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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Spring into action: movements for change need more than protests

Opinions of the editorial board

Student protests at Western are nothing new. From campus safety to climate change, students gather in Red Square throughout the year holding signs, chanting and sharing literature on the topics they care about. Many students at Western have more liberal viewpoints, feel strongly about social justice issues and are not shy about sharing their ideas and opinions.

It’s no surprise that universities are hotspots for public demonstrations. Protests spread ideas and knowledge, which educational institutions are dedicated to, and allow people to channel their frustration and passion into action.

These demonstrations are a critical step in calling for change, but too often they are a crescendo in a movement that dies down soon after. It’s easy for people to go out in Red Square, draw attention to the issue they’re championing and go home because they’re not sure how to move forward after that.

Protests act as a rallying cry and bring power, enthusiasm and sheer numbers to a cause but change requires a persistent, well-organized movement targeting specific concerns and providing a path forward.

Historically, Western’s administration has not changed policies in response to protests alone. When students have petitioned for change, the university has taken action when a targeted and organized campaign accompanied protests.

A group of RAs succeeded in pressuring the administration to address issues concerning fair compensation for their work when they put forth a strong campaign outlining issues and demanding specific solutions. They wrote a targeted letter to university officials including concerns about sexual harassment and student safety in dorms and created a website to aid their campaign with a list of testimonies and specific demands.

The students came in with a strategic plan and included solutions they wanted the administration to implement. They utilized protests to raise awareness of their movement, and  the university paid attention because the students had a clear, organized plan of action to target the relevant officials and elicit a response.

In the end, the university raised wages and took steps to provide more support for RAs but their response to other concerns like resident safety were still inadequate.

A years-long student movement calling on the university to divest from fossil fuels included protests, sit-ins, open letters to university officials, a divestment resolution given to the AS Board of Directors and a presentation to the Western Foundation Board of Directors and officials involved with managing Western’s investments.

The university finally responded by including language in the 2017 Sustainability Action Plan to consider environmental, social and governance criteria when selecting investments in the future. It took years of students organizing and pushing for change in many different ways to get those who manage Western’s investments to make any changes.

It takes a lot of effort to sustain a movement and plan an organized strategy for activism when students have classes and extracurricular activities to juggle, and are graduating and moving on every quarter.

Even when students have created a cohesive and direct campaign and gotten the university to respond with action, that action has often been lackluster.

Protesting in Red Square is a great start, but the university needs to be convinced they will be negatively affected if they do not take student concerns seriously, which is why voting and encouraging civic engagement is such an important part of activism.

While students are certainly a primary concern for the university, funding is also a motivator for institutional change, and Western is funded in large part by taxpayer dollars allocated by the state legislature.  

State legislators will pay attention to student concerns if they think it will affect whether or not they are re-elected – if they think students will vote.

Voting in state elections is critical for citizens because state legislators determine our access to everything from healthcare to financial aid. While national politics are important, decisions made at the state and local level have a more direct and immediate effect on our lives.  

History shows that power will not be given easily — it must be fought for. It becomes more important every day for citizens to advocate for change and hold those in power accountable for their words and actions.

Protesting is a critical first step in demanding action, but it’s unlikely to be effective unless it’s followed with dedication, perseverance and a specific plan of action.

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Taylor Nichols, Kira Erickson and Eric Trent.

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