On the failure of radical activism to effect change where it is needed

When I was in high school every time I watched primetime news programs in TV showing student activists from UP looking very knowledgeable while they were discussing issues in rallies, I would day dream of one day studying UP and of becoming one of them: radical activists clad in tubao, old shirt, torn maong pants, and slippers.

The media might have romanticized radical student activism that rendered it beyond recognition from what it truly should be; nevertheless, the picture of what a radical student activists–nationalistic, selfless, intelligent–caused me to expect so much from UP. I expected a lot from its students, but most especially from its student activists. I never realized that entering the University and seeing the same students I look up to before would be a very different experience–an experience that will disillusion me as to the reality behind the tubao, old shirt, torn maong pants, and slippers-wearing activists.

I was in my first year of college then, impressible, innocent to a certain degree, my mind so open to whatever new thoughts that I encountered. When I arrived in Miagao in 2003 I saw a lot of things that students can address but failed to because they were busy fighting for concerns that were beyond their grasp; I was disappointed if not appalled. The dismal situation of the seaside of Miagao, its people still wallowing in poverty despite the presence of that what is dubbed as the center for excellence in Fisheries Development in the country does not only speak about the UP Visayas in general but also the kind of youth activist paradigm UP students are espousing.

When we went to Barangay Lumangan to hold our NSTP-CWTS projects I saw a group of people living in an area under the jurisdiction of the best university in the country, the UPV Relocation Site. I met disenfranchised people living 5 kilometers-or-more away from the national highway getting by with life through swidden farming using inefficient farming method, and jobless former land owners who were forced to give up their lands just so UP Visayas can occupy the area. I thought these were immediate issues where student activist could actively immerse themselves into, but where were they?

When we were starting the community news paper Miagao Tulad we interviewed a group of fishermen regarding their life in the sea and how UP has helped them, after all they are situated near a research institution that focused on fisheries; certainly they benefited from it, we thought. But I and my partner could only offer sympathy if not ashamed faces when they decried that UP has not changed their way of life. One of them even pointed out that he thought “mabuligan sila sang mga aktibista sang UP” (they will be helped by UP activists). But it seemed, according to him, that the fishermen were not the concern of the radical activists. They seemed to be pre-occupied with more “noble” issues, national controversies that their counterparts in Diliman have been criticising.

Why don’t radical activists in UP Visayas confront issues that are just under their nose? Why do they have to mirror the stand in Diliman? There was never a dissent on the part of UP Visayas. It has been and will always be a united stand. Why does it always have to be national issues? The challenges in Miagao are more immediate. Is it because as regards national issues position of radical activists are already made in Manila, and Miagao is just in the receiving end waiting for the united stand? That, for me, is not very critical.

This debate may seem to be divisive at first; it was never my intention, though. My intention was for us to examine the issues we confront and challenge the assumptions where we base our actions towards these issues. Somebody asked me whether Mr. Lean Porquia made a mistake in his essay. I could never say a definitive yes, but the statements he made were nothing different from the same canned statement we hear from a bunch of radical student activists where he proudly says he belongs.

In a sense university students are considered to be members of a privileged sector of society. It is also often said that their activism reflects a liberal sense of guilt about their privileged social status, and that they are just making empty gestures aimed at clearing their own consciences, rather than truly attempting to reform the hierarchical society that granted them their favored position. I do not want to generalize, but I noticed that this has not been dealt in-depth in this debate.

Radical activism is a part of student activists’ psyche only as far as they are part of the university. They become part of multinationals they used to challenge, or become part of the government they wanted to topple. If they are just being inconsistent, that can be forgiven, but if it’s a sign of succumbing then it’s time for them to rethink about the stance they make and make it more proactive.

According to the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who identified the crisis radicalism, “pure activist” may actually perpetuate the very problems they sought to address. The radical student leaders should not treat the oppressed, the masses as mere recipients of denied opportunity without giving then a chance for reflection. Radical activism, according to him, allowed merely the illusion of acting, whereas in fact they (the oppressed) would continue to be manipulated–and in this case not only by the presumed foes of the manipulation but also by radicals themselves.

The way I think before has changed. I perceive radical activists I see in television differently as when I did many years ago. I saw them as vestigial structures that have remained frozen in time unable to present new way of thinking and novel ways of approaching problems that contemporary time presents. I believe that proactive student leaders must be given more voice because they’ve been effecting change for a long time without any benefit of megaphones and placards.

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