Tag Archives: student activism

Legacies of Slavery and Contemporary Battles

As neo-confederate protesters clashed with protesters supporting the taking down of a confederate monument on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, it felt impossible to divorce these recent protests from their historical context. During the 1913 dedication of Silent Sam, the unnamed soldier commemorating those who left college to defend the confederacy, supporters like student Julian Carr called to the historical linkage with the statue. After Dixie played in the background, Carr proudly told the audience of racial violence he himself engaged in just 100 yards from the site of the statue. The “memorial gateway to campus,” as then President Venable referred to it, stood at the entry way to one of the largest thoroughfares at UNC until last week when it was knocked down by protesters.

The statue has been the site of several waves of protest on campus since it’s erection, with increasing frequency in recent years. Thinking back to the origin story of Silent Sam calls us as social movement scholars to push further down a road that historians and economists have paved – a focus on the impacts of historical legacies of slavery. We can ask questions yet to be answered about how histories of racial violence shape activism in communities.

The years of protest around the contentious figure on campus only further demonstrate that legacies of slavery directly impact contemporary experiences. Beyond the well-documented impacts of legacies of racial violence at the city and state level, assuredly there are microcosms on campuses, in communities, and around various statues and memorials that provide opportunities to understand how history shapes modern-era events. Recent events like the one at UNC call us as scholars to develop an understanding of the mechanism by which these legacies shape mobilization.

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Experiential Learning for Democratic Engagement

For the past two years I have been teaching a couple of undergraduate seminars on the subject of social movements and the media at York University in Toronto (where I also recently defended my dissertation on the subject of global justice activism, time, and technology). Earlier this month, at the “Teaching in Focus” conference organized annually by York’s Teaching Commons, I delivered a presentation about the experiental learning-based final assignment I have built into my syllabi for these courses. My presentation was well received, so I thought that for my first blog entry I would share with fellow social movement scholars and educators the essentials of running this assignment.

I will presume that the benefits of engaging students in experiential learning, especially when it comes to social movements as the subject of study, need not be rehearsed here. Instead, I will focus on the logistics. In brief, the students are given three options: a collective organizing exercise (the recommended option); individual “learning by doing” exercise; and a research paper option. I always strongly discourage the last option when first introducing this assignment during the first class: I stress that in the past offerings of the course, the students ultimately really appreciated being encouraged to choose the experiential learning option (which has indeed been the case). I also like to point out that this is probably going to be their sole opportunity to take on a different kind of assignment, compared to most if not all their other courses… I usually manage to convince the vast majority. I then task them with thinking about one or two social justice causes they (might) care about, for the purpose of creating small organizing groups that will seek to create change (raise awareness, mostly) around that issue. I give them a couple of weeks to think about it — it’s also good to wait until the add-drop period ends so I know who is staying in the course and will remain a group member.

The next stage — facilitating the creation of the organizing groups — tends to be a little bit tricky. The groups are ideally composed of no fewer than four and no more than six students, but sometimes many of them want to work on the same issue (last term, it was Black Lives Matter), which raises the need to create more than one group on that issue, and by extension, the need to figure out how to avoid a replication of effort and competition for the attention of their target audience. If there are only three students wanting to work together, I have found that they can pull it off if they are really dedicated…I adjust my expectations of their final activity accordingly.

To determine the causes/issues that students are interested in working on, I simply go around the room and ask them to name one or two, and I write those down as categories on the blackboard (or in a word processor on a computer connected to a projector). As we go around the room, new categories emerge, and students can either add new ones or sign up for an existing one. Next I go over the numbers and establish the size and number of groups — the students inevitably engage in some back and forth at this point, jumping among groups as they figure out what they want to do, and who they want to work with. My goal is to have a solid list by the end of class, which is then posted on the online learning management system.

Students who are already involved in social movements (so far, they have been very few) can do the individual “learning by doing” assignment, involving reflection on their experiences — so long as they are actively engaged in organizing during the course of the term.

Some two weeks later, each organizing group has to submit a (single) proposal, outlining their chosen social justice cause or issue, planned tactics/activity, objectives, media strategy, and organizing timeline (the handful of students who select one of the other options have to submit individual, appropriately adjusted proposals).

In the weeks to follow, I try to give the students a bit of class time to meet as organizing groups, taking the opportunity to do informal “check-ins” and ascertain their need for further guidance. I also incorporate short skill-shares into my lectures: how to organize a media event, how to develop talking points, how to write a press release… I base these on activist manuals as well as my own experiences as a social activist (I radicalized in the early 2000s as part of the global justice movement in Canada).

The assignment grade is independent of the ultimate success of their social movement activity (as measured by turnout or mainstream media coverage); instead it is based on the reflection papers they are asked to write as individuals, the best of which demonstrate mastery of course concepts by applying them to make sense of their experiences. There is also a smaller, private, peer evaluation component to compensate for the unequal distribution of labour that often occurs in small group work.

