Blessed Peacemakers

They'd seem quaint if they weren't so eloquent: Meet the University of St. Thomas's loudest rabble-rousers

 

The editorial page of the October 19 issue of the Aquin featured a cartoon depicting protest signs with such slogans as "USA is the devil," "Poverty=Peace," "Economic growth spawns hate," and "My bong is bigger than your bong." The caption read simply: "Macalester infiltrates UST."

The cartoon was a crude yet apt illustration of a prevailing contradiction at St. Thomas. Though the school's focus was once on the liberal arts education of a small number of undergraduates, in 1990 the school established a new structure with an undergraduate college and graduate schools and changed its name from "college" to "university." Since the Seventies it has more than quadrupled its student population, from 2,500 to more than 11,000. And more of them are enrolled as graduate students than undergrads. The Graduate School of Business alone has more than 3,000 students.

The perception of St. Thomas, accordingly, is one of business majors seeking the skills they need to succeed in the financial world. Of the many colleges in the Twin Cities, St. Thomas has one of the more conservative identities--the opposite end of the spectrum from its progressive St. Paul neighbor, Macalester. Yet it is at St. Thomas where this small but significant enclave of social justice activists has grown in number and influence. It has offered an academic and intellectual home for students who otherwise would not have been comfortable at St. Thomas.

Students like Michel Clausen.

Clausen transferred to St. Thomas in her sophomore year, eager to participate in the school's environmental studies program. Although she grew up in a conservative household where activism was hardly the norm, Clausen always had an interest in the environment. In high school in Hudson, Wisconsin, she volunteered with the Sierra Club and spent summers taking kids on canoe trips that emphasized education about nature. When she got to St. Thomas, her environmental concerns led her to the Student Coalition for Social Justice.

Her first contact with the group was on a trip to a Wisconsin home where a family had learned to live sustainably and below the poverty line--respecting the environment while eschewing materialism. "That, to me, was like, there's something I'm missing here. There are people choosing to live this way," Clausen recalls of the experience, a turning point for her. "As a student learning about the world, you're 19 and you're out of your parents' house for the first time and you're realizing the world isn't exactly what you'd thought."

As Clausen got involved in the coalition's environmental projects, she learned more about justice and peace studies at St. Thomas. Soon she was hooked, both by the program and the coalition. Today, the bright, confident senior is finishing her tenure as co-coordinator of the coalition, as well as wrapping up a triple major in justice and peace studies, environmental studies, and English with a focus on technical writing.

Clausen has often been frustrated at St. Thomas, both by the administration's conservative Catholic dogma and by the apathy of students. "You go to school and feel like you're walking around with people with blinders on," she says. "It's always treading water at St. Thomas. If it's not the administration somehow trying to debunk your group, it's people thinking you're just dirty, hippie kids. We're trying to make you think. If it weren't for the justice and peace community at St. Thomas, I wouldn't be at St. Thomas anymore."

She notes the irony that there is such a supportive pocket of activism at a university which has often been criticized for its lack of social awareness--particularly last spring when there were a number of well-publicized hate crimes targeting minority students. But the coalition is certainly thriving; when it started five years ago there were only a handful of members, and now there are more than 100 on the e-mail list and more than 70 regulars at the weekly Wednesday meetings.

Nonetheless Clausen has felt the scorn of criticism on campus, especially after she was quoted in an Aquin article about an October peace protest in Minneapolis. A subsequent Aquin editorial chastised the women who participated in the protest, implying that their wish for peace somehow supported the Taliban, notorious for mistreating women. "The young women who protested Monday surely must be against the injustices suffered by women in Afghanistan," the editorial read. "It would be contradictory if they were not. Those who protested Monday propose that we answer terror with government policy changes and peace talks."

Clausen was offended by the campus conservatives' misuse of the argument about women's rights. "We're saying, let's paint a picture up to 2001. Like the Seventies and Eighties in Afghanistan--how was America part of it?" she begins. "As for women in Afghanistan, we cared in 1998. They've been treated this way for seven or eight years by the Taliban," she says, her voice rising. "We wanted to educate the campus, with its ill-informed, uneducated opinions."

It's a Wednesday evening, a week after the demonstration on the quad, and the student coalition's weekly meeting is about to begin. First Clausen makes a few announcements about a bus trip to the School of the Americas protest in Georgia this weekend. (Although the School of the Americas closed last year, in January it reopened under a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Peace advocates insist that the only changes to the school's mission are cosmetic.) The bus will leave Friday at 7:00 a.m. sharp; the 20-hour ride will be a teach-in on active nonviolence. People should bring a blanket, a pillow, and food. "We're trying to get people to bring fruit so you don't have to eat only fast food--yuck," Clausen explains. "We're also encouraging people to bring their own food, so we don't support, you know, large corporations." She laughs and looks around the group with a self-deprecating smile that indicates an awareness that her last statement was all-too-stereotypically left.

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