Student Activism in Modern America

Peaceful, student-led protests and activism have been a powerful force for change throughout American history. In 1925, for example, students at Fisk University staged a 10-week protest to speak out against the school’s president, who didn’t want students starting a chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. In 1940, almost 2,000 students protested after New York University decided to pull a black player from its football roster to accommodate the University of Missouri’s segregationists. And campus-based activism, including against racism, were a major lever of social change in the 1960s. But during one of the largest protest movements of our generation, campuses nationwide have been shut down due to COVID-19. So what does student activism look like today? It’s happening online and in the streets with art and tech skills.

Kinsale Hueston, 20, Los Angeles

After organizing on campus for two years, Kinsale Hueston has had to get creative. As a student at Yale University, her approach to amplifying marginalized voices is generally through art — she’s a nationally recognized poet. And as COVID-19 took hold in the Navajo Nation, she found that her Instagram posts and reposts were getting a lot of attention: “It’s made me really happy to see friends of mine who have never really shared anything about native issues — or anything like that before — amplifying what I’ve been sharing.”

Hueston is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation who mostly grew up in California. In high school, activism movements around the missing and murdered indigenous women’s movement as well as the Dakota Access Pipeline “helped [her] get involved at the local level, especially with the urban native community in L.A.”

She started using social media back then to educate and raise awareness on these issues, but she says this time is different: “Usually what I face is like not a lot of reposts, not a lot of response. But now because people have been kicked off campus and they have to go online in this specific scenario, they’re looking for these opportunities to learn.”

And her approach to activism is working. She’s gained almost 12,000 Instagram followers in the past 30 days. She posts primarily about the high rates of COVID-19 on the Navajo reservation, but she recognizes that there is another huge movement rippling through the country right now. Both, she says, focused on the same thing: “You can’t put one issue over the other because that’s what, you know, the white state wants us to do. They want us to fight like this. And instead we have to be good relatives to each other and listen to each other and address the needs of all of our communities right now.”

She had one final message: Don’t forget the artists. “There are so many incredible black singers, visual artists, writers who are making such incredible work to bring joy right now. And I think that’s also such an important part of movements, is the healing and the beauty that can come out of it. I think art is so important because it allows us to see the future that we want to manifest and work towards.”

Amiri Nash, 18, Washington, D.C.

Amiri Nash, who will be starting as a freshman at Brown University, has been watching people “perform Internet activism.” They’ll re-post something, comment or change their profile picture to a black screen, but “have a false sense of engagement with the cause and the movement and the idea.” So Nash and a friend, Lexi Brown, started a project called Sign of Justice, an organization that creates signs with scan codes, to post in public places that are predominantly white. (One sign, for example, says, “A man was lynched by police. What are you doing about it? Text ‘Floyd’ to 55156. Use your privilege for good.”)

“It brings conversations to communities and it really gets you out of your house and doing something,” Nash said. One of the best parts: “You can do it while social distancing.” The signs have QR codes with resources, including a link to donate to the Black Lives Matter movement. Before the police involved with George Floyd’s murder had been charged, a sign displayed a number that you could text that would automatically sign a petition to get them charged. The signs are traveling across the world — through England, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada.

The signs are another way to fight for change and an acknowledgment that protesting could be a luxury during a pandemic. “There are still some people that have immunocompromised systems that aren’t able to protest, or people that just have COVID fears in general, which is completely valid,” he says. Millions of people around the world — from New Zealand to Iran — have taken to the streets, and while Nash is positive about the visibility of these demonstrations, he says it’s too soon to celebrate.

“Right now, I’m hopeful because I’ve seen so many people get involved. I’ve been seeing so many people go to protests and hang signs and spread awareness. But also I don’t want the hope to block the very real reality that none of this really matters unless we hold everyone accountable, unless we get real systemic change, unless the police officers who murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are actually convicted and spend time in jail.”

This article originally appeared here.

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