Real-world student activism goes online and back again

    “I’m not the only one.” “SES problems affect more students than just those who are low-income.” “Everyone has a story that deserves to be listened to.”

    Silence filled the Norris Louis Room as a group of students read these and other anonymous comments off the posters at the front of the room. Aside from the occasional gasp and sounds of shuffling feet, students maintained a quiet, respectful atmosphere as they read their peers’ responses to the questions on the wall: “What did you learn from class confessions?”,  “What do you want to get out of tonight?” and “What was left unsaid?”

    On the evening of April 23, the Northwestern Quest Scholars hosted an event to discuss socioeconomic diversity and thereby extend existing virtual conversations about class into real life. The event kicked off with attendees anonymously answering the three aforementioned questions by placing sticky notes on posters and then examining the responses. Some students had come to the event looking for a safe space to learn about class at Northwestern, while others wanted to develop a plan of action as a next step after dialogue.

    Learning across lines of difference

    The NU Class Confessions blog, launched on Feb. 12 by the Quest Scholars Network – a network of low-income students and their allies that does advocacy work to improve visibility for these students – rapidly sparked a trend of similar submission-based blogs. Consisting of mostly anonymous student testimonials and commentaries submitted online, the blogs touch on multiple issues of social justice and activism on campus.

    This blog and the new ones that followed – NU Speaks, BiggerThanATent and NUMicroaggressions – have engendered real-life meetings and conversations to discuss prominent issues, just as the NU Class Confessions campaign did in April.

    “I think a lot of the reason why there’s this desire among a lot of people on these campaigns to share these experiences is that there is this lack of learning across difference that exists on campus,” said Weinberg senior Noor Hasan, who helped launch the BiggerThanATent movement. “You have so many students who come from so many different experiences who have different perspectives on what life has been like at Northwestern.”

    NU Class Confessions blog co-moderator Emily Rivest said that Quest launched the blog to start a conversation between people from all parts of the income spectrum. Meanwhile, Laura Stuart, Coordinator for Sexual Health Education and Violence Prevention at CARE, said that the NU Speaks blog attempts to demonstrate that sexual assault does not only impact survivors. Students Promoting Education, Awareness, and Knowledge (SPEAK) for Change, a group established fall quarter through CARE, created this blog in part to explore the use of activism as a tool for healing.

    The BiggerThanATent blog, which was launched in conjunction with a letter to the editor in The Daily Northwestern from a large group of student leaders, called for NUDM to be more accessible and inclusive of socially, socioeconomically and racially underprivileged students, to diversify its leadership, to eliminate its culture of social exclusivity and to recognize that not all students had embraced it as a campus-wide tradition.

    The most recent blogging campaign has been NUMicroaggressions, which was jointly launched by Alianza – the Hispanic/Latino Student Alliance – and the Asian Pacific American Coalition (APAC).  By focusing on intersectionality and accepting submissions about class, race, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, body image and more, NUMicroaggressions connects all of the other campaigns and allows students from all walks of life to discuss “subtle ways in which body and verbal language convey oppressive ideology about power or privilege against marginalized identities” on campus. The NUMicroaggressions blog is unique in that most of the submissions are actually not anonymous; instead, they are photos of students holding up whiteboards describing microaggressions they have faced.

    All four of these blogs present arrays of testimonials by students who have experienced injustice or oppression on campus, in a variety of forms. Many of the blogs’ moderators, including Rivest, emphasized the importance of preserving the safe space atmospheres of the blogs, in order to make people feel comfortable sharing their stories. But the conversations that began on each of these blogs did not stay in the virtual sphere for long.

    What’s happening offline?

    At the Class Confessions event in April,  students split up into small groups to have more focused discussions after they read the sticky notes on all the posters. Everybody walked away from this event with at least one new idea in mind. One student suggested building communities, such as co-ops, that are committed to voicing and listening to concerns, while the Quest Scholars announced the development of an advocacy committee to work with the administration to create more inclusive spaces.

    “The Tumblr was a really good launching point to spark this campus conversation that’s now turning into this face-to-face conversation,” Rivest said.

    Just a week before this event, a NUMicroaggressions exhibit had students stopping in their tracks. The exhibit, which was located in the galleria space on the ground floor of Norris, featured some of the first photo submissions the blog received, such as “So are you a guy or a girl?” and “You’re too white to be Mexican. Are you adopted?”

