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CCL embraces student activism's subtle new tactics


Students paddle Wambaw Creek on a recent outing with the Coastal Conservation League, which has been building a student chapter to spur the next generation of activism - STRATTON LAWRENCE
  • Stratton Lawrence
  • Students paddle Wambaw Creek on a recent outing with the Coastal Conservation League, which has been building a student chapter to spur the next generation of activism

Students paddle wambaw creek on a recent outing with the Coastal Conservation League, which has been building a student chapter to spur the next generation of activism

At 5:30 p.m. on Thurs., April 12, a group of 140 College of Charleston students entered the president's office, forcing the staff to leave and locking themselves inside. They notified the administration that they would occupy the building until the school agreed to adopt an environmental sustainability plan, bringing the college in line with other universities throughout the nation. The school agreed and the group peacefully disassembled that evening. Two student leaders were arrested and released later that night on bail. All charges have since been dropped.

This fictional account reads like farce in the context of today's student activism situation. Forty years ago, however, this type of event was commonplace. College campuses were the staging grounds for protests against the Vietnam War and for civil rights. Organized mass resistance has frequently occurred during the Iraq war, but campus-wide resistance has not been substantial enough to make news. Despite a highly controversial, unpopular war, there's been no Kent State shootings or Columbia University sit-ins.

"In the late '60s and early '70s, the college movement drove policy with sit-ins and demonstrations," says Coastal Conservation League (CCL) membership coordinator Nancy Craig. "That generation has been wanting to see when the young people are going to step up and be the conservationists of the future."

Student activism, both resistant and proactive, has largely abandoned the physical realm and taken to the web. CCL recognized this in 2005, when they conducted interest surveys about beginning a student chapter. "A lot of students thought it sounded cool but didn't want another club with meetings and time commitments," says chapter coordinator Jess Barton.

Craig says the surveys found that students were aware of the League and wanted to receive information but "didn't necessarily want to go out and do anything." After introducing their e-mail list, students increasingly expressed interest in taking a more meaningful role.

Today, CCL's student chapter has around 500 subscribers, and nearly 75 paid members. They've never held a physical meeting, but those who sign up receive regular e-mails about the issues they've specifically expressed interest in, with quick links to sign petitions and send e-mail to legislatures. "We get feedback all the time from politicians who say 'We didn't know people were so interested in this,'" says Craig . "They often receive 400 e-mails when they're in session on the floor."

To encourage active participation from members, CCL's student chapter offers seasonal outings into Lowcountry habitats. On a sunny, 80-degree Saturday this past March, 25 students traveled to McClellanville for a kayak trip/nature walk in the Wambaw Creek Wilderness of Francis Marion National Forest. Coastal Expeditions owner Chris Crowley talked about the challenges facing the forest from development, while guides shared their knowledge of the blackwater creek's natural history and ecology as students paddled through the serenely winding waterway. "We're all naturalists, just like we're all dancers and singers," says Crowley. "It's our natural curiosity to walk past things and wonder what they are."

For nearly a decade, Coastal Expeditions has offered trips to the CCL at cost. "The CCL is about South Carolinians protecting land in South Carolina," says Crowley. "The idea that a developer today with any sense goes to the CCL first for help with zoning approval — that's huge. It's unheard of. They know that otherwise they're in for a fight."

Last autumn, CCL, Chaco, and Coastal Expeditions cosponsored a kayak trip to Long Island, the narrow strip in Folly Sound that exists as a crucial bird rookery and animal habitat but faces heavy pressure from developers. The attending students learned about the island's importance, and many showed up at the Folly Beach town meeting to oppose any development. The large turnout put the builders' plans on hold, and both the CCL's Craig and Barton cite that event as a prime example of the student chapter beginning to play a role.

Although getting 25 undergrads out on the water for a day isn't exactly taking over the college president's office, CCL's Craig hopes that the experience will encourage participants to act on their newfound awareness of the issues facing our wild places. "The student chapter is definitely designed for activism," she says.

Nearly 500 of CofC's 12,000 total students now receive the CCL's alerts. Political science professor Angela Halfacre sees that as a strong indication that students are concerned about environmental and land use issues. "The student chapter provides guidance about ways they can participate through civil action," says Halfacre. "It's planted a seed of something that can really flourish here, and will play a growing role in the future."

Among the students attending last month's kayak excursion, most were attracted by a free day on the water. Some heard about the trip through Facebook, others from friends. "I'm not into the picking up trash kinds of things, but other stuff I'm willing to do," said one participant.

"I think this time I'll pay the membership fee," said another who had gone on a trip in the past.

To kick off the spring membership drive, those who signed up for $15 also received a coupon for free Chaco Sandals at Half-Moon Outfitters.

"I think student apathy is a big barrier," says coordinator Barton. "They're either too busy to get involved or they don't really feel like they can make a difference."

Once students are members in CCL's student chapter, they can make their voices heard with an action as simple as signing their name on an online letter. It's no sit-in, but it's quick and easy, the legislators pay attention, and there's no risk of jail time or being shot, as with the activism of past generations.

"Students are busy with their own lives," says Barton, "but part of being in college is learning how to be an active citizen and making the changes you want to see happen."

CCL student chapter's membership drive is ongoing, with Chacos still available. Visit to sign up.

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