Discovering How Student Activism Matters

This week in North Philly Notes, Matthew Williams, author of Strategizing against Sweatshopswrites about what he learned by studying college students engaged in strategically innovative activism to help sweatshop workers across the world.

When I began working on the research for my new book, Strategizing against Sweatshops, if you had asked me, I’m sure that I would have said student activism is important. But I suspect I would have been somewhat vague about the specifics of why and how it is important. In interviewing members of United Students Against Sweatshops, a college student group that is one of three oStrategizing against Sweatshops_smrganizations that I focus on, I gained a much better understanding of how and why student activism matters. Student activists’ position on college campuses puts them in a place where they are more opportunities for success as a social movement than many other movements have. And this gives student activists a chance to break new ground in changing social norms and structures in the wider society, using college campuses as beachheads of progressive change.

If you’ve ever engaged in social justice activism, you know that it is often thankless work. It’s not simply that people outside the social justice community often look at the value of what you do with some degree of skepticism, but that you must be in it for the long haul to see the results of your actions—and those results are often unclear. When political and business leaders make reforms that movements have sought, they rarely give credit to movements for influencing them. The chain of cause and effect is not always clear. Certainly, it’s rare that any particular action your group takes, no matter how dramatic, can be clearly connected with causing some particular policy change.

Student activists face some of these same frustrations. But things do change somewhat when working on the scale of a college campus. The somewhat enclosed, clearly defined boundaries and small scale of a college campus create opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere. Compared to officials in positions of government and large businesses, college administrators are relatively accessible to students. Student activists can reasonably expect to get meetings with top-level campus officials. Even if a college president has an antagonistic view of what student activists are doing, the norms of college life are such that they are expected to tolerate such activism and give the students doing it some hearing. This is particularly striking given that colleges are much less democratic than government bodies. Even for faculty, principles of shared governance have significantly eroded and college administrations have increasingly limited accountability to faculty. There are generally no democratic mechanisms on college campuses for students to keep administrators in check. And yet the small scale and norms of the college campus make it possible for student activists to directly engage with high level administrators.

Student activists have other advantages as well. Doing the sort of movement-building necessary to successfully pressure administrators to change policy (and not simply meet with students) is relatively easy within the contained arena of a college campus. Though economic pressures mean this is less true than it once was, students still have a larger amount of biographical availability—free time to engage in activism—than older people who must hold down full time jobs and may have family obligations. The existence of student newspapers and the ease of organizing an educational event such as hosting a speaker or panel makes getting out the word about one’s cause relatively easy. The density of social networks on campus—in dorms, in student groups, among informal friendship circles, etc.—makes it relatively easy to recruit people.

Finally, the small scale of the college campus makes it relatively easy to exercise leverage over those in power and see concrete results from one’s action. A number of USAS members I interviewed told me stories of sit-ins, hunger strikes, or simply a series of escalating protest actions resulting in administrators making major concessions to them.

None of this is to say that successful student activism is easy—it still requires a lot of dedication and hard work. It is simply an easier arena in which to engage in social activism that many other contexts social justice activists find themselves in.

USAS was able to use these circumstances to help sweatshop workers on the other side of the world unionize and otherwise improve their conditions. They were able to do this because so many colleges and universities have licensing agreements with major apparel firms like Nike and Champion, where the companies are allowed to produce clothing with the school’s name and logo on it and the school gets a cut of the resulting profits. Apparel companies value these deals because it gives them access to a captive audience for marketing and they believe they can use this to build lifetime brand loyalty. This gave student activists potential leverage over these companies. USAS pushed administrators to put in place pro-labor rights code of conduct for their licensees and to require the companies to allow inspections by the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization, to verify compliance—and they have pushed colleges to threaten to suspend or cancel their licensing agreements when licensees are found to be violating the codes of conduct.. This has forced companies like Nike and Champion to address problems when they are caught red-handed using sweatshop labor.

USAS is not unique in being able to use the small scale of the college campus to exert wider influence. Our society’s slowly changing attitudes towards sexual harassment, assault and what qualifies as consent have been significantly influenced by activism on college campuses, whose small scale allowed student activists to more easily challenge sexist norms there. And those changes in norms have slowly radiated outward from college campuses. During the 1980s, students were at the forefront of the movement to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa by pushing college administrators to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. A parallel movement is now pushing colleges to divest from the fossil fuel industry, an industry that must be dismantled to protect our planet’s fragile ecosystem and climate.

Student activism matters both because it is easier to engage in successful activism on college campuses and because victories on college campuses can have important effects on the wider world.

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