San Jose State sociology professor Scott Myers-Lipton has been teaching his acclaimed social action class for more than a decade. Now, the class is the subject of a soon-to-be-released documentary called “Walk the Walk.”
Set over a 12 year time-span, the film chronicles his students’ involvement with the Gulf Coast Civic Works project, the 2012 campaign to raise San Jose’s minimum wage and the Student Homeless Alliance’s fight for more beds, safe parking and emergency grants for unhoused students at SJSU.
San Jose Inside sat down with Myers-Lipton to learn a little bit more about the class, the documentary and how his students are working to spark change.
What can you tell us about the documentary?
The film maker, Bob Gliner, had filmed in 2007 about the Gulf Coast Civic Works project, which was a campaign started by our students after they saw “When the Levees Broke.” That then led them to say, “what can we do about the gulf coast?”
I happened to be teaching in my wealth, poverty and privilege class and we happened to be talking about public works—FDR’s proposal to give people jobs at a living wage to rebuild our county. They were like, let’s put forward that idea but for the Gulf Coast. So they humbly wrote letters to folks in the gulf coast and got a huge response. That started a four year campaign that led to a bill in Congress that was led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren. President Bush didn’t go for it and President Obama didn’t either, but it was a great learning experience for the students.
Then the film shows these two other initiatives. A student who had been in my poverty, wealth and privilege class had an idea for a minimum wage campaign. You see the third generation of student leaders in that video who win the campaign and you get to see the drama of winning that campaign and the tactics they used.
The last segment of the film is the Student Homeless Alliance’s campaign. A lot of these students they’ve never done anything in the community. I don’t blame them for it, we just don’t give them many opportunities to get involved in our democracy other than go vote. This shows you the various ways that you can impact our society and our democracy.
How does the social action class work?
They pick a project for the semester and I teach them how to define the issue so that it’s very specific. I teach them how to do the background research. A lot of times you don’t know who makes the decision about that. So find the lowest level person that can make that decision and then find everything you can about them.
And then I teach them how to do a campaign.
I always say start with a smile. Maybe your target doesn’t know that this is a problem. Come in and say there might be a misunderstanding. Then you can do a letter writing campaign, then you can do a call in into the office. There’s various levels. Then you can do a march. There are ways to put pressure onto the target.
Sociology, at the heart, studies power. This class gives students a firsthand experience with power ,and it gives them a chance to push up against power—and power usually pushes back a bit.
Why did you start teaching this class?
I started teaching it in fall 2006. I was a part of a leadership program that I helped develop for college campuses. When I had twins it was too much to do a full leadership program. I gave that up, but I didn’t want to give it totally up. A professor said you should create a class and call it social action.
The other reason was there’s this thing called service learning—it is integrating the community with the classroom. What I started realizing was I was in that movement, and part of that movement was to focus on policy. It was a really great way to get at some of the root causes of these issues. It was a way to do my discipline and give that experience to students first-hand.
What kind of change has come out of the class?
They the students were involved in the business tax: Measure G. They were the ones who kind of came up with that idea and the mayor led the effort after that.
There was a foundation board member that made a racist comment against Latinas. That was said in front of a pretty high ranking Latina in the administration. She made an informal complaint … and there was no movement. Fourteen students picked that up and ran with that and met with the administration. They were delaying and delaying so then they went public with a press conference. In two days she was gone.
The students have power. There were two months of working with the administration trying to do the right thing.
They also worked on the case where a faculty member sexually harassed a student. They were part of that campaign to have him resign.
An unsuccessful [campaign], so far anyways, was free education for the state of California. That one continually comes up.
This semester, we have six more campaigns going.
Why do you think a class like this is needed?
I just think that if you live in a democracy you have to have people learn how to do democracy. It’s an action. You have to be engaged. If you don’t give people an opportunity to have engagement, they don’t know how to access the levers of power in our community.
My experience is that most students don’t believe change is possible. They don’t see themselves, maybe Tommie Smith and John Carlos, they can bring about change. Maybe Martin Luther King Jr., he can bring about it, but not them.
Tommie and John were just like you. They were just college students on this campus. It humanizes them and shows them they can be part of that change too.
Why do you think people should watch this documentary?
I just think it’s inspiring. I would watch it because we always wonder can you make a difference? Well here are students who say to the camera I didn’t think it was possible to make a difference. Then it shows them on the night of election night winning the minimum wage campaign and them jumping up and down.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
“Walk the Walk” airs at 7pm tonight on KPJK (formerly KCSM). Additional airings are set for 6pm Saturday on KPJK and at 7:30pm Sunday on PBS affiliate KQED.