College turned me into an activist.
It’s not that I was unaware of or unaffected by social issues before then — quite the opposite, actually. As a poor, undocumented brown girl, for me the personal was always political (and vice versa). But in college, I met a community of women who taught me to translate my anger and frustrations into tangible action. My comrades showed me that college isn’t just about sitting in lectures or cramming for exams — it’s about learning to advocate for yourself, about recognizing oppression in its many forms. It’s about taking the theories we learn in the classroom and, as bell hooks argues, using it to advance feminist movements and liberatory struggles.
Here are four key struggles that are alive and well in schools right now.
Anti-racism. It’s no coincidence that last week’s “Unite the Right” rally took place on UVA’s campus. U.S. college campuses are wrapped up in histories of enslavement, legacies of violence, and struggles for racial justice. Many of our country’s oldest and most elite universities were built on the labor of enslaved persons and relied on a slave economy to function. Many colleges were named after slaveholders and although some universities have renamed buildings in recent years (see Yale University and Calhoun College), they continue to perpetuate racism and embolden white supremacy through their policies, actions, and underlying structures. Racism on college campuses doesn’t just look like Nazis marching with tiki torches; it’s also professors of color performing “invisible labor” and failing to get tenure and students of color experiencing racial microagressions that affect our emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing.
Sexual violence. Every female college student I know has either experienced sexual violence on campus herself or knows someone who has. In fact, a 2015 study reported that 23% of women report experiencing sexual assault in college. And, as Reina has written about before, when we look at who is most vulnerable, the numbers get even more depressing: queer college women, for instance, are almost twice as likely as their straight counterparts to experience intimate partner violence. International and undocumented students face additional immigration considerations when seeking justice. The civil rights law Title IX sets the floor for what universities must do under the law, but there’s no doubt that they can and should do more to prevent violence and support survivors. Check out Feministing fave, Know Your IX, to learn your rights. And don’t miss Know Your IX’s rad campus organizing toolkit!
Sanctuary campuses. Following 45’s election, students, faculty, and staff across the country called for the establishment of sanctuary campuses to protect immigrant students from an administration that vowed to rescind DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and escalate immigration enforcement. While there is no universal definition of “sanctuary,” college activists have called for variations of the following: prohibiting ICE officers from entering campus without a warrant, guaranteeing student privacy by refusing to release the immigration status of students and community members, providing tuition support (including in-state tuition rates) to students with DACA status, investing in resources to train undocuallies, and providing confidential and free legal support to noncitizen students. Some activists are calling for a more intersectional approach to sanctuary, arguing that all vulnerable students — including Black, Muslim, queer, and female students — must be protected. Considering that DACA could be taken away any day now, the need for sanctuary schools is more urgent than ever.
Worker’s rights. This spring, members of Yale’s newly-formed graduate workers union participated in a hunger strike to protest Yale’s refusal to engage in collective bargaining with them. Later that semester, 23 graduate teachers at Yale were arrested after they took to the streets to demand the administration address the sexual harassment they face as workers on campus. Across the country, graduate students are organizing for fair working conditions and labor protections — even in a Right-to-Work state like North Carolina, graduate student workers are unionizing to denounce unfair treatment and demand better treatment. As The Nation explains, there are 33 officially recognized graduate student unions in the U.S. and 23 are fighting for university recognition. And as Meghna argued earlier this year, “graduate students unions are linked to more support for students, better pay, less exploitative policies, and more power in the hands of students as opposed to administrators.”
Finally, this work isn’t just happening on college campuses! Middle and high school students are doing some of the raddest organizing around. Check out high school students staging walkouts against Trump and fighting sexual harassment at school.
So, what should you do?
First, it’s important that you know you already possess skills and talents that you need to join the fight. Over the years, I’ve met people who tell me they want to get involved but feel they have nothing to contribute. They were wrong. Successful movements require communities of people with different skill sets, interests, and passions. We need artists, teachers, writers, note-takers, social media and digital strategists, and so on. Plug into existing efforts on your campus; I promise you have something to offer.
Get creative. Activism doesn’t always look like taking to the streets, participating in a walk-out or a march, or hosting a protest. Sometimes, activism looks like practicing self-care or squad-care; it takes form through digital technologies that save lives or t-shirts that make bold statements. Activism takes shape in the ways we care and look out for each other, in our everyday practices and relational politics. Check out Know Your IX’s student organizing toolkit, which — while substantively focused on sexual violence — covers the nuts and bolts a campaigner on any issue needs to know about building a team, planning a campaign, and talking to the media.
Know that you don’t have to work alone. To borrow from Audre Lorde, remember that “there is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Keep in mind that there are probably other organizations and networks of people who want to work with you. Partner with those groups on campus and build coalitions based on common concerns and shared interests.
Always center directly-affected folks in your activism. These people should be the ones doing the talking and setting the agenda. Allies, learn to listen and pass the mic.
Lastly, treating people right is a politics, too. I’ve met one too many “woke” organizers who get the ideas and issues but wound people through their actions. That’s not to say anger has no place in social movements — it does — but let’s be guided by love and care for one another, too. As we start a new school year, let’s root our activism in our commitment to building a better world.
Header image via Jade Jackman.