Senior ponders the elderly, labor unions and politics

Since he was a little boy, Rusty Stahl has worried about society.

“I used to doodle cynical Ronald Reagan cartoons,” he remembers. “I was born socially aware.”

Stahl, a senior working toward a major in American studies and a minor in creative writing, plans to work as an activist in the labor movement after his May graduation.rustyStahl came to GW from a Philadelphia high school that specialized in international affairs. He remembers seeing Gorbachev and Colin Powell speak long before he moved to D.C.

Upon arriving at GW, Stahl became involved immediately in community service projects. And the rest is history.

Stahl says he tasted minority experience growing up Jewish in Germantown, a Philadelphia neighborhood. He lived with his mother, an artist and urban gardening educator. His father develops education software at the University of Colorado.

Union issues are a part of Stahl’s family tree. His paternal grandparents were active in the 1950s Philadelphia labor movement. His grandfather worked as national organizer for the Human Resource Development Institute.

Stahl’s maternal grandfather was a roofer until he was injured in a fall. He then took a job at a newsstand “in the bad part of town,” Stahl remembers.

His eclectic family influenced him to become active in the community, Stahl says, and later urged him to get involved in the labor movement.

Stahl has always had an affinity for elderly people. He is close to his own grandparents, three of whom are still alive. In his spare time, he transcribes audio tapes left by his grandfather. He wants to know more about him.

“I like the senior citizen stuff,” Stahl explained. “There’s a lot of wealth in their experiences. Being surrounded all the time by 18- to 22-year-olds – it’s a different world.”

His grandparents in his thoughts, Stahl worked with Project CARE during his first semester at GW. The program had students spend time with the elderly.

“I began to see issues my own grandparents are going through as they get older,” Stahl says. “The elderly are a hidden part of our culture. We concentrate so much on staying youthful. We don’t want to look at old people.”

Stahl’s voice gets more forceful when he mentions his grandparents’ afflictions.

“My grandmother is in her nineties and she’s losing her memory. She can’t read her own handwriting,” he says. “Do you know what it feels like to not be able to read your own handwriting? Or operate the alarm clock? The thing is, these people need social contact.”

In CARE, Stahl saw the opportunity for mutual benefit – the elderly had a chance for conversation and personal attention. And students could learn from the life stories of the older and wiser.

“When I first encountered CARE, there was no service aspect,” Stahl says. “It was fading.”

Stahl took charge of the faltering program, eventually merging it with the Neighbors Project, a community service organization that aids people of all ages. He recruited 40 members from the GW community.

But CARE proved an exhausting project. After fighting to keep it vital for two years, Stahl left the program his sophomore year.

But Stahl was not through with community service yet. He went on to create the Community Circle Service Network, an affiliation of service groups from universities all over D.C. The students met regularly for awhile, and sponsored a food drive and voter registration drive.

Unfortunately, the Network no longer exists.

“It was too fragmented in terms of communication and working together. It fell apart,” Stahl shrugged. “Once the novelty wears out, attendance fades.”

Stahl is no longer involved in any community service projects.

“I spread myself too thin,” he says. “I quit because I had to do things for myself. That’s one of the pitfalls of being involved in so much.”

Although he has moved on, Stahl says community service is still in his heart. His head, however, is in politics.

“Community service leads into politics,” Stahl points out. “Why does the president get on TV and ask volunteers to fix the public education system instead of using his power and resources to do it himself?

“Community service organizations should really have their own demise as their goal.”

“I do not consider myself a politician,” Stahl says. “But there is a thin line between community service and politics in general. Politics are for the service of the public. Unfortunately, people tend to define politics as an election.”

Stahl has been a member of the Progressive Student Union (PSU) on and off since his freshmen year. With PSU, Stahl has helped organize rallies on the Marvin Center’s H Street terrace. In 1995, it was “Rally Against Racism.” Last Halloween, Stahl planned “Fight the Fright,” a pre-election Dole-bashing session.

“We’ve got anarchists, radicals, socialists – quite a wide array,” Stahl scratches his head. “Environmentalists.”

Stahl regards PSU as a lever that can mobilize otherwise apathetic students.

“I’d like to see students look at GW from a long-term perspective,” he explains. “Student leaders are short-sighted, including myself. They are not thinking of their own potential power.”

Stahl’s current passion is a conference: “Democracy and the Right to Organize: a Labor Teach-in.” GW will host the weekend event this April. He is working to mobilize students from around the city to participate.

The teach-in will feature workshops about labor laws and speakers including John Sweeney, the President of the American Federation of Labor-Congressional Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). Toni Morrison’s name has come up, as well.

Stahl said he believes the plight of labor movements should be included in university classrooms.

“The curriculum of education is all economic, the curriculum is from a business perspective,” he says. “There is no discussion of the workers’ positions. Universities produce middle management and corporate executives. That’s fine, but the country and the economy is made up of more than corporations.”

For now, Stahl is treating himself to a lighter schedule, slipping away from his public image to savor his last semester. He’s been slightly more social, and has spent more time with his girlfriend of two years. He began to practice yoga during the summer.

“I’ve even gotten to party a bit,” Stahl says. “Not frat parties, of course. But it’s funny, because I see people out and they’re like, `Wow, Rusty, you’re actually relaxed and you’re not trying to hand me some flyer.’ “

So far Stahl has no definite post-graduate plans. He may stay in D.C.

“I feel I’ve put down some roots here after four years,” Stahl explains. “And there is enough here that I could dedicate myself to the city, I think.”

Someday, Stahl says, he will attend graduate school.

“I have so much left to learn,” Stahl explains. “Both substance and skills. History, economics, organizing, management.”

He will always be an activist, he says.

“There’s no point in living if you’re not working to make the world better,” Stahl says. “It doesn’t make any sense. Us working for ourselves does not accomplish anything.”-Megan Stack contributed to this report.

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