Activism Still Vibrant On US Campuses

January 15, 2010       Michele Donohue      

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh students got wind this past April that the school was negotiating with fast food chain KFC to open a location on campus. Animal activist students decided they needed to move on the info.

The concerned students contacted peta2, the youth-focused offshoot of Norfolk, Va.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and set out to inform the entire campus about KFC’s alleged animal cruelty practices. peta2 sent students a KFC Cruelty-Free package, complete with leaflets, petitions, tear-off fliers and factsheets about KFC and the campaign.

Students were able to collect nearly 500 signatures and the university’s administration voted against allowing KFC on campus. Instead, the campus went with a Chinese restaurant with vegan and vegetarian options. The students were awarded the “Compassionate Student Awards”from peta2.

“It was a clear cut victory,”said Ryan Huling, senior college campaigns coordinator for peta2. College students have long been on the front lines of activism, from protesting the war in Vietnam to fighting tuition hikes to boosting presidential hopefuls. Of course, there are also the keg stand nights and the falling asleep in lecture hall mornings. Nonprofits are harnessing passionate college students to spread mission to their peers. And, it’s not all on Facebook.

United Way Worldwide (UWW) piloted its Student United Way program in the 2007-2008 school year to engage college students on 10 campuses. “We knew that college students had an incredible amount to offer — they were already doing work as volunteers, advocates and fundraisers. We also knew that United Way had a lot to offer them,”said Mike Brooks, who manages campus engagement for United Way Worldwide, in Alexandria, Va.

Just two years later, the program has grown to 50 campuses and Brooks expects that number to keep growing. But Brooks explained that while each Student United Way is committed to the organization’s goals, each campus has its own flavor and flair.

For three years, Brigham Young University hosted a formal black-tie charity ball and auction that raised money for United Way of Utah County. Student United Way at University of Nevada-Reno, which started this year, recruited 15 new members at a student organization fair and won a prize for the best display table.

“Sometimes, people might say, ‘Yes, they are passionate and excited but they are not realistic.’ I find the student leaders very pragmatic,”said Brooks. “In addition to being excited and ready to go, they are aware of their peers and that they are busy. There is a lot of demand in their lives, and they are innovative in finding ways to work well with their colleagues at the institutions.”

College students are leading busy lives — going to class, catching up on projects, making time for friends and family, and, in many cases, rushing off to jobs or internships. Committed college students are still taking time out of those hectic schedules for a favorite cause. And, there are a lot of them. An estimated 19 million college students are enrolled this academic year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, up from 13.5 million 20 years ago.

“It has been young people who have shaped, moved and transformed the country into what we love and what we believe in,”said Everette Thompson, field director of the Atlanta, Ga., southern office of Amnesty International USA, which is headquartered in New York City. “When we look at any movement in our history, young people have played an important role and I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Nonprofits with college presences are creating organizational structures that will enhance the relationship between the nonprofit and student group, while still allowing for creativity and originality on each campus.

Thompson explained that student groups usually start with an inquiry someone who is interested in Amnesty International USA who wants to know more about the student program. The designated field office then contacts the person with more information and resources.  A school interested in creating a student group is encouraged to find a reliable faculty advisor and three to four core students to start the group. Amnesty International USA has an estimated 1,300 high school and college groups nationwide.

“What we realize is that it’s not just one person who makes the group sustainable. We make sure we have other people around them so they can build capacity and make sure the group can actually breathe and live and do the work they want to do,”said Thompson.

Once a student group is created, Thompson described the effort as a “circle.”It has area coordinators, field organizers, peers in the area and student groups all communicating and helping in human justice efforts.

Brooks explained that Student United Ways start with student leadership but also incorporate local United Ways as a community advisor.

Ten years ago, Boston-based Oxfam America developed its CHANGE leadership program, which has student leaders go through a seven-day training course. It evolved after the organization’s managers noticed a large engaged student segment for the organization’s Fast For A World Harvest events, where people skip a meal to draw attention to worldwide hunger.

