Ever since being inspired by the activism of low-income high school students of color in Philadelphia in 2009, Jerusha Conner, a professor of education at Villanova University, has made youth activist movements the focus of her research.
A decade after she first began working with the Philadelphia Student Union, a youth-led organization that works to empower young people to demand high-quality education in the city's public school system, Conner has taken a new look at student activism on college campuses today.
In her upcoming book, The New Student Activists: The Rise of Neoactivism on College Campuses (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), Conner reanalyzed a 2016 survey she and fellow researchers conducted among self-identified activists at 120 colleges and universities across the country. Conner used the students' answers to survey questions about who they are and the issues for which they advocate to form a picture of present-day student activists. She analyzed their various strategies for change during a period that scholars have described American colleges and universities as drifting from their “civic mission of higher education” and “succumb[ing] to neoliberal pressure to prepare workers for the global economy.”
Q: Who is a “neoactivist” and what role do they have on college campuses?
A: A subset of the new student activists are “neoactivists,” who are characterized by their attention to historical legacies of activism, critical consciousness, intersectional perspective and commitment to assuming collective responsibility for shared public goods. They are “neo” insofar as they are reviving the efforts and modifying the tactics of earlier generations, and the vision and solutions they espouse contrast neoliberalism or market-based solutions that call for individuals to act in their own self-interest. More than half of the respondents in the survey sample targeted campus policies, practices or climate. They raised concerns about their institutions, called for change and worked to hold their schools’ leaders accountable.
Q: What were the most notable differences in strategy you found between student activists advocating for progressive and conservative agendas?
A: A very small share of the sample advocated for conservative causes. Both groups formed and joined campus-based clubs at similar rates, and they described similar levels of social media use, self-care practice and passion for their causes. They were also similarly connected to national organizations that seek to organize and support students. The conservative student activists tended to have fewer marginalized identities than the progressive students, and they embraced significantly fewer causes than their neoactivist counterparts, who supported eight causes on average. The conservative students also tended to focus more on changing individual hearts and minds than on affecting institutional or social policy, compared to their neoactivist peers.
Q: What has been the response of colleges and universities to student activist pressure?
A: In some cases, institutions have chosen to work with the activists: holding high-level or public discussions, inviting them to speak to the Board of Trustees, providing them with funding to attend national conferences. In other cases, institutions have threatened activists with disciplinary sanctions or simply ignored them altogether. One respondent described how her institution sought to placate her and her peers by “talking [the issue] to death,” referring their concerns to committees that never seemed to accomplish anything. Some institutions have made symbolic changes in response to activist demands, while others have made more substantial changes. In general, I found greater institutional support for student activists at smaller, private liberal arts colleges than large public schools, which in some cases were facing budget cuts and political pressure to clamp down on student activism.
Q: What is the role of social media in modern student activist movements?
A: Although only 64 percent of respondents reported using social media regularly for their activism, those who did explained that it was a very useful tool for recruiting new members, mobilizing students for actions, learning from similar groups on different campuses and building a sense of community and solidarity. Several respondents also described developing a stronger understanding of issues or a deeper critical perspective by reading fellow activists’ posts. At the same time, student activists in this study voiced disdain for “hashtag activism,” or activism that was only performed online.
Q: Are modern student activist movements more intersectional than past movements, and has this approach been effective?
A: Neoactivists are attentive to both the multifaceted nature of identity as it relates to power and privilege and the interconnections among issues of injustice. Whereas it might have been more common in the past for a student activist to plant a stake firmly in one social movement or another, more than half of respondents indicated that their activism addressed seven or more interconnected issues. Although an intersectional perspective was certainly present at the periphery of earlier movements, it has moved to the mainstream for the current generation.
Q: Do you believe student activists are the primary agents of social change?
A: I believe that student activists have an important role to play in calling attention to what they see as wrong, proposing correctives and demanding action and accountability from leaders. They often speak with a sense of moral urgency that I find moving. Of the student activists in this book, 93 percent expected to continue their activism beyond college and incorporate it into their careers. The new student activists’ commitment to taking action to address social wrongs runs deep.