December 9, 2010 (LifeSiteNews.com) – In 1996 a sobering Gallup Poll was released that confirmed what many pro-life activists already suspected, but nevertheless hoped wasn’t true: while 47% of women said they were pro-life when they entered college, by graduation, a whopping 73% said they were now pro-choice.
Frighteningly, the pro-life movement was losing 26% of all female students who went through a university program. Clearly, if the movement had any hope of survival in the long run, more needed to be done to reach out to students.
At that time there already existed a group whose mission was to create a pro-life presence on campuses - American Collegians for Life. But without a full-time staff, and without a significant source of funding, there was only so much that the Collegians for Life, which was entirely student-run, could do.
In 2006, all of that changed. In that year American Collegians for Life received a sizable start-up grant, changed its name to Students for Life of America (SFLA), hired a professional staff, opened its first national headquarters in Arlington, VA, and launched its historic Pro-Life Field Program.
Since then, Students for Life has gone on to become one of the most active, and most successful, pro-life organizations in the country.
Meet SFLA executive director Kristan Hawkins
In fact, says Kristan Hawkins, SFLA’s first executive director, their organization has been so successful in founding pro-life student groups, that they have far surpassed anti-life organizations in establishing a campus presence. When Students for Life launched in 2006, there were only about 180 pro-life college student groups in the whole of the United States. Now there are over 500, and more are being added every day.
Amazingly, Hawkins was handed the helm of the newly-minted national pro-life organization at the tender age of 21. She describes the process of getting SFLA off the ground as being akin to starting up a small business – interviewing and hiring staff, opening an office, doing the accounting, and developing all of SFLA’s programs from the ground up.
She describes that time as “really exciting,” but jokes that, “had I known how much work it was going to be, I probably would have given it a second thought instead of immediately saying, ‘Yes, I’ll take it!’” And for her, things have only gotten busier over the years, now that she is married and has two children.
But, she says, the hard work has clearly paid off. In the past five years, SFLA has grown to ten full-time and 2 part-time staff. Every year SFLA hosts a conference in Washington to coincide with the annual March for Life – this year they are expecting a record-breaking 1800 youth attendees, making it “the largest pro-life youth conference in the world.”
And then, of course, there is the core of SFLA’s outreach - those 530-plus SFLA-affiliated pro-life campus groups. That might sound like a lot, but for Hawkins it’s only the beginning – the goal is to reach at least 1,000.
It’s all part of an effort to build up what she terms a “critical mass,” in preparation for the day when Roe v. Wade is overturned.
She points out that, “when that glorious day comes,” there will be 50 statewide battles in the United States over abortion that will “need trained activists in the states.” Hawkins hopes these activists will be SFLA alumni.
“They’ve been trained, they know exactly what works and what doesn’t work,” she says. “They’re already ready. They’re on the ground, they’re in the states.”
Campuses: Ground Zero of the abortion fight
Hawkins argues that an organization that focuses exclusively on students, and especially college campuses, is crucial because “this is where these girls are having the abortions, this is where Planned Parenthood is targeting for new business, and this is where hearts and minds are being changed.”
The power of SFLA’s presence was illustrated in an amazing way just this week. Steve Macias, one of SFLA’s field agents, was on the campus of Sacramento City College gathering information when he went up to a passing student and asked her what she knew about abortion. She turned to him in amazement and asked how he “knew.”
When he assured her that he knew nothing at all about her, she explained that she was being pressured by her boyfriend to abort their unborn child, even though she knew abortion was wrong. Thankfully, Steve was able to put the girl in touch with a local pregnancy resource center and put her on the path to saving the life of her child.
But it isn’t always that easy. SFLA has found over the years that their deadliest enemy isn’t necessarily pro-abortion activists, but rather, “apathy.”
Hawkins says her field agents frequently encounter students who say they are pro-life, “but are unwilling to take a stand.” She attributes this to the fact that students are “inundated with so much information and media” that they begin to grow numb. “It’s funny, because even now you’ll show people a graphic image of an aborted baby, and we have some people who’ll just look right at it and walk the other way. It doesn’t really affect them,” she said.
Nevertheless, Hawkins says she holds a great deal of hope for the future: increasingly, she says, “this generation sees abortion as a human rights issue.” Part of this is thanks to pro-life parents, raising children who understand the value of human life. Part is thanks to advances in technology.
“You’ve got 3D and 4D ultrasounds now, something we’ve never had before in previous generations - where a girl can go to Google, type in abortion and see that baby in the womb,” said Hawkins. These technologies are educating students “about what is life, and they’re showing these students that there’s unborn life in that womb.”
Hawkins is convinced that right now “the momentum is on our side.”
For veteran pro-life activists, organizations like SFLA are the answer to their most earnest prayers. No longer do they need to worry about whether or not there will be anyone to fill their shoes when they are gone. Thanks to SFLA, and other similar organizations, there is a whole new generation of smart, savvy, devoted, and energetic pro-life activists.
And they are striking fear into the heart of the old guard of the pro-abortion movement. When Nancy Keenan of NARAL, one of America’s top pro-abort organizations, stumbled on the March for Life in Washington last January, she told Newsweek: “I just thought, my gosh, they are so young … There are so many of them, and they are so young.”
SFLA is at the forefront in pioneering techniques that allow them to reach out directly to this new generation of pro-life warriors. “We use a lot of social media,” Hawkins explains. “I think we were one of the first pro-life organization back in ’06 to utilize the power of Facebook to find pro-life students, or students who we think should identify with the pro-life message.”
The SFLA website is also one of the most cutting edge in the pro-life movement – packed with well-organized, crisply presented information.
You could call it pro-life 2.0.
But at the same time, says Hawkins, there is no replacement for the tried and true methods of boots-to-the-ground outreach.
“You can do a lot via the Internet. You can do a lot via referrals and e-mail and calls,” she says. “But really a lot of grunt work comes down to hitting the pavement, being there in person, right on the campus meeting the students. I think that that’s actually one of the most critical things that you have to do. Students are swamped with messages, e-mails, text message. Getting out and personally meeting these students, I think that’s the best thing that you can do.”
And this is exactly what Students for Life of America does best.
To those pro-life students who feel alienated on their college campus, she says, “don’t be discouraged.”
“We are the majority. National polls are telling this,” said Hawkins. But for those students who don’t believe her, she encourages them to come to the SFLA conference in Washington in January, “where I’m sure every single student will leave knowing that we are the majority and that we will be victorious.”
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