SPC Activist Profile: John Burdick

From the September 2011 PNL #807

by Amelia Ramsey Lefevre

SPC Activist Profile: John Burdick

Bearing witness at a young age to desegregation-related violence, as well as his parents’ strong commitment to civil rights activism, John Burdick’s leftist roots sprouted in Pontiac, Michigan. He is now approaching the beginning of his 20th year as a professor at Syracuse University. After 9/11, John took an active role with SPC’s Local Cost of the War committee, and more recently has focused his energies on the Community Fellows Program through SU.

Were you involved in activism as a teenager?
I slipped away from it when I was going through high school. Going back to college I got back involved because of Detroit and labor politics. And then there was the revolution in Nicaragua in ‘79. I started following the progressive Catholic Church movement and reading liberation theology. In ’84 I went to Brazil because the liberationist church and the Christian-based communities that were involved in progressive politics had sort of a political umbrella at the national level there. It looked like there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve lived in Brazil for about four years over the last twenty-some years.

How do you interact with your students in terms of your activism and fostering theirs?
The kinds of courses that I’ve been teaching and co-teaching for a long time certainly reflect my own political tendencies, and so the kinds of organizations that I will draw students into are generally progressive. However, I am an educator, so that means I want to work with the students from where they are. I don’t want to push anything down their throats because they’ll end up spitting it up anyway.

Why do you think some people become activists and others don’t?
It’s the confluence of a lot of things. Clearly having discretionary time and the opportunity to go to meetings is key. And I do believe you need to have some trigger experiences that convince you that you can actually make a difference.

What keeps you doing this work now?
The larger reason is once the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started to show signs of ending, I started to put my energy into things that are more immediate, where I can actually see myself contributing to the formation of grassroots democracy right here. The greatest rewards are the relationships and the understanding that I have about the way things work.

—Amelia Ramsey Lefevre