A different kind of activism

RALEIGH —— Walking the halls of the North Carolina General Assembly on Tuesday were a group of college students, and their dance-cards were full. The students, part of Generation Opportunity, a policy advocacy group that focuses on issues relevant to 18-34 year-olds, met with a dozen legislators over the course of the day to introduce themselves and inquire where the lawmakers stood on certain policy issues.

“We focus on educating and activating 18-34 year-olds, specifically on issues that affect their lives and their inability to get a job,” said Anna Beavon Gravely, state director of Generation Opportunity. “We met with a range of Republicans and Democrats, pretty evenly split down the middle, just because we are getting to know them.”

“The best way to get to start a relationship is face to
face and let them know where we stand and what issues we’re passionate
about,” Gravely said.

Their passion on Tuesday? “We wanted to find out what their stance is on free speech, and softly get them ‘on the record’, so to speak, without being abrasive or really pushy,” explained Gravely.

Just hours before Generation Opportunity’s tour de force, 54 arrests were made at the General Assembly during a mass sit-in protest to the controversial House Bill 2, with hundreds chanting “You have blood on your hands,” refusing to leave the building, after shouting down legislators when they attempted to adjourn the opening session of 2016.

“We love a good protest. We’re always going to advocate for the ability to do that,” Gravely said of the previous night’s events.

“What we provide is an outlet for college students, for young professionals to really channel their passion and direct it toward those that can affect change in a way that’s productive,” said Gravely of Generation Opportunity’s advocacy style. “We don’t just talk about occupational licensing reform, or reducing craft beer regulations, just to talk about the issue. We talk about the issues because it affects people’s lives.”

“It was refreshing. They were civil, articulate, respectful, which allowed us to talk in depth and have a real discussion,” said Majority Leader Rep.Mike Hager (R-Rutherford) of his meeting with the students. “We came up with some ideas of how we can work together to accomplish some of their goals and that impressed me.”

As for the issue of free speech, Gravely thinks it represents a bridge between the millennial generation and the political process.

“Right now, for us, free speech is an issue that is resonating quite a bit on college campuses because it’s expediting the understanding of political involvement and the kind of impact it can have,” Gravely said. “Rarely do you have an issue that affects college students on campus that also is up for a vote or is potentially a bill in your state house. That rarely happens, so we want to capitalize on that opportunity to show the impact that a single voice can have.”

Generation Opportunity advocates against recent trends of establishing free speech zones, safe-spaces, and speech codes on college campuses. The students taking part in Tuesday’s meetings were from NC State, Wake Tech, and UNC Charlotte.

“The entire world should be a free speech zone,” Gravely said, adding that limiting spaces for free speech establishes “a culture that is really suppressing and censoring a diversity of ideas.”

Indeed, a lawsuit was filed Tuesday against North Carolina State University and its chancellor, among others, by a student group claiming the university violated its right to free speech when it was asked to stop distributing fliers in the student union. In the suit, Grace Christian Life alleges the university unfairly restricted their engagement with students, despite obtaining permits, while other student groups faced no such restrictions. Grace Christian Life says they were targeted due to the religious nature of their group.

Generation Opportunity counseled each legislator they met with Tuesday that such policies are the opposite of what they think college should be about, and politely asked for their support should a bill arise that offers full protection of speech on college campuses.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R) is reportedly working with leaders of the General Assembly to introduce the Campus Free Expression Act, which would protect speech, assembly, petition and protest rights at campuses across the entire UNC system.

Generation Opportunity members plan to keep engaging with lawmakers on issues important to them as the session continues.

“What makes us different is we do have that action component, coupled with the education, and making our topics relevant to where we are in life,” Gravely said. “We want to create a more prosperous future for our generation, and the best way to do that is to take people who are affected and bring them to legislators in a productive manner.”