“We decided to explore what we saw as an important opportunity by developing a program that looked at the student populations that already seemed inclined to this work and developing a program that would enable them to satisfy their interests and their passions,”said Nancy Delany, Oxfam America national outreach manager. It enabled Oxfam to reach more deeply into the community, she said.

The CHANGE program covers effective cultivation, leadership skills and teaching the student leaders to recognize passion in others. Delany said the program started with 16 students in the first year and ballooned to 90 in the third year. The organization now limits the program to 50 students.

Delany said the organization at first thought it would take a “sky’s the limit”approach to the program. “Then we realized students wanted to be held accountable, and in turn we needed to be accountable to them. And if we wanted them to succeed, we needed to stay with them,”she said.

The current limit allows for Oxfam America to develop a partnership with students during the year, which Delany described as “a key ingredient to their success.”

While Oxfam America gives CHANGE alumni and other campus groups resources, guidance and information materials, Delany said that flexibility for each campus is critical to a group’s success. “We don’t give them a blueprint of ‘this is the work we expect you to do in the year you are engaged with us.’ Rather, we give them these tools, this knowledge and this emotional base where we can and we tell them that knowing their campus as they do, they need to construct the campaign themselves,”she said. Understanding the campus makeup and being able to be leaders on that campus is a huge piece of the program. “It’s important for us to recognize, and I hope we do, that each campus has its own personality, has its own challenges and its opportunities,”said Delany.

Thompson agreed that nonprofits should allow for each campus program to form its own identity based on its campus culture. “We say, ‘we are doing a global write-a-thon, which is the best way for you to own this process?,’”said Thompson.

He explained that some groups put their own spin on events, such as including spoken word or incorporating elements of different cultures. “We give an umbrella of the information, but we want students to hold on to it and shape it and breathe life into it the best way they see possible,”said Thompson.

Huling from peta2 explained that college students are more than willing to participate. He estimated the organization works with 270 college student groups and has more than 600,000 regular email subscribers.

Part of the support is reaching students where they are, such as concerts with bands that believe in the cause. peta2 deploys staff members, called Road Warriors, to concerts like The Warped Tour.  The Road Warriors talk about animal protection issues with concert goers and collect email addresses from those who want to know more.

The organization also has more than 360,000 Street Team members — the most active students, who are writing letters, handing out literature and organizing protests. For their efforts, peta2 developed a points system where Street Team members receive points based on actions they take, and then exchange those points for PETA and peta2 branded merchandise.

Huling said arming students with literature and materials to share with peers has also been successful for peta2, including an information pack students could post on their dorm doors. “So that way, all of their friends who are walking between their dorm and their classes can happen to walk past the door and see all this information about vegetarianism and animal rights. It can get people talking and start a buzz,”said Huling.

Delany explained that while college students are not the typical donor segment nonprofits focus on, organizations are missing an opportunity if they don’t engage this demographic.

“They care as much as people who are able to write a check. They are deeply, deeply committed. What they have in lieu of money often is time. And, we value that tremendously,”said Delany. “We know from decades of working with young people, our experience and, frankly, our dependence on young people just keeps growing and the rewards and the returns are enormous.”

Hurling explained that when peta2 started, members were talking about the issues to 14-year-olds at concerts. Seven years later, those 14-year-olds are now 21 and running some of the most active college student groups. The 21-year-old student campus leaders of seven years ago are now in the professional workforce, trying to raise awareness and might be in positions to positively change their own corporate culture to protect animals.

“I think many major organizations make the mistake of just skipping over young people because they see them as not old enough or not in the financial position to be able to donate large sums of money, so they don’t put them as a very high priority. And I think that’s a mistake,”said Hurling. “College students have been an integral part of every social justice movement in recent history. And they are going to be the leaders of tomorrow.”