The Voice of the Youth: The Value of Student Activism
"people walking on street holding banner in between building during daytime" by Yeo Khee on Unsplash
Inan era of incredible injustice, inequality and divisiveness, students are doing what we’ve done for years: providing a much-needed vision of idealism as an alternative to the calcified norms and ideas that have left us in the position we are in today as a global community.
College campuses have always been agents of change. Student activism in response to injustice is not a new phenomena of the past couple of years. From the earliest historical accounts, activism has reflected grievances based in the political dynamics of the world. For example, in the 60s, college students marched for civil rights and protested against the war in Vietnam. It was young people that championed these issues. It was young people that had the audacity to challenge some of the greatest issues of the time. It was young people that championed peace and equality, and so it is important that the significance of student-led movements is not only acknowledged but celebrated.
I moved to the United States in 2015, a year before the 2016 presidential election. Although I have always had an interest in politics and social issues, I have to admit that for a long time, especially in high school, I didn’t think about it all too much. I assumed that the grievances I heard my parents talking about at the kitchen table were either temporary, or something I would have to face later. All that I did with my time, was all that you would expect from a child, especially one coming from a place of privilege. I went to school, participated in activities, hung out with my friends, came home and did my homework.
I had no idea that by the time I was 16, I would have the understanding that not everybody gets a fair chance in this world, and that this understanding would enrage me beyond me belief. Despite all the milestones and achievements in social, economic and racial justice that generations before us have fought and oftentimes even died for, the reality is that there is still so much that needs to take place in order for true justice and equality to be experienced by all. When young people connect in college, a place where exploration of thought is encouraged, we are able to discuss our individual experiences while also realizing all the shared difficulties that affect our communities as well. Perhaps it’s this new perspective — this broader, global perspective — that fuels our exasperation the most.
Intersectionality of student activism
All across the globe, thousands of young people on college campuses are making their voices heard on issues they care about by participating in protests, marches and campus sit-ins. In 2016, university students in South Africa protested against rising tuition costs in a demonstration using the hashtag #feesmustfall. At the forefront of the protests were black South African students. One of the points brought up by these students was their inability to afford tuition because of the current economic climate, stemming from the very recent oppressive reality of apartheid in South Africa, which only ended in 1996. Generations had been robbed of their land, wealth, rights and basic dignity for years. Many of these students will be the first people in their families to attend university, and yet they are still expected to afford the skyrocketing costs of tuition, while others have the privilege of generational wealth. This is where we are able to see the undeniable intersectionality of movements.
Although the protests were fueled by the hike in tuition, the #feesmustfall movement aimed at wide-ranging institutional transformation including black liberation, the treatment of women, language at historically Afrikaans universities and teaching epistemologies. Because universities are places where students of different age groups, cultures, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds come to learn, it is difficult and frankly, irresponsible to address the population’s inability to afford tuition in higher education while ignoring the issues that affect marginalized communities.
How can we address income inequality without discussing racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism etc? We can’t. Most of society’s ills have a power dynamic at work, which is something that various social, political and economic movements have in common. By reaching across these movements, and realizing that one cannot come without the reconciliation of the other, I believe we can achieve real change.
How must colleges react to student activism?
I believe that all educational institutions should be encouraging civic engagement among students. Instead of viewing student activism solely as a challenge to institutional authority, colleges can create a culture in which students voices are valued and social activism is promoted. In doing this, and listening, educators, counsellors, administrators and other campus leaders can add nuance to the emerging views of their students, since there is admittedly, much to learn.
The truth is, our deep-disillusion with government, bureaucracy and the current state of the world as it stands has left us eager to explore the non-traditional methods of affecting social, political and economic change. Our own experiences, as well those we have observed have forced us to take a hard look at education and ask the questions that have been sidelined for far too long. Taking initiative and using various demonstrations to call out institutions that play a role in the obstruction between human beings and human dignity is a vital part of institutional and societal transformation. Colleges and universities can contribute to this culture of bureaucracy and injustice, or they can embrace the voices of their students. One thing is for sure- there is something different, impactful and somewhat poetic about calls for change and justice echoing through college hallways.