IGNITING STUDENT ACTIVISM #2 – ESCALATION

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.

The first article in this series looked at early steps of any campaign: doing your research, setting your goals, getting the message out there and beginning to grow your movement. This time we’ll be taking a look at some of the issues that occur as you begin to develop as a group.

Group cohesion

Psychologically, it is always better to feel part of a group, and this is no truer than in politics. A committed group of activists can be a powerful source of advice and encouragement – even a small group of activists can seem like a much bigger group if there are strong bonds of solidarity and friendship amongst its members. A campaign group that is also a well-knitted community will be much more effective, handle set-backs much better and generally get a lot more done.

A starting point for this is that decisions should be taken as a group, democratically. This will help everyone involved feel as if they have ownership over the campaign, and it will make members more likely to commit their time and energy. Space for the expression of diversity of both views and skills will more often than not be the secret to campaign success. Have as democratic and open a structure as possible, and for those taking on more responsibility or specific tasks, make sure they feedback progress to the rest of the group frequently, allowing space for members to question, support and shape the different things the campaign is up to.

(People & Planet regional training, via People & Planet / Facebook)

You also need to pay attention to the different needs of different members – maybe some are mature students with child care concerns and so evening meetings on campus are not always the best for them. Maybe some members are anxious about speaking to large groups or certain physical needs restrict them from certain forms of activism. The very issue you’re campaigning on might well impact different groups in society in different ways and this should be reflected in your overarching goals as well as your strategy. Factoring all these things in will enable a more welcoming and inclusive campaign to flourish, improving group cohesion, but also enabling you to draw support from a wider pool of potential activists on campus.

It’s important to have socials and fun campaigning activities too, it helps foster group unity and can provide a welcome relief for you and your team. Self-care is an often-neglected but crucial part of activism. Don’t just end meetings and go home – have a drink or two afterwards and talk about things other than the coming global revolution. Even better, set aside some nights early on that are specifically just for socialising and getting to know one another better. Lifelong friendships are often forged in the fire of activism and protest, but they need space and time to be nurtured too.

Media

A great start for getting to the grips with the media is feeding a news piece to your student newspaper, or offering to write an opinion piece for them. Often these sites will be crying out for more content, although at times they can be hesitant to upset the university or union, depending on how they’re set up and funded. Develop those links and always make a concerted effort as a group to spread their pieces if/when published – the more traction and positive feedback they get on their content, the more likely they are to print similar stuff in the future.

For local or regional news, they’ll want something big to be happening – a protest or occupation will likely draw reporters – or for it to be kinda scandalous –  the university investing in arms companies or staff being paid below minimum wage for example. Do your research and get the contacts in the local press and feed them important updates to your campaign. Get to be on friendly terms with them and let them know (but not too much in advance so it gets leaked and shut down) about a protest or occupation so they can come and cover it. Crucially, when escalating things (see below) have prepared statements for the press, and rehearse answers to any questions they may ask – they may well have reporters there or even invite you to do a phone-in interview. These opportunities are gold dust for getting your message out there and winning supporters, but you need to be prepared to argue your case.

in an age of student satisfaction scores and marketised universities, public perception is everything

In the digital age, social media can be a great shortcut to getting traction on your issue, circumventing more established media if they’re not interested in your campaign. Have a presence on the classics – Facebook and Twitter – but think about if you could use sites like Instagram and Snapchat too- think of how to use powerful visual images that illustrate your campaign to use these sites effectively.

 

Closed or possibly secret Facebook groups are great for organising internally as a team, where you can post motions and agendas for discussion, share articles on issues related to your campaign, organise the next physical meeting and continue important debates about the future direction of the group. Facebook pages and Twitter profiles are better for getting your message out there – create videos and infographics (these will get shared much more than walls of text) explaining the issue you’re campaigning about, set up Facebook events to advertise your campaign activities and use a hashtag to promote everything you do.

Remember that Universities are always very keen to be seen to be listening to their students – in an age of student satisfaction scores and marketised universities, public perception is everything. If you can really pile on public pressure onto the university, then you’re on track for a campaign win.

Escalation plans

Sometimes, you might get lucky and bask in easy campaign win – a cheeky open letter and council motion and everyone on campus is getting a living wage. Sometimes, you need to do a lot more –  planning in advance how to escalate in campaign tactics if you’re hitting a brick wall is crucial, rather than being left dejected and unsure how to proceed.

There are a lot of options to choose from (including occupations/sit-ins, protests, the blocking of entry to meetings) but what is important here is that your decision is grounded in your campaign goals, is well-planned and that the whole campaign group is involved in making these decisions.

Let’s look at preparing for that staple of student activism – occupations.

(Students at UEA protest against the privatisation of student loan. Credit: Cadi Cliff)

You need supplies: food, drink, spare clothes, banners to hang out of windows and laptops/phones and chargers to contact the outside world and maybe even conduct interviews with the press (deodorant and dry shampoo become increasingly important the more days you’re in there too).

You need to pick your location carefully: you want it to be a site that has symbolic meaning (if protesting the university, the VC’s office is always a favourite) but also to be located in a busy spot if possible, where lots of people will see your banners from the windows.

You need to have an army ready to get the message out over social media and statements for the press ready.

You’ll also need to think about how to escalate the occupation itself – perhaps by taking over more parts of the building, getting supporters outside to stage a protest outside or even launch their own second occupation. (Most, if not all, of these decisions will apply to most of the escalation methods mentioned above too).

You need to have an army ready to get the message out over social media and statements for the press ready.

Most importantly, you need to decide your negotiating position as a campaign group – especially before any big meeting or something like an occupation. Where are your red lines? What would be an acceptable compromise for you as a team? This needs to be something the group decides together- a compromise made without the backing of the group can risk infighting and fragmentation. And don’t forget – securing a compromise or a half-measure doesn’t mean you have to stop campaigning – your actions may look a bit different afterwards but you can now focus on building on the achievements your campaign has won.

Knowing how bold to be in your goals and where to accept compromise are difficult decisions. In the next article in this series we’ll be taking a look at factors that go into this – depoliticised campuses, timid student leaders and also issues of continuity once the original campaigners have left.


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