Apathy has become a four letter word. Especially since the election of President Barack Obama, whose election speech challenged the notion of an apathetic youth, the insistence that people can and should create change in the world has grown. The sense of empowerment and duty that come with such a prospect reached even New College, which for years has had the self reputation of being a bubble, as voiced by representatives of the groups working to change that image.
Antidotes to apathy
On campus, one group behind the push for increased community involvement is the New College Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA) coordinators. Although VISTA has been at New College since 2005, awareness of the resource largely remained low until a few years ago.
“I think [James Birmingham (’06)] and [Monica Tambay (’07)] were the first [VISTA coordinators] to be really visible in the New College community,” current VISTA coordinator Erica Lindegren (’07) said. “James and Monica were the first [VISTA coordinators] to be here two years in a row, which helped their visibility because people knew who they were.”
Lindegren and VISTA coordinator Nicholas “Nick” Manting-Brewer (’08) said the new VISTA office, formerly located in the Gender and Diversity Center (GDC) and now on the promenade side of W-dorm, has further increased awareness of the program.
VISTA is an international volunteer organization subsumed under AmeriCorp and part of Campus Compact, which encompasses VISTA programs at universities throughout the United States.
“Technically our focus is poverty, so as part of our service year we’re supposed to be focusing on reducing poverty in the communities,” Lindegren said.
But the NCF VISTA also provide information that allows others to engage in service learning or social justice activities of their choice.
“Erica and I … our job is more around … indirect service,” Manting-Brewer said. “Creating an infrastructure and framework so that students can then go out into the community and we can get rolling on the next thing we have to organize.”
According to Lindegren and Manting-Brewer, student interest has been exceptionally high in regards to tutoring and mentoring opportunities, working with animals and making sandwiches for the homeless.
“Another thing we’ve been working on is being sure … to include the faculty and staff,” Manting-Brewer said. Both VISTA coordinators said they have received a huge amount of support from faculty and staff, who have aided VISTA by participating in their events and by providing information on volunteer opportunities.
Lindegren and Manting-Brewer have organized a speaker series as part of their VISTA agenda. Speakers from the community will be in the Teaching Auditorium (TA) every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and so far have included one from the Resurrection House, a resource center for the homeless. They plan to bring the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to campus in November to speak about voting rights, as well as the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe for a discussion and possible performance in October. This semester, they will coordinate an Alternative Fall Break with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Part of the challenge with being a VISTA coordinator is keeping interest high in community outreach. “I’ve talked to people who think that Sarasota is a bubble, but we’re an extreme bubble within Sarasota,” Lindegren said. “Having passion, creating an experience, building leadership … all those things are like an antidote to apathy. You have to create an experience and be a part of … a group, because I don’t think change ever happens just as one individual.”
“A good friend of mine told me that if you want to inspire people to work with you … then you have to make people feel like they’re a part of a revolution,” Manting-Brewer said. “That’s what Erica and I are trying to do [for] students, to reaffirm that they are helping their community — and that is a revolutionary idea.”
Indeed, revolutionary things are happening on campus. Perhaps for the first time ever in the college’s history, social justice groups on campus have united, under the tentative name CUT: Clubs United Together.
The concept of CUT was started by thesis-students and co-sponsors of the NCF Feminist Alliance, Brittani “Brie” McLemore and Kyra Berman-Gestring.
“We met a few weeks before school started and one thing we agreed on was having other clubs participating with us and working with them to have a presence — a social justice presence, a gender- and sexuality-oriented presence — on campus,” McLemore said. “So we decided to talk to representatives from Queery, TransSwagger, VOX, Women’s Club and the VISTA coordinators … to see if working as a unit with all these other clubs would be something they’d be interested in and they overwhelmingly all were.”
The first meeting of CUT was on Sept. 9, when representatives from each of the clubs met at a potluck to discuss how they can be allies for one another. CUT will continue to meet once a month to see how the clubs can further assist each other.
“You can talk theory and talk about these social justice issues, but service learning is really the practice of it,” McLemore said. “I think the VISTA coordinators are really going to help us out in giving us avenues and different groups that we can work with. Erica [Lindegren] said this during our last meeting and it … got us all riled up and enthusiastic about what we’re doing: the fact that this is the first time any of us … have seen all the clubs coming together like this. Clubs have wanted to do this in the past but it’s never happened. But this year, we have the drive and the will to come together and maybe accomplish something great.”
Another “first” at NCF is Circle K International (CKI), part of the adult service club Kiwanis and chartered by second-year and Tangent staff writer Abigail “Abby” Oaks.
“The main focus of CKI is to serve children,” Oaks said. “But at New College … if people have service projects they want to get involved with, they can bring them to the club.”
Continuing the current trend of service and social justice groups supporting one another, Oaks said that VISTA will be invaluable to CKI. “Nick [Manting-Brewer] has been involved with the charter of the club from the start and a lot of our involvement with the VISTA program is that they are going to send service projects our way,” Oaks said.
McLemore said all of the social justice clubs are under the umbrella of the GDC. According to thesis-student and GDC TA Ashley Grant, “We provide some support for the clubs related to the GDC, like the social justice and religious clubs.”
The GDC has recently completed cataloging its library collections and making them available online. As exemplified with the Arab Spring, greater accessibility of information has often been considered a radical move in itself.
The heightened collaboration between the different clubs, the VISTA coordinators, the GDC and now CUT may help bring New College out of its bubble and into the the real world.
Rising to the call
In addition to the increased visibility of social justice and service learning groups on campus this year, some believe that students have been more involved than ever in the community.
“I feel like right now, a lot of students are more interested in social justice aspects, whether it be volunteering or attending discussions or meetings,” McLemore said.
“My second year when I was really active as an RA … trying to coordinate students to get anything done on campus was like pulling teeth,” Lindegren said. “I don’t know why, if it’s more institutional support or just the different student body… but I feel like people have been a lot more active recently. Maybe it’s reflecting a larger national feeling of getting something done; ever since the night Obama got elected for President … there have been ebbs and flows of people getting really involved … but it seems to be on the rise this year.”
The apparent break from apathy may also be an ongoing reaction to another historical event at New College: the campus-wide shutdown for the Teach-In last spring, which marked the first time that students, faculty and staff came together to address increasing displays of intolerance on campus.
“I definitely noticed some changes since spring,” Grant, who was also GDC TA last semester, said. “Some of the pressing concerns raised at the Teach-In, [I feel like] people still care about those things and … continuing that kind of engagement in the community.”
“I would have to say that the Teach-In was a turning point on campus,” McLemore said. “That was one of the first times we’d seen a lot of the clubs coming together to come up with something huge and … we want to keep that feeling on campus.”