Although conservatives characterize universities as “bubbles” insulated from “real world” problems, social issues impact campus life, too—even ones that might feel removed from it, like concerns around the prison-industrial complex or reparations for slavery. And part of that “bubble”-style dismissal is also based on the fact that student organizers campaign for justice on their campuses, often effectively, and detractors may disagree with that politically. In addition to pushing for social change, student organizers address more immediate conditions at the institutions they attend, like demanding healthier food, or university divestment from fossil fuels.
At all levels, students do important, world-changing organizing work. It’s totally possible for you to get involved at your school, too. VICE spoke with current and former student organizers about finding people to work with, starting and promoting a campaign, interacting with the university’s administration—and keeping the work going even after you leave.
How do we choose the issue we want to work on?
The decision about where to focus your organizing can start with listening, observing, and building intentional communities. Shira Greer is a rising junior at the University of Richmond, began her campus activism with the Africana Student Committee and is now part of the UR Black Student Coalition. She recommended learning about your school's history, joining different existing student groups, making connections with faculty and staff members, and engaging with the surrounding city or town. As you explore, she said, “Take note of what students seem to care about and what repeated issues are.” Getting a sense of what topics your peers are most affected by can guide your thinking.
Zoe Fuad, a sophomore at Brown University and co-president of Students for Educational Equity at Brown (SEE). SEE works on a broad range of issues, including ones addressing Brown’s legacy of slavery, but one of its recent goals is increasing diversity in admissions. When the university made standardized tests optional because of COVID-19, SEE organized a campaign for Brown to be permanently test-optional—meaning, to not require often biased standardized tests like the SAT for admission. Timing matters in selecting which issues to push on, Fuad said, which helped SEE’s cause: “The university is currently in a place where they can neither claim that test-optional policies are impossible, nor can they claim that it’s too difficult to change admission policies.”
Fuad said SEE engages with community leaders in the whole Providence area—not just at Brown— to hear about what they need. “To decide what’s best without meaningfully consulting the community would be to repeat the harmful, elitist, and extractive nature of the university,” said Fuad.
To pick an even more effective cause, reach out to already-established student groups, alumni networks or read about the history of your university. “It’s especially helpful to learn about the work that has already been done in that space, in order to build on the wisdom and progress of those before you,” Jianna So, a senior at Stanford University, said. It’s OK to take action even if there’s a lot you still want to know. Trust me—you’ll continue to learn.
How do I find or grow a group of people to organize with?
Put out calls through social media, flyers on campus, connecting with other organizations or professors, and like-minded people will have an easier time coming to you. Tyler De Sousa, a Wilfrid Laurier University alumni who was part of the student social entrepreneurship group Enactus, suggested more personal contact, too: “Anytime you have an engaging discussion about the issue you're trying to tackle, end it by asking the person if they want to join you in doing something about it,” he said.
Greer got her start with student organizing through an acquaintance. “I was pulled into my first organizing experience with the Africana Studies Student Committee by a classmate,” she said. “I didn't know [her] well at all, but she recognized that I shared her values and goals and knew that we would work well together.”
Fuad recommended finding ways to relate outside of your shared cause. “Create friendships and bonds that are not purely productivity-oriented. When we feel comfortable and respected in our meetings, our work is much more effective,” she said. Plan things that will bring you all together, getting to know each other beyond the organizing and activist space. Maybe you can do activities—I love a good pizza party or a picnic—or check in with your members about their personal or academic lives.
Set realistic time commitments—you’re students, and this can’t take up all your energy. Divide up roles and responsibilities to avoid doubling up on work and creating friction. Instead of making unilateral decisions, ask people what their skills are and what kind of work they’d be interested in. Who’s going to handle social media and press? Which people are going to talk to the administration in meetings? Who’ll reach out to other students and plan events? If someone isn’t right for a certain position, you can tell them while praising another skill they have and asking them if they’d be more interested in making use of that.
Your organizing group may also want to find allies outside of your particular organization or cause, like similar and outside organizations. “Coalitions provide the emotional support needed to keep going, the networks and connections needed to amplify the cause, and a way to share invaluable knowledge and strategy,” Fuad said. Go link up!
How do we go to the administration with our proposals?
Before you walk into those gilded halls of bureaucracy, make a plan. Administrators don’t typically give students a lot of time in meetings, and they’re more likely to take you seriously when it’s clear that you know your stuff. “Research thoroughly so you can have conversations about productive solutions instead of background information,” So said. “You don’t want to ask questions that you could have Googled.” Know concrete numbers, like budgets and student populations, and read the university’s policies on your issue and any issues that may overlap. Substantive conversations are more likely to bear results.
