The changing face of student protest

Social media and connectivity have contributed to the evolving nature of student activism in the 21st century.

“Student movements have always existed as long as there have been universities,” said Roberta Lexier, a political science professor at Mount Royal University (MRU) who specializes in social movement and social change.

Acording to Lexier, there are four aspects that can help paint a picture of what creates social movements, both now and in the past: students’ concerns and issues, the tactics used, the targets and changes they want to see and the ultimate goals that students want to achieve.

“They evolve and change quite dramatically at different times for different reasons. In the 1960s social movements, students became a powerful force for social change.”

“Young people in the 1960s felt an immense responsibility and an immense power. They were told that they were the future and that they had the ability to effect change,” said Lexier.

The protests of the 1960s took place in a charged cultural current of radicalism and moral issues. There were a large number of social issues at the time focusing on race, gender, Canadian nationalism and more, and many students began to question these institutions on campuses. These issues led students to mobilize in larger numbers.

Contemporary protests reflect the challenges students face today, including the rising cost of tuition and student debt, civil rights and feminism. Some of the topics have changed, but the fight remains strong.

“Today, there is a conflict over unity versus identity politics. People have a hard time finding common ground,” said Lexier.

Millennials, individuals roughly born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s to early 2000s, have been at the forefront of the Occupy Movement, Idle No More, Women’s Marches, the 2012 Quebec student protest and more.

There have also been paradigm shifting logistical changes that have dramatically changed the way people mobilize and organize today.

The protests almost six decades ago used a ‘boots on the ground’ approach where they were present and active in direct visible conflict. Today, students still embrace activism, but the forms of resistance have transformed.

“In the sixties, people had to connect  either in person or by telephone. There was no such thing as social media. Social media has really changed the way that students organize. There is a way to connect much more effectively and immediately [today],” said Lexier.

Social media allows students to connect on a global stage, and experience people and ideas outside their norms.

Opening dialogue, lobbying, and organizing locally and globally over the Internet has replaced radical confrontation. Modern activism has become virtual, and this has altered the way activism is viewed and practiced.

Students can now stay at home or at school and create change online, accessing social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit to name a few.

“What we’re seeing right now is that everyone can [be] involved in social change, and everyone can be participate in protests in various ways. It just takes an issue that connects with people and that sparks the effort to participate,” said Lexier.

At SAIT, students in the 1970s held on-campus protests to demand a new residence building. 

“I’d like to think those who protested with me were perhaps laying the groundwork in a small way,” said SAIT alumni Marvin Maronda, in a SAIT Facebook post.

“I signed petitions and we used to do our little marches. I think the residence would have been built anyway, but I think we had a final feeling that we participated.”

“Protests have gotten bigger and more organized. People also are better at communication and getting their message across,” said Laura Allen, a 22-year-old who participated in the Slut Walk in 2011.

The Slut Walk is a protest calling for an end to rape culture, specifically victim-blaming based on a woman’s appearance.

“It was awesome. I’d do it again.”

Allen said she participated in the walk in order to advocate for women’s rights, “mainly focused on how what women affects their credibility.”

Students protest when they feel marginalized. Protesters are galvanized to fight against policy or laws that are unjust or institutions whose legitimacy can be questioned.

The strategies and tactics of social protest may have transformed, but the principles remain the same: to struggle while engaging in productive dialogue that has the ability to change the world.

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