Community Development & Growing Democracy Series, Part 7: What role do universities play in local activism efforts?
By Hannah Lebovits, Assistant Professor at University of Texas, Arlington (and former Growing Democracy project manager)
At the height of the Civil Rights era, universities were prime locations for activism efforts. Campuses erupted with demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins, protests and other organizing efforts. In cities where universities had a dominant presence, such as Berkeley CA, the university system became synonymous with local activism efforts.
Even smaller or more urban embedded universities provided a context for student activism. Movement activities dominated campus life and universities became colloquially known as bastions of liberalism and progressive values. This culture continues to prevail, even when universities as a system operate in convservative and regressive manners.
However, campus activism is more often national or issue based than grassroots and locally-focused. Though universities house students, researchers, scholars, and massive amounts of information, they are more often contracted for local-based studies than sites of local activism efforts.
Youth chapters of political or social change organizations often have a presence on college campuses. Though local chapters of these organizations often engage in local efforts, students are more often involved in campus-based activism than street or neighborhood-based work.
Following the election of President Donald Trump and the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, student activism around issues related to race, income, and healthcare has risen significantly. Additionally, after the school shooting at the Stoneman Douglas High School and the subsequent March for Our Lives movement that emerged, campus activism has grown to focus on gun violence issues, as well.
Universities have historically been seen as bastions of free speech and places in which conflicting ideas and new insight are encouraged. Along with their commitment to these ideals however, comes their service to the students and teachers- to ensure they can operate within a safe environment. As some of the speech championed by right-wing provocateurs is hateful and offensive in nature, some universities have endeavored to restrict these people from speaking on campus. Some of today’s student activism has been eclipsed by efforts to protest or champion these decisions.
Ideally, universities- as community anchor institutions- could serve a great role in local activism efforts. Beyond student-centric work focused on national issues, organizational ideology, and campus events, universities could direct additional support towards local community issues. Unfortunately, this model remains uncommon and universities often do not step off of campus to engage in activism efforts within cities and neighborhoods.