The Student and The Megaphone

A reflection on the power of grassroots activism at university campuses

Students walking to and fro between university buildings, more concerned about deadlines and assignments, life plans and part time jobs than the workings of the world. Beneath the books and educational dreams, however, universities hold one other thing that rises only when its power is needed: the power of the young generation. 

A story as old as time: The people of a community decide that an imbalance, maybe an injustice, is happening, and they decide that something needs to be done. In a world dominated by million-dollar corporations, government enforced laws and predetermined social etiquettes, it’s easy to feel powerless as an individual. It’s from this feeling of powerlessness that the grassroots mentality was born: An effort, a community or a movement of people with similar ideologies or end goals band together to spread influence and garner attention to attack or work on a single central idea. Reading these words may feel somewhat abstract, but if you’re a university student, you’ve likely seen the effects of this, both on screen and on your campuses. 

In 2017, almost every university campus in Australia was briefly festooned with rainbow flags and pride symbols, representations of the LGBTQ+ community, as the government had begun their census on legalising marriage equality in Australia. No student could avoid the wide scale campaign to advertise, persuade and promote the acceptance of legalised gay marriage. Even those not at their campuses were blasted by the online hashtags, #LoveisLove, #MarriageEquality, and when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull uploaded a short video that announced a “resounding YES”, #LoveWins trended worldwide. Two years on, people are still gratefully celebrating this anniversary today. 

But such movements are not simply modern uprisings: many more recognisable movements in history have been founded on grassroots campaigns and groups. Among the more recognisable are #BlackLivesMatter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and a policy change here in Australia that bumped up maternity leave throughout the country from a very short 12 weeks to a more comfortable 18 weeks. What’s more, one of the most famous grassroots movements in history was started in college unrest; the Anti-Vietnam war movement. 

When the United States began to get involved in the Vietnam war, much of the population felt it wasn’t necessary, that we had entered a stage of senseless violence. But it was the voices of the college crowds that rose up, in an age that promoted free speech in America, leading to almost 200 student-lead attacks on reserve office training corps buildings across the nation. As the movement began to spread outside the reach of the US, the world was suddenly forced to recognise the power of over 9 million college students in America alone post-1960. Today, the power of the individual-lead-inspiration has only increased in the last fifty years, making us one of the most powerful demographics in the world. 

So why does this history lesson matter? Because it’s become more and more evident that we as university students, despite how we are a step under the full-time workforce, are a social force to be reckoned with. We have power in our hands to find like-minded individuals to solve problems, big and small, and create better lives, more comfortable spaces for people and different groups, suppressed or otherwise. We as people are problem-solvers, just by virtue of our power in numbers. And this is the inherent power of grassroots efforts. 

The opposite of top-down, corporation-influenced campaigning, grassroots returns power to the people. It creates pushback behind unjust legislations, safer spaces for minority groups and community for those who simply look for some respect for hobbies. After all, many now-worldwide known forms of entertainment all started as grassroots organisations, including most sports organisations and its more modern counterpart. For those who have read my previous article on the rise of esports in Australia, you already may know where I’m going with this. 

Similar to the origins of sporting organisations, it was hardly a decade or two ago that esports was a buzzword at best worldwide, barring Korea, which has been cited as one of the earliest adopters of modern esports. In game developer Valve’s promotional esports documentary, Free to Play, a professional esports team manager for Team Na’Vi cites that when he first started playing in his local tournaments, he would play for 24 bottles of beer as a first place. This year, the biggest DoTA tournament held a prize pool of over 34 million dollars, fueled by a now thriving esports industry, worth $1.1 billion dollars this year. All starting from a group of gamers and organisers two decades ago who decided that they wanted to see what would happen when people competed at the highest possible level they could garner from the funds that they had – in short, a grassroots effort spanning over decades. 

But it’s not to say that grassroots power and movements are things that only fight for good; power is only ever a force. It can be used for the better, or for the questionable. Out of grassroots movements, more controversial groups are created, such as the past few years spawning a wave of flat-earth conspiracy theorists, a worldwide movement of sceptists, aiming their ire at government bodies and believing that we have been fed lies by huge corporations and organisations, and the Earth we live on is flat, and that much of the celestial bodies rotate in relation to us. Harmless thoughts in theories, but hampering scientific progress. And in recent years, popularised grassroots slogans from different movements have spawned more politically contentious actions, like the All Cops Are Bastards (ACAB) movement, which started as a pseudo-justice movement to protest unethical cop behavior, but has since been connected with anarchist methodology. 

University students have an incredible power at their disposal, one that is not often brought too far out for fear of misuse and reputation damage; the power of the people, the influence and potential of grassroots societies. When large scale issues start to take effect on our livelihoods with violent political culture, discriminatory prejudice and authoritarian injustice, it’s important to understand the power we have at our disposal before we consider signing that petition or donning that flag. Our actions have consequences, and our megaphone is right in front of us.

Way Jien is a third year film student and an esports enthusiast, hoping to help Australia understand and accept the future.

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