Should Students Really do Activism? An Activist’s Love Letter to All Students

by Ariän El-Taher

Throughout my life, I’ve wrestled most with one query: What is the responsibility of privilege, knowledge, and youth?

Many of us from oppressed populations rightfully do not consider ourselves ‘privileged’. What I mean here by the term ‘privileged’, however, is youth itself, living in the USA, and having access to countless forms of information and knowledge. Those elements, especially when combined with being woke, put us at a significant advantage compared to people in other regions of the globe. Unlike our brave peers, for example, in Central America, we in the US can challenge power without fear of death-squads and martial-law. Of course, we aren’t privileged this way from generous leaders, but from our history of unrelenting activism in this country of ours, and from a national history relatively free of foreign interference, the type of interference our country has carried out in nations all across the world.

Much of history’s social-justice progresses have been initiated and carried out by youth, namely youth of radical intellectualism, an intellectualism sourced either in academe or in proletarian, self-taught communities. And those of us who have the privilege of attending school, especially higher education, have access to countless material and immaterial resources. But this begs the question: Are you currently using your knowledge and resources in a group to improve the socio-structural conditions around you?

While age is often the lynchpin of energy, courage, and fortitude, it’s not, of course, the lone factor in successful organizing. Instead, understanding the role of knowledge is also crucial; that is, the role of acquiring and analyzing information on how the world works. But this demands a distinction between schooling and education, a difference which was highly instrumental in movements of the past and today.

True education, in essence, is that which cultivates minds with the ability to dismantle unjustified claims, question untenable reason, and defend the integrity of sound conscience — no matter the source or the form in which these take shape, even if it means confronting ourselves, our own social network, or power structures near and far. But such ‘true education’ doesn’t produce an individualistic psychology, so that everyone is operating alone in silos. Instead, it’s prosocial; it compels us to unite through reason and values, whereas other forces in society often compel us to fracture via our baser selves.

Schooling, on the other hand, indoctrinates — it turns free-thinking, independent minds into creatures of unquestioning obedience to hierarchy. In ‘schooling’, power-relations are authoritarian, and those who challenge authoritarian demands, for example, by asking “why do I have to do XYZ?” are punished, whether by detention, suspension, or identified and branded in ways that filter them out of the pipeline towards “success”. But those who do as they are told without ruffling the feathers of power, they go on to join the ranks of the “successful”.

This is not a novel critique. As far back to the origins of today’s US mass, public-school system, its genesis sparked deep suspicion among numerous American intellectuals, one of which was famed essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his little-known essay, New England Reformers, Emerson writes that in speaking with countless public servants on why they were demanding mass education, the common response was that “This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats.”

In other words, “educate” them to install a mentality of servility towards authority—a mentality that causes inaction in the face of injustice.

Emerson, as well as many before and after him, realized that—in any society at least claiming to be a “democracy”—those in power understand that the public cannot be ruled with violence and coercion, like in outright totalitarian regimes. Instead, they must be ruled by thought; that the “police” must be within. Achieving this begins with regimenting the minds of generations from the onset of schooling. Power of this kind seeks to control, or at least limit, the types of knowledge and ways-of-knowing that young people encounter, so as to limit behavior and disobedience, all for the sake of ‘social order’. In other words, if you limit the ideas people are exposed to, you can limit the ways they’ll act in society.

This description, of course, is a very basic sketch. Nonetheless, in ‘schooling’, power dynamics—like authority figures, status-quo, and tradition—are to be treated with deference. Authority is not to be challenged; it’s to be obeyed. Sure, you’re allowed to ask questions, engage in polite debates and conversations with instructors, but, at the end of the day, you are not an equal contributor towards influencing the practices or policies under which you are ‘governed’ in school and/or society. And that, in essence, is an authoritarian relationship, despite the grim images of extreme, state-authoritarianism that come to mind when hearing the term ‘authoritarian’—images of martial law, with tanks and gendarmerie patrolling the streets.

