Friday, May 20, 2011

5-Part Series, Effecting Change with a "un-Revolution"; Part 1, What is ATOM?

Political discourse is at a fever pitch as America wrestles with the nature of government, declining education results, illegal immigration issues, and out-of-control deficit spending.

Liberals label conservatives as xenophobic and racist. Conservatives label liberals as America haters and thugs. Democrats label Republicans as teabaggers and the “evil” rich. Republicans label Democrats as Socialists and Marxists.

Many liberal groups, especially La Raza and SEIU, espouse “revolution” as the only answer for the change they want to see in America – take control by force. Many conservative groups, especially the Tea Party, espouse “no compromise” on cutting all spending and no tax hikes as the only answers they want to see for America.

Competing political sides are not talking to each other. Or if they are, they are generally talking at each other and not really listening to each other. There are some principles that can not be compromised necessarily, but most policies should always have compromise politically. Complete revolution is rarely the answer in a free republic.

What if only the very few are actually haters of any kind? What if the left and the right actually interacted with each other without threats or name calling? What if a reasonable and sincere approach effectively solicits and enables those with a different starting viewpoint to hear and consider your message?

What if effecting change in a “un-revolution” is the smart choice – even for those on the left? What if evoking real compromise to effect reasonable change was more important than simply fighting for an “all or nothing” political win – even for those on the right?

What if there was a liberal student group, based in Chicago no less, which understands these political and social concepts and worked within the system to change the system? Would everyone listen?

Founded in March of 2010, Access to Opportunity Movement (ATOM) is a Chicago-based alliance of student and youth leaders dedicated to fighting for human rights and expanding access to opportunity for all. Its primary focuses are ensuring equal access to quality education, practical and nonpartisan immigration policies, and putting an end to youth violence.

ATOM explains, “Although sometimes it may seem that we are just students, collectively we hold immense sway over national and international policy. Youth movements time and again have forced our society to confront truths and changes that most have been content to ignore.”

“We have broken down race barriers, forced an end to the Vietnam War, revolutionized how we conceptualize sex and gender, and mobilized to elect the first non-white president in our history. We have been at the front of every major societal, economic, technological, and political change of the last century. We have been the masters of our own destiny.

ATOM’s mission is, “We believe that everybody has the right to influence and pursue the path, life, and destiny of their choosing. As such, we are dedicated to ensuring equal opportunities for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, creed, location, circumstance, or socioeconomic status.”

ATOM Chairman Bradley N. Akubuiro is a graduating senior at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and has served on NU’s 15-year Strategic Planning Commission and the Medill School of Journalism’s Undergraduate Advisory Board.

Bradley leads all student initiatives in Minority Enrollment and established NU’s expansion into underrepresented communities. He has interned for several organizations ranging from General Electric and United Technologies to the Evanston, IL City Council and the Springfield, MA Department of Health and Human Services.

Bradley will begin work full-time as a strategy consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton after graduation. He shares the philosophy of ATOM.

BKH: What led to the formation of ATOM?
BA: ATOM arose in response to a need. There is a very clear gap in this country between the decision-makers and those who they make decisions for, particularly when it comes to issues which affect young people.

The average age of a U.S. Congressman is 57 years, and 62 for a Senator. Yet, these people are making decisions regularly regarding college affordability, educational funding, the fate of undocumented children of immigrants, and a whole host of issues that affect people in our age group without ever gaining any real input from us during their decision making process.

ATOM was designed to both keep students informed, and to empower them to take an active role as strategic advocates for our interests.

BKH: What are the main areas of ATOM’s focus?
BA: Education reform, immigration reform, and youth violence prevention.

BKH: What are the main tenements of ATOM’s philosophy?
BA: Very basically, we believe that everybody has the right to influence and pursue the path, life, and destiny of their choosing. As such, we are dedicated to ensuring equal opportunities for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, creed, location, circumstance, or socioeconomic status.

BKH: Do you consider ATOM’s work to be within the liberal or progressive philosophy?
BA: We are, by nature of our ideals, a liberal group. A clear distinction should be made here though between philosophy and party affiliation; we are distinctly unaffiliated. In terms of progressivism, we are progressive, because our history will not allow us the luxury of being reactionary.

BKH: What is ATOM’s definition of socialism, communism, Marxism, and capitalism?
BA: It would be far too presumptuous for me to try to put a 3-4 sentence definition on any of these different sets of philosophies, each of which has guided nations and whose study has constituted entire PhD programs.

That being said, one of the main tenements of both Socialism and Communism, which are guided by Marxist philosophy, is the belief that there should be common ownership of the tools used to produce wealth. This common ownership would, in theory, defeat a great deal of systemic inequality, because everyone would have access to the same type of opportunities as their fellow countrymen.

The problem is that common ownership directly challenges the capitalistic ideals that America rests on. Different countries find success in different models, but the one thing we can be sure of is that America would be a very different nation than it is today if it did not hold the ideals that it does.

BKH: With socialist and communist student groups becoming an open norm on college campuses, why has ATOM rejected alliance with them?
BA: Socialist and Marxist groups have been prominent on college campuses for many years, particularly in the 1960’s and 70’s. We understand that students who join these groups join them because they see problems with the system our country currently operates in. They see injustice and feel that the system treats young people as rejects (which it does, through many of its policies), and so in turn, they reject the system.

