Today, many young people, especially students, want to be vocal advocates for the issues that they care about. With so many issues directly impacting this generation, like gun violence, climate change and student debt, it is difficult to ignore the intensifying need for the pursuit of activism. The problem, though, is that there are so many ways to vocalize these goals to the broader population. Finding the most effective way to express your interests is essential to being your own sort of “perfect” activist.
Variations of activism such as voting, participating in political campaigns and protesting are important for advocacy. These acts are deemed essential to making our mark on the democratic process, but the elementary variable behind each of them is oftentimes left out. Keeping every political action, every campus protest and every activist campaign afloat is the fundamental value of education. Whether it be from the courses we take or the campus organizations we associate ourselves with, life-long learning and education are essential to becoming the best advocates we can be.
Passion about political issues can get you to a successful point of activism, but to fuel that passion, you need information. Living in the digital age, a constant stream of political news can be overwhelming, so organizing things like workshops, seminars and organizations of like-minded advocates can assist in making this flow much more efficient and accessible.
For the purpose of this argument, I am going to focus on what has generally taught me the most about activism — the teachings of other students. Education has always been important in my life, but it has been especially key when it comes to my personal and political development. I’ve learned a lot from courses on U.S. government and civics that have given me a life-long interest in politics, but it has been the students I have surrounded myself with that have heavily influenced my store of information on social issues. In a world where young people are becoming increasingly more involved in political issues, it is essential that our generation is the one to fuel the future of social movements and education.
Public Policy senior Elizabeth Peppercorn is the president of the campus organization Students for Democracy, which prioritizes political research and advocacy as a means of education. She said that “student education is an important element in activism because education provides students with the tools and facts they need to make strong arguments and educated stances on issues.” Not only is it essential to have the proper tools for advocacy, but it is even more important that organizations communicate with students in a way that they best understand and can respond to directly. Being aligned with student organizations focused on political research, outreach and education gives young people the chance to learn and grow as emerging individuals in the democratic process.
But why is it so important that it be “student-centered” education? The answer is that a platform “by” and “for” young people when it comes to policy and justice-oriented movements allows for the effective building of advocates and advocacy groups.
When we formulate an interactive and dialogue-based program aimed directly at students, they feel more comfortable sharing their opinions and concerns and can better understand issues from a more personalized perspective. Students may learn primarily from their teachers, but it is other young people that truly influence their actions, understand their interests and empathize with their hopes and fears for the future. This is why activism directed by young people is essential to solving the central political causes of the day — they understand and will face their effects to the greatest extent, and can best reach others in that same situation.
This focus on education is not to say that we need to lessen the pressure to vote and protest and petition — it’s actually a call to continue these methods and make them more effective. We see student activists across the country using their voices on stages and in the streets to put pressure on politicians to act, but none of this would be possible without education. Young people everywhere are being motivated to become involved because they are being surrounded by hopeful activists that frequently discuss social issues in a way they can empathize with. Peppercorn said that “activism is an important element of student life in general because students and youth today want to make a better world for themselves and for future generations.” When we listen to other students and hear their opinions, we are prompted to educate ourselves and continue the cycle for generations to come.
Activism is only successful when there is a strategy behind it. This strategy can vary from organization to organization but each one is primarily built around structural foundations and methodology, all of which depend on a sound educational platform. Advocacy can’t get off the ground without proper technique and facts to support it, so we need to take the time to develop the relevant skills to conjure the most effective and inspirational activism possible.
The way that we can do such a thing is with proper motivational political education, which is especially powerful when it is expressed by young people. Student organizations focused on political involvement at the University of Michigan should be put on a pedestal, involving the campus community with hands-on educational workshops catered not only toward politically-inclined students, but those new to the scene as well; everyone should be welcome.
Older generations constantly say that young people have the “power to change the world.” This phrase is true, but we can only use this power if we take the appropriate steps to becoming the best activists we can be. We can’t go blind into our advocacy — we need to avoid being “performative” and misguided, which means that political education needs to take precedence if we desire effective change. We can’t rely on the formulaic teachings from our introductory politics courses for this. Learning by doing and participating in dialogue with other passionate and like-minded young people is the key.
Whether you’re a political science major or a student in the College of Engineering, there is a campus organization out there for you to get involved in. Get out there, join a student organization with passionate people and start the dialogue in your own life. If you want to be the best activist you can be, this is the place to start. Spaces where young people teach other young people are where the best advocates of the twenty-first century find themselves — you can do the same.
Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.