This authoritarian dynamic in schooling helps produce generations that place Victorian ‘respectability’, quiescence, and ‘social order’ above all else. But ‘social order’ does not equate to justice and true peace. Instead, this type of ‘social order’ shapes minds into servile conformity, often leading to a depoliticized, ‘mind my own business’ orientation towards socio-structural injustices. And that orientation ensures that the public remains ‘divided and [therefore] conquered’, and its emphasis on obedience not only suppresses the human need to ask ‘why’—to demand evidence and reason before following commands—but it also assures indifference and inaction during times in which ‘stepping out of line’ is necessary for the survival of a person, group, society, or even our species itself.

But if you’re a fellow person from an oppressed group(s), you know this as well as I; that we’ve long been the forerunners on progressive movements. So, in unpacking the above personality of self over society, servility, conformity, social-order, and so forth…I’m looking at you, people in the most privileged sectors of society, who, from an ivory tower, are distantly watching oppressed people carry out all the self-sacrifice of heavy activism, activism from which you benefit through your quality of life, character, and society. It’s you whose exit from silent self-service is disproportionately necessary and overdue.

Overall, however, I’m not calling for ‘rebellion without a cause’, chaos, or even rebellion at all. I’m calling for organized, sophisticated, and nuanced acts of collective human-decency—with equitable standards of sacrifice—to turn environments into places of justice; places ensuring that every person reaches an unhindered development of mind, character, and, yes, “success”. I’ll refer to this as ‘the goal’, as it encompasses the broad outcome for much of what activists and many others desire.

Achieving this first demands a vibrant, active large-scale movement, especially student-led. Today, however, many student bodies—an ember and foundation of activism—across several campuses have returned to a state of fractured silos.

Nonetheless, any lack of organizing is not evidence that activism is no longer necessary or possible. Instead, every institution is in constant need of social and structural improvements. That improvement, though, must never be determined and carried forward without broad input, especially without input from those who are the “governed”. In the school setting, that’s you, the students.

But just take a look around on your campus: is there large-scale activism happening? Those who proclaim themselves to be ‘woke’, or who are most vocal about injustice, are they actively organizing a mass movement? Or do you see only scattered voices and scattered actions by lone actors?

Individual grievances and unfocused, unorganized frustration have little, if any, influence on injustices that are embedded in the structures within which you exist. Thought, wisdom, suffering, and indignation must be collective and organized in order to be as effective as our elders.

Effectiveness, though, also demands measuring the level of wokeness in your surrounding environments, institutions, systems, and resources. Although many Seattle schools have numerous imperfections and much ‘work’ to do in the endeavor of justice, many of our schools have massive populations of ‘woke’ students, and also educators of high-caliber wokeness.

My purpose for these appraisals is to restate many others: that you have fertile ground for actually influencing the shape of your school for both yourself and future students. You are in a city composed of many, even some in administrative positions, who are sympathetic to our reality, and who want to hear and learn from you.

These dynamics enable activism that does not have to be ever-antagonistic, ever-virulent, which makes possible a collaborative-relationship with administration and other members of the power structure. Of course, circumstances may arise in which the collaborative dynamic diminishes between students and administration, which, if your position is justified, then compel you to escalate and apply organized pressure, such as launching a mass petition, protest, or boycott. Be prepared for that and for benevolence.

Yet, we must also remember that power often concedes only to equal power. So, I must acknowledge that the halls of Seattle schools, including my alma mater, are indeed rife with students, staff, faculty, and politicians who are deeply protective of the status-quo, and some who even work to further regress our schools.

Many of you know that among you there are some who use their tenuous power over students to privately intimidate, silence, and filter-out those who dare challenge them in any way. Circumnavigate these people. When you have amassed a vibrant, high-quality movement, then you should engage them, but always through strategy, integrity (not to be confused with racist, Victorian ‘respectability’), humanization of our opposers, and radical intelligence.

When prepared, dialogue or even debate with Conservatives. You may disagree with many of their stances, but engage them, if for no other reason than to test your own logic. If your demands are truly just, and your rationale truly sound, then it will survive the intellectual-opposition from these folk and those who sincerely operate to stop your movement.

