Covid-19 initially seemed to sound the death knell for student activism on US college campuses.
The shift that many universities made from in-person to hybrid or remote learning, and the resulting emptiness of campuses, at first brought familiar forms of student organizing to a standstill.
But rather than allowing these new barriers to stop them, the structural inequalities made more apparent, and dire, by the pandemic—namely, its disparate impact on poor people and people of color—galvanized student activists to find ways outside the old forms of student organizing.
Achieving those visions has meant adapting campus-based activism to a social and political landscape dramatically altered by the pandemic. Conventional tactics like the occupation of administrative buildings have become impractical, if not impossible, on socially restricted and de-densified campuses. Meanwhile, making effective use of digital tools like Twitter and TikTok have never felt as crucial.
“It’s definitely been a journey trying to navigate not only additional responsibilities from work, school, [and] family, but also trying to completely change the way that we organize and rely solely on digital means,” said Raquel Rivera, an ethnic studies activist and a junior at Harvard University.
Even for the most social media savvy of student activists, the breakdown of typical campus life, which has removed the ability to directly confront administrations and rally their peers, has been an extreme challenge. But having to rethink campaign strategies and tactics has also provided an invaluable learning opportunity, according to student activists who spoke with The Nation about their experiences organizing for social, racial, environmental, and economic justice this past year.
Ultimately, if student activists can translate the lessons they’ve learned from 2020 into future organizing, they may emerge from the pandemic with a broader and more flexible tool kit for compelling policy change from their administrations, making them a greater force on post-coronavirus campuses.
The sudden loss of a physical community, with thousands of miles standing between students previously drawn together on a campus quad, posed an immediate challenge for Sydney Baron, a coordinator of the Sunrise Movement branch at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, where Baron is a junior. “The only tools we have are digital right now,” said Baron, who also leads the social media team for the College Climate Coalition, a national coalition of student groups advocating for fossil fuel divestment and climate justice.
“A huge pull to activism work can be the community and being surrounded by folks who think the same way you do and are excited to build the same kind of world as you are,” Baron said. “This pandemic has made me realize more than ever how much energy you need to put into community-building.”
But cultivating a community when students’ interactions are largely limited to cyberspace presents a distinct challenge.
The College Climate Coalition, formed in the wake of student divestment activists’ demonstration at the 2019 Harvard-Yale football game, specifically focuses on coordinating mass actions. Social media was secondary—until Covid-19 hit.
Now, Baron (who uses “they” pronouns) devotes their time to keeping the coalition going while going to class remotely from their family’s home in Boston, Mass. Since April, they’ve helped grow the coalition’s Instagram following and leveraged the account as a mutual aid platform, using the coalition’s Instagram to fundraise for a Black, queer student organizer needing financial support.
Bolstering the coalition’s social media chops hasn’t been easy, but by engaging their fellow organizers in the process, Baron found a creative solution to translating activism online and inspiring more widespread participation: virtual art builds, where students create content for the coalition’s social media accounts while also getting to know one another over Zoom. As they make art together, they also reflect on their shared vision of change. Fostering a sense of community among members of the coalition is no longer as easy as advertising free snacks and going from there. “Because you’re so removed from everybody else right now, you have to go that extra mile,” Baron said.
In practice, that’s meant redirecting the time and energy normally spent on planning mass actions into developing personal relationships among current and prospective student organizers. Those students will form the building blocks of a strong campaign down the line. Ultimately, Baron said, making this shift now will hopefully provide the coalition, and any climate movement on campus, with a larger support base to activate once traditional tactics like sit-ins become possible again.
Before last summer, the Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America focused primarily on supporting Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential primary campaign and uplifting the demands of Columbia’s graduate student union.
But as the Covid-19 pandemic persisted, said Emmaline Bennett, cochair and master’s student at Columbia Teachers College, the student group’s work began to feel less salient.
In response, the group gathered online to identify what they saw as the most urgent issues students faced on and off campus. Very quickly, Bennett and her co-organizers found their answer: tuition.
“Tuition was an issue that affected everyone at Columbia to different degrees, and especially students who were working class,” said Bennett. Withholding tuition could also affect the university materially, putting concrete pressure on the administration to meet student demands.
Soon enough, Bennett and other students in the Columbia-Barnard YDSA launched what would become the largest tuition strike in US history, now boasting the support of over 4,200 students. Over time, it has also become an outlet for student outrage over issues extending far beyond the rising cost of higher education. Its demand list calls for climate and racial justice, which the students argue are inextricably linked to the rising cost of tuition across the country and factor into the insurmountable debt students are saddled with after they graduate.
As the student strikers have articulated these interwoven issues, they aim to demonstrate what they see as a radically undemocratic structure of governance and institutional decision-making that has “perpetuated the existence of these injustices in our community.” And it has managed to do so at a time when many of the group’s core organizers remain spread out from New York to Montana and Washington.
Adopting the strike’s five-pronged set of demands, some of which, like fossil fuel divestment, have been long advocated by students but ignored by the administration, involved lengthy debate among student organizers. Some feared that having too broad and intersectional a demand list might make it harder to “win,” diluting the campaign’s messaging.
