It Takes a Village: USC students can make a difference

Alec Vandenberg | Daily Trojan

Last week, Aramark-subcontracted janitors at USC and their supporters marched from Trousdale Parkway to USC Village, imploring students to join their campus rally to advocate for higher wages, better benefits and more affordable health care. But even as they walked through the middle of campus past hundreds of students, they were generally met with indifference.

I’ve dedicated a decent chunk of my column to waxing lyrical about the subpar state of engagement on campus. But these past few months have presented my peers and me with new opportunities for activism, and raised more questions and concerns about our inaction.

Millennials may be painted as the most self-centered generation, but college itself revolves around the student. The pressures of academic course loads, extracurriculars, career development, job hunting and often the struggle to afford tuition, books and basic needs leave little time and energy for social and political activism.

And yet, too rarely do we consider the obligations that we students owe to one another, and to our communities both on and off campus. Circling back to the custodial protest, ought we join USC workers, those who form the bedrock of our campus community and Trojan Family, in their struggle for basic rights and dignity? But more broadly, how should students engage with issues that ought to be solved by our administration, but often stem from our existence on this campus and fall on our shoulders?

The continuing conversation surrounding gentrification represents an extension of this same conversation. USC housing pushed out local retailers and raised concerns about higher rent, and students living in housing around the campus raise the cost of living for community members sharing the surrounding, increasingly pricy housing developments.

Grace Cillo | Daily Trojan

Zumper, a housing rental website, revealed in 2015 average rent increased by over 15 percent in the area surrounding USC, and Rentcafe lists 90007, USC’s regional zip code, as the second-most expensive zip code for rentals in Los Angeles County for 2015. Just last semester, property owners evicted more than 70 community members in an apartment complex off of Exposition Boulevard to open up their housing stock to wealthier student tenants.

It’s no surprise then when these community members and campus workers — whose lives are inextricably tied to and impacted by campus life — appeal to students when stymied by the administration. They reach out to students through flyering on Trousdale and reaching out to groups and clubs. Or, especially in the case of local evictions unrelated to USC policy, community members encourage students to join local causes to advocate for policy changes.

We students can’t change the unintended effects of our presence, but we can and must change our apathy and translate it into dialogue and action — otherwise we risk complicity by mere association of attending USC.

The service worker rally provided students informational materials and easy ways of contacting the administration to advocate on their behalf. And local housing rights groups and neighborhood associations always look for student support in their conversations and workshops on tenant rights.

But the dialogue and engagement extends further to issues beyond workers’ rights and rent, as students can investigate our endowment to ensure that USC divests from any sin stocks, such as tobacco or arms companies, and we can encourage the transition to campus clean energy to reduce our carbon footprint. All of these examples illustrate how the financial decisions of our University send shockwaves, for better or worse, past the boundaries of our campus and the local community — and there are many ways for students to have impact.

As students, we often feel overwhelmed by the pressures and gravity of inequality and other pressing issues, but also feel disempowered to be the change in addressing special interests, donor clout or other barriers.

But external factors and internal hesitations cannot justify our inaction. Students taking action to rename the Von KleinSmid Center, a building named after a former USC president heavily involved with the eugenics movement; advocacy groups demanding safer working conditions for campus workers; and environmental groups pushing USC to adhere to their sustainability plans, show the commitment and power of our student body.

Let’s join these activists, our community and all members of the Trojan Family in this overarching push for greater progress and accountability. Because just as our collective action impacts lives, so, too, does our inaction.

Alec Vandenberg is a sophomore majoring in public policy. His column,“It Takes a Village,” runs every other Monday.