Student Activists Shouldn’t Be Solving Problems on Campus Without Support

By Hannah Engler
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The fight against sexual assault on college campuses began with the people on college campuses. It began with survivors and student activists, rallying for change in their academic environments. Too often, those same voices that were among the first to cry out for change are excluded from the conversations that dictate change.

However, while it is absolutely necessary that the voices of students be heard when debating how best to improve campus climates, it seems that more and more often student activists are expected to do school administrator’s jobs for them. Indeed, sometimes it seems like we have to choose between being a student and an activist: between having our concerns taken seriously, seeking justice for survivors, and being an 18, 19, or 20-year-old.

After attending several seminars about campus sexual assault activism this summer, and having the opportunity to speak to activists from schools all over the country, it has become more clear to me that colleges everywhere are taking the If-You’re-So-Smart-You-Fix-It route. In other words: rounding up all the student activists and demanding clear, concise, and feasible answers to questions like well, what should we do?

What bothers me about this approach is not that administrators are asking for the inputs of students. Of course, we’ll have answers at the ready: throw the assailant out of school, reword the sexual assault policy so that it reflects the reality of campus sexual assault, not the myths, provide resources for survivors. These are all ideas that college administrators need to hear, and ideas that student activists have been shouting about since the beginning.

What bothers me is that it seems to be a trap.

Students don’t have access to budgets, so we are unfamiliar with the expense or logistical issues associated with consent or bystander intervention training. For example, students may not necessarily have legal backgrounds, so we may not be able to provide specific edits to the policies that will make them airtight.

Too often, these areas where we fall short are used as an excuse to disprove our legitimacy. We’re dismissed as rabble-rousers because wanting something to change is not enough. We have to know exactly how to change it. With issues like campus sexual assault, this is particularly frustrating: the harrowing accounts of survivors and outrage of the community is not enough to stir administrators into action. You can’t just be a survivor of violence and inspire change: you also have to be eloquent, armed with research, a genius at managing time, and not “too emotional.”

The administrators who are petitioned by student activists should not act as gatekeeper, letting through the odd suggestion that they feel willing and able to enact.

Rather, they should use their expertise to translate the demands of activists into tangible measures.

That should be obvious by now.

By Hannah Engler

Hannah hails from the DC metro area, but is currently braving the harsh Midwestern winters as a student at the University of Michigan. She is the editor-in-chief of the campus feminist magazine, What the F, as well as a Web and Media intern at the Feminist Majority Foundation! Hannah's favorite things include breakfast food, books, and Billy Joel.

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