Staff Editorial: The dos and don’ts of student advocacy

Updated: April 27, 2015 at 5:13 p.m.

By now, many of us have been told that traditional student activism is dead.

But not at GW. All year, student activists have been honing in on national issues like fossil fuel divestment, sexual assault prevention and race relations. These campaigns have often included public protests: Students have held a “die-in” in Kogan Plaza, carried mattresses across campus to stand in solidarity with sexual assault survivors and launched referendums to garner student support.

This academic year has provided a unique opportunity to examine student advocacy and the various tactics that student groups employ to further their agendas. We’ve noticed that student groups are most successful when they communicate well with students and administrators, focus on issues that are specific to GW and balance their protests with productive conversations. By keeping all of this in mind, student advocates can push their initiatives forward and attract the administration’s undivided attention.

There has undeniably been an upward trend in attention-grabbing student lobbying that aims to change policies at GW or bring attention to important issues. But one group has seen more success than any other: Students Against Sexual Assault has just successfully lobbied the University to implement in-person, mandatory sexual assault prevention training during Welcome Week.

For SASA, this year has been about understanding how to campaign and convey a specific message, all while interacting successfully with students and with the GW administration.

They’ve clearly done their due diligence in learning the intricacies of how the University works. The group met with University President Steven Knapp earlier this month, and SASA’s vice president Laura Zillman also said in an email that the group has had “at least one or two separate administrative meetings per month during this school year” with administrators from the Division of Student Affairs and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Without a fundamental understanding of how to communicate with administrators in a productive way – as well as strong-willed personalities in the room – these meetings likely wouldn’t have been granted, let alone taken seriously.

Other student groups, meanwhile, have had more trouble proving that they understand the ins and outs of GW’s policies. The Progressive Student Union has pushed the University for more rights for Sodexo workers all year, for example. But they’ve seen little progress, probably because GW has little to no control over how Sodexo interacts with its workers – a fact that PSU is either unaware of or has chosen to ignore.

But no matter how much student leaders understand about University policy, any campaign is doomed without longevity and a focus on incremental accomplishments.

The battle for improved sexual assault policies, for example, has been salient on GW’s campus for years: Former SA executive vice president Kostas Skordalos ran on a platform that focused on sexual assault prevention two years ago, and the issue has been on the student body’s radar ever since. In 2013, officials showed the same attention by overhauling GW’s sexual assault reporting policies.

Rather than expecting change all at once in the form of a few protests, SASA smartly made their moves one step at a time: They began as a resource for survivors, made smaller advocacy pushes through outreach and op-eds, then organized protests and finally, gained enough clout to meet with administrators like Knapp.

On the other hand, members of Fossil Free GW asked the University to disclose its investments in fossil fuels and remove them from the endowment – an ask that over 70 percent of students who voted in the SA elections supported, but that the University has yet to publicly acknowledge. Fossil Free GW organizer Frank Fritz said in an email that the group has also met with several top administrators, including Knapp, Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski and director of GW’s sustainability office Meghan Chapple.

But the group asked for too much, since students can’t be sure how much the University has actually invested in fossil fuels. Clearly, asking too much can be detrimental, especially when such big demands are made with little knowledge of how they might affect GW in the long run.

That process, known as divestment, joins sexual assault as a major national conversation in higher education over the last several years – but divestment may not be financially feasible for every school. Sexual assault, on the other hand, is something that officials can publicly work to prevent.

Zillman said SASA’s momentum began shortly after controversial remarks made by former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, in which he suggested that sexual assault could be prevented if college women drank less alcohol.

“We’ve become a voice that the administration is conscious of and feels compelled to acknowledge, because we do have a broad base of campus support and we are pushing for change that they, for the most part, agree with,” Zillman said.

Certainly, the national momentum behind sexual assault education has been helpful for SASA. But national attention hasn’t been helpful for every group, since conversations about fossil fuel divestment and race relations have been prominent on other college campuses, as well.

This year, we’ve seen the Ferguson Coalition struggle to convince the University that their goals should be addressed. Although they’ve been given a seat at the table during the search process for the new chief of the University Police Department, they haven’t made much progress otherwise. That’s largely because we’ve seen no significant pattern of police violence against minorities on campus – so no one has paid them much attention outside of their widely-publicized die-in.

In addition, student groups should be careful not to antagonize officials with attention-grabbing displays that have little substance. As student advocacy ramps up on GW’s campus, students would do well to remember that intrusive demonstrations tend to annoy universities, rather than motivate them to act.

Sure, SASA has had its public spectacles, like their recent march to Rice Hall with mattresses on their backs. But they’ve been careful to balance those public spectacles with mature, substantive conversations with administrators. In return, GW has taken those conversations seriously.

Some other student organizations haven’t been quite as successful and run the risk of being brushed off by the University.

Obviously, none of this should keep student organizations from advocating on behalf of students. Just because a fight isn’t easy to win doesn’t mean it isn’t worth fighting – and it’s impressive and admirable that so many student groups have made their voices heard.

But if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s that some student advocacy battles will be better fought than others.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr and contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, based on discussions with managing director Justin Peligri, sports editor Nora Princiotti, copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein and design assistant Samantha LaFrance.

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