Antiracist Activism for Teachers and Students/Students/Student Activism

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A History of Student Activism[edit]

Student activism has served to join young adults across the nation as they share their opinions about controversial issues. Student activism began with the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 beginning with the issues of racism between African-Americans and white European-Americans ( http://www.ibibio.org/sncc/). The SNCC became a model for many of the later student activist groups that formed. Over the past fifty years, student activism has morphed and changed to fit the current issues at hand; however, the emphasis remains on giving students a voice. Issues have included the Civil Rights Movement and abolishing the use of Jim Crow laws, political freedom, protests surrounding the Vietnam War, the feminist movement, and the continuation to end racism and inequality.

Beginning in 1960, SNCC was instrumental in the sit-in movement which began with four students in a small drugstore in Greensboro, North Carolina (Chafe, 2003, p. 158). These four college men did not intend to start a national movement, rather they were frustrated with the inequality they faced on a daily basis. The four men decided to take action and demand equal treatment at a local Woolworths. Their intention was to ask for service and not leave until they received it. These students were fed up with not being treated fairly and not receiving equal treatment as their white counterparts. What began with the four young men going into a Woolworth to demand equal treatment turned into a full protest. Many of the local businesses in Greensboro were filled with protesters, both students of color and white students (Chafe, 2003, p. 161). The protest was quickly publicized by local television stations that led to the nationwide coverage. The entire country was able to witness what was happening in one small town. The movement became known as the “sit-in movement” and every person with a television could watch the progress of the protests on the nightly news.

The second big project for SNCC came in the summer of 1964 known as the “Freedom Summer” in which students from across the nation joined forces in Mississippi to help with voter registration for people of color (Chafe, 2003, p. 205). The effort was to allow people of color a constructive outlet in which to express their opinions of the nation through voting. The movement was met with hostility that ended with three student workers kidnapped and murdered. Unfortunately, the federal government offered little support with the resistance the students were faced with. ( http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eyesontheprize/story/09_summer.html). The students remained dedicated to the movement as they were fighting for what they believed in; equality for everyone. Throughout the nation, other groups began to form to address issues pertaining to racism (Chafe, 2003, p. 161).

Another monumental moment in 1964 was the passing of the Civil Rights Bill which officially made racial segregation and discrimination illegal. The law was difficult to enforce however, and the need for student activism continued. The SNCC dismantled in 1966 and more violent student activist groups formed such as the Black Panthers (Chafe, 2003, p. 327). Although these groups were more aggressive than the SNCC they were fighting for equality and an end to racism. Future student activist groups formed that used non violent ways of protesting.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, students used the model of SNCC to form groups of protest. Two of the major issues that students became involved with were the anti-war and anti-draft movements surrounding the Vietnam War as well as the feminist movement. The anti-draft movement specifically involved students of color due to the fact that many of the individuals drafted were young men of color (Czitrom, lecture, November 5, 2007). Young men were able to avoid the draft if they were attending college, however, this rule was not enforced for people of color. The issues of inequality around the draft were raised as students throughout the nation tried to bring an end to the process.

Similarly, the women’s liberation movement demanded equal rights for women. The first inklings towards a women’s movement actually began during the lifetime of SNCC; women became frustrated as they were expected to do the clerical work and brew the coffee, but not contribute to the planning of the movement (Chafe, 2003, pp. 324-325). The women began to take what they had learned from their participation in the Civil Rights Movement and started to plan and congregate to demand their equal rights. The idea of students taking responsibility and speaking up for their rights was in full bloom.

In examination of our world today, racism does not present itself in quite the same way as it previously had. Today, racism is much more subtle, but no less harmful. Many white people take a color blind approach to racism by claiming they do not see race or believe racism no longer exists. This thinking however allows people to ignore the existing issues and ultimately assists in perpetuating discrimination that is so pervasive in our society and in our institutions. A student movement is needed to bring awareness and force the nation to take action against institutional racism. The budding of this movement is occurring nationwide in the form of social justice classes and extracurricular activities.

There are many ways to begin combating the institutionalism of racism. Tim Wise, a nationally known and well respected white ally, provides quite a few examples (2000). He recommends that students form multi-racial groups in order to address the issues of racism together. One particular form of student action these students can do together is go to a mall or other commercial area to identify acts of racism within stores. Students who witness acts of racism can take the opportunity to address the clerk and educate the individual(s) on issues pertaining to racism. In extreme events students may wish to protest and boycott the store until they change their practice.

