During this era of historically high unemployment rates and economic uncertainty, it is more imperative than ever that America has an economically, socially and politically aware and active youth.
This idea met receptive ears last Wednesday night at the “America Wants to Work” Teach-In webcast hosted by the Sociology Department in the Multi-Cultural Center.
The webcast, which was streamed nationally from the University of California, hosted a panel of student and university faculty speakers who addressed such key issues as workers’ rights and the overall importance of student activism.
With 25 million Americans still unable to find full-time employment, speaker Robert Reich asserted that “there is no issue more important to America today than jobs.”
Reich, who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor under former president Bill Clinton and works currently as Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, stressed that this issue is particularly relevant to college students.
“You are the future,” Reich told audiences nationwide. “If this country is going to survive and prosper over the next few decades, it will not be because of my generation.”
Curtis Hierro, a speaker from Central Florida University where he serves as president of the Student Labor Action Project, believes that America’s youth is more than capable of stepping up to the plate and delivering the change our nation needs.
“Historically, students have played a crucial role in grassroots progressive movements,” Hierro said. “From picket lines to sit-ins, the mobilization of student power has acted as a catalyst for mass social and economic change.”
 Speaker Lenore Palladino, the creator of the political web community moveon.org, agreed.
 “We’re in a time where there’s so much we can do,” Palladino said. “It’s a time to take leadership and throw ourselves into the moment.”
  Staggeringly low employment rates are not the exclusive cause of student dissatisfaction. Unfair treatment of workers and Wall Street’s ever-expanding influence over our democracy have only further added to a mass feeling of discontent among academics and the working class, according to speakers.
 “Why don’t we have a say? Why is our voice not louder?” questioned speaker Terasia Bradford, an undergraduate student from Ohio State University. “We’re balancing the budget on the backs of hard-working American families.”
Bradford pointed to universities’ treatment of their employees as another example of injustice.
“Workers should be paid living wages and treated with respect because without them, our schools couldn’t function,” Bradford said.
Repeatedly raising tuition rates is unmerited, Bradford argued, and said instead that “someone on top is going to have to take a pay-cut.”
UT students who listened to declarations such as Bradford’s during the webcast responded with gusto.
“I’m walking away from this Teach-In with an understanding of how important coalition building is. It’s crucial that we work together,” Kaitlin Malick, a senior double major in Africana and sociology, said. Malick is a co-chair of UT’s Progressive Student Alliance, which was formed in 1997 in an effort to combat unfair wages at UT.
Lisa East, a graduate student in environmental sociology and one of the Teach-In’s co-moderators, agreed, noting that UT provides many outlets for students to mobilize.
“There have been a lot of student campaigns and historic actions that have gone on at UT,” East said. “We’ve got really great student organizations that are interested in social justice. I would encourage anyone to participate, because this isn’t just a place of education, it’s a community.”
One such campaign is Occupy Knoxville, which will take place at Crutch Park next to Market Square on Saturday. Students and Knoxvillians gathered to protest unemployment and income inequity. Similar movements have been taking place in cities all over the county, a fact which heartens Eric Dixon, a junior and attendee of the Teach-In.
“Real efforts are spreading, which shows that we’re gaining power,” Dixon, philosophy, sociology, economics and global studies major, said.
Bill Taylor, a political economy graduate student and another moderator of the webcast, added, “Occupy Knoxville is a great moment for the city. It’s really unique and there’s a lot of energy there.” Taylor further noted that “if you’re interested in helping people, you have to change the system that’s hurting people.”
“We see what’s going on in the United States and the world, and we don’t like it and we agree about what’s wrong,” said Teach-In speaker Frances Fox Piven, a professor at The City University of New York’s Graduate Center.
If America wants answers, Piven continued, we must first look at our own history.
“Corporate power was rolled back by the populous movement and the Great Labor Uprising of the late 19th century,” Piven said. “It was restrained by the Labor movement of the 1930s and again during the 1960s. Maybe it’s the moment another great movement is being born.”