Elon University’s recent success in social justice and civic engagement mimics the national climate.
Multimedia Reporting by Emmanuel Morgan
Every time Janay Tyson attends a protest of some sort, she asks herself a question: “What would my father think?”
The Elon University sophomore doesn’t consider herself an activist, but in her early years as a college student, she’s earned the reputation as one. She’s participated and helped plan various rallies, immersing herself as an agent to create change in a generation that constantly resembles the 1960’s with each passing hashtag or controversy.
Tyson said this inward identity didn’t flourish until she arrived at college. The differing of opinions from her classmates accompanied with a slew of notable recent protests piqued her interest to become more involved in this work. Since her freshman year, when she went to her first march with the North
Carolina NAACP, she’s gathered support and guidance from numerous individuals.
Her father wasn’t one of them.
“My dad would say things like, ‘We didn’t send you to college to break down walls and be an activist,’” Tyson said. “But to me, it’s not about sending me to college to do that. This is something that is important to me, and I don’t understand why you’re not supporting me. I was just frustrated and that’s when I said, ‘You’re not going to understand because our generation is different than yours.”
Tyson’s conflict mimics the recent surge of activism among college students. She’s one of thousands of college students who have protested in the last year over issues such as #BlackLivesMatter, political polarization, human rights, and many more problems. Some of these students were socially active in high school. Others discovered their organic drive to combat these issues in college.
A map plotting the nationwide college protests of President Donald Trump’s administration. Graphic courtesy of Campus Reform
According to a 2016 study by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, nearly one in 10 incoming college freshmen expect to participate in an on-campus protest. In 2014 alone, there were at least 160 protest nationwide. Tyson said she loves her father, which makes her struggle with him in this realm of her life to be frustrating. She said his generation experienced the brunt of impactful protests.
But now, the playing field has morphed in the previous decades, and she now believes it’s her turn to take up the fight.
“Life comes in waves to me,” Tyson said. “These issues just take on different forms and they never really stop.”
In such an unrestful time, Tyson said she and her peers seek to use every tool available to protest effectively at Elon, and she believes and the results are evident. If they can experience such success at a small private school, she said it can be done anywhere.
Tyson said they just can’t be afraid to stand up for themselves — like she does with her father.
“College is a great time to really understand yourself and your views, and it really is a place to talk about your values,” Tyson said. “And I see now that your values really come out in college and are solidified.
“People always say this, but if you want to be the change, you need to actively be a part of it and help implement that change. We have more influence than I think we realize.”
Video by Emmanuel Morgan
Diving beyond the textbook: Exploring the theories and practices of successful protests.
Even though she may not realize it, Tyson is an exemplar of sociological theories regarding young people and protests.
Raj Ghoshal’s expertise on the intersection of sociology and political science spans more than 10 years, since he received his sociology doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2005. As an assistant professor of sociology at Elon, he has taught classes involving social movements. Most recently, he teaches “Protest! Legacy of the 1960s,” a course that relates the protests of the 1960s to the current events.
Ghoshal said when he looks at the national scope of protests, he can equate it to one term — biographical availability. It’s definition is the “absence of personal constraints such as full-time employment, children, and financial commitments, that may increase the risks and costs of movement participation,” says Doug McAdam, professor of sociology at Stanford University, who wrote it in a journal in 1986.
Almost 30 years later, this definition is still accurate. Tyson’s father may express his concerns and opinions over what his daughter does. But from his home almost an hour away in Raleigh, what can he do to actually stop her?
“Young people have more flexibility to do things when they are in college,” Ghoshal said. “They aren’t tied down to a certain set of rules like they were at home. They have that leverage and mobility to do what they want to an extent.”
Other theories and practices remain prevalent in today’s current active climate, but Ghoshal said many young people are not thinking about them. They’re just acting off of instinct. Their sights are set on other things than textbooks, but as a researcher in this era, Ghoshal said it is still fascinating to watch these events unfold.
“I think that protesters themselves aren’t really thinking of theory of change, which isn’t a criticism,” Ghoshal said. “For most people, a huge part of why you protest is emotional and who you are, what group you experience it with and what they mean to you.”
Knowing when to march in the street or sit at the table: Choosing the most effective form to protest
Video by Emmanuel Morgan
Along with that unprecedented new freedom for college comes the responsibility of deciding which method of protest suits a situation. The age-old argument still breathes life. Did Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X have the more effective approach during the Civil Rights Movement? Do they sit at the table and discuss their concerns with authoritative figures, or do they raise picket fences and march in the public view?
In recent years, students have experimented with both concepts.
