Student Groups Shed Light on Activism and Ways to Get Involved
Issue   |   Tue, 04/03/2018 - 21:18
hoto courtesy of Lisa Zheutlin ‘21
While activism, such as participating in March For Our Lives, has profound impacts, there are also other avenues for student involvement.

Over the weekend of March 24, the Amherst College Democrats arranged for students to attend the March For Our Lives in Washington D.C., joining middle school, high school and college students from around the country in demonstrations calling for gun reform. In what feels like an explosion of student-driven activism, it is worthwhile to turn inwards and reflect on the daily activism that exists alongside these national protests, which occur both in our neighborhoods and on our campus. The Amherst College Democrats and the Native and Indigenous Citizens Association (NICA) are two groups that give light to the way activism functions at Amherst College, even when it’s not in the headlines.

In the past year, Amherst College Democrats has focused on climate change, gun control, police violence and local politics as the main points of interest of the past year, according to Communications Director Kristin Henry ’20.

In regard to its work on campus, Henry said that the group “really focus[es] on the policy side, but part of the policy side is getting people active.” Thus, organizing forums for students to learn and hear from new and prominent voices has been a priority. The Amherst College Democrats coordinated the campus-wide talk with activist Shaun King, a powerful voice in the Black Lives Matter movement, and presented a screening of “13th,” Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the mass incarceration of African Americans. The group also brought Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern, the town of Amherst’s representative, to campus, connecting students to locally-elected officials. Periodic events which allow students to call their Congress representatives have students gathering to communicate their support for certain issues; most recently, the group held an event where students called their representatives to protect Dreamers and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

The planning for the trip to the March For Our Lives had been a long-term project for the group, and its organization extended far beyond the weekend. The group was planning to get involved with a protest in 2018 after the success it had bringing students to D.C. for the March for Science in spring of 2017. This February, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School brought the issue of gun control to the forefront of national discussion, and the first meeting for the Amherst College Democrats following the tragedy included a discussion on and debate over gun reform, in which members talked through the complexities of gun control policy. Not wanting to let the discussion and momentum peter out, the group put its efforts towards organizing the opportunity for students to travel to the March for Our Lives.

However, the group stresses that there are always other ways to get involved around gun control advocacy outside of such national marches. Major protests attract mass attention because their intent is to gain visibility, but mass protest it is just one important form of activism that works in tandem with other forms to create change.

For instance, those who are not attending a protest can support others who are attending by making signs and coordinating the logistics of the event itself. While some may be unable to make the time commitment to travel to major demonstrations, there are often local protests that are more accessible — on the same day as the D.C. march, high school students from all over the Pioneer Valley organized a sister march in Northampton.

Additionally, events that have students calling their Congressional representatives provide an avenue for direct appeals to legislators. Advocacy that raises awareness about issues and events is always essential for encouraging others to get involved.

NICA is a smaller Amherst group making large strides in their fight for Indigenous rights. The group recently organized a vigil to honor Indigenous women who have been murdered and reported missing, an egregiously overlooked epidemic occurring in contemporary America. In efforts to combat this issue, NICA also collected nearly 50 letters to send to Congress, advocating for accountability and changes in laws that would protect Indigenous women on reservations. Raising awareness in the greater Amherst community has been one of NICA’s foremost causes; Sarah Montoya ’21, who is a member of the Diné ” — a group of native people also known as the Navajo ” — and co-president of NICA, cited a general ignorance around the reality of Indigenous issues: “A lot of people think Native issues begin and end with Standing Rock … and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Pushing for understanding and basic awareness is the first step in enacting change, as the public cannot mobilize around an issue without first understanding it.

The Amherst College Democrats and NICA have both used social media as an integral tool for alerting the community to issues and upcoming events. Despite the criticism social media has recieved for creating echo-chambers of ideas, activists rely on this independent use of technology to spread ideas and information that cannot be transmitted over conventional forums among like-minded individuals. Amherst College Democrats has recently increased its Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook activity in efforts to attract members and keep non-members aware of lower-commitment ways to get involved. Social media is particularly important for smaller groups, which need to broadcast information widely about events.

Montoya reminded people to “never underestimate the power of Snapchat” as a tool to draw numbers. There are also many alumni and local Democrats following the Amherst College Democrats’ social media pages, demonstrating the potential to connect to individuals outside the immediate campus community.

A large number of groups at Amherst College are establishing connections between prominent activists and students, between students and the U.S. government and among students themselves. On a college campus, it is fitting that ongoing advocacy, appeals for legislative change and access to demonstrations are some of the prevailing forms of activism. Sharing knowledge while also becoming active is, in fact, change in itself.

In upcoming months, the Amherst College Democrats will invite Democratic candidates for governor of Massachusetts to Amherst, as well as send several of its own members to run for board elections at the College Democrats of Massachusetts convention. NICA will continue advocating for awareness around Indigenous issues and is working on a possible powwow and fundraising projects for the upcoming year.