The US-Middle East Youth Network was designed to provide students across both the United States and the Middle East with the opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue on issues pertinent, not only to their respective regions, but also to the interaction that occurs between them. In doing so, USMEYN seeks to recognize the powerful potential that arises out of the intersection of three key factors: politically and socially conscious students from the Middle East and North Africa, their American counterparts, and the space and skills provided by university campuses across both regions to both sharpen and express this consciousness. I pride myself in being affiliated with a platform that creates a space for the intersection of all three of these factors and that yields impactful, transnational dialogue in return.
As important as the facilitation of this dialogue has been, however, it has prompted me to reflect on what the intersection of these three factors would look like on the ground. If there really is much to be gained from university students’ cooperation across both regions, why have we yet to see this take shape in a tangible way? What would this cooperation even look like? What possible results can we expect to see from its fruition? Is there really much to “cooperate” on in the first place? By narrowing my focus onto two specific student movements, I argue that there is much to be gained from the cooperation of both U.S. and Middle East oriented student activists. Not only is my contention supported by the historical precedence of transnational activism between the two regions, but also by the commonality between their respective goals and tactics for bringing about sociopolitical reform.
Black Lives Matter and On-Campus Activism for Racial Justice:
One of the main issues defining the nature of contemporary student activism on university campuses has been the Black Lives Matter movement. Founded in 2012 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for his murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter movement was assembled to combat the dehumanization of Black lives throughout American society. Be that through the deliberate mass incarceration of Black bodies, the racial discrimination rampant throughout American political and social discourse, or the discriminatory provision of social services across racially segregated communities in the U.S.; the Black Lives Matter movement assembled to call attention to the persisting legacy of slavery, how it continues to affect Black individuals and communities throughout the United States, and the myth that is a post-racial American society.
On-campus activism has been central to the movement. Just as colleges formed the bulwark of progressive activism in the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and the South African Apartheid Movement, so too have they returned with a vengeance as outlets of sociopolitical activism. Particularly following the incidents at the University of Missouri in October of 2015, student groups across the United States have been mobilizing in an effort to protest an array of racially discriminatory practices on their respective campuses. Especially given the fate of former University of Missouri President Tom Wolfe, students have been emboldened by the possibility of enacting tangible reform at their own institutions. Open, unapologetic dialogue about issues of racial justice has surfaced and, yes, despite the occasional superficiality of university administrations’ responses to this new environment of dialogue and action, the value of even breaching these issues in lecture halls and on-campus events, protests, and publications cannot be overstated.
With that said, however, not all student groups working for racial justice on campus are limiting their purview to the systematic racism prevalent throughout their own universities. Student activists are also mobilizing to address the system of endemic racial oppression as it functions on the national stage, taking up issues like prison reform and police brutality and thus situating themselves, and their activism, within the larger national debate on racial justice in America. As impactful and symbolic as the inclusion of college students is in this national conversation, however, it goes without saying that little can be done to address issues of racial justice that play out in the larger and more complex national context through on-campus protests alone. The question thus emerges: what can politically and socially conscious university students do to bridge the ‘impact gap’ that exists between university campuses and national policy reform? That is, how can the impact of these students’ activism be directed towards the dismantlement of nationwide systems of racial oppression and injustice?