All of this, I hope, has reaffirmed that, together, you have unique power and resources—combined with the unique responsibilities and advantages of youth. As such, this time of your life is the most urgent, formative, and change-capable for yourself, your school, and even our society. So, organize!

Do not believe the myth that you must (or can afford to) wait for a savior from above, like a heroic mayor or otherwise, to improve the conditions around you. Believe in the best within yourselves: your conscience. Enforce it with spine and a radical imagination that realizes new forms of existing together on campus as a model for society.

In college, you are the customer—that is, in this capitalist context, you are the power-bearer. In K-12, the many types of taxes paid by you, your families, and your communities also make you the ‘customer’ and therefore power-bearer.

Spine—selfless bravery and fortitude—on which activism depends, is born when you discover (and help others discover) the power you possess collectively and how to use that power justly as an organized body.


Some Fundamental Principles of Group-Organizing

  1.     Aggregate.

Organizing is not a solitary endeavor; it is inherently group-based. So, band together. Begin with your friends, but don’t stop there by being exclusive or exclusionary. Recruit more people, strangers even, but ensure that your group is intersectional. Increasing ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ in your group results in a broadening spectrum of knowledge that can be used by your group for strategies towards improving a socio-structural problem.

Once together, you might not know where to start or how to go about ‘organizing’. Begin with talking about your experiences with unfairness, injustice or otherwise, to determine if there are any shared or similar experiences.

Begin recruiting those who you appraise as true comrades, perhaps even semi-woke allies sympathetic to your grievances, who are willing to listen, learn, and equitably collaborate. Soon after, engage with allies in your community, even if they are barely-woke, imagining their potential—which is a form of humanization—with recognition of our own imperfections. Social justice, after all, is the endeavor of humanization. We who have languished under the lash of oppression must break its cycle: we must humanize, namely by never appraising anyone, even the most unwoke among us, as a throwaway.

  1.    Knowledge

Learn collectively. This should include a collaborative effort to amass language, research, dialogue and debate skills, and other intellectual means towards the purpose of empowering yourselves, expanding your movement, dispelling your own untenable claims, as well as dismantling any internal or external oppression, engaging opponents, and designing new or reformed structures.

Become surgically-familiar with the art of disobedience, meaning add nuance to your approach to activism. When necessary and just, apply effective—not too little, nor too extreme—degrees of pressure on the system you are moving to change. You must sharply know the level of intensity required for a condition to be changed, the resources you have, the level of sympathy in gatekeepers, and more. Wielding people-power still bears the moral responsibility to use it justly. Otherwise, we are indistinguishable from an unfocused mob.

  1.    Space

In order to organize, you will rely heavily on private, ‘safe spaces’. Although this term has been heavily stigmatized by the Right, don’t allow that to distort the importance of this fundamental vehicle to collective progress. Do create safe spaces, but do not allow them to become domains of hedonism and escapism. Instead, create them as our elders instructed us: as a domain, at least a small haven, in which we can be in peace and from which we can collectively examine the circumstances of our oppression and our oppressors. This momentary sanctuary from direct oppression affords us the ability to not only assess, but also to imagine anew, and to strategize towards the fruition of those possibilities.

  1.    Autonomy

Your group and movement must not be a school-sanctioned academic club (with some exceptions, like Garfield High School). Such clubs are beholden to the very power structure that activism attempts to alter. Should your club attempt to push hard enough, the possibility exists that the institution will disband your group, disallow your events or room reservations, restrict or cancel your funding, and so forth.

Precisely this treatment from mid-level administrators and club-advisors is what I and others have experienced on campuses across Seattle, and it is why the Justice Coalition operated from a classic principle of organizing: we must band together outside of the system, in free-association, and operate unhindered by as many external forces as possible, in order to freely apply pressure on the system itself.

But if an academic club, who’s being suppressed by the school, is attempting to push back, it must first generate mass support from fellow students and others outside of the academic club.

