(Warning: Not your usual post. Give yourself 7 minutes.)
A plethora of books sit on my shelf. The words ‘resistance’, ‘power’ and ‘struggle’ jump out at me. Apart from being the titles of the essential readings for my course, they are also the very words that characterize my student life.
In the span of 7 months, I’ve gone from this naive and sparkly Year 1…
…to this preoccupied young adult who’s outraged at the injustices of the world.
In the span of 7 months, I’ve ran in two elections, spoken personally to 3 lecturers about ways in which lessons can be improved, popped into the meetings of 3 advocacy groups on campus, attended countless workshops/film screenings/panel discussions and the launch of New Zealand’s first ever left-wing think tank, known as Economic and Social Research Aotearoa (ESRA).
Honestly, this is exhausting. But this is also what keeps me meaningfully occupied. I realized that my time was suddenly freed up from the routines of high school. There were huge spaces of time I could fill in with whatever I pleased in between the expected attendance (ahem) at lectures and tutorials.
I grew bored of reading books and watching TED talks, wishing over and over again that the world could be a bit more like Norway (that had banned deforestation) or Denmark (known for its high satisfaction & productivity). I thought to myself: I can’t tackle massive global problems, but I could tackle those that exist on campus. (Hence, my involvement with the Education and Social Work Student Association and AUSA.)
I was proven wrong about my inability to tackle those massive global problems subsequently. At a conference I attended, I learnt that students are in fact in the uniquely advantageous position to instigate social change. We are densely concentrated in the university & halls of residences, have loads of spare time to kill (hands up if you have been rewatching cat videos on Facebook) and are in an intellectually stimulating environment. (Well, mostly.) Like cancer cells, we can proliferate – a fresh intake of Year 1s ensure that our ranks are constantly swelling.
Uni life then is the perfect time to be a student activist.
I’m going to share with you specific moments that transformed me into the budding activist I am today.
I knew that the world was unjust. Some of my friends have to work, while I do not (for now, at least). I knew that I was privileged and wanted to give something back. In the words of a senior I admire, ‘to leave the world a better place than the one I found’. But I didn’t know where to start!
I was interested in too many things… poverty, climate change, racism, palliative care… you name it! I couldn’t decide on which cause to pick. If you are like me, you may want to watch this TED video that made me feel alot better. It made me realize ‘Why some of us don’t have one true calling.
I came to the realization that overthinking made me feel stuck to the spot, filled with inertia and fear at taking the right first step. I decided to just dive in.
I started to attend low threshold events held by different advocacy groups. I placed my name down on numerous mailing list and clicked ‘Interested’ in Facebook events that sounded inspiring (hosted by groups like Justspeak & UoA Feminists of Colour).
Sniffing out meaningful events requires being a bit of a nosey parker. I would often stop by the club noticeboards or eye any flyers/ advertisements that I see lying around. And proceed to stalk them on Facebook.
My opportunity came quite unknowingly. One fine Monday night, I attended a movie screening to chill my overworked brain and catch up with a friend. I ended up clenching my fists throughout the film, and left enraged. That very evening, I decided to be a part of Fossil Free UoA’s campaign to #enddivestment.
At the same time, I had volunteered to represent my social work cohort since the start of the term. I got to know the leaders of my student association (ESSA) and was encouraged to serve as an executive member. Timidly, I put forth my name, did a speech and got elected.
One of the first things I did during orientation was also to find out how I could volunteer for AUSA. I had no intentions of running for office then. I simply wanted to learn more about the student association that was representing my interests. But volunteering became networking and networks became friendships (such as that with Mark Fullerton, the awesome editor of Craccum magazine’16. There, name drop completed). I learnt more about the day to day workings of the AUSA Exec and gained the confidence that I, too, could take office.
Elections really aren’t as intimidating as they sound. It does require some courage. But every time I feel the nerves getting the better of me, I close my eyes and concentrate on the change I want to achieve. The burning desire never failed to tide me through.
Yes, I write the newsletter for ESSA. And yes, I painstakingly typed out the names & emails of all social work lecturers in a Google excel sheet (so that we can send them a personal email about #endingdivestment).
Sounds easy? Nah not quite. There’s alot of backend work & brain power involved. Strategizing, ideation… these are all as energy intensive as synthesizing my thoughts to write the blog post you are reading.
Not to mention, there’s a whole load of guerilla tactics involved. One of the most commonly employed tactic is poster smashing – placing posters EVERYWHERE so that the message is IN YOUR FACE. That requires alot of walking from one place to another – and I can testify that from the rounds I made from hall to hall, building to building during my elections campaign.
So being a student activist isn’t just about blockading the streets (or sitting outside an ANZ bank, kudos to 350 Aotearoa on that!) There are a whole range of options to choose from; find the sweet spot.
There are so many advocacy groups that are all fighting for the same slice of attention on social media, to quote Laura O’Connell-Rapira, Director of Action Station,
I find that networking is key in helping me understand that there are many groups already out there doing good stuff. And that I can complement their work, instead of starting up my own social enterprise/ initiative/ little project.
I quickly added fellow attendees of the recent conference I attended, curated by Counterfutures. (This awesome conference will be near us next year, at Massey U, Albany campus. Another reason to come to #UoA!) Though I received a few puzzled messages (Do I even know you??), I shared with honesty that I was keen to follow the good work that they do via FB. Most gracefully accepted my explanation.
A workshop with I, Too, Am Auckland also allowed me to commiserate with fellow activists (kidding, we had a rather constructive conversation!) We talked about strategies to ‘preach beyond the converted’ and humour was agreed to be the tactic. Meetings? Boring. But a stand up comedy on racism? Hell, yeah! (Check out this video that went viral, a parody of Justin Bieber’s Sorry in the context of our very own Te Tiriti.)
Though I am exhausted from activism, it is a good kind of energy that is spent. It is akin to an ache in the bones after a good session at the gym that forces a tired smile. I hope that you, too, will join me on this vigorous and lively journey of student activism at #UoA.