Why Student Activists Care About Social Justice

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College students are increasingly interested in social justice issues on campus. According to a recent BestColleges survey, 65% of students said they believe supporting social justice helps drive change. Over half of student participants indicated that they were actively involved in one or more social justice movements over the past year.

Students care about these initiatives because they feel that movements lead to change. As such, these learners are calling for social justice on college campuses across the country.

What Is Social Justice?

Social justice works to understand the socioeconomic dynamics of power. At its core, it is the act of defending marginalized groups who receive injustice at the systemic level. The most successful social justice movements recognize various sources of injustice and work to fix their root causes.

Some of the most prominent examples of these movements in the United States are the Gay Liberation, Women's Liberation, and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Though movements like these aim to eliminate unfair treatment, they are sometimes painted as "dangerous" by their opposition, namely in the form of oppressive legislative policies. Even colleges and universities commit injustices against marginalized groups, especially against students of color.

However, many social justice movements overcome negative stigmas and lead to the correction of inequities. They can create tangible change for people who experience prejudice, discrimination, and mistreatment.

Why Social Justice Matters to Student Activists

Social justice movements at the university level can be just as important as national movements, and their prevalence on campuses isn't new. Frequently, initiatives benefit from heavy participation by students, and universities can become hubs of political action.

Colleges are also natural breeding grounds for innovative thought, galvanizing action on important social issues. Student activist Antonia Adams said, "My first time hearing about anti-racism, specifically, was when I became heavily involved at Piedmont Technical College." Being on a college campus often exposes students to diversity efforts and the world of social justice.

Brandon Robert Watts, a student at Howard University, said similar experiences as a student activist opened him up to other organizing opportunities outside of campus: "I continued my work in social justice with the Criminal Justice Committee of the Howard NAACP and the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Organizing Collaborative."

These students' experiences show how student activists can be catalysts for change, influencing how future generations might be educated about and perceive inequity. For example, by advocating for gender-neutral bathrooms and ensuring gender-affirming and inclusive care at campus health centers, students are helping to create significant, long-term change.

Ultimately, social justice's impact on university policies can cause local and national legislation to follow suit. "Higher education [is improved] by students communicating their unique needs to legislators and those who may be a little more removed," Adams stated.

When it comes to supporting change on campus, colleges and universities can take steps toward social justice by working with student activists to advance issues that matter to their student populations.

Actions Colleges and Universities Can Take Toward Social Justice

  1. Surveying underrepresented communities on campus: By connecting with these communities, universities can examine their needs and help them appropriately. "I think what can improve is a university's commitment to giving students a seat at the table," Watts said. Administrators should use this information to create an action plan for school support that includes regular check-ins for execution, effectiveness, and revision. For example, the College of Engineering at The Ohio State University created a diversity action plan that outlines specific steps and action items.
  2. Holding campus faculty and staff accountable: Appalachian State University keeps a list of staff and faculty who belong to the Diversity and Inclusion Accountability Team. These individuals are meant to hold everyone on campus accountable for their actions. Effective and consistent training on social issues should be implemented, and framing these issues in a positive light is key to success.
  3. Creating campus-wide social justice campaigns: Starting initiatives for diversity education and distributing literature and signage may promote student success. Ultimately, this can also help create consistent dialogue and awareness about issues affecting student populations. Florida State University's #PowerOfWe initiative shows how campus-wide diversity campaigns can improve diversity discourse. Adams also said that administrators must make sure marginalized students have direct access to appropriate resources: "Has the student experienced discrimination in the past, and do they understand [how] to identify and report these situations?"
  4. Encouraging students to petition for change: This encouragement can support movements happening both on and off campus. For example, Furman University responded to Black students' and alumni's petition to end racism at the school by including an action item to increase the percentage of Black students on campus. Administration should be there to both support and facilitate the discourse surrounding actionable change.
  5. Helping student activists conduct demonstrations and protests safely: Universities should supply the necessary resources, materials, and protection for students who choose to use their collective voice to advocate for change. Colleges must understand that protests are a necessary form of feedback. They should internalize the message of the demonstrations rather than view them as a disruption or obstruction to student relations. When University of Richmond students demonstrated to support the Black Student Coalition's "Statement on Black Student Welfare," staff joined in to show solidarity.

Higher education institutions should listen to student activists as they work to discuss and address problems that stem directly from the needs of campus populations.

As Watt said, "One of the biggest lessons I have learned about being an activist is that progress is often slow. Very rarely can we fix the issues that face our generation overnight. It takes patience and a committed passion to change what we want to see in the world."

For institutions of higher education, listening to student activists is essential to meeting the needs of students and staff. Only when these needs are understood and met will colleges and universities truly become institutions of equity and inclusion.

Feature Image: Andriy Onufriyenko / Moment / Getty Images