Government & Politics

A new generation of activists is rising on college campuses

Days after marching from Haskell Indian Nations University to Lawrence City Hall, students, faculty and community representatives celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 12 with a round dance. Students earlier had persuaded city officials to rename Columbus Day to honor the contributions of indigenous people, joining several other U.S. cities that have renamed the holiday.
Days after marching from Haskell Indian Nations University to Lawrence City Hall, students, faculty and community representatives celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 12 with a round dance. Students earlier had persuaded city officials to rename Columbus Day to honor the contributions of indigenous people, joining several other U.S. cities that have renamed the holiday.

Students gathered earlier this month near the entrance of Haskell Indian Nations University for a march through Lawrence to gain community recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day.

Drumbeats and songs filled the air as the students, many in colorful regalia, walked the three miles to City Hall. They carried banners and signs and collected more participants along the way.

Haskell has about 800 students, and a quarter of them marched that day. It was Barbara Wolfin’s first dive into student activism, but she said it wouldn’t be her last.

Students, faculty and community representatives took part in a rally last week at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence to celebrate Indigenous Peoples' Day. Students earlier this month persuaded Lawrence city officials to rename Columbus

“College is a place were you can make your voice heard,” Wolfin said. “We brought so many students together. We felt empowered. We put out the call on social media, and students showed up and marched.”

It worked. The marchers persuaded city officials to rename Columbus Day to honor the contributions of indigenous people.

The same kind of nonviolent display to bring about social, economic and environmental change has been erupting more on college campuses nationwide, and it’s been fueled largely by social media.

From online petitions to sign-toting rallies, students are taking to campus greens and community streets to make their voices heard on a scale that experts say hasn’t been seen in decades.

“This generation is different,” said Daniel Wildcat, a Haskell professor of indigenous studies. “I have seen in the last two or three years students arriving here awakened to activism.

“I sense a lot more engagement from them. I think in some ways it’s because they are so surrounded by media 24/7 . They are plugged in all the time to some really serious issues, and they realize they can’t depend on others to change things. They better be engaged.”

College campuses have long held a reputation for being enclaves where free speech and protest are expected and where students, especially in the 1960s and early ’70s, bled and even died in the name of protest. Consider the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and the anti-Vietnam War effort, including the four students at Kent State University shot and killed in 1970 by members of the Ohio National Guard.

“What we are seeing now, though, is different,” Wildcat said.

The revolution will be tweeted

Many of the movements, protests and sit-ins sprout from social media, mainly Facebook and Twitter. Information is in your face quickly, and then constantly updated.

Images spread through social media — a young man lying dead in the street, a young woman trudging across campus with a mattress on her back, members of a fraternity singing a racist chant — are powerful, said Susan Torres-Harding, an associate professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

“People see them and get upset. They feel connected and they want to do something,” said Torres-Harding, who has written extensively about student activism. “Social media brings the injustices closer to you.”

Had it not been for the constant stream of news, tweets and YouTube videos after the August 2014 death of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old black man shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., Erika Pearson might never have become a student organizer at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“It struck a nerve in me that I didn’t even know I had,” said Pearson, 23, a senior majoring in health sciences and the president of the university’s chapter of the NAACP.

Like most college-age students, Pearson never steps far from the smartphone that plugs her into social media. It’s how she knew what the country was saying about the Brown shooting and how her group called students together for an “I Am Mike Brown” march.

“You can’t protest if you don’t know what is going on, and if you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t pick a side,” Pearson said. “With social media, we know what’s going on.”

Hannah E. Britton, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas, calls today’s college students “members of the informed generation. They are smart.”

Many movements

Some time after the early 1970s, student advocacy on the nation’s campuses calmed to barely a whisper.

Then came the Occupy movement, which took root in 2010 and brought the return of campus sit-ins.

Students started rallying and marching on all sorts of issues. For loan debt relief. Against tuition increases, police brutality and racism. For changes in the way universities respond to sexual assaults.

Students lay on the floors of capitol rotundas to push for immigration rights for children whose parents had brought them into the country illegally.

“People see an activism movement and how it gets a lot of attention for a cause, so they borrow methods from each other,” Torres-Harding said. “That is evident in the current transgender movement, which borrowed from the gay rights movement where people were outing themselves and giving more visibility to the movement.”

Campus sexual assault: KU this year has been the site of several protests and rallies, involving hundreds of students. “It is excellent to see that level of engagement,” Britton said.

At Indiana University, sexual-assault protesters wore black masks. They wore red X’s at Northern Kentucky University and white bandanas over their mouths at the University of Notre Dame.

Researchers such as Torres-Harding say they are just now trying to figure out how effective such protests are at bringing about real and widespread change.

Activism at KU brought about the formation of the Chancellor’s Sexual Assault Task Force, charged with making recommendations to improve victims’ reporting, university response and punishments for attackers.

Rallies and marches led U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, to propose legislation forcing colleges to address the problem, and President Barack Obama launched a national awareness campaign.

High tuition: University of California students showed up at a Board of Regents meeting earlier this year to protest rising tuition costs. They stripped off their shirts to make their point: Tuition was so high it was costing the shirts of their backs.

Guns on campus: Earlier this month, students at the University of Texas at Austin created a Facebook event page urging students to carry sex toys next year to protest a law that will allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring firearms onto campuses.

According to students, although guns will be OK, they could receive a citation for openly bringing a sex toy to class because of rules about sexual expression on campus. More than 4,100 people signed up to participate in what students call a “strap in.”

Graduate student benefits: In Columbia, University of Missouri graduate student Connor Lewis became a self-proclaimed rabble-rouser in August after administrators decided to stop subsidizing health insurance for graduate assistants. That sparked a conversation among MU graduate students about other privileges and resources the students had lost over the years, including full tuition waivers for graduate assistants who work at least 10 hours a week, some housing and access to day care.

It turned into a series of rallies and marches and eventually the formation of a graduate student advocacy group called the Forum on Graduate Rights. The students got the university to reverse its decision on health insurance subsidies.

The group is now affiliated with the Missouri National Education Association in an effort to unionize. Lewis said similar shake-ups over graduate student worker benefits are happening nationwide.

“We’re part of a bigger movement,” he said.

That’s a sentiment also felt by Cordell Pulluaim, a UMKC senior history major and the programming director of K-Roo Student Radio, who participated in his first march on campus after the Ferguson shooting.

“I think college makes it easier to start down the activism path because it’s where you find people of like mind,” Pulluaim said. “It energizes you and you are more able to be bold because it’s about more than just how you feel.”

And once you march, rally, protest, “you figure out how much you can effect change,” he said. “I’ll be doing this — activism — the rest of my life now.

“I believe that sometimes you can change hearts and minds one at a time.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc