Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

The Student Activist: Rebooted

New Face of Student Activism

Meet the new face of student activism.

The shape of student activism is changing, so if you are looking to find activist action on your campus, it might not look like you expect it to.

Perhaps you expect politically engaged students to look and behave a certain way. Are you imagining thrift shop clothes wearing, picket sign toting, protest marching hippies? Or maybe you envision clean cut students campaigning for local politicians.

These traditional types of political engagement still have a presence on campuses. However, as the postsecondary environment has changed, so too has the shape of student engagement.

Today’s youth can raise their voice in the classroom environment

One of the least recognized ways students engage politically is in their classes. It is a testament to the success of past and present student activism that progressive and radical ideas are continually filtered into university materials. Weekly readings, courses and even entire programs are dedicated to discussing issues that were once relegated to alternative coffee shops and radical bookstores.

Women’s Studies, for instance, is now a staple at most Canadian universities, while social issue focused programs like Brock University’s MA in Social Justice and Equity Studies are cropping up across the country. In such courses and programs, students can engage seriously with the pertinent issues of the day.

Student engagement is even more pronounced in the growing trend of Service Learning courses or course components. This style of education is dedicated to hands-on learning, whereby students move out of their classrooms in order to work on the social issues in their communities.

So called “Slacktivists” are highly active in boycotts and buycotts

Outside of classroom hours students continue to behave in decidedly political ways. There is a misconception that legitimate political activity can only happen on election day, or in mass protests directed toward the state. Students of today demonstrate the fallacy of this line of thought. For instance, as corporations have evolved into powerful global actors, and the effectiveness of the state is called into question, more and more student activism is directed toward the corporate sphere.

Boycotts have been a particularly popular way of combating perceived social and environmental injustices. Student boycotters have withheld their business from campus bookstores, clothing manufacturers, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola, to name a few targets, demanding that the boycotted company change its business practices. Even more pervasive than boycotts is the buycott, whereby students seek out ethical products for purchase. No Sweat, Organic, and Fair Trade are just a few of the ethical purchasing certifications many students are looking out for on their consumer products. By interacting with the corporate sphere in such ways, students are undeniably working toward political change.

Today, activist groups use online news and blogs to spread their message

Another popular technique for effecting political change is using the internet. By now most of us have heard internet activism described as ‘slacktivism’, but the internet can serve social and environmental justice causes effectively, and in a multitude of ways. It is an invaluable resource for spreading awareness about political issues, for movement organization, and for tangible action. For example, students browse online for alternative news sources and information, create activist groups and events on Facebook, and circulate online petitions widely.

In 2009, Iranian students employed their Twitter accounts to effectively fuel protest sentiments and action. And yet, while this new mode of engagement is explicitly political, it is all too often discredited or ignored in popular discussions of student activism.

There are questions to be asked about these and the many other new forms of student activism: Do they represent real substitutes for traditional forms of political engagement? Can all students participate in them equally? And even accounting for these new forms of engagement, is student activism still on the decline?

Yet even as we evaluate their potential shortcomings, we ought to be proud of these new and creative ways our generation is getting involved.

And if you are looking for ways to be politically active at your school, take heart that there is no shortage of opportunities. That is, if you are willing to think outside of the ballot box.

Malaika Baxter
Author: Malaika Baxter
Malaika Baxter is a recent graduate of Brock University's MA program in Social Justice and Equity Studies. Her Masters research project considered student activism in the neoliberal context.
Post a comment
  1. Sara Cameron Says:

    This article is a significant contribution to Western society. It is an awareness-raising eye-opener for anyone who questions the involvment of contemporary students in political issues! It is thanks to authors such as you, Malaika Baxter, that invite people to wake up and realize the impact of activists today! Thank you.

  2. Elvis-priestley Says:

    This article is without doubt a pertinent and powerful reminder that our Canadian students do most certainly have a voice today! We as Canadians can be proud that our young post graduate students are willing to actually practise what they preach! It is articles like this that paint a very bright picture for a “Progressive” Canadian future!

  3. Ashlee DiNardo Says:

    This article really makes on examine their role in society and the multitude of ways that one can become involved in social and political issues without having to resort to a radical approach. While some may view these alternative means as conservative, or lackadaisical, I believe that they are a progressive and reflective representation of today’s society. Thank you for your well thought out insight Malaika!

  4. cattheanarchist.wordpress.com Says:

    While internet activism has its advantages, there is no substitute for real, actual, visual action. There is a time when everyone needs to stand up publicly for changes, and that time is now. To succeed in creating serious, large changes, we cannot hide behind the convenience of a computer screen, we must get together in large groups and make people who would normally NEVER check out the issues on the internet informed or at least aware of some of the issues. The changes we seek will never happen if we sit lazily in front of a computer screen – not saying that no changes can happen through petitions and other things, its just that we should be using the internet as a tool to organize live, intense, real actions. I know I do not want my time in history to be remembered as sitting, hunch backed over a computer screen when people around the world are dying to protest and speak their mind in the streets.


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