De Sousa said getting a faculty member to “go to bat with you” can help higher-ups see your cause as legitimate: “Having a professor, administrator, or anyone paid by the institution stand up and say that they believe in this cause too will get you way further,” De Sousa said. For instance: Greer’s The Africana Student Committee demanded an Africana Studies department. Their proposal included a list of faculty members who supported the move, and were even willing to head up certain positions. Together, they were able to secure an affirmative faculty vote for the creation of an Africana Studies program in fall 2022.
Find out who the stakeholders are, aka, who has the most influence and power. “The task isn’t just to convince the administration that your cause is just, but to convince the people they’re accountable to,” Fuad said. At many schools, staff are accountable to the president of the university, and the president is accountable to the board of trustees. But big donors also have a lot of influence. Big donations are often publicly announced, so look into who might be open to hearing you out and advocating on your behalf. Tap into your network of allies—particularly alumni and legacy students. (You’d be surprised at how far a fellow organizer’s influential parent can get you.)
OK! So you’re good and prepared. “Set up a meeting with the relevant administrators,” Greer said. “Understanding who you're working with and the rationale for their stances on your demands will be helpful in terms of future strategizing, as you'll be able to target your approach.”
After talking to the administration, Greer recommended publicly releasing your organization’s demands; outside pressure can add more urgency and weight to them. The UR Black Coalition released six demands of their school, including creating a fund for Black students to access off-campus mental health services and renaming buildings honoring racist people and slaveowners. They’ve secured two so far—public pressure helped them achieve the option to take one class this semester on a “credit/credit D/no credit basis,” as opposed to a standard letter grade, and the formation of a university commission to determine a process for building renaming.
How can we spread the word through social media and news outlets?
News publications can seem mercurial and mysterious, but getting their attention is actually a bit easier than you think.
Reach out to your school and local papers—they’ll be much more likely to cover the story, and their readers will be more likely to help you. Higher-education publications are also good options. From there, contact individual staff writers, and freelance journalists. (I can’t tell you how many times a student organization has told me what they were doing and I’ve pitched the story to an editor.) If you don’t know how to find individual writers, look up issues similar to what you’re working on, then contact a person who wrote an article about a similar topic. You can also see what writers on Twitter are talking about similar things and send them a message.
Make sure that it’s clear what you’re doing, why it’s important, and why this specific publication or writer should cover it. And focus your outreach. If you’re a group of Black students organizing around racial justice, contact outlets and writers that cover race. If you’re demanding mental health care for Black students, like Greer’s organization, time your story to Black History Month (February) or Mental Health Awareness Month (May). If there’s breaking news related to your issue, seize that moment to gain coverage.
Universities, especially private ones, depend on keeping up appearances to keep tuition, endowment, and all other kinds of money flowing in—so going on social media and telling the world how the school is ignoring the needs of their students might get you somewhere. Make social media accounts for your campaign. Fuad made a 10-step guide (slides 15–30) to making social media content. So said it’s helpful to include specific calls to action, like “petitions, fundraisers, or phonebanks,” and to have well-made, attention-grabbing graphics. Make sure you’re using accessible language. Not everyone is an expert on your issue, and you want people to understand and even feel a personal connection to it.
Ask classmates and alumni to share posts on their social media. If you know any high-profile people, ask, too. Make sure that people engaging on social media know how important their support is. “Put care and deliberation into creating long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with external allies,” Fuad said: Make sure that people know you’re not just hitting them up for a retweet, but that they’re an important part of what you’re trying to accomplish.
What do we do if the university says no to our ideas?
It happens depressingly often: You had a great idea, an amazing team of allies and co-organizers, and you came to the administration over-prepared. Still, the school’s administration refused to help you enact change. It’s frustrating, but it’s nowhere near the end of your campaign. In fact, sometimes, it’s just the beginning.
A lot of emotions can come up when this happens, though. “It’s easy to underestimate the mental and emotional toll it can take on a student to be so adamantly rejected, especially by those in perceived authority,” Fuad said. “As we unlearn the need for approval from others—especially the administration’s—we must lean on our support networks and communities as a source of strength.” That can mean debriefing about your feelings and what you might have done differently. Constructive and loving criticism is key.
