by Bradley Allsop and Calum Watt
Rarely in our lifetimes has there been a more exciting time for young people to engage in politics. Change is in the air and nowhere else offers more opportunities to engage in this conversation, to learn valuable skills and to help shape society than university campuses. This series of articles seeks to offer some guidance for those aiming to ignite student activism at their institutions. Drawing on our experiences as campaigners we hope to highlight some common challenges and give you some advice on how to combat them.
Time is the greatest enemy of the student activist. A local councillor in England is elected for a term of four years. MPs can – recent history excepted – be expected to sit for at least four or five years, and sometimes remain in place for decades. Nobody who has worked in any business, charity, or other organisation could say with any honesty that they have truly mastered their “trade” after just a year or two.
Yet most student activists only have about three years at university, a vital but comparatively short time in which to make a mark. Sabbatical Officers have even less time in their role, being limited by law to two consecutive yearly terms in office. These time limits are the greatest obstacle to sustaining student activism.
Real change takes time and patience. In the wider world, your political activism can last for as long as you live, if you want it to. You have time to make mistakes and to learn from them. You have time to build up long-standing allegiances, to gather knowledge and experience about the machinery of state, to learn the intricacies of this or that company or community or charity, and so on. You have time to use that knowledge, those friendships you have nurtured over time, to enact change. For student activists, with their tight three year window, the picture is very different.
All that said, there are methods for tackling the stifling problem of time compression, which we will spend a lot of time exploring in this series.
Know your goals
Clear goals are important to give a campaign focus, to keep it on track, and to enable you to use your limited time and energy effectively. If you are planning a long-term campaign, then you should set out short-term goals along the way to measure your progress and lay out a roadmap to achieving your overarching goal.
Say, for example, you want to start a fossil fuel divestment campaign. The first thing you need to do is to research the extent of your institution’s investments in fossil fuels. Making sure your outcomes are grounded in your research is crucially important – the point of campaigns like this is to make the actions of power reflect the truth of the world, so you want to be sure that it’s truth you’re working with! Then, based on this information, you can decide your overarching campaign goal. Let’s say you aim for complete divestment in the next 5 years. This gives you a framework for intermediary goals around the actual bits of campaigning you’re going to be doing. In this case you might aim to get your Students’ Union council to pass a motion calling for divestment by the end of the first term, and then arrange a consultation with the university in the next term, accompanied by direct pressure via a public campaign of online petitions, emails and articles in student and local press.
Once you know your goals, you’ll be able to get a much better idea of what action to take and who to target. Make sure you know why you’re doing everything you’re doing, and moreover why you’re doing it in the way that you’re doing it. Staging a protest about a decision which has already been made is viable, but pre-emptive attempts to influence that decision will probably be more effective. Starting a petition or open letter or email campaign aimed at ‘the university’ could mobilise public opinion, but to get the institution to actually change something it’s more effective to find out who makes the relevant decisions and target them. Set specific deadlines for having achieved things, make sure your actions stay in line with what your overall project, and plan well ahead.
Any interaction your campaign has with the student body should make it really clear to people how they can get involved
Not only will this goal-oriented approach improve your time management in itself, but you can factor in your timeframe specifically as well. If you know you’ve only got a year left at uni, your list of campaign outcomes for that year absolutely has to include events and campaigning aimed at recruiting and empowering new members to carry on the fight once you leave. Set an intermediary goal to recruit 10 new members by your second term, run a series of public-facing events, whatever. Ensuring the campaign group survives must always be one of your most important goals.
Raise awareness and build a team
Before you get to that stage though, you need a group in the first place! You could have the best campaign plan in the history of activism, but if you haven’t got a motivated team ready to put it into action, you’ll struggle to create any significant change. Once you’ve done your research and your goals are in place, the next step is to raise awareness of your issue and your campaign group, primarily in order to grow your membership.
Some good first steps are setting up a social media presence to spread videos or infographics containing key points about your campaign, and having some on-campus leafleting sessions to distribute the same information. Any interaction your campaign has with the student body should make it really clear to people how they can get involved. Put the time and place of an initial campaign meeting on your leaflets, or a mailing list link in your facebook posts.
Remember that students will have different amounts of time and energy they’re willing to commit to the campaign, and that’s ok. Plan different stages of involvement – for those with just a few minutes, ask for a sign and share online; for those with an afternoon, invite them to come to a meeting or to hand out some leaflets; for those precious few who choose to offer a few hours of their time every week, consider giving them a specific project to take on.
Again, tailor this action to the goals you’ve determined. If your main focus is getting as many signatures on your petition as possible, try and get as many people as you can to do a little bit each. If you have aspirations to serious direct action, focus on a smaller group who are really committed, and work together to understand the risks involved and how you can help each other through the process.
Hopefully these tips have given you some ideas for making those first steps in getting your campaign out there. The next article in this series will explore the possibilities and challenges of escalating things if you still haven’t been able to achieve the change you want to see. Happy campaigning!
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