Student Activism in School Getting Your Voice Heard Resources, inspiration and expert advice for making a difference on and off campus

Student activism has surged in the last decade, with young campaigners calling on leaders both on and off campus to right wrongs, erase inequalities and secure the future of our planet. But this is nothing new: Student activists led the charge during the Civil Rights Movement and were early adopters of environmentalism. While peaceful protests and petitions are still important parts of their toolbox, today’s student activists are expanding by bringing activism to the web and social media. The following guide explains what it means to be a student activist and where to find support for certain causes. It also provides tools and guidance on how to create goal-oriented, effective rallies for change.

Covered in this guide…

How to Become a Student Activist

While you may already have causes you’re passionate about, gathering supporters and developing a thoughtful plan to enact change are just as important as the initial idea. The timeline below can help budding activists develop a measured approach to achieving their goals.

Step 1 Pinpoint your passion

Whether it’s protecting a historic building on your college campus, ensuring fair treatment to animals, or fighting for LGBTQ equality, the most passionate student activists have identified a cause that makes them get up each morning believing they can make things better.

Step 2 Educate yourself

Depending on your chosen area of activism, there’s a good chance a few others have identified this issue. First, find out if others are fighting for the same cause. If so, go to their website and read up on the topic. To be fully informed, try to find position papers from groups on the other side. Once you have a firm grip on the issue, you can see if you can commit to its strategy for change or need to adopt a different approach.

Step 3 Determine your goal

When you start making others aware of the injustice you’ve identified, what action are you hoping to encourage? It could be you want to gain signatures in support of a proposed plan for the administration, or perhaps you’re more interested in raising public awareness. Either way, listing short, intermediate and long-term goals keeps you organized and shows supporters you’ve thought things out.

Step 4 Tap into resources

Resources come in many forms, and one of the first types a student should find is peer groups. Activists looking for strength in numbers should start on their campus, preferably by reaching out to a faculty or staff member who will advise you. But don’t shy away from contacting national groups. Many have toolkits filled with media strategies and organizational plans.

Step 5 Create an action plan

Think about the objectives that need to be in place to achieve that goal. Then develop detailed action steps to complete the objectives and meet your goals.

Step 6 Go!

You’ve identified your passion, educated yourself on it, set goals, found resources, and created a plan for success. The final step to becoming a student activist is to bring awareness to your cause. This could mean speaking at student club meetings, blogging, organizing a speaker series, or meeting with the administration.

Take Action: Common Methods of Student Activism

Iconic scenes of protestors taking over a square or marching down a busy road pop into most people’s minds when they think of activists, but there are several other methods of taking action to make a change.

Facebook sharing, hashtag campaigns, mass-tweeting: The world of social media and blogs has opened several doors for making injustices known, and students can share information across their accounts to maximize their reach. Social media can be used to advance nearly any cause.

Students can collect signatures the old-fashioned way — standing in the center of the student union — or do it online. In either form, petitions help students coalesce around an issue and show leaders how many people believe in a cause. Petitions are often the first step for many different forms of activism.

Using media to raise awareness about a cause can quickly educate potential supporters about the issue and move them to your side. Campus radio shows, school newspapers and departmental bulletin boards are all free advertising platforms. In addition, smartphones let users film, edit and disseminate high-quality videos.

Is the campus cafeteria using unsustainably grown products? Has there been a racial injustice in on-campus housing? In these instances, boycotting a space (and getting others to do it with you) might be an effective and quick method of garnering attention for your cause.

Protests come in many different forms and serve different functions, depending on how they are used. Common examples of protests include remembrance vigils, picket lines, rallies and marches.

Unlike boycotts where people who are consuming a good or service (such as cafeteria food or a particular class) refuse patronage, strikes occur when employees or student workers refuse to work due to a policy or action they deem unacceptable.

This protest movement was popularized by students during the Civil Rights Movement. It involves occupying a space and refusing to vacate until requirements are met. This method could be used for a variety of causes, ranging from racial inequalities to longer library hours.

