Inform, Entertain, Inspire
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Student activism shaped my life

An image of The Daily Iowan front page on May 2, 1985
April Lidinsky
An image of The Daily Iowan front page on May 2, 1985

In Spring, 1985, I was in my second semester at the University of Iowa – an ecstatic English major, toting my gigantic Norton Anthology of Poetry everywhere. I was also a budding activist, eventually co-organizing protests that pushed our university, like others, to divest from Apartheid South Africa. I wish it went without saying, but it doesn’t: No riot police or snipers were called on us as we learned how to advocate.


And I wish this went without saying, too: We did our homework about complex political dynamics. We needed to, because as students, we screwed up sometimes. Professors mentored us – and we mentored one another – to do better.


I’ll not romanticize the past: The 80s were ugly. The Iran-Contra scandal topped headlines, and the Reagan-era backlash against feminist progress was in full shoulder-padded swing. So, I joined a campus group called “New Wave,” and began learning activism from older students. Every meeting in the Student Union began with assigned reports on topics of group interest — like the history of the Sandinistas – based on slow research in the library’s newspaper room and journals. At first, I balked at the extra homework, but I soon admired my earnest peers who sought to learn beyond the classroom. They also added humor to my activist toolbox. So, when the beehived anti-ERA spokeswoman, Phyllis Schlafly, came to speak on campus, a group of us New Wavers dressed as 1950s housewives and in front-row seats, waved dainty signs proclaiming, “Ladies Against Women.” Schlafly gave us royal stink-eye throughout her talk, but we didn’t interrupt her and no one ejected us from the lecture hall.


But I was a newbie. At a New Wave meeting, a brash senior Poli Sci major gave a quick teach-in about the Sullivan Principles, the code of conduct supposedly guiding South African business ethics. He concluded, “The Sullivan Principles are a crock of …” (well, you know . . .). A student journalist forThe Daily Iowan stopped me after the meeting for a quote. Like a parrot, I repeated, “The Sullivan Principles are a crock of” [dot dot dot]. The next morning, I was at first delighted to see my bold — and plagiarized — claim near the top of the article, and then a second later realized that, if pressed, I couldn’t say much more about the issue I’d only half understood. I nervously hustled, early, to my Classics course, where my adored professor, her hair twirled into a lopsided bun, approached my desk and said, “That was quite a quotation from you in this morning’s newspaper.” I nodded, my eyes not meeting her steady gaze. She said quietly, “I have read enough of your work not to be surprised by your passion. But I was surprised by your choice of words.” I felt both validated and mortified. After class, I beelined to the library to learn enough to improve on my simplistic claim. That quiet lesson has shaped my life.


In arecent New York Times column, Frank Bruni writes that the most important lesson he teaches college students is the phrase, “It’s complicated.” He says, “I want to teach them how much they have to learn — and how much they will always have to learn.” Put another way: Serious thinkers are humble. In the 80s, I learned the limits of bluster. Mentors pushed me to do better. Now, following the news, heart in my throat, I wonder about that humility, and protesters’ understanding of the limits – and damage -- of simplistic slogans.


By late Spring 1985, our daily teach-ins inspired hundreds of students to join us, and New Wave swelled into the “Iowa Coalition Against Apartheid.” We marched on the central quad with signs: “Oppose Racism: Divest!” After little administration response, we set up a tent city to keep our demands visible. Eye-watering patchouli wafted over our haphazard encampments.


Still no response, so we occupied the university president’s office in Jessup Hall, climbing in through an open second-floor window. The sit-in filled the grand building, renamed “Stephen Biko Hall,” after the anti-Apartheid activist beaten to death by South African police. In contrast, we were treated like students. We studied civil disobedience tactics, and when asked to leave the building, we refused. The unarmed town police led some, and carried others, out of the building — gently and with some embarrassment –– and then we returned to our dorms to finish the semester, mostly no charges filed. Shortly afterward, the university joined others, conceding to student and public pressure, and divested.


That moment was different from now, sure, in many ways. Legislative attacks on academic freedom hadn’t yet polarized campuses to today’s extremes. There were fewer guns. And campuses seemed able to retain their primary mission – fostering civil discourse and learning. Lessons from my student activism shaped my life. What lessons are we all learning now?

Music: Yo Yo Ma Bach: Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, Allemande

April Lidinsky is a writer, activist, mother, foodie, black-belt, organic gardener, and optimist. She is a Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at IU South Bend and is a reproductive justice advocate.