Society cannot be changed by a single person. It takes significant collective action to ever achieve anything meaningful in an era where the structures that govern society are as powerful and pervasive as they are now. This can seem overwhelming, but starting small gives you a taste of the inherent power in people and organizing. Collective action merely refers to strategic action taken by a group of people to achieve a common objective. Organizing, here used interchangeably with collective action, has brought about many changes in history that were beneficial for the public good, and not special interests. Some of these examples include Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta who successfully improved the working conditions of farm workers in the west, or the Black Panthers and Young Lords who instituted many wellness programs for their respective Black and Puerto Rican communities while also holding demonstrations. In the case of the farm workers, Chavez and Huerta used coalition building and boycotts to achieve their collective goal. There are many, many more examples. A modern example would be the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the context of college life, students are very often at the front lines of movements. For example, sitting at lunch counters in the civil rights movement was a practice started by students, along with many of the prominent organizations of the time, just like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Over on the west coast, students at the University of California at Santa Barbara protested to start a more culturally-relevant pedagogy in universities, which launched a commitment to ethnic studies that rippled across the nation. Student activism on my campus has led to multiple Black Student Demands, the hiring of more Latinx studies professors, and more.
Collective action in the context of college life can be a good way to mold your college according to the needs and ideologies of the students. For example, organizing for safer campuses for queer folks by instituting trainings for staff and students, creating food pantries with fresh food for low income students, and establishing ethnic studies are a few things that you can strive for.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started.
- Pick an issue. This could be any of the examples above, or any that would fill a gap in your community. Activism is meant to improve the lives of your community, so do what you think is necessary.
- Build a coalition. Reach out to people that could also be affected by this issue or that support it. Try to get a group as diverse as possible. Having a diverse group is important because it adds more valuable insight from different perspectives, as well as expanding your network to people who you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. Specifically for college, coalitions could be much more powerful if they also included faculty and staff as well.
- Make a game plan, akin to a manifesto. Write down the issue, how it impacts everyone, and what you plan to do about it. Make sure that everyone is on the same page and use the perspectives of others who are also impacted by the issue to inform the priorities. If you’re addressing housing insecurity in college, ask people of different identities to make sure their concerns are reflected. How does it impact a low-income student? A trans student? A Black student? An undocumented student?
- After nailing down your priorities, start thinking of a strategy. Who has the power and could change this? What would be the most efficient way to make this person aware? Your tactics could change according to this. However, don’t only focus on those and exclude tactics that engage the public generally. You should really aim to do multiple. However, don’t sacrifice quantity for quality. Here are some examples of what you could do, with varying degrees of passivity:
- An open letter to be sent to all administration/faculty/whoever
- Chalk, posting flyers, inundating spaces with a certain message
- Depending on the backlash that you could get, it could be helpful to make media statements addressing potential concerns that recenter your message.
- Lastly, make a timeline and indicators of change. How will you know that what you’ve asked for has been achieved? If it’s a long-term project, how will you keep people accountable? Colleges are infamously bureaucratic. Many movements may be co-opted and passed as a watered down version of your issue and solution, or a committee will be made to address the concerns. Make sure that you’re holding them accountable! More importantly, make a structure to make sure it’s sustainable! Not much is likely to change within the years you’ll spend at the university, and many colleges conveniently lose interest and dedication when activists have graduated and leave their projects half-finished. Make sure you’re including people younger than you in every aspect to make sure things actually get done.
Go out into the world. Adapt if needed, but don’t lose your steam.