Published: April 24, 2018
I learned just how lonely activism can be at my first college.
With the nonwhite population totaling less than 4 percent, I knew asking for any minority-focused literature and history classes was going to be a challenge. But I cared so much that I tried anyway. I wrote petitions, spoke to the president, debated with the head of the English Department, and even bickered with the local cable company. And when I looked to my left and right and saw no one standing beside me, I felt abandoned and disappointed in my peers.
Facebook wouldn’t come around until three years later. There was no Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat. So while I knew that it takes just one person to start a movement, I had no idea how exhausting it would be. I ultimately threw in the towel and transferred to a historically black college.
Many stories begin and end as mine did. It is difficult to transform an individual cause into a social movement that has lasting and farreaching consequences. But successful historical movements have clear markers in common: a unifying message, specific goals, a critical mass of people, and an organizational structure that supports sustainable action.
The Civil Rights Movement is the classic example of a grassroots movement that built enough momentum to result in substantive legislative action—forever changing the makeup of our society. Building on that success, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-1968 organized a three-part action plan called the Economic Bill of Rights, which included a $30 billion annual appropriation for a real war on poverty; congressional passage of full employment and guaranteed income legislation; and the construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year in an effort to eventually eliminate slums.
We see echoes of this movement carry into current examples as well. In September of 2011, a small group of protesters gathered in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park armed with posters, megaphones, and a common purpose: Bring attention to the uneven distribution of wealth, corporate influence, and political power that plagues our country. They called themselves Occupy Wall Street.
Their mission was to highlight on a national scale a surplus of power held by 1 percent of the U.S. population that allows it to control the other 99 percent via income inequality, low minimum wages, political corruption, and decisions impacting the environment.
“Occupy Wall Street worked effectively as a social justice movement,” says Dr. Rebecca Rojas, a Core Faculty in Pacific Oaks College’s School of Human Development. “It called attention to the huge wealth disparity that exists within our country and continues to widen today.”
Occupy Wall Street’s goals included wage hikes for minimum wage workers; reducing shady political spending linked to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that permitted corporations to spend unlimited money on campaigns; and eco-friendly goals such as protesting the Keystone XL pipeline and creating an anti-fracking movement, which led to the world’s largest climate march that brought about 400,000 protesters to New York City to demand cuts in emissions and investments in renewable energy.
And while such positive outcomes are easy to prop up and celebrate long after the fact, those in the movement day in and day out know all too well how disheartening and draining it can be to stave off a seemingly constant backlash from detractors.
Occupy Wall Street was often ignored by conservative-leaning media and its followers and stereotyped as liberal students and/or unemployed naysayers. Another popular activist group, the Black Panther Party, also had its reputation challenged and was typecast as a group of violent radicals. The party’s contribution of providing full, free breakfasts every school day to 20,000 students in 19 cities around the country was widely ignored, along with the reason the group was created in 1966—to fight racism and dismantle the systemic effects of Jim Crow laws.
“The ongoing backlash can make it difficult to keep your resolve,” Dr. Rojas says. “You start to wonder whether you really should say something out loud that may not be popular.”
“When you think of American Civil Liberties Union or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and their longevity, some of it is related to having a centralized body that can provide resources and support, but also having boots on the ground in different geographies,” says Dr. Donald Grant, associate dean of Pacific Oaks’ School of Human Development. “Today, Black Lives Matter is an example of a movement that has built the foundational support system to help it remain sustainable.”
The founders of Black Lives Matter—Osope Patrisse, Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza—advanced the movement in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Florida neighborhood security guard who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. The evolution of BLM was unique in that, regardless of it being nationally known, the founders never billed themselves as leaders of the entire group. Today, local chapters bear their own responsibilities according to what’s happening in their area.
“When you provide the space by which an individual or a group has some local autonomy but also has the benefit of a national body’s structured framework, there’s more potential for success,” Dr. Grant says.
To directly impact the community, starting locally can be extremely effective.
