A person speaking into a megaphone.

The Role of Student Organizing, Then and Now

With the fall semester in full swing, students are joining activist organizations agitating for social change on their campuses and beyond. Though political commentators and elites often condescendingly talk down to younger people, students have been at the forefront of nearly all social movements. Today, we’re reflecting on key victories of student protest and how students and non-students can support the fight. 

Student organizing has a long history, but it started in earnest when mandatory high school education and the expansion of college attendance made more young people students as opposed to workers. In 1936, California high school students launched a successful strike to demand the reinstatement of their superintendent, inspiring a wave of student strikes across the country. Three years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregated American schools, Barbara Rose Jones and 450 classmates in an overcrowded, segregated Black school in Virginia walked out of class. The Little Rock Nine received national attention as the first Black students to attend an Arkansas school as the National Guard held off an angry white mob. High school and college students led the Freedom Rides to desegregate the South and formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the leading civil rights organizations (Teen Vogue). Sixteen-year-old Bobby Hutton was the first person to join the Black Panther Party and served as the Party’s treasurer until he was executed by Oakland police the following year (NPR). By 1969, Students for a Democratic Society had 100,000 members fighting the Vietnam War (Smithsonian). Students launched campus occupations nationwide, demanding schools institute Ethnic Studies and end contracts with weapons corporations (NYTimes).


Register for the ARD Student Activism Panel tomorrow, October 3rd, at 1 PM PST/4 PM EST. 

Consider: if you’re a student, how can you get involved or start organizing with your classmates? What issues affect you and the broader community? If you aren’t a student, how can you connect with and support current student organizations?

Students forced U.S. universities to divest over $1 billion in investments from South Africa, contributing to the fall of the apartheid regime (Harvard GSE). High school and college students played leading roles in the Occupy Wall Street movement, the defense of Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, and March for Our Lives (Teen Vogue). Students are currently on the frontlines of struggles to protect Philadelphia’s Chinatown from displacement, fight the San Francisco Bay Area housing crisis, and block the construction of the Cop City police training facility in Atlanta. Representatives from all three of these fights will join The ARD in a panel on student protest

Current students should join or form an organization fighting for justice at their schools or communities. Because of the historic strength of student protest, campus activism is sometimes encouraged in ways that it isn’t for other people. That’s why we have “student activist” as a conceptual category in a way that “mid-40s activist” isn’t. This is good, as long as we keep two things in mind. 

Schools tolerate or support student activism, but only within certain bounds. This support evaporates as soon as the activism threatens their interests, like when Drexel University students took over a campus building to protest the university’s role in gentrifying and threatening the UC Townhomes (The DPMidnight Sun). Student activists must be on guard against administration efforts to divide student protest into “good,” symbolic activism, and “bad,” disruptive actions. Though superficial support for diversity is good for padding out admissions brochures, effective resistance is disruptive by its very nature. 

We must also reject the narrative that activism is a young person’s game. This country is teeming with people who declare that, though they may have gone to a protest or two in their student days, they grew out of such a phase and expect current student organizers to do the same. This narrative is toxic and incoherent. If activism is good but only appropriate for students, we stop bearing responsibility for the thriving and liberation of our communities around the age of 23. That doesn’t make any sense. If student activism is bad because students are hopelessly naive, that gives older people all the more responsibility to join the fight and enlighten the youth with their supposed wisdom. But, of course, people criticizing student activism from the sidelines don’t do that, either. 

Once, I, too, was a student activist. Today, as I drag my decaying husk of a body into my mid-thirties and the last vestiges of youth escape me, I know those days are behind me. I don’t think I would be involved in community work had I not started organizing with my peers as a student. And I don’t think I would have remained involved in the struggle had I not been able to build alongside people who were no longer college-aged themselves. Because they inspired and supported me, I was able to witness living proof that fighting injustice isn’t something we stop doing when our student ID cards expire. (I had the pleasure of interviewing one of them, Walidah Imarisha.) To transform society, we need a multigenerational movement that supports youth organizers and connects people fighting oppression throughout their lives. Student activism is just one of the leading edges of a fight we should all be in. 


• For decades, students have led transformative protests. 

• Today, students continue to be at the forefront of movements to stop racism, police brutality, and gentrification, among others. 

• Non-students should support student organizing to create a diverse, multigenerational movement capable of disrupting oppression. 

1648 1080 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

All stories by : Andrew Lee
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