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Political activism leads to self-discovery — and teaching

Mitra Jalali, right, with her Campus Progress successor, Harry Waisbren.
Courtesy of Mitra Jalali
Mitra Jalali, right, with her Campus Progress successor, Harry Waisbren.

As a high-school student in Shoreview, Mitra Jalali wasn’t much of an activist. She had potential, she figured, but struggled to step up in such a structured environment.

And when she went off to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she spent her time running a community organization that precluded her from getting politically involved. Then came a chance meeting with Campus Progress in the spring of her junior year.

What a difference a year makes.

That spring, Jalali organized a film screening related to the Iraq war, and over the next year, she organized a large anti-war protest at the state Capitol, founded a Campus Progress chapter at her school, wrote opinion pieces for the student newspaper, and worked tirelessly to bring together several like-minded but disparate activist groups on campus.

Of course, she put in hundreds and hundreds of hours behind the scenes to make all that happen — though, as she put it, “that’s not the glamorous part.”

Resuscitating school’s involvement

Her work, she said, was largely because she felt her school had a storied activist past but not much current involvement.

“It was really just about becoming involved in things and making them real,” she said. “A lot of people don’t have actions that match their beliefs.”

Shortly after graduating this year, Jalali was named the Campus Progress Student Representative of the Year, a national, fairly competitive honor that’s only given to a pair of students each year.

For some quick background, Campus Progress is the student-aimed arm of the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based progressive think tank. It provides activist college students with resources ranging from policy papers to how-to guides on organizing events.

Jalali also trained younger students before she graduated (like Harry Waisbren in the photo above, who assumed Jalali’s duties as the leader of the school’s Campus Progress chapter) to ensure the activist spirit she had helped return to UW-Madison would remain for good.

Discovery during the process

But a funny thing happened to Jalali as she progressed through her senior year, a self-discovery she valued many times more than any of her organizing successes.

“I started out really liberal,” she said. “That gave me energy to launch into full-scale activist mode. But as I started attacking these problems, whether through media or advocacy or community service or campaigning, I began to realize it’s not that simple. There are many, many things to consider with every issue.

“I still consider myself an activist, but if anything, I’ve shifted more to the right. … I see so many more things now then I did then.”

In other words, her activism taught her to see the world’s shades of gray just beyond the blacks and whites.

Now Jalali is in the Teach for America program, and will head to New Orleans soon to teach middle-school and alternative-school students. She wanted to tackle something that felt more immediate.

“I still believe in issues, and still have ambitions, but the way I go about doing it is different,” she said.

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