College campuses play vital role in activism
College campuses are not only places where young people can learn more about society and history, but also where they can form new ideas and movements to change society and make history.
College campuses provide students with an environment where they can form relationships and share ideas, enabling the incubation of activism, said Rory McVeigh, director of the Center for the Study of Social Movements at the University of Notre Dame.
“There’s a lot of people living and working in close contact, and it’s an environment where people are there for exchanging ideas and finding their place in the world,” he said. “It’s different than being spread across a city or having to work 9 to 5 jobs, so students might have greater flexibility.”
One example of a cause that has prompted activism to arise on college campuses all over the United States is the Black Lives Matter movement. Students on college campuses such as Ithaca College, Missouri University, Yale University and other institutions of higher education are protesting and making demands that change occur in the racial climate on their campuses, in their respective communities and around the country.
The combined effect of so many students protesting has caused mainstream media to be unable to ignore the movement’s spread, McVeigh said.
McVeigh said college student activists who can attract media attention can increase the awareness of not only students on other campuses, but also the general public.
“Media attention helps organizers reach out beyond their campus to establish connections to others who may also be organized for similar purposes,” he said.
At Ithaca College, protests against President Tom Rochon caused him to postpone his other major campus initiatives and make addressing racism and diversity issues on campus his top priority.
Rochon made Roger Richardson, associate provost for diversity, inclusion and engagement, the interim chief diversity officer, who will serve as a liaison between the African, Latino, Asian and Native American community and the administration, although this did not necessarily please student activists.
The Ithacan reported the activist group POC at IC, which stands for People of Color at Ithaca College, and Student Government Association members expressed disappointment that students and faculty had previously proposed creating the chief diversity officer position, but Rochon did not agree until after protests had forced his hand.
Richardson accepted the position to help address the racial problems that moved students to protest this year, he wrote in an address on Nov. 17.
“ALANA and other underrepresented students have been telling us in myriad ways for far too long that they feel disrespected, unwelcome, and unsupported,” he wrote. “And even when they are brave enough to give voice to their experiences, they say many folks in the IC community try to invalidate them.”
When he was president of the Black Student Union at the University of Wisconsin-Stout four decades ago, those same concerns were being voiced by student activists, Richardson wrote.
Student activism has played a crucial role in drawing new people to social movements, such as the current Black Lives Matter movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Both movements have tapped into student populations, who encounter new ideas in and outside the classroom, to spread the word about racism, said Bobby Joe Smith II, who is studying in a PhD program at Cornell University for food justice.
“These issues are not new, racism is not new, and antiracist work is not new either,” Smith said. “There’s always a group of people thinking we’re making these things up.”
Smith said he first became involved in advocating for student rights at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university in Texas, where he was the president of the Student Government Association. He said he did not experience as much racism at Prairie View as students of color on predominantly white campuses may. However, he said he was no less aware of racism in society at large.
Smith brought his experiences to Cornell and the Ithaca community. Smith said activism that begins on campuses can spread awareness to other students on campus and to the rest of the community, although bridging the gap between the campus and the community can sometimes be challenging.
“The community does not always see the campus as part of the community, and sometimes neither do the colleges,” Smith said.
Smith said he helped organize a Black Lives Matter teach-in at Beverly J. Martin elementary school in October, where students and faculty from Ithaca College and Cornell University could meet, educate and learn from Ithaca residents. Speakers and discussion group leaders led participants to learn more about feminism, gentrification, education systems and other social issues that overlap with race.
During the Civil Rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s, student activists organized teach-ins on and off campuses to educate and encourage people interested in joining the movement. Both the Black Lives Matter and Civil Rights movements have involved large numbers of community and college organizers.
However, a notable difference between Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights movement is that no single person has emerged as the face of the Black Lives Matter movement like Martin Luther King Jr. did for the Civil Rights movement. But that doesn’t mean the Civil Rights movement was solely the responsibility of King. In the ‘60s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee spread awareness and organized protests about racism around the country.
McVeigh said the essential challenge social movements on campuses face is being able to bring together community members and college students.
“It’s usually not the case that people in demonstrations are there for the same exact reasons,” McVeigh said. “It needs a common thread. If everyone can see a case of obvious injustice, that injustice can bring people together across identity boundaries.”
Michael Tkaczevski is a senior journalism major who takes his breakfast with a side of activism. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.