As we are traveling home from the largest higher education conference in the country, the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), we cannot help but reflect on the role of higher education and student activism, more specifically in the context of our campus: The University of Missouri-Columbia. The #MizzouHungerStrike is a protest started by educational leadership and policy analysis (ELPA) graduate student Jonathan Butler, associated with the student activist group: #concernedstudent1950, which started on Nov. 2. Through five sleepless nights, between tears and anxiety, worry and pride, we write this for the purpose of change. We write this for all of the Jonathan Butlers on college campuses globally whose lives do not matter under the costume of social justice. During ASHE, we wrestled with the discourse and rhetoric around the role of scholars in activism/advocacy. As we navigate how to fulfill our “social justice” missions across college campuses, we are going to need to stop hijacking the language of social justice to mean something that it is not. Social justice means challenging injustice, which addresses systems of oppression in institutions of higher learning. Valuing social justice means treating the outcomes of these structural problems as human rights violations. Given this context, we offer six recommendations for educators who are change agents grappling with the politics on their campuses.
- Using critical pedagogy: We must use literature and theories of emancipation in our curriculums to help both marginalized and privileged students understand how they are positioned socially, politically and economically. Classic critical texts such as Pedagogy of the Oppressed; Black Skin, White Masks; Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and Orientalism are canonical texts that should be mandatory in every curriculum on every college campus within the United States and abroad.
- Positionality as higher education scholars: The purpose of higher education has been to create and share knowledge. We must ask questions such as, whose knowledge is being represented and whose knowledge is being silenced? These questions are critical to our positionality as scholars. More higher education research should examine the relationship of institutional mission statements and student-initiated social movements. We know all to well as educators the need to address the connection of research praxis and its relationship to our racialized and gendered bodies.
- Being supportive of students as they engage in activism: In working with students in our department, we understand that learning happens outside of the classroom. We must support activism as knowledge building and acknowledge that activism is in itself educational leadership.
- Being a participant in social activism: We must have support from our departments and institutions to participate in social activism without fear of political retribution. We must join forces with students who are innovative and creative in their strategies of resistance. They are teaching us how to evolve our research and teaching in the classroom. It is our job to be supportive of students as they wrestle with these difficult concepts.
- Being your colleague’s keeper: We need to align ourselves with a community of critically conscious educators. How are we keepers of our colleagues? We are keepers of our colleagues when we work beside them, by attending to their needs and self-care, by standing up for them in solidarity beyond hashtags. This also means rallying our allies to support us in addressing the harsh realities of White supremacist capitalist patriarchy, which means we need to hold our professional associations accountable. We are reminded by Audre Lorde’s powerful words that self-care is “an act of political welfare,” and implore our colleagues to step up and show up.
- Encouraging and providing affirmation. As educators, we need to advocate for students and provide resources to support them when they are involved in activism. For example, we should provide support and alternatives to coursework and assignments. This means that when students come to you for guidance on what to do when they are physically, psychologically and symbolically attacked, we must listen and affirm our solidarity with them.
After reviewing these points, if you are not challenging injustice on your college campuses in your role as an educator, you are merely wearing a costume of social justice. This is not fulfilling the department, college or university’s mission. We are empathetic to the plight and tensions that exist for educators in toxic political environments. However, we are stronger as a collective force that is bound to students who are vulnerable bodies on our campuses. If we truly believe in the public good of higher education and creating critically engaged students and members of society, we must continue to promote student agency on campus. While our focus in this piece has been on postsecondary education, these suggestions are applicable across the P-20 education system. We must use our knowledge as educators and stop playing dress-up. Dr. Amalia Dache-Gerbino and Dr. Ifeyinwa Onyenekwu are scholars of color at the University of Missouri-Columbia in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) who engage with student activists on their campus. They use critical race and postcolonial approaches in their teaching, research and service. Their thoughts and opinions do not represent the University of Missouri.