Another great way to address racism is to create awareness. An extracurricular club was formed in Canada that did just that. Although not in the United States, the group, Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice (STOP), is a student run organization working to raise awareness and educate others on matters pertaining to racism in order to bring it to an end. Some of the activities of STOP include attending community events, conferences, and traveling to neighboring towns to address incidents of racism and promote social justice.

College campuses have also begun to recommend or require that students take courses that address the prevailing issues of race, racism, and inequality in society and education. Similarly, there are different student organizations in which one can become involved with to discuss these issues. The student movement is not quite as active as it once was, however, it is not dead. Instead, it has taken a more subtle approach however, the goal is still the same; to assist in the deconstruction of the racial hierarchy once and for all.

Student Activism Present and Future[edit]

Student Activism is work that is constructed and organized by students of all age that affects social issues. These issues can include political, economic, religion, human rights, and/or social change. Student Activism became a predominant way of impacting social change in the 1960s and 1970s especially through the protest of the Vietnam War. Since then, student activism has changed in the ways of how they organize their action. Protesting is still very common with social issues but because of the increase in technology, emails and phone calls have taken over as the leading form of action for student activists. Technology can allow activists to reach a larger audience across the nation in order to effect positive change.

A key part of student activism is the publicity the students receive from the ways they voice their views. The media’s coverage of a protest on human rights can make an issue go from small to large while raising awareness an audience across the nation. With the advancement of technology individuals are able to post on a website or blog and post images of any injustice or protest which can get a lot of attention and action from visitors to the site. For example, a woman wrote a blog on student activism on the Amnesty International blog to uncover the misuse of the judicial system. The use of a picture and the article sparked a protest or “taking action now to stand up for human rights” for stopping the use of flogging as a way of judicial punishment. One picture and one blog can resort to large populations of students and people rising together to fight one cause. This blog shows the ways in which media can enhance the knowledge and use of student activism.

College students are the main demographic for student activism, known to hold protests, sit-ins, or rallies on a variety of different issues. At many college or university institutions, there are “diversity initiatives grants” which fund programs, organizations, or events that promote diversity and multi-cultural education. At Mount Holyoke, this fund is called, “Inclusiveness Initiatives Fund.” In 2006, Natasha Hunter ’07 was awarded $1500 to produce SuDance, “A socially conscious dance concert & collaborative community event to call attention to the present atrocities in Sudan and the related deeply rooted issues of racism, classism, and sexism in our world.” ( http://www.mtholyoke.edu/offices/dcoll/17284.shtml). The University of Idaho’s program is called the DIGG – Diversity Initiative Growth Grant, which was established to, “encourage university-wide programming aimed at promoting increased awareness of diversity issues from as many perspectives and viewpoints as possible” ( http://www.students.uidaho.edu/default.aspx?pid=92920). These programs are consistent throughout many institutions across the nation and are granted once or twice a year to hopeful student activists.

Student activism however, is not just for college campuses. Students and Teachers Opposing Prejudice (STOP) is a popular extracurricular high school program that is known for “leadership in innovative approaches to challenging racism and other forms of discrimination” ( http://www.ucalgary.ca/~dtoolkit/stopprogramhistory.htm) The high school students who formed STOP found that if they took small steps towards awareness and education that others could learn to value diversity. “Stand Out” is another high school organization that promotes student voices in schools. The Student Equity Team is a branch of “Stand Out” in the Seattle Public Schools. “Stand Out” is a helping hand in engaging students to voice their opinions on equity and race relations across schools districts. These students bring communities together through means of dialogue and activities that engage people in the process and generate ideas for action. Through combining communities and schools, the voices get stronger and help in creating change and enhancing classroom learning on diversity.

In addition to organizations, individuals can take action on their own. The Princeton Prize in Race Relations is an award that is granted to an outstanding high school student on their work in their community or school that moves forward the cause of race relations. Gabriela Olguin, a freshman at the South Los Angeles Area High School won this award through her development of a program called Peace and Unity Week. This “Peace Week” was organized to, “improve relations between Latinos and African American Students. Olguin and the Leadership Class promoted a week of peaceful activities and music during the lunch hour to promote peace and unity, giving students something to do other than cause trouble at lunch.” ( http://www.princeton.edu/PrincetonPrize/)

It can be said that activism conceived by students is the most inspiring activism that occurs in society. It is important for teachers to take an active role in planting the seed by educating their students on social and political inequalities in our society. Once given the information and tools they need, students can find their own ways to speak out against injustice and inequality. When students are encouraged to think for themselves, they feel empowered, encouraged and safe.