One of the largest driving factors in prevention efforts over the past several years has been an increase in student activism. According to data gleaned from the Campus Prevention Network Diagnostic Inventories, 85% of schools are using peer educators to support prevention efforts. This blog is Part Two of a three-part series focusing on maximizing student engagement, channeling student activism, and empowering peer educators.
In recent years, student activism has come to the forefront of prevention work. Today’s student body is engaged politically and socially, and with the advent of activism efforts like The Hunting Ground and Know Your IX, students have been empowered to speak out against injustice and hold their institutions accountable for their safety and wellbeing. Student activists can often be a driving force behind ensuring that institutions are doing more than just checking a box when it comes to prevention efforts. The presence of activism on campus can be an outward demonstration that specific issues are important to the student population, and can raise awareness of potential deficits that administrators may not even be aware of. They are often the face behind the issues at hand, and can provide tremendous insight into the student perspective on critical wellness and safety issues such as substance use, sexualized violence, and mental health. When collaborated with respectfully and appropriately, student activists can serve as prevention professional’s best allies.
1: Recognize where they’re coming from.
Many student activists become interested in prevention efforts because they are deeply connected to the issue at hand, or because they believe that their institution is not doing their best to support their student body. One of the most important things prevention professionals and administrators can do when working with student activists is put themselves in the shoes of the students that are involved. By understanding the concerns that students have, and getting a sense of how they perceive the issues, you can learn quite a bit about where to prioritize your efforts. One strategy is to set up a meeting with student activists to create a space for discussing their concerns and to gain a deeper understanding of their passion. By arranging a meeting, you can allow students to share their perspective and learn a bit more about their motivations. This will also present an opportunity to share some of your institutional efforts and aspirations, and invite students to be a part of the solution. When arranging a meeting with student activists, come prepared to truly hear their concerns, and consider ways in which you may unify efforts to make them a part of ongoing institutional work.
2: Empower them with data.
Despite their best intentions, sometimes student activists can end up doing more harm than good– especially when it comes to the misrepresentation of campus statistics or data. Because they are often a mouthpiece for prevention efforts (or lack thereof), it is important that they have access to the most accurate data about what is truly happening on campus. When meeting with student activists to talk about their concerns, be ready to share institutional data in order to ensure that they have the most accurate depiction of the issues. The data that you share may not tell a favorable story, but candor and transparency can be a tremendous first step towards engaging student activists as allies. Additionally, be ready to share insights into best practice approaches for speaking publicly around sensitive issues. While oversight doesn’t have to be formal, students may value the opportunity to get specialized training to ensure that they are as effective and sensitive as they can be.
3: Have suggestions for alternative engagements.
Prior to meeting with student activists, put together a list of ideas for ways in which they can become more actively involved with ongoing prevention efforts. By having this list ready during a meeting, you can provide them with concrete suggestions to channel their activism, time, and passion. Come prepared to hear about their concerns, and ask them about their passions and driving force behind their involvement. By listening and getting to know the students that are involved, you may be able to create opportunities for them to support already existing prevention efforts.
4: Create space for autonomy.
Many students become involved in activism efforts because there is a sense of empowerment associated with it. With this in mind, when collaborating with student activists consider ways in which you can allow them space to execute their own vision of prevention efforts. For example, in 2014, student activists at Clark University raised a concern that consent was not discussed enough during orientation and advocated for a change to be made. They were encouraged by administrators to put pen to paper and make a proposal for the inclusion of a consent program during first year orientation. These students took the task to heart and created a program that, to this day, remains one of the most well-received aspects of orientation. By presenting student activists with the space and resources needed to actualize their ideas, administrators can create a space for learning and potentially yield an unexpectedly positive outcome.
5: Monitor compassion fatigue.
At the end of the day, it is crucial to remember that student activists are still students, and that many have a deeply personal connection to the issues that they are advocating for. As such, their well-being should always be paramount. When inviting students to speak about their concerns or participate in efforts related to the issue that they are advocating on behalf of, be aware that it may be a powerful or emotional experience for them. Be sure that they are aware of any resources on-campus or off that may support them. Additionally, be aware of the signs of compassion fatigue and remind students frequently that their own self care is of the utmost importance. For more information on mitigating compassion fatigue, stay tuned for the third and final part of this series: Modeling Self Compassion.
Activism is, for many students, an important part of their college experience, and an opportunity for them to speak out against injustice in an effort to enact change. Taking the time to connect with student activists and making them aware of ongoing institutional efforts can be a powerful step in ensuring that your institution is empowering the entire community to be allies in critical wellness issues. By building relationships with student activists, you can make them feel comfortable funneling other students to campus resources and relying on the expertise of your office, and also create a space for dialogue and transparency around how to best support the issues that students care about.