But Bennett, who supported broadening organizers’ demands, thinks the strategy has paid off.
Already, Columbia has taken steps toward meeting strikers’ demand to alleviate the economic burden on students by reducing the cost of attendance and increasing financial aid. Columbia also recently announced a new formal policy of not directly investing in publicly traded oil and gas companies, which the strike’s organizers hailed as an important victory.
Still, Bennett says the university’s actions to date have not gone nearly far enough. The new policy exempts the majority of Columbia’s endowment from fossil fuel divestment, for one. And the administration hasn’t budged on making its investments totally transparent, nor on divesting from companies involved in human rights violations in Palestine.
Certainly, some of the strikers’ demands seem more attainable than others, said Bennett. But, she added, “I think that we are starting to win things.”
“Having this broader vision of democratizing the university and making the administration accountable has been very effective for mobilizing people,” said Bennett. “They’re not just in it for an extra few thousand dollars. They’re in it for this broader vision of making sure students actually have a say in what the priorities of the university are in the long term.”
Along with energizing preexisting student groups, the pandemic has created new ones. Cornell Students for Black Lives, a Black student–led initiative at Cornell University backed by 290 student organizations fighting against racism, is one of several campus-based racial justice organizations formed in the wake of the George Floyd protests and against a backdrop of US colleges’ grappling with their historical ties to slavery.
Following the lead of a Black student–led initiative at Rice University, C4BL has fundraised over $118,000 for racial justice online to date, a feat that its copresident Sherell Farmer attributed in part to successful partnership building with allied organizations on campus.
But the group’s initial momentum petered out with the summer’s protests, said Farmer, leaving C4BL searching for new ways to keep students engaged. “Just because your newsfeed has changed doesn’t mean your commitment has,” said Farmer. She added that C4BL was working to hold people accountable by pushing fellow student organizations to reckon with a history of excluding students of color.
“I think a lot of people are passionate, but don’t know how to go beyond social social media as an advocacy platform,” said Farmer. “There are so many ways to get the conversation rolling.”
Farmer said that focusing their organizing on how inequality is baked into their own university and campus life has been crucial. “It’s very easy for people that think that Black lives and the issues that we experience are outside of the Cornell community,” she said, “when they are very much in [the city of] Ithaca and on our campus.”
At the very least, this approach has helped expose “a lot of white thoughtlessness about the way things are run,” said Nadia Vitek, also a junior at Cornell University. Vitek, who is white, organizes with the Cornell Abolitionist Revolutionary Society, which calls for abolishing the university’s police department, divesting from prisons, and dismantling US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Raquel Rivera, who moved back home to Southern California as the pandemic hit, said that organizing remotely has made her understand the importance of self-care if you want to survive—burnout, especially without fellow students physically nearby, can feel overwhelming.
Rivera is a part of the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, a group of Harvard students and alumni dedicated to establishing ethnic studies at Harvard University.
Only a year ago, HESC made national headlines for protesting Harvard’s decision to deny tenure to Lorgia García Peña, a professor who specializes in Latinx studies. But the coalition has struggled to maintain its momentum after the Harvard campus closed last March.
Especially for those disproportionately impacted by Covid-19—that is, the low-income students and those from marginalized communities who disproportionately comprise a majority of the coalition’s members—the obstacles to organizing have been compounded by more personal challenges. Students are now shouldering family responsibilities, financial strains, and health concerns.
“We’re organizers, but we’re also individuals who have been dealing with a lot,” said Rivera, who described her own experiencen last semester trying to organize online while also working two remote jobs and living with a parent who is an essential worker.
Still, Rivera and many of her peers have persisted. More recently, they’ve started shifting their organizational priorities from lobbying administrators to focusing on how they can put their vision of an ethnic studies department into practice without institutional action.
“I’m just trying to make some level of difference,” said Rivera. In her view, the pandemic had only made more imperative the creation of a department specifically for ethnic studies. During and after a crisis like the pandemic that makes existing inequalities deadlier and more stark, people need to “understand and critically examine power and privilege.” That and the sense of community and expectation Rivera derives from the coalition motivate her to keep organizing.
“Care for yourself and others, because universities change at a very slow pace,” she said. “Our job is to push that further and to advocate for faster change.”
With the spring semester approaching, several student activists said they feel more comfortable ramping up in-person organizing—that is, to the extent Covid-19 precautions will allow. Already, some campuses have seen students stage socially distanced protests, including a rally for fossil fuel divestment at Harvard and one for police disarmament at Cornell.
Whether universities resume in-person courses and administrators return to their offices may shape the form and efficacy of any future direct actions on campus. But such considerations are secondary to the larger goal of keeping students energized and putting more public pressure on the administration, said Bennett.
The current moment offers a unique opportunity for students to make themselves heard, said Farmer. “More than ever, people are looking at universities—what they’re doing for the students, what they’re not doing for their students,” she said. “Right now is the time to be pressing your administration.”