The power of student activism (and how to get involved online)

As history shows, student activism drives meaningful change. But how can online students be part of these grassroots movements from afar?

Student activists at a protest

As the landscape of social justice continues to move and sway with the times, student activism remains a powerful catalyst to correct things when they veer off course.

Activism throughout history

Dr Marty Branagan, senior lecturer in Peace Studies at the University of New England, says activism has always played a vital role in societal change, from the suffragette movement to land rights and liberation struggles across the world. And student-led activism’s role in shaping societal norms and policies can’t be denied. 

In fact, there’s one student-led movement that left an indelible mark on society: the Vietnam anti-war protests. “The movement that ended the war in Vietnam was led by students as well as women’s groups like Save Our Sons,” explains Dr Branagan. 

At the time, university campuses were hotbeds for anti-war activism. Sit ins, rallies and protests all played a part in helping to bring the Vietnam War to an end, a crucial element in a broader movement. 

“Protests can raise awareness, educate and empower people, stimulate dialogue, create attitudinal change, challenge false narratives and build solidarity,” Dr Branagan says.

Other times activism has played its part in history include the Freedom Ride, which involved students creating awareness about Aboriginal oppression in towns like Moree, and the Jabiluka uranium mine, which was stopped by students as well as Traditional Owners, environmentalists and peace activists, says Dr Branagan. “All involved civil disobedience and hundreds were voluntarily arrested at Janiluka, but they remained nonviolent, so the focus was on the issue, not the law and order.”

Activism today

Recent gender-based violence protests and pro-Palestinian encampments have reshaped the discourse surrounding activism, influencing the broader conversation, particularly within university campuses.

“Some of the recent protests have been about ceasefire, peace and justice rather than overtly pro-Palestinian,” says Dr Branagan. “Groups, such as Women in Black and UNE’s Peace Studies, have denounced violence of all kinds, and exposed the links between military violence, terrorist violence and violence against women in our streets and homes.”

“These protests have certainly raised the profile of those issues, and since #MeToo there have been significant shifts in policies and procedures regarding male violence towards women.” 

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas has resulted in a range of activism-related activities, including pro-Palestinian encampments, to raise awareness about issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and support Palestinian rights.

“The encampments have raised awareness about the long-term oppression that Palestinians have lived under, and moved money away from arms dealers supporting that oppression. They’ve also maintained the right to protest, at a time when it’s increasingly penalised by state governments.”

Peace in Vietnam historic graffiti

Effective strategies that contribute to societal change

Protests attract attention to an issue, particularly when traditional avenues like politics or media fail to address it adequately, says Dr Branagan. 

“The best protests are inclusive, broad-based, creative, humorous, colourful, and musical.” But if these strategies aren’t effective enough, groups may need to take it up a notch with direct action, he says. 

In today’s digital age, these strategies can be supported through cyber-activism, such as online petitions, says Dr Branagan, which is a great way to get involved in student activism when you’re studying online. 

Getting involved from afar

Student activism has the power to drive social change, both on and off university campuses. 

If you’ve been wondering how to get involved—to advocate for social, political, environmental, economic or any other issue or situation you see as an injustice— Dr Branagan says student activism doesn’t always require in-person participation. 

There are innumerable ways online students can get involved in activism, harnessing digital platforms and participating in targeted campaigns, to make a meaningful impact from a distance. 

Engaging in online advocacy, signing petitions, contacting politicians, writing letters to the editor, calling talk-back shows, and aligning your financial decisions with ethical values are just some of the ways Dr Branagan suggests online students get involved. 

Sustaining your activism efforts long-term

Life tends to get busy when you’re at university. From juggling study with work, a social life, and sleep, it can be hard to keep up. Add in things you’re passionate about, like activism, and sustaining it long-term can be tricky. 

Leaning on those around you who share similar interests and passions can ago a long way to remaining involved in student activism, says Dr Branagan. “You need to support each other emotionally and set achievable goals so you have things to celebrate together,” he says, adding, “being optimistic and solutions-oriented helps.” 

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