Say you want to start a protest on campus. How should you begin? What can you do to ensure it doesn’t just fall apart or fall flat?
The art of protest on college campuses is by no means new, but there’s a noticeable rise in organizing over the last several years.
Since the election of President Trump in particular, the work of organizing is being taken up on campuses for numerous progressive causes — including against conservative speakers. Conservatives are organizing and speaking out, too.
So all along the political spectrum, students are building movements. And these efforts show that certain strategies distinguish demonstrations that succeed from those that fail.
These are some of the tactics college activists have used to build successful demonstrations and movements.
1. Use a leadership structure that reflects your needs
Not all movements can succeed by following the same leadership model. Does your group have designated leaders with specific responsibilities? Or do you operate in a nonhierarchical structure, sharing the work?
For college students, organizing comes alongside homework and exams, so an open structure — one that integrally involves underclassmen — can allow more people to contribute when they can.
As co-president of the Carolina Hispanic Association (CHispA) at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Raymundo Garcia helped organize protests at Chapel Hill in the hopes of convincing the administration to create a designated space for Latinx students. He recommends that campus movements invest in younger group members as leaders and avoid relying on a single strong leader.
“People oftentimes have become so clingy to that leader who’s able to rally everyone up, but when that leader leaves, when that leader graduates, that’s it,” Garcia says.
That’s because for a movement to be successful, it must be sustainable, Garcia says. Estamos Aqui UNC, the name of the movement, resulted in the creation of a university committee to work with Latinx students. While so far little tangible progress has resulted, Garcia says, the movement was successful in its reach, even garnering support from UNC student government.
And the very fact that results take time underscores the need to create lasting leadership structures, says Garcia. “A movement so big as trying to create a center on UNC’s campus for Latinx students is not going to happen within a year,” he says. “That’s going to take a lot of time, and it’s something that’s been ongoing. What are the barriers in keeping it from continuing, and oftentimes that’s just passing the torch.”
2. Support each other
Clara Mejía Orta, a 2017 graduate of Georgetown University, was one of the core organizers of the GU Sanctuary Movement, which garnered support from large numbers of students and faculty in creating a more inclusive and safe campus both for undocumented students and other marginalized groups.
She says members showing support for each other helps form a more cohesive group.
GU Sanctuary members would often text each other to check in or wish good luck on an exam. “It was just a certain amount of vulnerability that we shared that just made us care for one another, Mejía Orta says. “Creating that sense of connection and unity was really important, and obviously we understood each other because we understood that our struggles were tied in.”
Mejía Orta says recognizing the different identities in an organizing group helps the movement be more inclusive. Personal connection enabled GU Sanctuary to honor intersectionality, according to Mejía Orta, in the form of initiatives like drafting personalized letters for undocumented parents of graduates to tell their stories and a push for gender-neutral bathrooms.
“As a group we were able to bridge all the networks we collectively brought as individuals, and we were able to move a lot of people,” Mejía Orta says.
3. Use personal stories to get the message across
At a time when progressive organizing can seem — and be — combative, Resistance School co-founder Yasmin Radjy says sharing personal stories to appeal to the emotions of an audience is a good way to be understood.
The Resistance School is an initiative started by students of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government that teaches people how to organize a movement.
“It’s not just ideas that win elections and that win policy debates once people are elected — it’s the ability to both organize and mobilize ourselves to build real power,” Radjy says. “And it’s also an ability to communicate not just through policy points and statistics, but also through our values.”
Sharing these values often happens in casual interactions with people of opposing views, Radjy says, and that’s when communicating using emotion or sharing something personal can help bridge the gap.
4. Understand campus regulations — and how to work around them
When planning a demonstration on campus, check with the university’s regulations.
At public colleges, for example, the right to free speech that does not incite violence or destruction is protected, according to American Civil Liberties Union. But guidelines may apply.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Spotlight database found that about one in six of the country’s top 400 universities has free speech zones, the only locations where demonstrating is allowed. They’ve been criticized for limiting expression.
Conservative student activist Lauren Cooley says the key to dealing with these kinds of restrictions is to engage in non-confrontational dialogue with school administrators. And if that doesn’t work, consider legal action: “A lot of times if the school realizes students are very serious about threatening legal action, they’ll change their policies just from the threat of having to deal with that,” she says.
Cooley, a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Miami, is no stranger to successful organizing. She’s leading a Make Campus Great Again speaking tour to activate college conservatives.
“I would never jump the gun and try to be combative or cause any problems,” Cooley says. “But if an administrator or a specific organization on campus is creating red tape for you to do activism and it genuinely goes against a constitutional right, then I definitely encourage students to do whatever they can to kind of get around it.”
In most cases, free speech zones are noted in the student handbook. Violations may carry consequences like sanctions or even arrest. Cooley says she once had police called on her for “talking about politics” with students outside a free speech zone.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of different things where administrators are definitely trying to encroach on students’ ability to organize and express themselves,” Cooley says. “I think honestly there’s definitely liberal bias in trying to shut down conservative activism, but I think more broadly, a lot of times it’s just administrators are grasping for control.”
5. Work with the audience, not against it
Along the same lines, make sure your group is fighting for a cause and not just against someone or something. Mejía Orta says when the sanctuary campus movement petitioned the administration, organizers were careful to work alongside administrators to fulfill the demands rather than fight them every step of the way.
Organizers of the sanctuary campus movement also held “teach-ins” following President Trump’s election to discuss how to establish a sustained resistance on and off campus. Mejía Orta says collaboration with faculty and administration brought support to these events.
“I can be outside screaming and demanding for these things,” Mejía Orta says. “But I’m also going to be here and sit down for an hour-and-a-half meeting every single week and talk about it.”
6. Reach out for support from other campus groups
There’s strength in numbers. Bringing together as many supporters as possible helps expand a movement — and serve shared goals.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, Garcia says Estamos Aqui UNC brought together multiple organizations to fight for better Latinx inclusion. CHispA collaborated with Latinx-based Greek organizations and other affinity groups, and they formed a “council” of Latinx student leaders to strategize protests. It worked, Garcia says, because they had needs in common.
“Our main cohesion that was holding us together was, like, how do we resist the university and push for what we need as a student body,” Garcia says. “We believe that as leaders we’re not supposed to make everything about ourselves, but more about the people that we serve.”
Filed under: CAMPUS BEAT, News Tagged: #sanctuarycampus, activism on campus, campus protests, demonstrations, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Resistance School, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill