5 Ways to Turn Your College Campus Into a Political Machine

ByKirin Gupta

Social justice activism is happening on college campuses all across the board — and in powerful ways. I am familiar with social justice primarily as practiced on Harvard College’s campus, where I have seen advocacy taking shape around mental health, gender rights, global health policy, sexual health, labor organizing, environmental divestment, responsible investment (and many other incredible campaigns). Some of the most powerful student activist innovations have to do with what is personal and what is connective; these ideas are actionable in a couple significant ways.

These are amateur musings, but all these steps are about connection and cohesion. That’s what makes change. It is not the individual; it’s the movement, as much on college campuses as anywhere else. This is an easy time to get lost in the individualism of college atmospheres. Don’t do that. Be effective.

La unión hace la fuerza.

1. Tell your story

One of the most effective ways to build movements on campuses is to start telling stories about it. Here on Harvard's campus, we experienced a huge buzz and a series of organizing moments around mental health due to an article in the Harvard Crimson, the campus daily that arrested student and faculty attention. Storytelling in all forms (op-ed, art, poetry, news dissemination) is a huge part of all successful organizing, and especially when your audience is tumbling around in the high-stress, high-emotion jet stream of college, using the deeply personal to demand action is essential. 

2. Build capacity, not your ego

One thing about organizing on campuses today is that everyone wants to start something new. Everyone wants to leave their own name in indelible ink on a new organization. Sometimes, the best thing for a movement is not another new organization. Sometimes, offering an extra set of hands in improving and growing something that already exists is the most significant thing one can do. Join something; stop trying to be a stand-alone revolution. There is no such thing. La unión hace la fuerza. 

3. Coalition build: intersectionality

It is impossible to use the word "intersectionality" without talking about Audre Lorde. Because she is right: there is no hierarchy of oppression, and we do not lead single issues lives. We talk about “oh, this gender issue definitely is relevant to queer activism as well.” But that doesn’t tell us half of what it should. It isn’t enough to #cosign. Campaigns need to originate in collaboration. True coalition-building is a long and arduous process, but it is worth it. Belonging to a coalition will take check-ins, personal relationships, and accountability. But it matters. You can’t change a system the way you build a Jenga tower. This is not a one-block-at-a-time kind of process. It is a wave of active participation kind of deal. That’s what makes change happen. 

4. Join a national movement/ campaign: link up

Along the lines of #2, joining something bigger than you on your single campus is a powerful way to establish an immediate presence. This can be tricky to negotiate, because on-campus groups want to maintain their autonomy, but being part of a recognizable brand inevitably has its benefits. It gives you access to powerful iconography and "credible" philosophical grounding (assuming that this is what you want). Being linked to national movements or campaigns can build your networks in incredible ways. For the Harvard College International Women’s Rights Collective, working with Advocates for Youth provides a source of funding, training, and access to other students in the Boston-area doing similar work. For the Global Health and AIDS Coalition on our campus, working with ACT UP gives the organization a sense of the history of this activist movement and ongoing campaigns in maneuvering national legislation, and makes an advocacy impact possible on a much broader scope than simply on campus. Of course, as with joining anything, always choose wisely what it is you want to support. 

5. Identity politics, wisely

On college campuses, the temptation to link all activism to identity politics is tempting. It makes sense. Didn’t I just say that putting the personal into politics = power? It does. Include it. Make use of it. Tell us you are pursuing change. Tell your story and tell us why this is relevant on a personal level – use your identity and your story, if you are comfortable, to make it matter. But not all advocacy can take place in the first person. We need support and links and networks and listeners, and we can’t exclude based on identity politics. Be rough on people. Be aggressive. But don’t alienate because of identity politics; there is enough isolation without us adding this.