By Staff Writers Amy Chen & Vicki Xu
From Harvard University’s Great Butter Rebellion in 1766 to today, schools in the US have seen their fair share of activism. Recent student protests have been increasingly driving discussion both at MSJ and beyond, and we must take into account the effectiveness of student campaigns. Since successful movements come from the combined efforts of dedicated activists and sympathetic audiences, student activists must consider how to garner community support in carrying out their protests.
According to the 2015 University of California, Los Angeles annual freshman survey, 8.5 percent of students said they were “very likely” to participate in student protests while in college, 2.9 percent higher than the previous year. Students are evidently becoming more and more active, and their support has expanded various movements to local communities. In November 2015, Georgetown University students organized demonstrations and sit-ins to change the names of Mulledy Hall and McSherry Hall, both named for past school presidents involved in the slave trade. Georgetown University President John DeGioia agreed to carry out the students’ wishes.
With so much interest and support for activism, why do some protests still fail? In the fall of 2014, Emma Sulkowicz, at the time a senior at Columbia University, made headlines with her senior thesis that protested the school’s ruling of her sexual abuse claims. She carried a 50-pound mattress around campus in hopes that her alleged attacker would leave the university. However, the university never acted on her request. When her protest entered the national spotlight, people questioned her claims instead of the school’s treatment of her case. The problem lay not with publicizing her cause, but with garnering the support of the public.
The effectiveness of a protest lies in connecting with the audience. Successful student activists were able to convey the same sense of urgency that they felt to a large portion of their target population, enabling them to draw from a growing pool of support for their cause. Advocates achieved their desired outcomes through powerful, empathy-inciting actions. For Georgetown University students, to protest the names of these colleges was to denounce the racism that African-Americans have experienced day-to-day since the emergence of slavery.
For student activists, the key to success is getting their voices understood. Notably, racial and policy-related tensions at the University of Missouri set off a series of boycotts and strikes, cumulating in the university’s then-President Timothy Wolfe’s resignation in November 2015. The university’s football players threatened to boycott their season, an action significant to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I school. The student activists’ ability to broaden the reach of their ideas and impact to a large audience played strongly into their success.
While most local student protests are on a much smaller scale and intensity, the path to success is similar. Looking at the history of protests at MSJ, it’s easy to see how. MSJ Class of 2009 worked with school and district officials to remove class rank from transcripts and push the school start time from 7:40 a.m. to 8 a.m. In the last two years, students at MSJ brought up concerns about the swimming pool, prompting the FUSD Board of Education to add the issue to Measure E project priorities. Just a few weeks ago, the #MoreThanADistraction campaign on MSJ’s campus revived the age-old debate surrounding the dress code. These protests worked directly with Board members and the community to address issues pertinent to MSJ, allowing activists to connect with intended audiences and effect change.
However, such results were only achieved through extensive effort. Even at MSJ, reform requires thorough consideration regarding method of communication. Receiving backing from students and faculty of other FUSD schools is helpful, since greater support leads to greater attention. That being said, it is also important to understand whom to speak to in order to bring about desired change, rather than blindly going to the highest source possible. Under certain circumstances, school board members may further the cause. FUSD Board of Education Member Michele Berke said, “Board members are always available to come and listen to students and students are always welcome to come and talk with the Board during open communications.” However, the responsibility lies on activists to reach out in ways such that the public understands and sides with the cause.
Of course, this is not to say that all student protests are warranted. Principal Zack Larsen said, “Activism has the potential to ‘cross the line’ when [others people’s] religions, cultures, and beliefs are trampled on in the process or as an outcome.” Likewise, students must also consider the practicality of their cause. Protesting the existence of tests in schools by avoiding school on every test day, for example, is both unreasonable and highly unnecessary.
Student activism executed effectively, with the right intentions, has the potential to rectify dated policies and improve the community. At a time when incendiary student protests — such as the rally MSJ students organized at the Bell Tower in response to President-elect Donald Trump on November 9 — sweep the nation, it is especially imperative for us to understand the necessary qualities for creating a powerful movement.
Photo by Staff Writer Ian Hsu