Reflections on Student Activism

I’ve spent most of my life as an advocate for a more peaceful world. In recent years, I’ve been focused on promoting diplomacy over war and exposing the role of giant weapons companies like Lockheed Martin and its allies in Congress and at the Pentagon as they push for a “military-first” foreign policy. I’ve worked at an alphabet soup of think tanks: the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP), the World Policy Institute (WPI), the New America Foundation, the Center for International Policy (CIP), and my current institutional home, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (QI).

Most of what I’ve done in my career is firmly rooted in my college experience. I got a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Columbia University, class of 1978, and my time there prepared me for my current work — just not in the way one might expect. I took some relevant courses like Seymour Melman’s class on America’s permanent war economy and Marcia Wright’s on the history of the colonization of South Africa. But my most important training came outside the classroom, as a student activist.

Student Activism: Columbia in the 1970s

As I look at the surge of student organizing aimed at stopping the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza, I’m reminded that participation in such movements can have a long-term impact, personally as well as politically, one that reaches far beyond the struggle of the moment. In my case, the values and skills I learned in movements like the divestment campaign against apartheid South Africa of the 1970s and 1980s formed the foundation of virtually everything I’ve done since.

I was not an obvious candidate to become a student radical. I grew up in Lake View, New York, a rock-ribbed Republican suburb of Buffalo. My dad was a Goldwater Republican, so committed that we even had that Republican senator’s “merch” prominently displayed in our house. (The funniest of those artifacts: a can of “Gold Water,” a sickly sweet variation on ginger ale.)