The protests last week have gotten a great deal accomplished. The Association of Critical Collegians (ACC) had a laudable goal, was able to establish a broad coalition, enlisted external support and national media attention and perhaps most impressively, sustained its energy for over four and one half days as it demanded a suite of changes, many long overdue, from Colgate’s administration. However, there are several things I found frustrating about the protest that likely cost it a great deal of collective support from parts of the student community that would otherwise favor its goals. Colgate has a long history of student protest and will presumably have a future that includes protest as well. So being aware that no formula for change is perfect and no one person – least of all myself – has all the answers, I have compiled a short list of helpful tips for conducting successful student protests so that students may continue in the future to speak boldly and plainly to maximum effect.
1) Listen to criticism from all angles
It can be tempting to assume, as a leader of any sort, that those you lead agree with you. And generally they do, otherwise you wouldn’t be leading them. However, if you assume that your opinions, on broad issues or specific ones, are the right ones, you may be missing a better alternative or an important problem that you may not have considered. So make a point of being receptive to suggestions from within your inner circle, from your supporters as a broad group and even from those who may disagree with you. Learning WHY they disagree with you, without making assumptions, could strengthen your argument.
2) Avoid jargon
You may be able to most concisely convey what you mean to say in esoteric terms. However, this may confuse your audience and make your message less accessible to those who might otherwise consider joining your coalition. The first flyers that the ACC circulated last Monday insisted upon using the term “microaggressions,” which even now my spell checker tells me is not a word. Generally constrained to a few fields of the Social Sciences, “microaggression,” as several of the people I conversed with over the past few days discovered remarkably quickly, is a painfully easy term to lampoon. Even Howard Fineman, who is both a left-leaning political journalist and one of Colgate’s most well-known alums, in his supportive piece about the ACC protest on the Huffington Post, mistook it for “micro transgressions” and referred to it as “social science mumbo jumbo.”
3) Do not needlessly antagonize the people you are protesting
There is a degree of antagonism inherent in protest. Such is the nature of disobedience, no matter how civil. However, this should not extend to needless pestering of the only people who can give you what you want. It will not make them want to work with you. On Wednesday, the ACC leaders had a meeting scheduled with the administration. The administration was late and, almost immediately, ACC members began badgering the administration on Facebook. I do not know why the administration showed up late, but the ACC pulled its negotiators away from their jobs for not just one meeting, but for several days. It is also possible that the administration members were working on preparing their own end of the bargain. Good results can sometimes require patience.
4) Hone your message
Make sure people can connect the dots in your argument. Many of the students on campus who weren’t directly involved in this week’s protest weren’t clear on the link between the ACC’s institutional proposals and the discussion of microaggressions that dominated the flyers passed out on Monday morning. Clarity can win people over to your coalition, but a lack of it can lead them to believe you haven’t fully worked out your argument. Similarly, specificity is important. Specific arguments and proposals can let you know when you have accomplished your goal and tell your supporters that you have a clear vision. But too much specificity, or too many specific points, almost guarantees that there will be disagreement among your supporters and makes it more difficult for those you are protesting to immediately make promises to fulfill your goals.
5) Be open and honest – with everyone
Informed action requires information. This is the foundation of democracy and of a liberal arts education. It is especially important for a protest about inclusivity. It is not inclusive and explicitly not liberal to restrict access to information about progress being made that concerns everyone on campus, and it almost certainly cost this past week’s sit-in some student support. From the beginning, it was difficult to learn about what was going on from the ACC. This trend became more pronounced as the week went on. Without physically going to the Admissions building, it was impossible during the protest to see either of the administration’s responses to the ACC proposals. Even then, there were not enough copies to take them out of the building. This led people on campus not directly involved in the protest to believe that it was not accomplishing anything. Even more frustrating was the poor communication about a vote held on Thursday evening regarding how satisfactory the administration’s second response was. Apparently, the vote was scheduled several hours in advance but was only announced on the ACC’s Facebook page ten minutes before it took place. Ten minutes is barely enough time for me to get to James B. Colgate Hall from my Newell apartment. By the time I got there, I could not possibly have read over the whole document in time for the vote. In any case, the vote was up or down on the whole response, not point by point, as would have been more informative. I understand that every group must exercise some form of agenda control, but agenda control should not be achieved by information deprivation. Your agenda should be managed cooperatively by everyone for whom you speak. After all, a movement for openness must itself be open.