    Northwestern’s Rainbow Alliance took the movement one step further when it held a general meeting about microaggressions, specifically focusing on microaggressions targeting LGBTQ+ individuals while gathering suggestions about how to address problematic statements and actions. As students went around the circle, it was clear that this, too, was a safe space – one in which people could ask questions without judgment and learn about others’ lived experiences.

    Communication junior Jackie Elder, who helped organize this Rainbow Alliance event, noted that although these conversations all started on online platforms, they rarely remain restricted to the virtual sphere.

    “I’ve had so many conversations with friends based on, ‘hey, have you seen that Tumblr?’” Elder said. “It raises the topic for discussion in life, just drawing attention to it. The important part is that it extends past the Internet into the social sphere.”

    But this extension of the NUMicroaggressions campaign into real life was not without controversy. Soon after the campaign’s launch, confused and angry text messages and emails started flooding Weinberg junior Samantha Maeng’s inbox when an unidentified person spray painted the Rock with the NUMicroaggressions hashtag.

    “I guess I can’t stop people from using NUMicroaggressions as a hashtag or using the word because it’s not really my word nor at this point is it really my movement,” said Maeng, one of the blog’s co-moderators. “It’s not really up to me who uses the hashtag or what people do with the hashtag, although I am sorry that they did spray over a team’s effort and a team’s night of hard work.”

    That incident, coupled with campus-wide conversations about Tal Fortgang’s editorial about privilege in The Princeton Tory, generated a great deal of both attention and controversy for NUMicroaggressions.

    Despite the mixed reactions this campaign has received, Elder said that it is important for issues like microaggressions to gain visibility.

    “I do think that Northwestern as a generally very privileged community has a tendency to react negatively to any light shined on that privilege,” Elder said. “I feel like that’s an issue that the Northwestern community should be taking seriously.”

    Hasan had a similar experience as the moderator for BiggerThanATent: she received several submissions that she described as anonymous hate speech  about students involved in the campaign. But she believes that anonymity was crucial for this blog because many students did not feel comfortable publicly sharing their stories.

    Not all reactions to these various social movements were negative. A few weeks after BiggerThanATent launched, NUDM Executive Co-Chairs Alexander Aretakis and David Ryan and the outgoing NUDM executive board sat down with the authors and signees of the letter in a moderated Sustained Dialogue to discuss ways in which they could respond to the concerns raised by the campaign.

    “This is the way that things happen,” Aretakis said. “As much as Dance Marathon and David and I and our executive board might want to change things, we only have so much of a scope as to what the entire community wants, so this just allows us to really understand what we need to fix and to start coming up with ideas to do that.”

    Activism, blogging and the quarter system

    March and April were abuzz with conversations about social change. Spontaneous nighttime dorm hallway conversations and group project workspaces were suddenly flooded with statements like “I’m so much more conscious of my spending now” or “Is that a microaggression?” or even “That can’t possibly happen on this campus.” Facebook posts about all of the blogging campaigns received numerous shares, and it seemed as though every other post on a typical newsfeed was about one of the blogs. This climate of discussions about social change, however, soon started to die down.

    Renée Redd, Director of the Women’s Center, attributed this rise-and-fall cycle of activism to the demands and requirements of the quarter system.

    “Well, I think students are so overbooked,” Redd said. “The waves of activism can’t be sustained because we all as human beings have limited amounts of energy and time.”

    Maeng agreed, adding that having a break every ten weeks means it is only natural for students to stop thinking about activist movements.

    Maeng and Elder also said that this is not the first time activist blogging campaigns have emerged on campus. Two years ago, during their freshman year, a similar situation arose, where people started having different but pertinent discussions on blogs.

    “I think it’s the nature of these blogs to happen in fits and starts that are going to start a conversation right now and then something else will happen that will start a conversation,” Elder said. “That’s what’s important and that’s what each of these little fits and starts is drawing attention to.”

    Hasan said she is actually glad that “things die down after there is a lot of buzz” because she believes that the point of these campaigns is the solution building and community outreach that come about as a result.

    “As an outgoing senior, I would say that it’s really important for people to keep being engaged with these campaigns, and if you see any shortcomings, any absent voices, any absent topics, start a campaign,” Hasan said. “It’s a very difficult thing to take on, but in the end, I really do think that it paid off because it brought together students who were not having conversations prior to that campaign.”


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