Back To School 2016
Many people roll their eyes when they hear the word "activist." They think of some holier-than-thou street hollerer, ineffectually marching around holding up a sign and screaming. I get it. You don't want to waste time with these people.
You want to be an "organizer."
The president of the United States, Barack Obama, cut his teeth in politics as a community organizer. Obama called his organizing years in Chicago "the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School." He was in his early 20s.
It's the young organizers who get shit done and actually, really change the world. So here's my practical advice, speaking as someone who also cut his political teeth with a group of college-age organizers:
If you haven't already, participating in a march for a cause you believe in—say, a Black Lives Matter march against police brutality—can be a good starting place. As a student, you'll see flyers and receive Facebook invites for all manner of public protests regarding big, huge issues. Try going to one. Depending on how well they are organized, some of them feel fun, moving, and energetic. Others feel aimless and dispiriting. It's hit-and-miss.
Organizing is different. It's about identifying a correctable problem and then fixing it as part of larger movement, changing society piece by piece.
To take one local example from last spring: A small group of students at Seattle University carefully laid the groundwork for an extended sit-in against the powerful dean of their humanities college. They said she'd long treated students of color disrespectfully and too many "dead white guys" dominated their curriculum. They wanted to change all that.
A few dozen of them settled in at a college office with pizza, pillows, and Beyoncé playing over the speakers. They sent out press releases about what they wanted to change. After a few weeks, the college began acceding to their requests and the dean eventually resigned.
Organizing can also be as simple as requesting a cordial meeting with an official to talk about a problem affecting a group—whether it's a group you belong to or someone else's group. Sometimes that's the simplest and easiest way to change something. If they blow you off, then you escalate.
Don't listen to what Jenn is going to tell you. Apathy is for history's nameless bystanders. You're going to school during an era the Atlantic magazine has dubbed a "renaissance of student activism." Focus on organizing, and make the most of it!