Too many young people are unaware of the positive impact they can have on society. Cliché as it might be, they represent the future and, thus, deserve to have a say in the present. History is filled with student protests, from Tiananmen Square to the March for Our Lives. Students have a powerful voice, and they need to use it more often.
I go to school in Washington, D.C., which means that I see some sort of protest almost every day. And, because my campus was ranked first in the country for political activeness, I frequently see student protests and demonstrations as well.
Most recently, my school’s administration moved to enact changes to the mandatory meal plan for freshmen and sophomores. It would increase the price of the already expensive plan by $2,000 per semester. The student body was furious, especially because the food isn’t great to begin with.
After a couple weeks of protesting, the school relented. A new meal plan option was created, and it was even more better than the original. The university also stated it was reconsidering its business with Aramark, the company it outsources dining to, because students criticized Aramark’s reputation of mistreating employees, serving unhealthy food, working in unsanitary conditions and participating in other unethical behavior.
This goes to show that students have more power than they think they do. If there’s something you don’t like at your school, and the majority of the student body agrees with you, fight to change it.
Here are six tips to organize a successful student protest.
1. Mobilize through social media
Social media is an incredibly powerful tool. It allows for the rapid exchange of information across massive audiences. Facebook and Twitter played huge roles in publicizing the March for Our Lives, a protest against current gun laws that was organized by Parkland students. They were also very important to my school’s protest.
Social media is an invaluable tool in organizing student protests. Create Facebook events to organize your protest and any meetings leading up to it. Make a new account or page dedicated to the protest and ask all your friends to share it. Start hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, tag your school in posts, record videos, etc.
The goal is to get the administration’s attention and make your demands clear, and for that to happen, information about your cause has to be everywhere.
2. Contact news sources
Bad press can end careers within hours, so people are much more likely to act favorably when they know they’re in the public eye. For colleges, maintaining good reputations is pivotal in order to attract new students. Putting them in the spotlight puts pressure on them to indulge the students’ demands.
Try getting your school newspaper to run an article on your protest. You can also send your story to your local newspaper or any news blogs. The more often it appears on smaller sources, the more likely it is to attract the attention of bigger ones.
3. Attend administrative meetings
Schools often host open meetings that students never show up to. Other times, the meetings are closed, but a student representative is allowed. These meetings are great opportunities to voice your opinions and be able to talk directly with administrators.
If neither of those options is possible, you can try setting up your own meeting. The Residence Hall Association at my school invited the director of dining to speak about the proposed meal plans and address any concerns.
While the meeting itself was not incredibly helpful, the director’s lackluster answers and comments were captured on video and posted online. This sparked outrage and was likely a large contributor in the success of the protest.
4. Get parents involved
Like it or not, higher education is a business, which means that cash is king. Colleges assume that parents are the ones who are footing the tuition bills; therefore, parent concerns are often taken more seriously than student concerns. Normally, I would encourage self-advocacy and self-sufficiency from students, but in some cases, that’s just not enough.
A school’s administration is more likely to take action when they are flooded with angry phone calls and emails from parents. This is especially true when said parents threaten to withhold donations or take some sort of legal action. The last thing a college wants is to lose money and support.
I remember one time I had an issue with my financial aid. I called and emailed the school numerous times and never received a helpful response. And yet, as soon as my dad called, the problem was resolved within a couple days. Sometimes you just have to break out the big guns.
5. Central leadership
Organization is incredibly important in creating a successful protest, and the key to organization is having some sort of leadership. Central leadership can take the many different small voices in a school and combine them into one, unified force. The message will be much clearer and stronger if everyone is on the same page.
There doesn’t need to be formal elections or anything. More likely, certain people will voluntarily rise up as leaders and then work together to organize everybody else.
6. Incite emotion
Sometimes, you have to do something big to incite emotion and make people want to join your cause. The year before I started at American University, there was a protest there that included burning American flags. And, while I wouldn’t recommend going that far, it was an act that garnered a lot of attention.
Of course, there’s a fine line between doing something to incite emotion and doing something that’s dangerous or blatantly hurtful. The latter is more likely to hurt your cause rather than help it. Overly radical action can bring about a sort of “we do not negotiate with terrorists” consensus from the administration. It can also result in serious consequences for you and anyone involved (like suspension or expulsion).
The most important thing to remember is that schools can’t operate without students. It’s your education (and your money), and you deserve a quality experience. Knowing how to stand up against powerful institutions is important. Perhaps it’s protests on the quad now and marches to the Capitol tomorrow. Good luck!