Once your strength is renewed, keep moving. “Escalating a campaign by going public with impactful stories is a helpful tactic after observing inaction from administration. Universities are often pushed to positive action only when their image and reputation are on the line, which is an unfortunate truth,” said So. In 2018, after social media pressure from students sharing stories online and a nine-day occupation of the Howard University Administration Building, student organizers were able to get the university to meet almost all of their demands.
Still: Sometimes campaigns don’t work out. But you have created change: As So pointed out, student-led efforts “create a culture of dissent.” You’ve motivated people to learn about abolition, sexual violence prevention, anti-racism, environmental justice, or whatever crucial topic you brough to light. You’ve created a community of student organizers who can collaborate further. And you’ve maybe even inspired others to start their own campaigns. No matter the response from the administration, you have done something amazing.
What if our university retaliates against us? How do we protect ourselves?
Sometimes, administrations can feel threatened by the actions you’re taking and things can get hostile. That can range from disrespect to actual threats of punishment. It’s important to know your rights in these situations. (For instance, under Title IX, it’s illegal for universities to retaliate against those who speak out, experience, or report gender-based harassment and violence.)
De Sousa recommended thinking carefully before responding to hostility and making sure that you’re not crossing certain lines. You want to have the moral high ground in these situations. You need to know your university’s specific rules. “Universities are huge bureaucracies that love rules, that includes rules on who can and can't be expelled. So read them, know them, and use them as a shield when necessary,” he said.
Fuad added that it’s important to remember that universities can have access to your email and other private information, so be careful, especially if you’re addressing abuses of power by people who are higher-ups. “Use a non-university email whenever you can. Maintain anonymity wherever possible, using the group’s name instead [of individual names]. Create networks of support before taking on a controversial issue. Pick your battles wisely, keep as much of a paper trail as you can,” Fuad cautioned.
The founders of the Black Leaders Advocating for Change (BLAC), a student-run movement at Hofstra University, recommended calling on your network of allies if you feel you need support. ”If the administration were to decide to take disciplinary action against us as student activists they would have to also deal with the outcry from our allies,” they said. The same social media attention that may have gotten your university to get prickly with you can be the same social media attention that can get them to stop.
OK—our campaign succeeded! Do we need to do anything else?
Yay! Y’all did it! *blows kazoo in celebratory fashion* After months—or years—of work, make sure you take the time to not only celebrate, but to thank the people who helped you cross the finish line. This was a team effort, and you should all be proud. Maybe you can throw a party!
It’s exhilarating to get a win, and you might want to go straight into something else. But that’s usually an unsustainable way of organizing. Organizing and activism can be hard on the mind, body, and spirit. So said that taking a break between campaigns is crucial.
After your well-deserved rest, maybe you and your group will decide that the work is done. That’s totally OK and sometimes it’s the best thing to do. But maybe you want to keep going. If so, monitor the administration. Are they actually making progress on implementing the changes they promised? Are they making changes that you didn’t agree to? Check in!
We’re leaving our university. How do we make sure that this work continues?
Whether or not you achieved all your goals, the legacy of your community’s organizing work can live on. Sometimes, all that means is creating a lasting culture shift, especially if all your demands have been met. Sometimes, it means intentionally passing the torch. “Taking the time to instruct, mentor, and teach underclassmen about the workings of the movement/organization will ensure that the work you began will continue,” said BLAC.
That work should start as early as possible, said De Sousa. Don’t wait until the last minute. “You should make formal structures for how to onboard new leadership and even keep an unofficial list of people you'd like to see take over,” he advised.
But how do you prepare underclassmen for taking over leadership? Fuad recommended not micromanaging, not only having upperclassmen handle meaningful tasks, hosting workshops, and providing learning opportunities: “One useful method is to provide ‘mini campaigns’ for younger leaders to take on to help them get adjusted,” she said. For example, maybe your larger goal is to get the university to completely change the way they handle sexual assault on an instutional level. Perhaps the underclassmen can lead the charge on getting professors to bring in a social organization to give workshops on rape culture, consent, and gender discrimination. A discrete task might feel more manageable.
Fuad advised keeping detailed records so that those who take over can learn from past successes and mistakes. “Archiving past meetings with the administration, recording what sort of strategy worked and didn’t, and noting down university controversies to piece together the wider picture and pattern of behavior” are all part of this, she said. “A lot of activist knowledge is learned purely through trial and error, but we can save time and avoid doing this repeatedly if the knowledge is recorded for newer generations to reference later on.” That’s more good news about the learning process that comes with student organizing: You can pass on everything you learn to the people who build on what you do on campus to effect meaningful, student-led change of their own.
Follow Nylah Burton on Twitter.