How student activists can work effectively with faculty and community members
Sam Parsons, co-founder and director of campaigns for UnKoch My Campus, was kind enough to talk to us about her experience as a student activist, and share some ideas for how student activists can partner with faculty and community members, and not butt heads.
While still an undergraduate at George Mason University, Sam learned about the powerful Koch influence at Mason and co-founded Transparent GMU. This student campaign aimed to shed light on the university's relationship with private donors, demanding transparency and openness. It continues today, led by current students. This work led Sam to co-found UnKoch My Campus, a nonprofit which seeks to get Koch influence out of universities across the country. Her student activism also included work on the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, the Virginia Student Power Network, and co-founding GMU Student Power. If you want to reach Sam about organizing help, campus inquiries, media requests, and any other questions, you can email her at email@example.com.
NC: What was your experience as a student activist? What did you get out of it? What are the benefits for students who want to get involved with a progressive cause?
SP: Activism provided me with a community that held me accountable to interrogating the world and my position in it. The first time I was encouraged to speak on a political issue that impacted me personally, I could tell that there was a bit of shock and awe in the room that a young person was paying attention and demanding change. That felt good; I felt powerful. From that point forward, I wanted to continue to take up that space and I wanted to play a role in ensuring that other young people were equipped with the opportunities and encouragement to do the same.
GMU STUDENTS JOINED WITH FACULTY AND COMMUNITY MEMBERS (INCLUDING NOVA CLIMATE MEMBERS) TO SUPPORT TRANSPARENT GMU'S LAWSUIT AGAINST THE UNIVERSITY IN APRIL 2018.
NC: I know the Kochs pose a million problems to humankind and their effect on the climate is just one of them—but I'm curious about whether you see your work as having to do with the climate movement.
SP: I absolutely see this work as a part of the climate movement. I first learned about the Koch brothers when a friend of mine was taking an environmental economics class taught by a Koch-funded professor at George Mason University. The professor used a book called Global Warming and other Eco-Myths, which was published by a Koch-funded think-tank, as a textbook in the class. He did not allow students to discuss facts related to climate change in the classroom. It was then that I realized Koch-funded universities were playing a role in promoting climate denialism to the benefit of their donor's political agenda, which sought to serve their corporations. The Koch network’s promotion of free-market ideas in general also seeks to limit pathways for all of us to participate in our own democracy, specifically disenfranchising people of color, women, and poor communities. This has hindered action on climate change and promoted environmental racism.
NC: Did older people help or hinder you on your journey?
SP: I learned a lot about activism and organizing from my peers, and I found support in my journey to hone my skills and learn more about the social systems I was working within from faculty, staff, and other organizers. In particular, [NOVA Climate member] Dave Kuebrich, an English professor at GMU, inspired me through his own passion for activism and social change. He always deferred to students, expecting us to do our own research and develop our own ideas, but he would always show up if we felt stuck or needed advice. Dave knew how to perfectly balance his expertise and experience with stepping back and allowing us to grow and become experts ourselves, or, when he did play an active role, he was always open to feedback himself.
I continue to experience situations where more experienced activists refuse to create space for newer generations of thought-leaders by gate-keeping resources, relationships, and expertise. Dave was one of the first adults I met who seemed eager to be challenged by those younger than him, and that motivated me to speak my truth through my activism and even in my classes throughout college.
SAM PARSONS WITH FACULTY CHAMPIONS OF TRANSPARENT GMU AND UNKOCH MY CAMPUS, BETHANY LETIECQ AND DAVE KUEBRICH.
NC: I think what’s been so important at Mason is that students and faculty have both been working towards a common goal for years, within their own hemisphere, with the students filing FOIAs and pursuing lawsuits to uncover the truth about donor funds and agreements, and the professors on the faculty senate pressing for proper academic governance.
SP: In my role in UnKoch My Campus, [student and faculty often ask me] "Where have you seen the most success?" I always say the campuses where faculty and students aren't necessarily working together day to day, but they're pursuing the same goals using the tactics and strategies that make sense based on the roles that they have at their university. But they're still connected and know they have the support and solidarity of the other group. They’re able to pursue this work in tandem, but they trust one another to take on the tactics that make the most sense for their unique positions within the collective.
NC: Have you seen any campuses where it's not working well and it could be better if they did X or Y?
SP: The places where I've seen it not work as well have been instances where faculty or [community members] have questioned or belittled aggressive action that students want to take. And what I mean by aggressive action is wanting to put a list of demands out to the university, or bird dogging the university president or another administrator—like showing up and putting them on the spot with questions. I understand, and absolutely respect why faculty need to distance themselves from those more aggressive tactics and perhaps even more aggressive messaging. But where I think it becomes a problem is when faculty belittle students for those actions or try to scare them away from engaging in those types actions.
I haven’t seen this tension or discomfort totally derail a campaign, but I’ve definitely seen distrust or a little bit of patronizing communication when more experienced adults and younger activists work together. What I always encourage [students and faculty] to think about is that the beauty of social movements is that folks from different backgrounds, different skillsets and different ways of seeing the world can come together for a common cause.
TRANSPARENT GMU'S LANDMARK LAWSUIT SOUGHT TO FORCE THE UNIVERSITY TO MAKE ITS DONOR AGREEMENTS OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. IN APRIL 2019, THE VIRGINIA SUPREME COURT AGREED TO HEAR THE SUIT.
NC: What are the problems you’re seeing that lead to this tension between generations?
