by Bradley Allsop & 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.
So far we’ve looked at setting your goals, raising awareness, building your team and improving group cohesion, as well as how to engage with the media and escalate tactics in the face of opposition. In this final instalment we’ll explore the deeper and more existential issues facing your campaign: training up a new wave of activists to ensure your group lives on when original members leave, the challenges implicit in spreading activism throughout your campus, and what role activism really plays in the grand scheme of things.
Passing the baton
Perhaps the defining problem of campus activism is finding a team to carry the baton on. Many a good campaign has fallen flat because it didn’t put enough time into recruiting new members for next year. Always be on the lookout for new members, and allow them to find their unique role in the campaign. Hold information evenings and social events to ease people into the group. Be bold and act in public as often as possible, and have literature on hand to inform people of easy, fulfilling ways they can get involved.
If your team has grown big enough, think about having specific training events. Decide what this will consist of as a group, identifying the skills that you each feel you need to develop more. Assess what areas your team are competent at and let those individuals run sessions, or look into arranging training with external organisations. If you make training events open to similar groups and the public as well, they can act as a form of outreach too.
Consider rotating chairperson and spokesperson roles. Make sure everyone is getting a chance to have a go at the parts of the campaign they’re most interested in, maybe by letting newcomers ‘shadow’ a particularly experienced campaigner. Encourage fresh ideas and novel approaches to campaigning, and share your knowledge and experience generously. Even something as simple as ensuring everyone’s voice is heard and respected in campaign meetings can really go a long way in building new members’ confidence to the point where they are happy to consider taking on more responsibility within the group.
winning one battle is great, but arming students on your campus for the long-term struggle against oppression and injustice is even better
Having a comprehensive hand-over is also key to keeping the campaign going. Remember to do all the nuts and bolts, of course – hand over Twitter and email passwords, make people admins of Facebook pages, pass on important files such as membership lists and governance documents. But more importantly, take the time to talk to your successors about how you’ve overcome challenges and discuss the future of the campaign with them. It can be helpful to have a couple of initial events planned by the old and new team together, or to otherwise work with the newcomers in developing goals for the next year to ensure they get off to a good start. Just be careful – it’s crucial not to be too overbearing once they have taken over the reins.
An activist campus
There is a deeper, longer-term goal that all student campaigners would do well to bear in mind. During his time at Queen’s University Belfast, Bradley was part of Fossil Free QUB, a campaign for that institution to divest its money from fossil fuels. The group also made explicit a broader aim: to reignite activism on campus, reviving a sense of radical agency and power for students there. You should bear this in mind when you set your goals, conduct your campaign and reflect on your achievements: winning one battle is great, but arming students on your campus for the long-term struggle against oppression and injustice is even better.
Network with other campaign groups on campus or in the area where possible to put on joint events and campaign on overlapping issues. Maybe you can even put on activist conferences and workshops, to train and inform people about key campaigning and political skills and issues.
Find out if you can make use of the resources of your Students’ Union or national organisations to support your campaign and to push the agenda of empowering students to take direct action. Sadly, some Students’ Unions are restrained by leaderships who are more concerned about growing careers than they are about growing movements. Even in right-minded campaigning unions, Sabbatical Officers have short term limits that do not encourage long-term thinking. Without a strong activist base outside the structures of the union, officers can quickly become isolated and dependant upon the advice of the permanent union bureaucracy, who will often be naturally risk averse, especially if your campaign is targeting university policy.
Working together with unions or national groups is not only to their benefit. It can be an enormous source of support for your campaign in many ways: financially, reputationally, and in terms of getting your message out there and mobilising wider groups. Put motions to democratic meetings, lobby your officers, write open letters and petitions – do what it takes to keep your union supporting radical activism and giving you the support you need. Finally, if you agree that a change in leadership is in order to make the union into the campaigning organisation it should be, consider organising in your union elections to elect one of your own campaign members.
What’s the point of it all?
Activism, at times, requires hard, seemingly endless, work, courage, determination and sacrifice. You’ll quite possibly never be thanked and often will be derided instead. Your actions can feel like a small drop in a giant ocean, and the temptation to just give up will come powerful and often. In these conditions, we can be haunted by the idea that we’ve made no ‘real’ progress at all.
It is important, in this light, to remember to look after yourself. Take breaks when you need to. It’s ok to step back if your health (physical or mental) requires it – indeed, it will be better for the campaign in the long run if you do. Bear in mind our tips on developing group cohesion so you can support each other, and on constant recruitment and democratic structuring so it’s more than just a few people taking on all the work and responsibility.
Why bother? Because, whether or not it always feels like it, in reality you will be doing absolutely vital work. Student activism has, over the centuries, been a powerful force for social justice and democracy. Campuses can fuse together progressive, bold ideas with great energy and enthusiasm, at their best offering both a glimpse of a better society and a roadmap for how to get there. Even if you fail in every one of your objectives, there is value in fighting the good fight, in standing against injustice and in raising your voice for progress.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead, Anthropologist
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