Campus Activism: Young Activists Cultivating Long-Lasting Skills
By Ella Lewie
College students in the United States have a rich history of participating in activism work to make their voices heard. In the campus setting, students have a favorable atmosphere to gather with peers based on a common interest relating to various social, political, or environmental issues, and these issues often intersect. Campus activism can be used to prompt political change, increase awareness of specific issues, or to create social change. Student activists can use their organizing efforts to impact policy or program change within their own university or they can work to influence change at the local, state, or even federal level.
Activism work can enrich the campus experience for a college student. By participating in a collective of like-minded students who share your passion, a college student can build peer relationships while receiving the many benefits that encompass volunteer work. Previous experience is not required to participate in campus activism work. In the campus environment, students are able to work together while developing the necessary skills for organizing work and they have support resources—like seeking the guidance of campus faculty/staff—available if needed. Additionally, student activism is a remarkable way for college students to gain experience and build skills at a professional level. Student activists may foster skills in communication, writing, marketing and media usage, public speaking, leadership, networking, task management, event planning, finance, philanthropy, coaching, problem solving…the list goes on!
I am entering my second year serving as a Campus Organizer for the It’s On Us movement at The Ohio State University. It’s On Us is a national movement to end sexual violence on college campuses, with chapters on campuses all across the United States. The movement focuses on encouraging bystander intervention, practicing consent culture, and supporting survivors of sexual violence. I interviewed at the national level for a Campus Organizer position in order to create a chapter of It’s On Us for my school. I interviewed for this position with zero experience in organizing work or serving as a leader of a student organization. My passion to reduce sexual violence in my community was enough. I began this journey as one person who cared about an issue and wanted to establish social change (and remember, I started with zero experience); now we have over 140 students participating in our chapter and our roster continues to grow! I cannot express the amount of gratitude I have to work with other students who share my passion to practice inclusive activism work that centers on reducing sexual violence and increasing survivor support on our campus. It is challenging work but I find it fulfilling because I am working on an issue that I care deeply about on a personal level, as a survivor of sexual violence.
When I accepted the Campus Organizer role, I was overjoyed but my immediate thought was, “I am only one person. How can I make a difference?” The biggest lessons I have learned through organizing work are to not allow self-doubt to defeat my goals/passion and to accept that every single person has the ability to be an agent of change—myself included! This work can at times feel exhausting when you are experiencing pushback; when you are met with a lack of interest from students, when you work hard to plan an event that no one attends, when chapter meeting attendance begins to drop, when students in your group begin to lose motivation for the work because change is not immediately apparent, or when met with other miscellaneous barriers. The key is to accept that barriers are normal. In my opinion, each experience—positive or negative—is a victory in its own way because we still continue to grow as leaders navigating through our movement’s work.
Some of the work our chapter has done on campus thus far includes: organizing rallies that provide survivors of sexual violence a public platform to speak and share their stories, attending a university Board of Trustees meeting to influence increased support for students, raising awareness through participating in social media campaigns, meeting with University Administration, hosting pledge drives, public speaking to students and community members on various issues relating to our movement, providing interviews to local media, hosting events to increase awareness on local resources available for survivors, meeting with students to hear their campus climate concerns, and partnering with other student organizations for various events such as helping to plan a Take Back the Night march.
I often find myself astonished when I reflect on what our chapter has accomplished thus far, and I frequently think back to my initial thought, “I am only one person. How can I make a difference?” What if I had allowed that thought to dissuade me from taking the Campus Organizer role? Or what if any of our chapter members had dissuaded their own self from participating in the work we have done? There is tremendous power in numbers. Collectively, each student participating in our movement is essential, because each person is making a powerful impact on our community and on history.
Campus activism is interesting because I see it almost as a micro-version of “real world” activism work—since the university setting can often feel like its own small world. It is intriguing to consider how organizing work on campus can translate to organizing work elsewhere. Applying for funding from the university is similar to grant writing. Discussing or negotiating issues with administration can be like communicating with program directors or politicians. Retention of your student organization’s members resembles retention of your coalition members. Networking with other student organizations mirrors networking with community stakeholders. Seeking guidance from university faculty/staff is just like seeking support from a supervisor or colleague. Immersing in student activism work is advantageous in increasing knowledge on social issues and public policy, and it allows for continued growth in discerning your own role as an activist. It is an opportunity to explore and flourish together as young activists, and these experiences can be applied in their lives beyond academia—be it in their professional career or in their personal life participating as a volunteer activist.