March 3, 2009

Bill Ayers speaks to student conference, advocates “moral life” of an activist

[img id="77369" align="alignleft"] Self-proclaimed radical Bill Ayers spoke about the continued relevance of activism at the 2009 Student Activist Conference, a meeting of campus groups interested in social change hosted by the University of Chicago Service Center Social Justice Program.

Ayers and a panel of Chicago activists addressed the challenges facing activists and the benefits of collaboration. The gathering, held at Ida Noyes on Saturday, was meant as a networking opportunity for student activists.

Ayers, co-founder of the revolutionary group Weather Underground, became a cause célèbre during the 2008 presidential election, when candidate John McCain used Ayers’ ties to President Obama in order to label the latter a socialist radical.

Currently a professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, as well as a sixth-grade teacher and outspoken voice for education reform, Ayers spoke about creating social change and an active, responsible citizenry through education.

“Social justice is linked to education,” he said. “It’s always been at the heart of a democratic education.”

The panel included G. Flint Taylor, a lawyer at the People’s Law Office; Sarah Ward, executive director of the South Chicago Arts Center; Serpent Libertine, a member of Sex Workers Outreach Project; and Father José Landaverde of Little Village’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Anglican Catholic Church.

The panelists spoke about how their work is activism and what it takes to do social work; all touched on the difficulty of working for a group or community as an outsider, either in the community or in society as a whole.

“You realize who people are and how people see you,” Ward said.

Landaverde had harsh words for other Chicago activists, who he said just want to get on television. He painted himself as the panelist furthest outside the system, arguing that community-based organizations can’t effect change because they are reliant on politicians, who are entrenched in the status quo. 

“It’s not a model that encourages social change,” he said.

After the panel, the audience broke up into groups, which second-year Craig Johnson, of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), said was a high point of the event.

“The thing I’m most excited about is [building] an informal networking systems. SDS is a multi-issue organization, we need other organizations to work with,” Johnson said.

The break-out sessions gave members of various activist groups on campus a chance to discuss how to apply what they learned from Ayers and the panel, developing ties and discussing the life of an activist, of which Ayers said: “There’s no other moral way to live.”