SP: The term respectability politics comes to mind. [Tension comes about when] students interrupt a university president or expose a professor’s connections to the Koch network and white supremacists organizations--even though those things are very factual. Some faculty or more experienced activists say it's just rude or not respectful. Some get frustrated over the concept of students saying that they demand something instead of simply saying that they would like to see things change, very small language differences. A lot of older activists often express that [this disrespect] will delegitimize the overall effort.
I've also felt that more experienced activists are more likely to be perfectionists, making them too scared to act without knowing 100% if they can perfectly pull something off [while the students want to act earlier]. I actually think this is an example of where that tension can bring really solid results if they're able to work through it. If students have the energy and the excitement to take action and the faculty and older activists say, “Yes, that's a great idea. Let's do it. Let's just make sure we have all our facts straight and we're well organized.” That can lead to really effective coalition building and delegation. But in some cases, I have seen this fear and perfectionism actually reduce a group's capacity to respond in a timely fashion, which can result in lost opportunities to build the movement, build a conversation on campus, and bring in new activists and new people who want to engage. This is something I struggle with myself, too, and I’ve learned that much of it comes back to needing to build strong relationships with the people you’re organizing with so that there are community agreements that promote trust and mutual empowerment that calms those fears.
NC: What advice would you give to a faculty member or community member who’s trying to work youth activists but is getting frustrated about these generational differences on what is acceptable?
SP: I think my first piece of advice would be to really ask the question of themselves, "Why am I getting frustrated?" That question can be a very powerful game changer. If the only answer is “this tactic is disrespectful,” then the activists who are uncomfortable with it can interrogate that a little bit. “Why do I view this as disrespectful?” Racism and ageism often play a role in how we define what is and is not “respectful.” Sometimes an action is labeled as disrespectful simply because the people doing it are young—there may be some inherent assumptions that young people are ill-informed there. I’ve also seen tactics used by a group of white students be praised when the same tactics are shamed when they are used by students of color. We can all resist those habits of internalized racism by taking the time to interrogate our reactions to certain ideas.
Second, if that doesn't help you overcome it, [talk to the students and] communicate why you're frustrated, but don't necessarily bring all of the solutions to the table immediately. Allow students to work with your frustrations, and see if they can come up with something that works for everyone. This is where that sense of trust, collaboration, and mutual empowerment comes in.
Third, [if there is still tension between students and older activists], just take some time to step back and interrogate whether or not your discomfort with an action is actually rooted in a lack of confidence-- perhaps a lack of trust in your own capacity, or your own expertise in this work. Probably the biggest part of my job is giving pep talks—reminding people about how far they've come, and how much knowledge they have, and how they are on the right side of history. After those types of conversations, oftentimes I see people become a little bit more comfortable with more aggressive action then maybe they were when they first walked into the room.
TRANSPARENT GMU STUDENTS TABLING AT THE THIRD ANNUAL MOTHER'S DAY CLIMATE RALLY, MAY 2019.
NC: It sounds like what you're seeing is, and this makes so much sense, is that these relationships work best when people communicate, listen to each other and figure out a way to work together. Am I right in thinking that the students could also be following these three steps, if they are frustrated with faculty or community members?
SP: Absolutely. I’ve talked students through those steps I just mentioned, too. On the students' side of things, they'll get frustrated if they don't think an action is exciting enough or is going to work fast enough. [And I say] when you feel that way, don't distance yourself from the faculty, let them do what they want to do while y'all pursue what you want to do. The three steps absolutely apply to faculty and students.
The fourth piece of this is that these frustrations are quite literally why we need a diverse [movement]. When frustrations come up and certain folks are uncomfortable with certain things, it doesn't necessarily mean that those things aren't vital to the movement. It just means that they should not be a part of that particular action. And that is fine—just don’t spend time shaming your partners for what they decide to do. As long as one group’s tactics or messaging doesn’t pit their partners against them, a diversity of tactics can make a movement stronger.
NC: Do you have any advice for parents or family members who want to encourage their kids to be activists?
SP: I’m not a parent, but I feel that they can encourage their kids by making intentional space in their lives to talk to their children about the systems they’ve been born into. I do believe it is important that children are empowered with a basic understanding of the big structures that shape our culture—such as capitalism and racism. Knowing that I have a loved one or a community of people to lean on when I’m trying to wrap my own head around these big concepts has, and continues to be, vital for me feeling supported & confident enough to engage in my own activism.
I also think parents can encourage their kids by giving them space to come up with their own ideas to make change, too. Though I’m not a parent, I do have a one-year-old nephew. I think about him getting older and learning about all of the violence and harms in our world, and then wanting to share with him the legacies of resistance movements around the globe. From there, I’m just really excited to give him space to identify issues and come up with his own ideas for how he might make change. Kids are so creative, and so smart, so I don’t necessarily think parents should feel pressured to come up with solutions for them. By giving them some basic background on an issue and leading by example, parents can inspire really amazing action from their kids.
I would love to do a storytelling campaign, listening to young people’s reactions to the big issues of the world. There's probably so many solutions in their minds, that they just haven't had the platform to vocalize yet.
I’ve also learned that engaging in activism can be overwhelming, and it can often lead to burn-out. Parents who can find a way to balance their own jobs and activism with self-care and fun can set a really good example for future change-makers—teaching them how to make a difference without sacrificing their own well-being. Activism shouldn’t necessarily feel like another task on a to-do list, but can be a part of one’s daily habits of unlearning and disengaging from oppressive behaviors.