The Transformative Power of Student Voices in the Midst of Racial Injustice

The demands that come from student activists can lead to transformative change if campus leaders work with them respectfully and in partnership, say Joy Gaston Gayles and Alyssa Rockenbach.

May 17, 2021
 
Igor Alecsander/Getty
 

As we write in the wake of the Derek Chauvin trial, mere weeks since the verdict, we are cognizant of the continued pain endured by Black and brown communities within and beyond higher education. While only the bare minimum in terms of accountability for the murder of George Floyd has been achieved, injustice and police violence persist unabated.

In the 24 hours following the Chauvin verdict, police officers killed six people, including Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl in Ohio, and Andrew Brown Jr., a Black man in North Carolina. In the brief three weeks of the trial, more than 100 people, disproportionately Black and Latinx, lost their lives at the hands of police officers.

In the midst of more lives taken without holding accountable those responsible, justice remains elusive.

Against a national backdrop beset by rampant racial injustice and a global pandemic, how are college leaders and the students they serve grappling with these stark realities? To what extent are leaders and students pushing for change in their spheres of influence?

Insight from a recent Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, suggests that students perceived mainly surface responses by their campuses immediately and in the months following George Floyd’s death.

The most common institutional response, according to 46 percent of students, was to send an email to the student body. Close to one-third of students weren’t sure how their colleges responded, and smaller numbers said their campus:

  • released a statement of commitment to support Black Lives Matter (29 percent),
  • offered counseling services (25 percent), or
  • offered seminars or training about racial justice issues (20 percent).

Perhaps taking cues from the tepid institutional responses they perceived, only small numbers of students reported taking action following George Floyd’s murder. Many of their action steps revolved around conversations on race. Thirty-nine percent were more intentional in how they talked about race with others, and nearly one-quarter or more had discussions of some kind: in class, on social media or with fellow students.

About one in five students took part in protests, typically off campus rather than on campus, with Black and Indigenous students the most engaged in off-campus protest movements.

What these data do not capture is the vitality and change-making influence of the work of student activists in the last year, despite the challenges wrought by the pandemic.

The work of Black student activists brought noteworthy transformation in spring and summer 2020, including reforming campus police departments, renaming buildings associated with legacies of racism and white supremacy, and establishing policies and practices to recruit, retain and support faculty and students of color.

This academic year, a time when the pandemic continued to wreak havoc on university operations, student movements for racial justice continued at institutions of all types, including Albion College, Baylor University, Brown University, Louisiana State University, Miami University, Ohio State University, the University of Louisiana at Monroe and the University of Southern California, to name a handful of examples.

If a small but mighty contingent of student activists made such progress, imagine what could be accomplished were campus leaders to inspire and deepen students’ engagement in antiracist, justice-focused work. What if campus leaders mobilized and partnered with students to take action and create enduring change? Working toward a more just reality will require campus leaders to dig deeper, do more and move past surface responses to lives cut short by racial injustice.

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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In line with the kind of transformative action enacted by student activists, about two-thirds of survey respondents agreed that higher education institutions have a role to play in creating racial justice and equality in education and society. We suggest that university leaders not wait until the fall or the proverbial “return to normal” to enact change. The time to act has always been and is especially now. As two professors of higher education argued in a June 2020 Inside Higher Ed opinion piece, campus leaders have an opportunity and responsibility to address historical legacies of exclusion on campuses. Given the growing racial tensions and divisions among communities with varying perspectives, campus leaders must figure out how to heal the hurt and move forward differently to bridge deep-seated divides that will likely be exacerbated if left unattended.

According to the Student Voice survey, actions most colleges took after the murder of George Floyd -- such as sending an email, offering counseling services and releasing a public statement -- remain superficial unless words are followed by changed policies and practices. Such responses to racial injustice from institutional leaders may momentarily appease those calling for change but fall short if actions to disrupt systemic oppression are not forthcoming.

Moreover, this kind of communication in the aftermath of racial injustice can cause more harm than good if communities of color are left with little to no protection against the hurt and emotional exhaustion caused by microaggressions and racial discrimination.

What students really want to see are bold steps that communicate clearly what the university will do, similar to what might be found in a comprehensive racial justice action plan.

Justice for All

To achieve this goal, we recommend that institutional leaders deepen their commitment to justice for all, which requires them to recognize that environments, policies, rules, regulations and practices inherently center and benefit the lives of white people and those who hold privileged identities while disenfranchising and discriminating against those who hold marginalized identities. Justice for all demands transformative change initiatives that dismantle oppressive systems of power and privilege and create in their place more equitable policies and practices that value and protect diverse and minoritized populations. Justice for all means holding people accountable for microaggressive behaviors that destroy campus climate and perpetuate white supremacy and white normative ideologies. As they move their campuses in the direction of justice, leaders will also need to engage -- rather than merely attempt to appease -- student activists.

Since as early as the civil rights movement, activists like Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that protests are the language of those who feel unheard in society. If campus leaders are to play a meaningful role in bridging what feels like a widening community divide, it will require healing from, not denying, the past -- which also takes a lot of courage and vulnerability. Leaders must listen closely and avoid taking a defensive stance, so they can hear that student activists are identifying and articulating what is problematic in education and society that prevents healing and stymies justice.

The demands that come from student activists can lead to transformative change if campus leaders work with them respectfully and in partnership. In this way, student activism and the justice-focused work of campus leaders can become synergistic, opening places and spaces for healing, opportunity and real change.

Student protests have changed over time. As such, campus leaders must seek to understand the various ways that students are voicing their opinions, particularly with the increased use of social media and other forms of technology. Students are also becoming savvier regarding the most effective ways to protest for social change. Twenty percent of students reported participating in a protest, and many did so off campus. Moreover, COVID-19 did not deter students as much as one might expect.

The good news is that the demands that come from student activists can lead to transformative change if campus leaders work with them respectfully and in partnership. In this way, student activism and the justice-focused work of campus leaders can become synergistic, opening places and spaces for healing, opportunity and real change.

Bio

Joy Gaston Gayles is senior adviser for advancing diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as program coordinator and professor of higher education, at North Carolina State University. She is also president-elect of the Association for the Study of Higher Education. Alyssa N. Rockenbach, also a professor of higher education at NCSU, is co-principal investigator of a five-year national study on the religious, secular and spiritual diversity of college students.

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