Three former Reed activists
hen legal scholar Lani Guinier spoke at Reed for Black History Month in February 2004, she reflected on the role of education in the quest for social justice. Mulling over the fiftieth anniversary of the school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and the recent Supreme Court decisions limiting affirmative action in public universities, the University of Pennsylvania law professor challenged the audience to “re-imagine excellence as something that we strive for in our graduates, not something that we measure in our freshmen . . . .” Graduates, she contended, “are excellent not just because they make money, not just because they enjoy their careers, not just because they have good jobs, but because they become leaders in their community, and help to restore democracy, not just in Iraq, but in the United States of America.”
Reedies Molly Franks, Nathaniel “Nato” Green, and Andrew Peck are the kind of graduates Guinier envisioned. Like Guinier, they believe that social justice is the foundation of “small-d” democracy. As Green, a labor organizer, says, “The service economy is about teaching workers servility—hence the need for democratic workers’ organizations.”
Franks, Green, and Peck—all former students of mine—have found ways to translate their passion for social change into useful—and paid—employment. Peck is currently the Violence Prevention Coordinator at Georgia Institute of Technology, where he works as part of a campus-wide initiative to end violence against women. Funded by a Justice Department grant, Peck engages students, staff, and faculty in educational and other programs to stop violence and support victims.
Green is co-founder of the San Francisco-based Young Workers United, the nation’s first worker center for youth. One of a growing number of such centers, YWU does community organizing and leadership development with young workers in low-wage service jobs that are not on any union’s agenda.
Franks coordinates the Washington County Pride Project, a non-profit program for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people. This county-funded program builds a supportive community of LGBTQ youth in a suburban and rural area west of Portland. It develops youth leadership and community organizing skills through Gay-Straight Alliance groups in schools, a peer-counseling program, and a youth speakers bureau that educates the community to counter homophobia.
In March 2004 the three returned to Reed to conduct a daylong student senate-funded workshop on activist careers. They shared techniques and experiences learned as they have engaged in working for social justice at Reed and in the real world. With 25 current Reed students, they debated how best to build political alliances across social and cultural differences, how to prevent sexual violence and homophobia, and how to organize young workers in the growing service sector.