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The selling of the revolution 

How do political organizers build grassroots youth activism among the ADHD generation?

Well you can bump and grind
And it's good for your mind
Well you can twist and shout
Let it all hang out. . .
But you won't fool the children of the revolution.
-- T. Rex, "Children of the Revolution" (1972)

Shana Thompson arrived on the campus of UNC Charlotte in 2004 with a lot of questions -- and not just a little shock. She'd transferred from a community college near the Research Triangle Area and was used to the sort of vibrant, politically conscious student body whose activism often spilled into surrounding cities. Coming to Charlotte, she says, "was a big culture change."

When Thompson dropped by a UNCC student organization fair, she collected a bunch of forms and pamphlets, but unlike most students she didn't disappear into the insular comfort of college life. Instead, a Planned Parenthood representative urged her to attend a two-day training session on stirring campus interest in protecting access to birth control and abortion.

Now, more than a year later, Thompson realizes getting the UNCC chapter of Vox: Voices for Planned Parenthood off the ground isn't going to be easy. Still, she and her membership rolls have at least organized. Even that level of political consciousness puts them in an exclusive minority.

Fewer than 40 percent of people ages 18 to 24 voted in the hotly contested 2000 election, according to Harvard University's Institute of Politics. Compare that to 1972, just after the voting age was lowered to 18 and men were still being drafted for Vietnam. Turnout then among voters ages 18 to 24 was at an all-time high.

Voting isn't the only measure of political activity or awareness, of course. But by the old ways of quantifying civic engagement, today's youth -- the people who will carry on political struggles -- aren't tuning in to public life. TV news audiences are shrinking and daily newspaper circulation is down. The Internet's proliferation of blogs and information-disseminating mutations offers endless opportunities, but not without risk.

The current generation of young people came of age amid an unprecedented era of marketing: An alphabet soup of cable networks, music video channels and electronic gadgetry that offers unlimited competition for attention spans shortened by quick-hit images and trends that have the staying power of fast food. With all due respect to Gil Scott-Heron, if the revolution is not televised, no one will even know it happened. The military already knows this. Just look at its commercials that make war look like a cool new videogame.

Dismal voter turnout alone gives some credence to the oft-heard wail of baby boomers that today's youth know nothing, nothing, of the activist spirit. In many quarters, it's gospel that the 60s and early 70s were the pinnacle of progressive American political activism -- a peak that could scarcely be reached again.

Honest souls will remember that most people back then really weren't the picketing and marching sages they've been painted as, but that seems beside the point. Why aren't young people today, those who will be charged with carrying on the social struggles their parents leave behind, more involved in grassroots activism? As images linger of Rosa Parks's body lying in the Capitol rotunda, many activists are wondering how the old guard can attract young people to continue the good fight.

This is the question Creative Loafing wanted to explore, even from the confines of a city some people consider about as socially conscious as the staff of a typical Talbot's clothing store. And from a state that competes with South Carolina for the dubious distinction of being the least unionized in the nation.

Our neighbors 150 miles northeast, in the Research Triangle Area, have long overshadowed Charlotte with their level of loud and proud student activism. Students at universities there, particularly UNC Chapel Hill, have had significant successes in organizing, from raising awareness of sweatshops to advocating for action in Darfur. UNC was once heralded by Mother Jones magazine as the birthplace of two important national youth groups: the Student Environmental Action Coalition and the Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education.

Currently, one of the more active organizations at UNC is Students United for Darfur Awareness Now (SUDAN), a project that grew out of the Jewish campus group North Carolina Hillel. SUDAN has since gone on its own, organizing people who have sent hundreds of petitions and made hundreds of phone calls to media outlets and federal officials. The group has made more than 300 phone calls to the State Department, according to the SUDAN Web site.

"We felt, as the Jewish community, we both had an ethical obligation, like everybody does, to prevent genocide, but (also) a historic obligation because of the Holocaust," said Or Mars, executive director of NC Hillel. "It quickly became something that was not just for Jewish students but for the entire campus."

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