Putting the “student” back in “student activism”

Student activism is called student activism for a reason. It’s student-initiated, student-planned, and student-led. There should be no talking to this administrator or that teacher, no asking for permission. That’s what civil disobedience is. Otherwise, the rebellious aspect of protest, the point of protest, is missing. 

This brings us to the 2017 March for Our Lives walkout and to this fall’s much smaller Dana Hall presence at the Climate Strike in Boston.

Nearly two years ago, on April 20, 2018, many students walked out of class to support the gun rights movement. While the walkout was certainly successful and showcased several examples of student leadership at Dana Hall, I’ve had some doubts about the legitimacy of the event. Was it really an act of civil disobedience, given the administration’s role in the planning? And isn’t the civil disobedience element what makes student activism so powerful? While the school may have wanted to show their support, they could have done that best by not being a part of a protest in any way. 

It started with an announcement made by the administration during Morning Meeting. Before students even got the chance to put together something themselves, we were all told about where to go and which administrators to talk to if we wanted to participate in the planning of the walkout. Sure, students who attended the meetings got to take charge in getting the word out and putting together speeches. But that’s not where the real issue lies.

The fundamental problem with the nature of the Dana Hall walkout was that everyone knew it was happening. Because the school initially took charge of it, there was no element of surprise or rebellion. Yes, it was certainly a powerful moment for this community. The speeches and the posters and the camaraderie showcased by the student body is something I do not trivialize in the slightest. But because everyone knew the walkout was happening, some teachers began to actually plan around it. It got to the point that some teachers even canceled class because of the walkout. Since student organizers were emailing the school, reminding everyone that walkout planning would be taking place in this conference room during lunch, and speeches had to be submitted using the Google forms link sent out earlier, students and faculty alike were in the loop about the event. The high anticipated participation and general exposure the walkout got from both students and faculty meant many teachers even made it something to plan class around. 

All of this support meant that, instead of a moment for students to get a taste of what activism really is, the walkout morphed into a school-sanctioned event. 

I say this not to take away from any of the work and leadership student organizers put into organizing the walkout. Still, it’s worth considering what this precedent means for future student protest at Dana Hall.

While I would argue that the walkout was handled too much by administrators, on the other hand, the September 20 Climate Strike in Boston had very little exposure at Dana Hall. This may be because the strike wasn’t as prominent across media platforms compared to the March for Our Lives, but Greta Thunberg and her mission were fairly well known at this point. At Dana Hall, there was a morning announcement a few days prior to the event by the Green Action Committee, mainly about a more local strike that was taking place at Wellesley College after school that Friday. Perhaps as a result of the low profile the event had here on campus, only a handful of students participated in this action, and just three went to the Boston strike.

These two actions seem to be the extreme ends of how activism is occurring at Dana Hall: on one end, there are students participating because the school arranged for them to and, on the other, students seem indifferent to an event that’s going on. 

So, can a middle ground be achieved? There is certainly the problem of actually mobilizing students to organize. It may seem ironic that the school is helping arrange act of student protest, but perhaps without their help, students wouldn’t organize at all.

I want to propose civil disobedience, “the refusal to comply with certain laws or to pay taxes and fines, as a peaceful form of political protest” (as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary). It’s in the name: be disobedient. The walkout was, in the end, essentially like any other school event. And while students didn’t put together any school-wide protest for the Climate Strike, it’s not up to the administration to push students to do so. Let’s embrace civil disobedience as a model for student-initiated, student-planned, and student-led activism.

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