Alumna Norma Gonzalez, who received her M.A. in Early Childhood Education, first tried her hand at advocacy when she started working for the YWCA. Now in her role as director of their Union Pacific Empowerment Center, she creates partnerships between her organization and local advocacy groups to help better the community.
“Because of my education from Pacific Oaks, I am able to help our YWCA families that are interested in specific social justice causes by providing information and resources, and connecting them with the right people,” Gonzalez says.
Together with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, a community-based organization that works to facilitate self-advocates, the YWCA brought attention to decades of pollution coming from the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant south of Los Angeles. With the right guidance, YWCA and its families showed the pollution’s negative effects on the health of area residents, which sparked a federal investigation that ultimately led to the closure of the plant in 2015.
Whether on a local or national level, having people who understand and follow political and social concerns significant to the community is inarguably important. The ability to unite people for a common purpose also furthers the work.
“It helps to have friends who will fight with you or even strangers who believe in the cause you’re fighting for—that’s why grassroots organizations are so powerful,” Dr. Rojas says. “It’s a bunch of people coming together who may not know each other, but they bond over a purpose bigger than themselves. There is power in numbers.”
For today’s generation, social media provides the necessary link to connect people across a cause. The addition of digital communication tools such as email and social media have made mass communication possible with the click of a button. It has also given people a grand scale of like-minded individuals to brainstorm and share experiences with.
“Social media has provided advocates and allies with increased knowledge of the prevalence of injustice and lack of inclusionary practices because you’re no longer exposed to only what’s happening in your local geography,” Dr. Grant says. “You get access to global instances of disenfranchisement, injustice, racism, and classism. I don’t think we would see the current grandness in these movements without social networking platforms.”
In 2017 alone, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram gave rise to several popular movements with the use of hashtags. #IStandWithPP first surfaced in January 2017 in response to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan promising to defund Planned Parenthood. In September 2017, social media users started showing their support for the thousands of Dreamers who came to the U.S. as children and were facing the possibility of deportation. And both women and men began using #MeToo in October 2017 to talk about their own sexual harassment and assault experiences in response to allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein (and the dozens of other allegations against politicians, actors, and sports figures that followed).
The It Gets Better Project, created in 2010 by Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller, is one of the most famous global movements linked to a social media campaign—and is one that had a direct impact on the passage of relevant legislation just a few years later. #ItGetsBetter has helped to empower millions of LGBTQI youth around the world by giving them a platform to connect to one another. According to its website, more than 60,000 people have shared their personal stories of struggles and triumphs; the official Twitter account has more than 177,000 followers; and almost 626,000 people have pledged to help further the movement.
In collaboration with the Human Rights Campaign, #ItGetsBetter has promoted National Coming Out Day and was one of the most prominent social media tools to advocate for legislative action, which ultimately resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on June 26, 2015 to allow LGBTQI couples the right to legally marry nationwide.
Last fall, Pacific Oaks College took its own commitment to social justice one step further by introducing the Advocacy & Social Justice bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. While developing the curriculums, creators considered popular trends and practices used in these fields today, which is why both degree programs include a focus on social media and technology.
“When you look at movements throughout history, you see how communication tools worked to incite the movement, stifle the movement, or sustain the movement,” Dr. Grant said. “We want our students to have access to those historic references and understand how to use technology to accomplish their goals. Our students learn ways to increase crowd -sourcing on social media, create video blogs and podcasts to support a movement, and identify ways in which media outlets may use images of supremacy to promote their own messages.”
Recently recognized by Yes! Magazine as a pioneering model for teaching social justice curriculums, these offerings are geared toward individuals who are looking to make lasting change in the areas of civil liberties and individual rights, veterans’ rights, community development, disease and disability, education, environmental policy, labor, and more.
“What sets our program apart is our pedagogy,” Dr. Grant says. “Pacific Oaks College places a huge importance on student reflection. And our instructors are also practitioners who have worked in some capacity as an advocate and can therefore teach students how to systematically restructure their environment for success.”
Advocates create advocates. History is unfolding before us, and Pacific Oaks College’s legacy will live on in the actions of our future leaders.
Read articles from the Spring 2018 issue of Voices: