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Student Affairs Educators Supporting Student Activists

October 29, 2020 Lisa Kaler Michael J. Stebleton

JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 4, November 2020

New Spaces & Roles for Student Affairs: An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

A colleague of ours often refers to the summer of 2020 as the battle of the twin pandemics: Covid-19 and racial inequality. The summer of 2020 is memorialized as the season when the United States failed to control the coronavirus pandemic—as well as the time when the fight for racial equality returned to the streets in numbers not seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. These two historic moments were met with dramatically different responses from institutions of higher education. In the first case, when confronted with the data demonstrating the immediate public health crisis posed by the coronavirus, almost every campus in the United States suspended in-person instruction and activities and switched to virtual learning. In the face of the Black Lives Matter movement, universities and colleges were largely spared the imperative to respond in a meaningful, tangible way because they had already sent their students home. Instead, universities sufficed to send emails condemning the murder of George Floyd, expounding commitments to racial equality, and expressing support for BIPOC students. In this blog post, we will attempt to provide some guidance for student affairs educators to support student activists and who themselves wish to participate in activism to advance social justice.

Changing Seasons

The summer of 2020 is over. The time has come for colleges and universities to demonstrate their real commitments to racial equality and  Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students. This will, inevitably, involve responding to student activism in ways that some educators may have previously avoided. Student affairs educators find themselves supporting college students at a critical, developmental time in their lives. For some student affairs practitioners, these roles and spaces around student activism might be new; for others, it is a reminder of the ongoing work that needs to be done.

We, the authors of this article, both identify as White scholars. We wrote this piece with a primary goal of addressing our fellow White educators in student affairs. In addition to working at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul), both of us live in the heart of St. Paul, MN, and we continue to witness the effects of the twin pandemics on our neighborhoods, communities, and families. Furthermore, we see the impact on our students.

Student Activism Advancing Social Justice

Much has been written about student activism, which has played a central role in social justice movements in the U.S. since the Civil Rights Movement. Students will likely continue to engage in activism, and as the political climate in the U.S. grows more hostile, student affairs educators must continue supporting students and themselves advocating for social justice. These dynamics continue to be complicated by the pandemic, where social distancing requirements prohibit large gatherings and many of the in-person interactions that previously facilitated relationships between practitioners and student activists.

Staying Neutral is Not an Option

bell hooks (1994) asserted that education is not neutral. This statement feels particularly salient now, when the current White House administration continually maligns and undermines initiatives that aim to educate students about racism, White supremacy, and their role in dismantling systems of oppression that marginalize underrepresented populations. Education is not neutral, and neither is student affairs. Educators at all levels should get comfortable sharing their stances, and not avoid political issues that may be controversial or unsettling (Dunn et al., 2019). Ibram X. Kendi (2019) contends that it is not enough to be race neutral in the United States, especially now. He noted, “We can knowingly strive to be antiracist. Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination” (p. 23). Now is the time to assume a more active, antiracist approach inside and outside the classroom (Brookfield, 2020). As scholar-practitioners in higher education, we strongly advocate for student affairs educators across campus to take on more intentional roles towards promoting social justice, including the support of students who engage in activism, both on and off campus.

New Challenges, New Opportunities for Student Affairs Educators

Over the summer of 2020, immediately following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the Black Lives Matter protests across the country, many institutions of higher learning emailed students to assure them that the institution stands with BIPOC students against systemic racism. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Johnathan Flowers excoriated higher education institutions for quickly disseminating emails expounding their anti-racist virtue as they hid from their own hypocrisy in perpetuating White supremacy. Institutions moved fast to say that they were antiracist. Language provides a start, but it is insufficient when it lacks substance and fails to produce results; accountability holds more merit. How quickly will administrators and stakeholders of educational institutions move to support students engaging in antiracist activism? Additionally, how fast will they move to implement real changes that not only diversify their institutions, but help to dismantle the systems of oppression in the United States? Commitments toward antiracism must extend beyond emails and into support for student activism. Activism can yield positive results and real change.

Overcoming Resistance

Unfortunately, amid pressure from the 45th presidential administration, some universities have begun to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings. The administration declared they were racist and threatened to cut federal funding--some schools began to acquiesce. One notable example, an AAU institution, publicly declared its antiracist values in the summer following the murder of George Floyd, only to capitulate to pressure from the federal government. This is a prime example of the need for student affairs educators to not only support students of marginalized populations, but to bark upward at university leadership to challenge the federal governments’ attempt to remove diversity training from public institutions. Capitulating to these demands from the government does not support marginalized students in any way. In fact, it will likely cause further harm.

Awareness Plus Action

 Higashi and Stebleton (2020) pushed educators toward “good trouble” to honor the legacy of Congressman John Lewis who died this past summer. In that column, Higashi and Stebleton encouraged readers in career development and related student affairs professions to make a little noise and move their feet. These efforts include supporting student activists and engaging in social justice activism themselves. The current White House administration attempts to squelch any form of protest by painting all protestors as violent extremists and anti-American; this is blatantly false and unsubstantiated. Educators whose identities afford them unearned privileges have a responsibility to step up and act up on issues of social justice, urging their institutions to do and be better. Awareness of the issues is no longer sufficient; it is time to engage in meaningful action.

Moving Towards Action and Accountability

Educators should support student activists as a means of holding institutions accountable for the promises made when students were away during Covid-19. We offer six recommendations.

  •       Lindner et al. (2019) encouraged educators to shift the onus from activists to administrators so activists do not have to carry the burden. Administrators and other institutional decision makers need to show up for their students. Again, accountability needs to take priority.
  •       Practitioners can educate themselves by engaging in regular self-examination, awareness, and self-criticism as noted by Kendi. Students should not assume this emotional labor on behalf of educators. Students frequently engage in activism because they want to make institutional change; often they aim to make differences for future students at their respective institutions (Lindner et al., 2019).
  •       Listen, validate, address. In a recent ACPA/ASHE Presidential symposium (Oct. 8, 2020), speaker Robert Brown, Director of Social Justice Education at Northwestern University, urged participants to continue to see “possibilities” and envision hope despite the present challenges.
  •       Be aware that many students, including BIPOC and other marginalized students, may experience heightened mental health concerns, including anxiety and/or depression (Brown, 2020). Student affairs practitioners play important roles in terms of creating and fostering communities of care (Stebleton, 2019)
  •       Scholar Stevie Raymond Ruiz (2019), California State University Northridge, reminds us that student activism can lead to transformational learning. Faculty members, students, and student affairs educators can envision student activism and conflict as teachable moments that lead to learning opportunities.
  •       Finally, educators can take personal action: get politically involved, attend protests and demonstrations, and write letters to their representatives, and vote on November 3rd as well as in future local and national elections.

The Stakes are High

While 2020 continues to be one of the hardest years in the lives of many, glimmers of hope persist. The murder of George Floyd prompted millions of people around the world to speak out against injustice. Student affairs educators must integrate this passion for social justice into their own work. Likewise, hope exists in the form of a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 that will be developed and distributed widely by next fall 2021, according to scientific predictions. As we enter the month of November 2020, no doubt much is at stake. The election looms large over these words—and we strongly encourage readers to think about how they will support their students in the days ahead.


Brookfield, S.D. (2020). Using a pedagogy of narrative disclosure to uncover White supremacy. In A. Mandell & E. Michelson (Eds.), Adult learning in the age of Trump and Brexit, (pp. 9-19). New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 165, Jossey-Bass. https://doi.org/10.1002/ace.20364

Brown, S. (2020, July 6). Students of color are not OK. Here’s how colleges can support them. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/students-of-color-are-not-ok-heres-how-colleges-can-support-them

Dunn, A.H., Sondel, B., & Baggett, H.C. (2019). “I don’t want to come off as pushing an agenda”: How contexts shaped teachers’ pedagogy in the days after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. American Educational Research Journal, 56(2), 444-476. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831218794892

Flaherty C. (2020, October 7). Diversity work, interrupted. Inside Higher Education, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/10/07/colleges-cancel-diversity-programs-response-trump-order

Flowers, J. C. (2020, June 10). The coming campus protests. The Chronicle of Higher Education.             https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-coming-campus-protests

Griffin, K. A., Hart, J. L., Worthington, R. L., Belay, K., & Yeung, J. G. (2019). Race-related activism: How do higher education diversity professionals respond? Review of Higher Education, 43(2), 667–696. https://doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2019.0114

Higashi, L., & Stebleton, M. J. (2020, August 21). Act up: Nudging career practitioners toward ‘good trouble.’ CareerWise Weekly. https://careerwise.ceric.ca/2020/08/21/act-up-nudging-career-practitioners-toward-good-trouble/#.X5cKHy9h2ml

hooks, bell. (1994) Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Kane, P. B. , Moyer, H. , MacPherson, A. , Papenburg, J. , Ward, B. J., Broomell, S. B. , Kimmelman, J. (2020). Expert forecasts of COVID-19 vaccine development timelines. Journal of General Internal Medicinehttps://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-020-06244-9

Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an antiracist. Bodley Head.

Linder, C. Quaye, S. J., Stewart, T. J., Okelllo, W. K., Roberts, R. E. (2019). “The whole weight of the world on my shoulders”: Power, identity, and student activism. Journal of College Student Development, 60(5), 527-542. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.2019.0048

Ruiz, S.R. (2019). Another university is possible: Student activism against colonial education in the California State University system. About Campus, 24(2), 23-29.   https://doi.org/10.1177/1086482219869996

Stebleton, M. J. (2019). Building a community of care: Mental health is everyone’s business.  NASPA JCC Connexionshttps://naspa.org/blog/building-a-community-of-care-mental-health-is-everyone-s-business