This collective method of activism involves gathering a large group of people and demonstrating dissatisfaction en masse, typically with a march that ends at a place significant to the cause. For example, student activists protesting gender discrimination in college sports may elect to end their march in a large sports field, where a speaker rallies the crowd.

The main difference between an occupation and a sit-in is that occupations typically take place in larger, open spaces. Perhaps the most well-known example in recent years is Occupy Wall Street.

Brought into widespread use by Mahatma Gandhi, civil disobedience is a mostly nonviolent method of activism where participants purposely violate rules, laws, or expectations they morally disagree with. In student activism, civil disobedience may be used for issues related to religious freedoms and civil liberties.

Campus Activism by Cause: Examples & Resources

Student activists are on the forefront of championing many issues. Whether opting to tackle sexual health and safety, gender discrimination, religious freedom, or another issue, they can draw inspiration and clarify their purpose by using the resources outlined in this section.

Diversity & Racism

Although the Civil Rights Movement began more than half a century ago, racism and lack of diversity continue to be issues both on college campuses and across the country. In the context of higher education, poor race relations can fester, eventually manifesting in learning distractions or threats to student safety. Although these issues have greatly improved in recent decades, there is still much work to be done.

Resources

Real-life examples

Environmentalism & Sustainability

The concept of “going green” – or enacting environmentally friendly and sustainable policies – has been discussed on hundreds of college campuses in recent years. Whether pushing for more recycling receptacles, encouraging faculty to shift from paper essays to online ones, or installing water stations for refillable bottles, there are many ways to promote the preservation of natural resources in higher education settings.

Resources

Real-life examples

LGBTQ & Gender Equality

The first widespread LGBTQ activism efforts began in the late 1960s and stemmed from wider issues surrounding second-wave feminism and the Civil Rights Movement. Student activists were on the frontlines of this movement, and many campuses’ LGBTQ groups started during that time. Some of the issues directly affecting students include equal access to housing and transgender bathrooms.

Resources

Real-life examples

Politics & Government

Decisions made within the political arena by government officials have long been scrutinized by student activists, with examples ranging from local government intervention in education to national issues like the Vietnam War. Many student-led political groups originated from other student clubs focused on conservative and liberal platforms.

Resources

Real-life examples

Sexual Health & Safety

Student activists run the gamut on issues surrounding sexual health, with some working to expand abstinence programs in high school and others seeking to increase access to birth control. Sexual harassment is an area where most people come together to lessen the number of incidents by providing greater campus security and educating men and women about anti-harassment policies.

Resources

Real-life examples

Tips for Safe & Effective Student Activism

As they saying goes, “Learn to walk before you run.” The same holds true for student activism. Students can fall into some common pitfalls if they rush to deploy their plans. Use these tips and tricks to increase your chances of success:

Leverage free publicity

Extra money is a luxury in college, so finding outlets to raise awareness for free is crucial. Have a meeting of supporters to determine if anyone has connections to the student newspaper or radio station (or to the local news/radio station).

Get on the same page

Inspiring supporters is an important part of success, but it’s perhaps even more important to make sure everyone is conveying the same information. The last thing a student movement needs is a member going rogue, so focus on talking points whenever your group communicates.

Challenge the speech code at your school

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education produces a guide on challenging rules at universities that prohibit forms of speech commonly protected in public society.

Don’t fall prey to discriminatory activism

Issues of discrimination are common topics of student activism, and for good reason. No person should have to live in a setting where they feel discriminated against. But it’s equally important not to discriminate while protesting the very same concept. For instance, asking students to sign a petition against sexual assault policies is a worthwhile mission, but taking an anti-male stance undercuts the core message against discrimination.

Remember your goals, objectives and action steps

It’s easy to get distracted as a movement grows or evolves, but maintaining a coherent message and remembering exactly what you said you wanted to accomplish will keep the cause on task.

Students: Knowing Your Rights as an Activist

Before taking up the fight for any cause, it’s important for students to understand their rights. While all Americans are entitled to free speech under the First Amendment, some colleges dictate where free speech – be it handing out leaflets, gathering signatures for a petition or picketing – can be done on campus. Some schools may even threaten students with suspension or expulsion for engaging in certain types of activism. Students must know their rights. The American Civil Liberties Union provides a comprehensive guide on First Amendment rights and what students should do if they feel their rights have been violated.

