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Parting thoughts: why political action matters

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MAY 11, 2012

The following is a farewell column from our 2012 Graduation Issue. Read the other farewell columns here.

How can a person best effect meaningful social change? I became involved in Democratic politics by grappling with that question.

I arrived at Berkeley in fall of 2008 as the state field coordinator for California students for Barack Obama. Our state team spent that fall sacrificing Friday nights to get on conference calls, writing emails until 3 a.m. and organizing travel for hundreds of students to campaign in Nevada not because of the glamour or glitz of the campaign but because we thought we could make a difference. We thought that the election mattered and that our efforts could in some small way contribute to moving our country in a new direction.

It may have seemed naive to others, but I thought then, and I still think now, that our work had an impact. Obama received historic support from young voters in 2008, and the efforts of thousands of young organizers played a key role.

The 2008 election is a clear example of how political involvement can have real consequences, but the ways in which political action can affect change aren’t always evident to many students.

When massive statewide protests against tuition increases broke out in 2009 and 2010, students blamed campus administrators, the UC Board of Regents and UC President Mark Yudof but spent less time analyzing the political circumstances in Sacramento that caused the cuts in higher education to begin with. The thought of launching a political effort to remove legislators who opposed raising state revenues to fund higher education either didn’t occur to most students or simply seemed too daunting.

Political involvement also generally results in less immediate outcomes. If your goal is to help impoverished children who grow up in a broken school system gain an education and a path to a better life, should you spend your time tutoring disadvantaged students or working to reform the entire school district? That’s a difficult question but a question that far too few college students ask themselves. On one hand, tutoring a kid can have real and tangible results that you can see in the child’s academic growth. On the other hand, are you really fixing the root of the problem?

If nothing else, my education at Berkeley has taught me to question. For those of us who are graduating and interested in “making the world a better place,” let us think critically about the root causes of the problems that we are trying to solve and identify the most effective ways to address these challenges. Although it isn’t always sexy or easy, we might find that politics is often the answer.

Ian Magruder, a political economy major, served as president of the California College Democrats for two terms.

MAY 11, 2012