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.
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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.
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.
Black Lives Matter - Created in 2012, BLM has hundreds of chapters throughout the U.S., including on college campuses.
Dismantling Racism Works - dRworks is a group of organizers and trainers who help activists reverse racial inequities.
History of Diversity, The - This timeline of racial equality at Sarah Lawrence College is an example of something student activists can ask their college to create. It highlights strides as well as work still to be done.
Race, Equity & Diversity - The University of Washington Tacoma provides this resource page and stance on supporting diversity on campus – an excellent example of something student activists can push for on their campus.
Rada Films Group - The mission of Rada is to celebrate diversity by telling compelling stories about multiculturalism.
Reclaim Harvard Law School. - Reclaim Harvard Law is an ongoing call for racial equality in education. The group has used demonstrations, social media campaigns and speaker series to raise awareness.
Woolworth's Sit-in - In 1960, college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, staged the first lunch counter sit-ins at a Woolworth’s to protest the restaurant's “whites only” policy. By doing so, they spurred the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major player within the Civil Rights Movement.
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.
350.org - Don't know how to facilitate a training, structure a workshop or start a petition campaign? 350.org has a database of activities activists can use, plus primers on fossil fuel divestment, offshore drilling and other environmental flashpoints.
EcoLeaders - The National Wildlife Federation has developed step-by-step student guides to designing environmental projects on campus. Just as importantly, its web portal encourages students to connect and implement projects on their own campus.
Environmentalism at the Crossroads: Green Activism in America - This piece by the Foundation for Economic Education discusses how to move the conversation on sustainability forward.
UIC Office of Sustainability - Lots of campuses now have sustainability departments that student activists can partner with to affect change. The University of Illinois’ efforts are particularly expansive. Look to the Campus Resources section for ideas that can be implemented on campus, or connect with the Office of Sustainability at your school.
Brown University Environmental Justice Track - In 2014, Brown University students began gathering signatures for the Environmental Studies and Sciences Department to add an academic track exploring how different groups of people are unequally affected by environmental changes and policies. The university responded by creating the environmental justice track.
Fossil Free Stanford - In 2013, Stanford University activists created this group to protest the university’s investments in 200 fossil-fuel extraction businesses. It used demonstrations, petitions and pledges to make its point. One year later, the institution divested from all coal companies.
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.
Campus Pride - Campus Pride offers an array of resources and helpful information for students who want to address inequalities on their campus.
Gay-Straight Alliance - GSA represents a network of student-run clubs that provide safe places for discussions and push back against homophobia and transphobia.
LGBTQ Student Groups at University of Michigan - The University of Michigan lists the LGBTQ student groups that fight against campus-based discrimination. It's a good starting point to see what national organizations are out there looking for local chapters.
Out for Work - This nonprofit works with LGBTQ students and their allies as they prepare to join the workforce.
Top 10 Factors LGBTQ Youth Look for in Choosing a College Campus - In addition to helping prospective students find a welcoming campus, this article also helps student activists identify areas where their campus may need work.
Anti-HB2 protests - In 2016, North Carolina passed a law mandating that people must use the bathroom of the biological sex they were born with, regardless of the gender they identify with. The University of North Carolina system announced it would adhere to the state law in April, resulting in waves of protests at appearances by the university president as well as sit-ins at campus bathrooms and administration buildings. By May, the university said it would not enforce the law.
University of Georgia lawsuit - In 1972, a group of LBGTQ students sued the University of Georgia after it refused to let gay and lesbian students fully participate in social functions. The courts ruled in their favor, and later that year the plaintiffs held a dance for LGBTQ students on campus.
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.
Activism & Politics - Organized through the Swarthmore College’s Peace & Conflict Studies program, this is an excellent resource for student activists passionate about political issues.
Democracy Matters - Democracy Matters works with college students on initiatives that ensure democracy for generations to come.
Mobilize - This nonpartisan organization encourages students to participate in politics and civic engagement to change political systems.
The Project on Student Debt - Student activists looking for research and talking points on the student debt crisis can find ample resources via this project from the Institute for College Access & Success.
Pay It Forward Tuition Plan - In 2012, students at Portland State University called for legislators to create a plan for students to graduate from public institutions without massive debt. In response, the Oregon legislature passed a bill allowing students to finish their degrees without paying in exchange for a 24-year payment plan tied to their income. Other states are now considering this option.
Student Strike of 1970 - As part of the largest student strike in American history, more than four million students protested the military’s invasion of Cambodia and the killing of student protestors at Kent State University. Students at more than 450 secondary and postsecondary campuses held protests over two months.
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.
Amplify Your Voice - Amplify focuses on empowering students to advocate for positive and realistic approaches to sexual health. Its toolkits for youth activists and condom campaigns are particularly useful.
National Partnership for Women and Families - NPWF champions sexual health and safety and helps student groups push for comprehensive sex education in their schools.
No More - With a focus on ending domestic violence and sexual assault, No More provides a range of campus resources for student activists, including a free toolkit with branded advocacy materials.
Our Bodies, Ourselves - This nonprofit offers evidence-based research on reproductive health and sexuality for girls and women.
SAFER - This organization works with student-led groups who are fighting against interpersonal and sexual violence on college campuses.
Boston College’s Students for Sexual Health - Students at BC gained national coverage when, after petitioning the school for a sexual health referendum to provide greater access to birth control and sex education, the school threatened to discipline the students.
Carry that Weight - After Columbia University found a male student not responsible for the sexual assault of a female student, she began carrying a mattress around campus to protest the school's handling of the case and draw attention to the emotional burden survivors of rape bear.
Social Justice Movements
A wide ranging concept, social justice is concerned with any mistreatment of an individual by society. In the case of student activism, this may relate to student mistreatment by the school administration. Issues span from racism and sexism to access to healthcare or education, and students often join with larger activism groups to amplify their collective voice.
5 Approaches to Social Justice Activism - EdChange offers five ideas on how to create meaningful social justice campaigns.
5 TED Activists that Are Fighting for Social Justice - Students looking to be inspired by the work of other social justice activists can tune into these five motivating TED Talks.
9 Ways to Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist and More Accessible - This is a great read for student activists looking to appeal to the masses.
Social Justice Activism Is Forming a More Just (and Enduring) Union - The National Education Association wrote this op-ed on the importance of working for social justice.
Responsible Endowments Foundation - Focused on getting universities to use their money ethically, REF has basic guides on what endowments are and how to lead a divestment campaign, as well as tools to push administrators toward alternative investments.
Rethink - Rethink is youth activist organization formed in 2007 to raise awareness via multimedia about issues important to young people, such as bullying. One of its biggest projects is Rethink Violence, a call for restorative justice for young people.
Seattle Pacific University activists push for social equality - After forming the SPU Justice Coalition in 2015, student activists created a website, engaged social media and protested on campus to address what they perceived to be racist and sexist hiring policies.
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.
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:
|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
Eddie Thompson is no stranger to activism. His parents started attending rallies when Eddie was young, and he's worked on numerous grassroots initiatives in Florida. He has mobilized voters to elect like-minded candidates while also promoting specific public policy changes. He plans on raising his children to be vocal and passionate activists.
Additional Resources for Student Activists
Campus Activism - Students looking to address issues and fight for change can find a one-stop-shop for tools and resources at Campus Activism.
Do Something -This resource allows users to explore recent campaigns to find ideas and inspiration — and even join.
Student Nation - The Nation magazine features a section highlighting activism efforts on college campuses throughout America.
Youth Activist's Toolkit - Advocates for Youth publishes a holistic manual covering how activism works and how to get the best results.