Ideas & Inspiration: Small Acts of Activism

Although securing a change to the law or getting the President to create a new anti-discriminatory task force may make the news, smaller acts of civic engagement can make an incremental difference in your school community and the world. Here are some examples of what students of all ages are doing:

Description Grade Levels
Be Street Sweet Gather friends to write inspiring messages on sidewalks that encourage goodwill in the community and reject violence. Middle school, high school, college
Dream the Dream Research and share applications for scholarships for undocumented students to help relieve their anxieties about paying for college. High school, college
Howl at Hearts Volunteer at a local animal shelter, and share pictures of your new furry friends on social media or in class to encourage more pet adoptions. Elementary, middle school, high school, college
Power to the Period Provide feminine care items to homeless shelters so disadvantaged women get needed products. Middle school, high school, college
Reuse, Reduce, Recycle Challenge friends to opt for reusable water bottles that help protect the environment and reduce waste. Elementary, middle school, high school, college
Unite the Voters Register voters on campus so they can participate in elections. High school, college

For Educators & Parents: Benefits of Student Activism

Student activists have been at the heart of social progress for decades, serving as instrumental participants in movements against sexism and racism and for more civil rights and freedoms. College campuses often serve as incubators of these movements, providing a setting where students discover their passions and develop skills to combat prejudice and inequality. While parents and educators may worry about these activities, there are several benefits of student activism for students, schools, communities and the nation.

  • Skill development

    In addition to classroom learning, student activists develop skills while campaigning for their cause, including public speaking, persuasion, critical thinking and negotiation.

  • Political involvement

    Students who participate in politics from an early age can cement themselves as active members of society who stay abreast of current issues and engage with the political process.

  • Care for the community

    Although student activists may start with one pet issue, seeing a project through to a satisfying conclusion can build a lifelong devotion to standing up for their communities.

  • Positive impact

    When student activists are successful in their endeavors, it means a greater quality of life for those they’re fighting for. For example, when a school enacts a recycling plan, it benefits the environment. When racial policies are successfully defeated, it means greater access for more people.

  • Teaching others

    Many of the inequalities facing the U.S. go unnoticed by citizens. Student activists provide a public service by educating their communities on injustices occurring around them.

  • Civic engagement

    Regardless of how a student’s experience with activism plays out after graduation, their early involvements set the stage for lifelong civic engagement.

Advice from the Expert: Activism on Campus and Online

Q

How has student activism evolved with the use of social media?

A One of the bright spots about social media is how important information is passed with ease amongst users. You no longer have to post flyers on bulletin boards or telephone poles. You post on your page, your friend’s page, or use a popular hashtag. Today’s student activists feel empowered by this. They quickly see that they are not alone fighting this issue and can get attention within seconds of a post. This sense of community emotion drives a more passionate crowd and helps produce a louder voice of change.

Q

What are your tips for college students who want to make a difference and fight injustices?

AGet involved in a community service organization. When you are surrounded by likeminded people, it inspires a great thought channel, but if this talk doesn’t produce any action, it’s wasted energy. There are tons of local organizations who could use the zeal and passion of students to effect change locally.

Q

For educators or parents who get nervous at the idea of student activism, what are the benefits?

AOne of the benefits of student activism is how it helps a student to look at life globally and not myopically. When we can open our eyes to see the struggles of our fellow man, it takes the focus off our self-interests and places it on other people. It is the essence of the golden rule, to look out for/treat/protect other people the way you want to be looked out for/treated/protected. These movements of change should be viewed as a vehicle of doing good and should be encouraged by the older generations.

Q

What are some ways student activists can go about getting others to join their cause?

ADifferent ways to get other people to join their cause: Know the facts on the issue because knowledge is powerful, and people are attracted to power. Know the audience to which you are speaking. Talk to likeminded people; it is an easier crowd to influence. And lastly, get involved in community service organizations. You will find a listening ear when you are working alongside someone to help other people.

Additional Resources for Student Activists