New school revolutionaries

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Every Tuesday night, in a small room in Jorgenson Hall, a group of around 20 students plot mini revolutions. Each member has different clothing and hairstyles, course selections and ideologies. They have different backgrounds and goals for the future. But they have at least one thing in common – a desire to affect change in the world around them. The objectives of their theoretical revolutions vary, but their means are the same. They are activists, and proud of it.

The collective group is called RyeACT!, but no two activist profiles are the same. They aside differences and fight for change on campus.

“One of the common misconceptions is that we’re all the same and it’s very clear that we’re not,” says Alex Lisman, a RyeSAC! member and RyeSAC’s v.p. education.

Each member has his or her own reason to use the popular label of activism, a movement driven by collective values.

Krystal Ann Kraus, a fourth-year social work student, is dedicated to the eradication of poverty.

“There comes a point where you can’t accept the status quo anymore,” she says. “You have to contribute your time.”

For Kraus, that time came at the age of 15 when she had to scrounge nickels for subway fare.

“I grew up not having money. Activism is about protecting life, and eventually poverty is a threat on your life,” she says.

Although she’s involved in several organizations, Kraus doesn’t think her priorities interfere with RyeACT’s collective goals.

“I have faith that we can respect each others differences,” she says. “If we can’t do that here, then how are we supposed to do it out in the world.”

And changing the world is what activism is all about. While most students are concerned with social and political issues, student activists actually try and get involved.

“No one can just say ‘I’m an activist,’” Kraus says. “You have to prove yourself through doing.”

She says believing your actions can have impact takes time, but you can only ignore social problems for so long.

“Eventually you have to do something,” she says. “Activism is action. It isn’t sitting around talking about how the Liberals are failing the health care system and Bush really sucks. It’s going to go out to a rally and protesting.”

Most members agree on this definition, but say that each activist’s tactics and goals are individually defined.

“I’ll respect someone else’s behaviour during a protest, but in return they have to respect mine,” Kraus says. “I find that equation is so fundamental to activism nowadays because it fosters solidarity.”

She says most activists share a doubt of powers that be.

“It’s an intrinsic need for people to influence their own lives,” Kraus says.

Refusing to accept someone else’s terms is why Kraus says activists hit the streets.

“There is this sense that if you can’t buy your education and become a member of parliament then you do have a say,” Kraus says.

She aggressively participates in the group’s weekly meeting and constant challenges other members. She says everyone’s behaviour varies with his or her comfort level.

Kraus practices “direct action,” the willingness to block traffic, participate in sit-ins and physically challenge laws.

“I’m willing to put myself at risk for what I believe. There are people who are willing to go even further,” she says.

She draws the line at harming others, saying activism has an inherent respect for the sanctity of life.

Third-year journalism student Dave Wightman sits next to Kraus at the meeting, but has different beliefs and tactics. He doesn’t consider himself a romantic.

“It’s a question of what is militant,” said Wightman, who is also a member of the International Socialists.

“I found in Marxist politics a way to understand the world. Once I could explain the world, I could find a way to make it different,” he says.

Often found petitioning outside of Jorgenson Hall, Wightman’s strength lies in planning.

“The key to the success of activism on campus is getting people organized – find out who has similar ideas and work with them,” says Wightman. “It’s about building networks.”

Each RyeACT! member uses his own networks to promote individual projects. Lisman prioritizes the educational interests of students but works with groups outside campus to fight for community causes.

As a collective, the group has claimed victories in several big battles. In 1998 and 2000 they protested for a two-year tuition freezes for most Ryerson programs, which administration later adopted. Last year they raised money to send a bus to Quebec City to protest the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. They even got administration to push back exam dates to accommodate the trip.

This year’s priority is fighting deregulation, which could allow administration to indiscriminately raise tuition.

The group started as the ACCESS 2000 Committee, and morphed into RyeACTION before they became RyeACT!

Lisman says their membership has grown significantly over the past year, but he believes time constraints stop more students from becoming active, especially those balancing part-time work and school.

“But if people did allocate more time to fighting tuition increases, they wouldn’t have to work so much to pay for school,” Lisman says.

Stephanie Blake, the president of the Ontario Provincial Services Employee Union (OPSEU), became active 30 years ago during the fight to legalize abortion.

“No matter what stripe you are – if you are working class, a Liberal, a Tory or an NDPer – activist join together instead of trying to struggle alone,” she says.

Magazine professor Tim Falconer, who recently released a book on activism, says more people are getting involved in the movement.

“The people I met felt they could have more influence outside of government than inside,” he said.

Falconer travelled across Canada talking to activists focused on issues ranging from the environment to taxes, health care, victims’ rights, education and democratic reform. He met with young radicals and veteran advocates, middle-class parents, lawyers and grad students.

“I think activists are a lot more effective than most people give them credit for,” Falconer says.

Lisman agrees. “I think you become an activist when stop complaining and take action.”

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