- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 16, 1999

Rafe Bemporad didn’t learn anything in Seattle, but he thinks many Americans did.
Mr. Bemporad, of the New York-based youth group Do Something, says the recent demonstrations that rocked Seattle merely reaffirmed what his organization has known all along that young people do care, even though they may not be as vocal as their parents were three decades ago.
“In this generation, you can apply the same questions and challenges that would have happened in the 1960s, like injustice or poverty and suffering,” said Mr. Bemporad, spokesman for Do Something, which encourages youth to get involved in their communities.
“Now [young people] say, I’m going to be active in my neighborhood. In the 1960s, they joined a national campaign.’… What you saw in Seattle may be the first time in a while the entire nation was focused on activism nationally in scope.”
While a significant number of protesters in Seattle were middle-aged, the vast majority of those who defied Seattle police and were showered with pepper gas and rubber bullets were teen-agers or 20-somethings.
Two weeks after 30,000 demonstrators shut down Seattle for four days, observers are still gauging the importance of the protests among the largest the United States has seen since the 1960s. But the event has focused renewed attention on the nation’s younger generation, reputed to be apathetic and self-absorbed.
A Do Something study funded by Pew Charitable Trusts found that three-quarters of young people between the ages of 15 and 29 have been active in community organizations at some point in their lives, with 37 percent participating within the last year, Mr. Bemporad said. The issues that concerned them most included the environment and health.
Only 3 percent were involved in political organizations. Although the question of how young people feel about politics was not addressed, Mr. Bemporad said he felt young people tended to shy away from politics because they feel that they are disconnected from the political process, and that their activism wouldn’t make a big difference nationally.
“For the last four or five years, young people have been more disconnected from politics and national issues and have seen no reason for getting involved. But all are intuitively interested in making a difference and getting involved locally,” he said. “Historically, national movements have always been politically connected. Seattle might be an example where activism and the national get involved together again.”
Habitat for Humanity, the organization founded by former President Jimmy Carter to build homes for the underprivileged, has seen a plethora of young people get involved, said Michelle Pittman, volunteer coordinator for the Atlanta affiliate.
“It speaks to the work that Habitat offers them,” she said. “Young people do need to be given activities that keep them engaged. It’s a team atmosphere. There’s a lot of positive reinforcement.”
The organization has partnered with local schools to create Habitat clubs, and because of the community spirit it embraces, young people even get more satisfaction from the work than do older people.
“The role of the nonprofit and community group is to meet the young person and engage them,” said Miss Pittman.
The Atlanta affiliate, which is the largest in the nation, builds between 60 and 65 homes a year and has constructed 500 houses since its founding in 1983.
Eric Rozenman, a spokesman for B’nai B’rith International, a volunteer Jewish organization, said his organization has also noticed that more people are active locally than nationally, including young people.
“If all politics is local, so is activism, in a way,” he said. B’nai B’rith’s members have tended to be active in their communities since the group was founded 157 years ago.
One program, Cares About Kids, strictly focuses on getting young people involved with local hospitals. Youth collect stuffed animals for distribution through hospitals to children who might not otherwise be able to afford them.
“Cares About Kids has become an established program,” Mr. Rozenman said. “By themselves, these may not seem like great things, but they touch other people. What would it be like if they didn’t exist? From the standpoint of Seattle or not, activism is alive and well.”
Other young people have taken their activism abroad. Since the 1991 breakup of the former Soviet Union, children of U.S. activists have relocated to former Soviet countries to help in the transition from Communism to democracy. Today, countries like Ukraine, Lithuania and Russia are ripe with young people who are helping establish domestic crisis centers to local businesses.
“The focus has shifted reflecting the changed reality,” said Orest Deychakiwsky, staff adviser for the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. “The Ukrainian-American community is less active… but reflects a new focus on other issues like assistance to Ukraine. It’s engaged in concrete assistance projects to Ukraine. Now if they lobby the U.S. government, it’s more for increasing assistance than defending human rights like in the past when Ukraine was part of a brutally repressive empire.”
While those who work with youth are convinced that the WTO protests was only a different manifestation of how younger generations are dedicated to causes they care about, the ultimate impact of the WTO protests is heavily contested by different camps.
“Seattle is a defining event for the end of this century, and you’re going to see a new wave of strong activism on basic issues,” said Brent Blackwelder, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “I would predict you’re going to see more participation in electoral work. People aren’t going to sit on the sidelines and watch what happens.”
Some aren’t so sure.
“I don’t think it’s a gauge for activism,” said George Sigalos, a spokesman for Illinois Republican Philip M. Crane, who chairs the trade subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. “You need more of an indicator than just one event.”

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