they actually are able to connect with school better and in turn learn English better while also maintaining skills for communicating with family in heritage languages. I was excited to sign up! I ended up at Columbia University in a teacher-training program in New York City.
The past 6 years of teaching here has been a wide ride. I moved to Brooklyn to be closer to my first school, but also to join a group that was starting an intentional Christian community. The community was a co-housing situation and was taking lessons from others in the New Monasticism movement. In Durham, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has written a good number of books on these efforts to return to the early Christian way of life and we have been fortunate to have him come visit us. We are all involved in different social justice issues and come from all kinds of different faith journeys, but we support each other as best we can. I’m currently learning more about it Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel’s book “Faith-Rooted Organizing,” which may be considered the Christian version of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.”
The first school I worked at was extremely violent and faced some of the worst community conditions I have ever seen in the USA. It is wrong of the system to put first-year teachers in such a situation. The bilingual program I taught in, though, was cut after that year, so I moved on to a different middle school that was trying to start a dual language immersion program. I taught history for 5 years in that program and we had great successes. Parents raved and students passed high school foreign language exams in the 8th grade. In that time I was selected as the national bilingual teacher of the year, and others including our parent coordinator and a parent were awarded state-level recognition. Even so, it was a struggle facing the limitations of a low-income community. When the program’s founding vice principal was promoted to a principal position elsewhere, we were forced to reduce and eventually close the program for lack of administrative capacity. The program seemed like a “supplemental program” that took too many resources to maintain.
I now teach at a completely dual language pre-k to 8th grade school that was founded by activist parents and teachers in Brooklyn. I am learning a lot and am so fortunate to continue in the movement’s efforts. We are especially excited to see momentum growing for bilingualism in the USA.
Opportunities for Grassroots Activism Development at Elon?
I can’t help but to wonder how students are really tapping into all the opportunities available at Elon now to be aware and make change happen. How are students balancing efforts to learn through experiential learning programs and efforts to practice their citizenship through grassroots problem solving? How are students transforming themselves while also working in community with others to improve our institutions?
On one hand, global studies at Elon made me feel like a world citizen. On the other hand, maybe if I had found an ethnic studies course I would felt like a world citizen participating as an American citizen in a beautifully diverse USA. I ended up learning a lot about USA’s people’s history from South Americans when I studied abroad. I wonder what opportunities I missed and what opportunities for this exist now.
By participating in the Isabella Cannon Leadership Fellows Program and in Elon Volunteers!, books like “The Courageous Follower” by Ira Chaleff complimented the excellent programs of reflection-oriented service learning to help me start to understand community organizing. What courses about community-based democratic activism did I miss that would have taught me about W.E.B. DuBois’ action-based approach to creating change and the work of community organizers like Saul Alinsky? How would that have been influenced our little group to continue our persuasive (if not disruptive) actions in order for the administration to set up a regular cafeteria in Danieley that same year we were sickly from the lack of healthy food options? Maybe, too, we would have found more serious needs in the surrounding communities of the Town of Elon and Burlington. What opportunities exist for students to join community groups fighting for voter rights, for dignified solidarity with the working poor through living wage campaigns, and for racial reconciliation training?
I remember some situations at Elon that were extremely awkward. What opportunities did I miss to learn about the micro-aggressions? I was blessed at Elon to have a very diverse mix of roommates and housemates. How many times did I say things that were offensive without meaning it? How did I miss the chance to learn about the incredible history of the Civil Rights Movement in the local area? As a white student of white privilege, how did I end up living at Elon for 4 years without visiting such amazing sites as those that are so close to Elon? This remains one of my biggest regrets about my time at Elon.
What are the Grassroots Activists of Elon Doing Now?
As I reflect about my times at Elon, I hope and pray that Elon will continue to develop traditions of activism that are rooted in the excellent traditions of community that it has… that sense of the “Elon family” is a great place to start! After that, here are some bare-bones points of focus that may keep the wheels turning forward:
- Work with others to assess community needs. Get to know the reality and never stop asking questions. Listen more than you talk, especially if you’re working on needs outside of your own community. Angela Davis’ autobiography explains her personal struggle to find community to work with. She met people and built friendships with people who were also interested in making the world a better place. Only after building those relationships did she learn of the needs in her community and start organizing to make change. Knowing the needed changes in our world requires knowing each other well and bonding together in unity. Freirian culture circles provide a framework for some of this work…
- Work with others to plan steps to address the needs. Be creative, but learn from the organizing methods of historic activists (the Zinn Education Project is a great source for this).
- Do something. Distractions are everywhere. Be purposeful but also be patient with others you are working with. Listening and asking for clarification are vital actions, too. We all need this reminder… and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate or do what we need to do to preserve our own sanity, but positive change is a cycle of work!
- Be open to the ways the injustices in the world have skewed your own vision. We are in a constant struggle to change ourselves, too. Resources like Undoing Racism are invaluable. Be humble and even gentle on a personal level, but fierce when interacting with institutions and positions of power that (un)knowingly oppress others’ voices.
- Be open to the wisdom of faith-rooted community organizers. (I am so excited about the Moral Monday movement!) One of the strengths of faith-rooted communities is their attention to the folks who are in tough situations, for whatever reasons. The idea, from Marshall Ganz, that those living in poverty are to society what the canary used to be to the coalminers is something I believe in deeply. If someone is suffering in our communities there is no better response than mercy and hospitality in order for healing to happen. Efforts for restorative justice are much more effective in the long-term than zero-tolerance.
I pray for Elon and the Elon family continues to be in my thoughts. I look forward to my next visit.
Until then, I end with the amazingly hope-filled words of Lauryn Hill in “Everything is Everything:”
“After winter, must come spring
Change, it comes eventually
Sometimes it seems
We’ll touch that dream
But things come slow or not at all
And the ones on top, won’t make it stop
So convinced that they might fall
Let’s love ourselves then we can’t fail
To make a better situation
Tomorrow, our seeds will grow
All we need is dedication”