Moreover, during the final class, all the groups and all those who completed the individual assignments, are expected to present their work to the rest of the class. Everyone has to speak for three minutes, regardless of which option they had selected. The group members present as a unit, covering what they did, what went well, what they would have done differently — I encourage them to share photos and/or videos from their “actions.” It is one of the funnest classes of the term, as everyone gets to see what the rest had been working on and how it worked out. Inevitably, the students are super enthused and inspired as a result of their collective organizing experience. My evaluations from these courses are a testament to this, and the reason why I wanted to share this assignment here — it gets rave reviews from the students. Although their faces are full of skepticism and apprehension when I first inform them about what’s involved, they always end up loving it, and seem to particularly enjoy the sense of collective identity and solidarity that develops within the groups.  A few mentioned they were happy I had talked them into it and that it made them more engaged citizens. So while additional challenges can arise that I did not cover here, these are decidedly outweighed by the tremendous benefits of this final assignment and I think you should consider using it (feel free to contact me for details). Chances are you and your students will love it as much as I and mine have!

PS. I want to acknowledge Dr. Marcos Ancelovici and Dr. Lesley Wood for providing the foundation of this assignment.

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The Civil Rights Movement, Version 2.0, Hits College Campus Crosswalks

Mass protests about civil rights and dissatisfaction with our current racialized system of mass incarceration (for a great resource see Alexander’s The New Jim Crow) are arising all over the country.  Hamilton College is no exception. See here how a student sponsored protest unfolded through a series of phases.

Stage 1: The Preparation

Students confided on Tuesday they were planning a walk-out of classes on Thursday at 2:00. But they deliberately did not inform most faculty.

Stage 2: The Die-In

Students and some faculty stage a die-in on the school’s crosswalk in the center of campus.


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Transposable Protest Legacies

By Cole Carnesecca

While the Umbrella Movement may ultimately prove lacking in results, it certainly has not lacked in drama. Part of that drama comes from the attempt to locate the Hong Kong protests into a broader legacy of social movements. The image of young Hong Kong students calling for expanded democratic rights drew immediate comparisons to the 1989 Tiananmen protests and the “Occupy Central” part of the movement seemed a clear nod to the Occupy Movement in the United States. Both of these links reflect the transferable nature of protest legacies and the importance of legacy mobility for contemporary protests in China (and beyond). Yet protest legacies can mean very different things to activists and their targets, giving shape to how a movement is understood culturally and structurally, as well as how activists and state agents act. To illustrate this point, I will consider four movement legacies that serve as significant sources for the Umbrella Revolution and their implications for how the Hong Kong protests have unfolded. Continue reading

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A Revolt against Chinese Intellectualism: Understanding the Protest Script in Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement of 2014

By Ming-sho Ho

Karl Marx’s famous saying that great historical events happen twice, first as tragedy and later as farce, originated from an observation of the futile attempt of French leftwing revolutionaries of 1848 to ape their predecessors in the revolution of 1789. Marx apparently considered it a paradox that a history-making intention involved borrowing “names, battle slogans, and costumes” from the past. Thus he implied a truly successful revolution would have to proceed without the nostalgic attachment to the previous protest script. Continue reading

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The Battle over Mong Kok

This guest essay is written by Dr. Doron Shultziner, an interdisciplinary scholar who studies non-violent struggles for democratic progress, and Kirby Hung, a participant in the umbrella movement in Hong Kong.

The main tent in Mong Kok that was later removed by the police.

The main tent in Mong Kok that was later removed by the police.

Since late September, a historic movement is taking place in Hong Kong which became part of China in 1997. Following a long-awaited period and delays, the Chinese government announced its political reform to allow universal suffrage to Hong Kong citizens but only for 2-3 candidates who will be selected by a pro-Beijing council of 1,200 members. Angry students started a class boycott, which culminated in the storming of the main government building in downtown Hong Kong. Police use of teargas and pepper spray against students who used umbrellas to protect themselves backfired into a huge demonstration of about 100,000 citizens. Several weeks have passed since that event climax and the umbrella movement maintains its momentum.

In this context, a battle of great significance has been taking place in Monk Kok, the second largest protest site of the umbrella movement for democracy in Hong Kong. In a surprise move between 5-9am on Friday (October 17) morning, police forces cleared protesters, tents, and barricades from the busy intersection of Nathan Road and Argyle Street, in what seemed a major setback to the movement. Yet, since Friday evening protesters regained parts of the street in what appears to be a major watershed of the struggle.  Continue reading

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Obama’s Big Shout Out to Student Activists

I cannot remember the last time the president of the U.S. praised feminist activists. Has it ever happened? Color me surprised when last week, Obama said the “inspiring wave of student led activism” motivated him to create the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Okay, so the president didn’t praise feminist activists per se, but feminists have been mobilized around this issue for decades.


Citing the figure that one in five women college students have been sexually assaulted, Obama is giving the task force ninety days to come up with suggestions and initiatives to reduce sexual assault and improve compliance with existing policies. In the last few years, several U.S. colleges have been outed as stymying sexual assault reporting. As evidence mounted about the widespread lack of reporting and mishandling of sexual assault cases by administrators, college activists pressured the federal government to respond and to comply with Title IX.  Despite affecting millions of us, never has the issue of sexual assault been given such national attention. Continue reading

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