From Stones to iPhones: Trends in Student Activism

From Stones to iPhones: Trends in Student Activism

How activists are calling the shots on contemporary issues.

Throughout history, young people have been a driving force in social activism. From the civil rights movement to the Vietnam war protests, youth have often been the first to perceive injustices and attempt to correct them. Most recently, youth activism caught the nation’s attention when school aged students walked out of their classrooms to protest the current coalition’s nonchalant attitude towards climate change. While student activism has consistently appeared throughout history, it now takes a vastly different approach to issues than when it first began.

Student activism has been recorded since the times of medieval Europe, when universities first opened. While students have fought consistently for rights and other causes since then, in the 1960s, the civil rights movement saw a surge in activism across a variety of fields, from racial issues to feminism and anti-war protests regarding Vietnam. Mark Edelman Boren, author of Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject, calls 1968 “The Year of the Student”. Without a doubt the 60’s went down a history as an era of unrest and great social change as students rioted and overtook universities, government buildings and even places of work all across the world.

And what is equally as consistent as youth activism are the eerily similar responses from governments across generations.

Student activism is certainly not novel, not even at a high school level. And what is equally as consistent as youth activism are the eerily similar responses from governments across generations. In 1968, Sydney high school students organized themselves to protest against the Vietnam war, only to be met by resistance from mainstream media and politicians. “The socialist youth organization…holds leaders like Hi Chi Minh and Fidel Castro as its heroes,” reported the Sunday Telegraph, taunting the student activists; not unlike Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt, who, in November 2018, said student protesters had “a deep ignorance, shielded by an impenetrable and arrogant sense of self righteousness”. Similarly, Dan Tehan, federal education minister, told the Daily Telegraph “professional activists were orchestrating an appalling political manipulation of school students”.

In 1968, student protests were followed by a march to the US consulate and a demonstration at Kings Cross involving two thousand people, approximately half consisting of secondary students. Likewise, in March 2019 thousands of secondary students and even some primary aged children across Australia were part of the school strike for climate movement, taking to the streets demanding more action to help combat global warming. While youth activism, involving children to young adults, has always existed in Australia, that is not to say some trends haven’t changed.

Climate change, economic uncertainty and social justice issues have given rise to a new generation of young activists – and they might be younger than ever. Catherine Gewertz from Education Week comments that she believes more and more high school aged students are becoming increasingly socio-politically engaged. Findings from a study conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling show that 52% of Australian high school counsellors believe their students are more engaged with political activism compared to previous years, and 21% said that students are getting more interested in the political leanings of the colleges they’re applying to. In similar fashion, the Education Week Research Centre discovered that in a survey of first time young voters, 40% said they had become more interested in politics over the past two years. An important factor contributing to this rise is the spread of technology.

Certainly, the influence of social media and technology in the 21st century has changed the way we interact with the world. Globalisation and interconnectedness between countries communities and cultures means that the public is increasingly aware of news from the other side of the world, and issues that would once seem distant are now becoming personal. With a single click, posts can be made viral and thousands of dollars can be raised for a single campaign, reaching people all across the globe. For example, Marley Dias, once an ordinary thirteen year old, was able to launch #1000BlackGirlBooks; a viral campaign to promote, collect and distribute books with black female protagonists. Similarly there is the story of Bassam Maaliki, a fifteen year old refugee advocate who at only thirteen launched a campaign in support of refugees. So far he has raised over $10,000 for refugee support groups in Australia, mostly through the selling of badges and spreading awareness on social media with the hashtag #uBelong. Indeed, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can be extremely useful as platforms for social change. Just as activists in the 1960s used the latest technology available to them, the mimeograph and laser printing, today’s students use their phones, cameras and computers to showcase what matters – and this can be particularly powerful.

As soon as one person publishes their interest by clicking “going” on a Facebook event, the event is publicised to their friends, exposing potentially hundreds of people to a certain cause.

Technological developments have not only changed the demographics of activism, but also empowered young activists in schools and universities alike. Change can be seen in the way organisations present themselves, and in the ways students get involved. As previously mentioned, social media can serve as an important tool, not only for individual youth but also collective groups in campuses. Facebook in particular not only raises awareness but also encourages people to get involved. For instance, as soon as one person publishes their interest by clicking “going” on a Facebook event, the event is publicised to their friends, exposing potentially hundreds of people to a certain cause. Facebook events are also a convenient way to post all the needed information in an easily accessible place, and thus make it easier and less daunting to invite someone to come along to a protest, march or demonstration.

Meanwhile, Facebook groups for members of a particular social justice club such as Oxfam, Students for Refugees or Amnesty International provide a forum for discussion about said issues. A good example of this culminating into a successful event was the Palm Sunday Walk for Justice for Refugees. On the 14th of April, 2019, people across the nation marched the streets of capital cities calling for refugee rights and an end to offshore processing. Just in Western Australia alone the Facebook event had over one thousand people “interested”, with many clubs attending and promoting it through social media.

As the form of student activism continues to change there are many interesting questions that are raised. How will technology continue to shape the face of activism? How will the new rise in school aged student activism affect university led movements? The first question is perhaps easier to imagine; as new technology emerges it is logical that young people, generally being more technologically inclined, will make use of them to further their cause. We have seen this happen with the internet, and continue to see changes today. For instance, Anonymous for the Voiceless, an animal justice group, uses virtual reality technology to show the horrors of factory farming. Perhaps in the future we will see virtual reality versions of the world tomorrow if we do not take action against global warming now.

The second question is perhaps harder to answer, but the widespread consensus seems to be that as high school and primary school aged students increase their engagement, university students will support them. In preparation for the Climate Strike, the University of Sydney allowed staff and students to attend the student strike for a safe climate, a move supported by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which encouraged other universities to do the same. As president of NTEU Alison Barnes put it, “The school student led climate-action strike has strong support from university students, staff and the wider community”. Indeed, school aged activism does seem to inspire campus action, with the strike by school students serving as the catalyst for climate change strikes at the University of Sydney, and opening up the discussion around a sustainable future.

In many ways, the demographics of student activism have remained constant, and patterns can be seen across generations. However, research does indicate a move towards a more aware and involved youth, particularly at younger levels. Similarly, whilst activists have always made use of available technologies, the rise of the internet and social media have empowered today’s youth and given them a platform to mobilise and spread awareness. As technology continues to develop and school aged students become an even bigger part of the conversation,  we will no doubt see changes in the way we approach socio-political and environmental issues in high schools and campuses alike.

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