  1.    Hierarchies

This leads me to the issue of hierarchies within your group. There simply must be none. No lone individual is always equipped with the ability to solve all presented problems; therefore, a fixed, permanent leadership-hierarchy must not exist. At best, a revolving model of leadership may be functional and progressive. Otherwise, the group must be egalitarian, equitable, and therefore truly democratic, in order to produce the best ideas, the healthiest internal-conflict resolutions, and the greatest strategies for expanding the group and its message, so that social-changes you demand are carried out with solidarity and input from the many.

Cherish internal disagreements; they are opportunities to excavate a group’s’ strongest ideas. Foster an environment in which disagreements are healthily approached and used as a way for the group to become creative through consensus. And understand the difference between uniformity (in action) and unanimity (in thought). The former is imperative. The latter is counterproductive.

We must constantly endeavor to expand our imagination for human organization. Imagine, visualize, strategize, and then create a better way. We must become, act, and persist as the very model for what we want our campuses and our society to become.

There is much, much else to be said, especially on equity/intersectionality, international solidarity, conflict resolution, how to organize meetings (see ‘consensus decision-making’, or ‘progressive stacks’), and more. But this essay, I hope, has served as a general primer.

Above all, we must daily reflect: that homo-sapiens are a pro-social being, and only very powerful social forces can drive that instinct out of our heads; to cultivate a people who willingly act in discordance with, and therefore against the richest development of, our fellow humans. To this end, we find the purpose of the human conscience, which, I believe, must compel us towards social-consciousness; and such consciousness must drive us to organize: to leave a particular situation better than we found it. No other time and location in your precious life as a young person will accord such constructive privilege to speak up, to organize, and to act.

“Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Featured image by Susan Fried

3 thoughts on “Should Students Really do Activism? An Activist’s Love Letter to All Students”

  1. This person Arian Taher is openly anti-semitic. I have read many of his views including on Twitter which I find repulsive. If one is going to be a warrior for “social justice,” it must encompass many walks of life. And not spew lies and inaccuracies. Being factually correct is imperative.

    1. As the author of this article, I will respond to this charge by M. Feldman, because, today, a baseless label like “anti-semite”, which is in itself false and abhorrent, can infer other labels, like neo-nazi.

      Knowing my own record, both (primarily) spoken in public and written on social-media/online, I am only to presume that your charge of “anti-semitic” refers not to my position–and participation in–the precious faith of Judaism. Instead, you are referring to my position on the nation-state of Israel, namely in regards to its conflict with (what used to be) Palestine.

      First, I will restate what countless Jewish and Israeli scholars (Norman Finkelstein, Ilan Pappe, Noam Chomsky, Shlomo Sand, etc.): criticizing a nation-state does not equate to criticizing or hating its predominant religion, especially in regards to a nation-state that declares itself “secular”, thereby dissociating “church [from] state”. So, one can criticize Israeli government and yet also be Jewish or a fierce supporter of the Jewish faith, Jewish history, Jewish people, and other pro-Jewish, humanist stances. Otherwise, criticizing the US government would earn one the charge of anti-Christian (as the US’s predominant government); criticizing Iran’s government would earn one the charge of Islamophobic; and so forth. In essence, labeling someone an “anti-semite”, “anti-American/Christian”, “Islamophobe” for criticizing something entirely removed from the notion of religion–a nation-state–, is pure totalitarian doublethink.

      Second and lastly, I have always been consistent on my positions towards Judaism (including the history of and ongoing Jewish persecution around the world), which I cherish, defend, and, in many ways, worship. I have also been always consistent on my position towards Israel, which is that I fiercely support its existence. However, I have also denounced its history of (literally quoting Israeli military; see Ilan Pappe’s work) ethnic “cleansing” of Palestine (as I have likewise condemned the terrorism from certain Palestinian factions), Israel’s colonial project (inimitably documented by Israeli scholars, including Ilan Pappe), Israel’s treatment of African/Black Jews in Israel, its human rights violations (which not even scholars like Dershowitz denies), and its refusal to sign the nuclear NPT.

      So, please, attempt your slander elsewhere. You have no grounds here, M. Feldman.