Why College Activism (Usually) Fails

college protestorsJanice Reece has an interesting post at Women In Theology about her silent protest regarding hr refusal to read theologian Karl Barth. I’ve encountered activist students like her many times over the years, and while her ambitions are more low-key than most activists, she reminded me of the tension between college students’ passions and the ineffectiveness of their efforts.

To be fair to Janice, most of what I have to say here has little to do with her  (I’ll address her protest in my next post).  For now I’m less interested in her situation than I am the psychological pattern I see most college activists go through.

It’s no shock to say that even the most determined students rarely make much of an impact with their activism. The core problem  – and this is something you can only truly see if you live in a college town for half of your life- is the lack of time and a tendency to repeat the failed strategies previous students tried out.

College students have a lot of passion but a very small window to accomplish much politically or institutionally. A calcified institution like the university Janice attends can simply let the wheels of reform grind slower than her stay at the college, so the status quo remains by the time she graduates. Then the next crop of students arrives and makes their own quixotic attempt to advocate the same reforms without knowing what previous students have tried. So the college or the community gives the new students the same vague promises they gave their predecessors.

I’ve seen this pattern repeat itself in a variety of causes – especially efforts related to environmental or institutional reform.  And through my observations, I realized that students have much less than 4 years to make an impact. And that’s because of the 4 Stages of College Activism:

Stage 1 of College Activism is figuring out who you are. You haven’t found your cause because you’re getting acclimated to college life and making friends. You’re also excited about being away from home, so you waste time partying and slacking off. This stage may continue well into your Sophomore year.

Stage 2: Finding your cause. At this point you’ve hooked up with activists that share your goals. You’ll probably be content to do legwork to help carry out the leadership’s vision. But you may not have found your cause yet. If you share your group or organization’s passions, great. You’ve got a head start. But many students are drawn to issues their group isn’t prioritizing. They really can’t make things happen until the current leadership leaves. If you’re flying solo on your cause, you’ll be starting from scratch, so you’ll face a huge learning curve trying to get people to join your cause.

Stage 3: Getting things done. If you’re part of a club or organization, you’ve probably climbed the ranks of leadership or become a reliable activist. If you’re working solo or from scratch, odds are you’ve given up or decided to stay at Stage 2. If you’re driven and organized, you’ve probably recruited enough people to make things happen. Most activists never make it to Stage 3 because their cause is futile, or their strategy fails to work and they don’t have a Plan B to fall back on.

Stage 4: Scaling back. You’re a Senior now, so you have to hunker down and focus on your practicum, finding a job or grad school, etc. You’re still involved in your cause, but now you’re the voice of experience for Stage 2 and 3 students. If your major lines up with your cause, this is where you can really accomplish a lot. But odds are you’re thinking about your future, and since you’re leaving college in less than a year, your commitment to your cause wanes.

Now there are important exceptions to these stages. If you join an established organization with a national top-down leadership, then you’ll probably spend much less time on Stage 1 and stick with Stage 2 longer. The downside is that you’ll have less freedom to do your own thing or promote your cause. You’re taking orders rather than giving them. But the more locally oriented your activism is, the smaller the window for making an impact.

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