How do social movements evolve on college campuses these days? Gone are the days of picketing, sit-ins, and visible protests. “Armchair” activists take to social media and “like” social movement pages. Check. Activism accomplished! Or, is it?
A key component of the mission of the WCenter was to connect students to issues of which they were passionate, we were constantly looking to help students connect with student organizations and activism communities. Body image, sexual assault awareness, bystander intervention, service trips, and other projects allowed students to engage and connect with each other. But, despite these great opportunities visible signs of activism were often absent.
I am interested in learning more about this current generations’ beliefs about activism and specifically about the development of activist identity vis-à-vis student engagement opportunities on college campuses. This interest grew from a pilot study I conducted over the past several years while serving as the co-producer of the activist play by Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues, a staple on most campuses. While some wonder if they play has reached the end of its lifespan, each year I witnessed renewed student interest and individual cast members’ personal transformations. Some came to the play with deep-seeded connection to the themes the play presents, but others transformed from passive thespians seeking another acting gig on their resumes to feminist activists. We collected (via pre- and post-tests as well as through focus groups) anecdotal data that suggested that the play directly impacted students’ self-concepts as feminists, their interest in activism around sexual assault education, and their desire to participate in future activities that would allow them to develop further. And, audiences keep coming back year after year, selling out shows and raising money.
How do campus engagement experiences focused on issues of social justice (like The Vagina Monologues or the Tunnel of Oppression, or Social Justice Retreats) impact student activism and future career/academic trajectories? Is there a model that could be replicated here to maximize impact of such experiences? I’m also interested in student movements and identity-based politics. What drives students to transform from “I’m not a feminist, but…” to proudly and loudly identifying as a feminist (and marching, and petitioning, and leading a social movement on campus)? I watched this transformation occur many times within (and outside of) the Women’s Center during my time there. I believe the future efficacy of campus-based women’s centers is directly related to the ability to mobilize this transformation and inspire leaders of social change.
Now at MSU working with the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment, in my short time here, I’ve seen students who have an academic interest in environmental studies transform during their first semester into environmental activists and passionate social change leaders around a variety of issues from waste reduction, to composting, to animal rights. This has led me to think more deeply about the pilot study conducted via the WCenter and if there are transferrable lessons that would help us understand more about identity development of activists. Is there a continuum of activism? If yes, then what prompts students to move along that continuum? How are programs like RISE and the Women’s Center contributing to student activism?
Was a student engagement experience instrumental in your development? What student experiences have led to activism on your campuses? How have centers, departments, organizations, and other units contributed to that process (either intentionally or unintentionally)? What transferrable lessons can we replicate to increase the effectiveness of these student engagement activities?