Decades of UNC students credited the Campus Y with spurring them to a life of service during last weekend’s 150th anniversary celebration of the center.

Bill Ferris, senior associate director of the UNC Center for the Study of the American South, described the Y, which organizers say is the longest standing YMCA in the nation and the oldest student activist group, as “the conscience of our campus.”

Through a moving oral history performance, students reflected on several political battles, including those supporting women’s rights, integration and literacy, and opposing the Vietnam War and the speaker ban, which barred communists from orating on campus.

The event, though, was as much about looking forward as celebrating the past. The Friday afternoon program featured a discussion among four prominent local activists— The Rev. Robert Campbell of the
Coalition to End Environmental Racism, Stephen Dear of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, Loida Ginocchio-Silva of the Dream Act Girls and Michelle Cotton Laws of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP—on the challenges of building a movement in modern times.

Loida Ginocchio-Silva (in blue) and the other Dream Team Girls were on a hunger strike in downtown Raleigh in June.
  • Photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Loida Ginocchio-Silva (in blue) and the other Dream Team Girls were on a hunger strike in downtown Raleigh in June.

For starters, it’s difficult to make a living fighting for what you believe in. You have to learn to say no. You have to go home sometime. You can’t survive 18-hour days for long. You have to accept that your cause isn’t always the most important. You have to talk to the people who you don’t like. You can’t turn your back on them. You may need them someday. Document everything.

Each also explained what inspired them to serve. For Ginocchio-Silva, it was honoring her parents’ sacrifice. They moved, undocumented, from Peru to the United States when Ginocchio-Silva was a child because the family could barely afford groceries. That’s what gave her the strength to go on a hunger strike for 13 days in downtown Raleigh, urging Sen. Kay Hagan to support the Dream Act.

“I’m undocumented. I’m not afraid of saying that. I’m not ashamed of saying that,” she said.

Ultimately, the strike ended when Ginocchio-Silva was hospitalized for heat stroke and dehydration, but she says the words “hope,” “justice,” “freedom” and “change” come into her head every time she questions why she drove herself to the point of exhaustion.

“The hope of a world where I am considered a human being instead of an illegal alien,” she said, her voice quivering.

For the Rev. Campbell of Rogers and Eubanks Road, the moment came when he served in Vietnam and realized what it’s like to live with depression.

For years, Campbell has petitioned elected leaders about Rogers Road community, which has been burdened by the county landfill in their backyard.

Officials didn’t take notice until Campbell built support from a diverse group of citizens

“It seemed like they were not hearing us. We had to get business people, lawyers and professors involved and create a living kitchen table of Orange County,” he said. “They saw the makeup of what a united community that’s concerned with environmental and social justice looks like.”

For Laws, inspiration came from her grandmother who brought her to community meetings. She said she had to learn to support illegal immigrants after her initial response that “you need to deal with us first. We were first in line,” believing that issues for African Americans outweighed those of undocumented workers.

Embracing Ginocchio-Silva, she said, those thoughts are “designed to distract those who are seeking food from the table.”

For Dear, who grew up as the neighbor of senators and newscasters in Potomac, Md., a turning point came the day John Lennon died.

“That opened my eyes to the violence of our culture,” he recalled.

He learned to overcome his silver-spoon status in the Peace Corps, serving in Malawi and later in Ralph Nader’s office.

And while he can count the current death penalty moratorium in North Carolina as a major success, Dear says he struggles with overworking and the fact that the anti-death penalty movement, unlike most social movements, isn’t lead by the people most affected. For whatever reason, he says, families of those put to death rarely take the lead in lobbying, perhaps out of embarrassment.

Social change happens through people, not policies. The human touch, and a good story, makes the real difference.

“I don’t consider myself an activist or an organizer, but a storyteller,” Ginocchio-Silva says. “What keeps me going is my hope in human beings.”

The Campus Y plans to post podcasts and oral histories from the celebration on its website.