For this Study Hall, we’re sharing parts of the audience Q&A segment from our recent panel on Student Activism, where we interviewed three students making a difference in their communities. Read more below.
Q: What are the mistakes we should avoid when we’re working with students when teaching about social change in activism?
Talia Rouser, Sankofa Society: Don’t try to conform everyone in your group to one ideology. We had to learn that when all of the students from different universities set together for Stop Copy City. Not everybody has the same ideology or approach that you do. Some people want protests to be nonviolent. Some people were okay with being arrested, and other people weren’t. I know that students from our university are mostly here on financial aid. Being arrested puts us in jeopardy of our education. We’re not comfortable with violent protests and things like that. But don’t think everybody aligns with your viewpoint and don’t try to force it. It’s okay to have people as allies, but rally in their own way.
Joseph Folarin, De Anza Renters Rights: I’ll say that my mentor gave me the grace to choose the project I’m passionate about and work on. They helped me understand the scope of several issues, and let me take my time before choosing which one I felt most passionate about. That was a very good step for me because I picked something that I actually wanted to do.
Kaia Chau, Students for the Preservation of Chinatown: As organizers, we love educating because we want everyone to be in the know and get involved. But if you’re inviting organizers to come and speak to your students, remember that they have jobs and lives outside of organizing. They have families and full-time jobs. They have a lot of outside responsibilities. Be mindful of the amount of labor that you’re asking them to do. If you work at a private school or university if you’re able to compensate them at all, do so. It’s not like we do this for money at all, but I think that’s definitely a way to show your appreciation.
Q: What are some ways that adults can engage other students who want to be involved but consider themselves more shy or they’re not as comfortable with being in the spotlight?
Talia: You don’t always have to be physically present and show up to lend your support. You can always write a letter. You can always sign a petition. You can always get someone else to do that, too. It takes less than five minutes, but it gives great support to a lot of these organizations and what they’re trying to do.
Joseph: It helps to have a mentor who is patient with me. It was an easy way for me to come out of my shell. At the beginning of this work, I didn’t want to be in the spotlight, but now I feel more comfortable. So I’ll say just patience and guidance.
Kaia: If you are a teacher or professor, especially at a university, talk to your students about what’s happening. Make sure that they’re aware of the issues and ways that they can get involved. I go to a school where a lot of people are from out of state and not from Philly. It’s easy to be disconnected from the community in that way. So the more teachers can be informed and educated about what’s happening locally near or on-campus, the better.
Q: How do you keep yourself resourced and motivated as a student organizer? The news and the amount of injustice in the world can be overwhelming.
Kaia: I think it’s really important to look back and think about all the accomplishments you’ve already done. Even the fact that you’ve taken time out of your day for this work. We’re often doing a lot of unpaid labor for this cause. I think that’s definitely worth giving yourself a pat on the back and taking a break for yourself because you deserve it.
I get rejuvenated by spending time in my community. There is a restaurant owner in Chinatown. His name is Uncle Sam, and every time I walk into his restaurant, he gives me a big hug and says “You’ve done well.” That always rejuvenates me.
Joseph: I’d add that it’s important to pace yourself. Sometimes you feel you want to do everything at once because you feel so passionate; you feel you can do everything. But then, you quickly realize that things don’t change at once, and this work takes time. So you have to learn to pace yourself.
Talia: When I first started getting into activism, I was just going full throttle. Eventually, I had to look at myself and say “Okay, I’ve been off more than I can chew.” I was barely passing classes. I have to work and go to school and do this. So you really just have to give yourself room to breathe, room to relax. Even if it’s one day a week where you can say to yourself “I don’t have school, I don’t have work, I don’t have anything I have to do socially. I’m just gonna be by myself for myself – phone off, not talking to anybody.”
Also, people have lives outside of organizing work. They understand more than anybody. A lot of these protesters and organizers have actual families and “real adult jobs” – not that we as students don’t have real jobs, but they have more to lose than we do. They definitely understand that things happen, and that people are not gonna be available 100% of the time every time. So remember that the other people you’re working with aren’t expecting that from you.