ATOM does not reject these groups however; we simply disagree with some of their fundamental philosophies. That being said, we also disagree with some of Newt Gingrich’s fundamental philosophies, but I doubt that we would reject him if he knocked on our door.

BKH: Is it possible to be a liberal or progressive student group and reject socialism, communism, or Marxism philosophy?
BA: Yes, and not at all uncommon.

BKH: Is it possible to be a liberal or progressive student group and embrace the existing American capitalistic system?
BA: Yes, but with a caveat: When a mother embraces her child, this doesn’t mean that the child is perfect, or that he never makes mistakes. It means that the mother knows, “this is my child,” and she will always love him. This necessarily means that there will also be times when she will have to discipline that child to make sure he grows up understanding the difference between right and wrong. We know it worked on us, so we’re ready to bring some of that motherly tough love to the capitalistic system.

BKH: What is ATOM’s definition of social justice?
BA: Fair and equal treatment for everyone, not just in word, but in practice. No exceptions.

BKH: Is it possible to be in favor of social justice policies and reject socialism, communism, or Marxism as the only means to this end?
BA: If it’s not, then we were destined to have a socialist or communist leader no matter who won the 2008 elections. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have been, and continue to be strong supporters of many social justice policies.

BKH: What was the catalyst for the ATOM approach being one of working within the existing system for change?
BA: A mentor of mine once told me a story about a sit-in she led on her campus during the sixties. A strong, justice-oriented student leader, she led twenty students to chain themselves to the railing outside of the President’s office until their demands for an African American studies program and a Black student affairs house were met.

Students gathered and the campus media arrived, and it became this really big deal, until the President finally walked out of his office about an hour later. When he saw the students there chained up, he asked them what they were doing. He said that he has open walk-in hours and that he would have been willing to meet with them to discuss their requests at any time.

Imagine how embarrassing that must’ve been for those students! The moral that I learned from this story is that it doesn’t make sense to try to bust a door down before you’ve tried knocking. Our approach is always to ask before we act.

BKH: What is ATOM’s definition of revolution?
BA: I want to start off by saying that “revolution” is not a dirty word - I was actually just looking this up. To us and, revolution is “any type of sudden, radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure.” If you look at the definition this way, it’s not such a bad thing. The understanding has to be though, that revolution is only one means of change; it has its time and place.

BKH: How does ATOM feel about many in the news, like Van Jones, Bill Ayers, and Andy Stern, advocating “revolution” as the only strong means to a progressive policy end?
BA: The beauty of this country is that everyone in it is entitled to their own opinion, and it is the coming together of these different opinions that drives change forward.

Take Civil Rights for example; the movement would not have succeeded without both the NAACP and the original Black Panthers, despite their drastically different approaches.

The fact is, seeing so many people starting to trend toward the revolutionary approach causes those in power to see us as a much more positive alternative. It definitely makes our work a lot easier!

BKH: Why do you think so many college students seem to believe being a part of a “revolution” as a way of change is being part of the “cool” student groups or philosophy?
BA: Well Brenda, you’ve got to understand that being part of a revolution “is” cool – just ask Wael Ghonim, who recently made this year’s TIME 100 List after leading the revolution in Egypt.

The more important question that students should be asking themselves though is “how effective is it?” We’ve seen several successful revolutions across the Middle East and Africa over the last few months, but given the context of twenty-first century America, it is extremely important that we consider seriously whether or not this is the time or the place. I would say no.

BKH: How do you see the ATOM un-revolution message and methods being more effective in creating change?
BA: A friend was recently telling me about a quote which says that, “the only thing that people like to see more than a building being built, is one being torn down.” For some reason, I have this crazy belief that not every improvement requires demolition, but rather sometimes renovations can be just as effective and a lot more manageable.

BKH: What are the ATOM strategies for effective change?
BA: We have one strategy with six steps. The first step is to identify a story, or specific example that we have seen firsthand which exemplifies a clear issue which needs to be addressed.

For example, when we first began working on our Youth Violence platform, the base example I referred back to was the story of one of my closest friends who was killed in a drive-by shooting. This provides perspective for analysis as well as a constant motivation to continue fighting.

The second is to build our team for facing that specific issue. Third, we identify our objective; what specifically do we want to change? Fourth, we identify who has the power to get us what we want.

Fifth, we develop the courage to ask for what we want, and to respond if it is not granted, and finally we evaluate our success, and repeat any steps necessary.

BKH: How does ATOM ascertain what stakeholders to target for working with and working against?
BA: Once we have identified the exact problem which needs to be addressed, we then ask ourselves, “Who are all the people who have the power to personally make the changes we want to see?”

Once we have that list, we narrow it down to “who from that group is most likely to respond,” and then we draw up a list of who these remaining decision-makers are influenced by. The decision-makers and their influencers are our targets.

BKH: How does ATOM measure the success of its objectives?
BA: We set clear goals early on and make them measurable. For example, for our immigration work, we can’t just say, “We want to make life better for undocumented people.” We have to say, “We want undocumented students to be able to drive legally, afford higher education, and have a pathway to legalization.”

At the end of the day, we always know where we stand on each of those goals - either we have achieved them or we haven’t.

BKH: Thank you Bradley. Connect with ATOM on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. You may also subscribe to the ATOM Blog.

Our 5-Part series on ATOM includes:
Part 2, ATOM Education Mission
Part 3, ATOM Youth Violence Prevention
Part 4, ATOM “Dream Act” Work
Part 5, ATOM Answers “Dream Act” Opposition

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