Jon Dooley, assistant vice president and dean of campus life at Elon, has witnessed student protests from coast to coast. From his first job at Marquette University and his subsequent ones at the University of Illinois and James Madison University, Dooley said he understands why students choose between both methods. One of his responsibilities was to respond directly to student protests — regardless of the form. Sometimes, they were public demonstrations. Other times, they were simply conversations with a handful of students. From an administrator’s perspective, he said he appreciates both — when done correctly.
“I think that one of the most important things is the clarity of the message,” Dooley said. “When you are organizing something like that, you are trying to raise your voice. But you have to ask yourself ‘How I do that in a way that I am clear about what my message is and in a way that I can be heard?’”
A map plotting the protests nationwide in solidarity for the University of Missouri. Graphic courtesy of Campus Reform.
Students across the country have experimented with both forms, but the radical, “in your face” protest are the ones that pick-up steam. Whether it be the litany of protests against President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, or student demonstrations the University of Missouri against their chancellor in 2015, media coverage dominates the sensationalized splashes of demonstrations. People tend to lean in that embolden direction, and Ghoshal said that is not surprising.
“Sometimes, people like to go to protests,” he said. “I think the Women’s March brought a lot of people because it was fun. That strategy is very successful because to some people, that is a lot easier and enjoyable than having tough conversations.”
Video by Emmanuel Morgan
Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Campus Life
Tyson played a pivotal role in organizing a march at Elon in September after the subsequent deaths of Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher — two black men etched to the bloodstained map of a new surge of police brutality in the United States mere days from each other last fall. She helped planned the march, but the team also reached out to Elon’s senior staff. Elon President Leo Lambert, Provost Steven House and many other administrators attended. Having those conversations beforehand and executing a successful march — which garnered more than 300 participants — shows that both methods can be intermixed for a greater impact.
“For me, seeing those marches and rallies attracts the attention,” Tyson said. “But then, someone from behind would have to do the institutional changes — changes to laws and policies. Both of these ideas play off of each other.”
Seeking institutional results: Taking the steps behind the scenes to fix the root of the problem
Prior to Tyson’s emergence as a social leader on campus, Alex Bohannon, an Elon senior and former Black Student Union president, championed a similar fight. From 2011-2015, Bohannon said, the black community was on the verge of revolt. As only five percent of the Elon population, Bohannon said black students felt secluded and unaccounted for. Around that time, Randy Williams, associate vice president for campus engagement, arrived at Elon. He said the tension was dense from day one of his new job.
“When I got here, a lot of black students were feeling fearful and hurt,” Williams said. “I was just sitting this office and trying to get to know them, and all the time I was hearing of this hurt and anger and pain.”
But that pain seemed to be blanketed by an array of promotional statistics. Since 2011, Elon has had a 90 percent retention rate, according to the Elon fact book. Minority admissions also steadily increases every year. The school’s 78 percent graduation rate also feeds the narrative of harmony in Elon’s green pastures and brick laden paths.
Still, the numbers were deceiving to the black students’ experiences. Many students reported incidents of bias, and a black female being called a racial slur in 2015 ignited a campus wide race rally.
The statistics did not tell the full story.
“While we see black students doing well academically and getting involved with these Elon experiences, they were still enduring a lot of microaggressions and sometimes a lot of overt racist things,” Williams said. “And they took the position that the administration and senior staff had to do something about it.”
After conversing with different students, Williams realized that if the problem wasn’t addressed, it would only get worse. He said some students mentioned “extreme measures,” such as sit-ins during prominent admission tour times, or calling outside forces to come to campus to help protest .
“A lot of these tactics wouldn’t have made any progress,” Williams said. “Quite frankly, it would have made the opposite effect.”
He didn’t want to let it reach this point.
In 2015, results were released from the Task Force on Black Student, Faculty and Staff Experiences, something Williams played a major role in. The results greatly affected the community. According to the report, “less than a quarter of Black survey respondents said they felt safe on campus.” When the report was released, Bohannon, along with other black students involved in Greek Life, athletics and other facets of campus, were colligated to a special committee with Lambert and other members of senior staff. Williams was also a part of those meetings. Much was said, and from those words came actions.
“There were several meetings between a group of black students and some senior staff and there were some very uncomfortable moments during those discussions,” Williams said. “There were some tough things that were said. But we got through it. And I was just glad that we weathered the storm and students made a strong impression to the senior staff. And we were able to implement some of their suggestions.”
Former Black Student Union President
From those suggestions spawned Black Solidarity Day, an annual event led by students that offers workshops on topics prevalent to the black community. Tyson planned this year’s event. Another is the “Black Man in America” course, a class that dives into empirical data revolving around systematic oppression since slavery. Bohannon is now enrolled in that course.
He said he appreciated the school’s response, and said it was one step closer to solving the problem. Because of this, he is able to see activism though a much broader lens.
“My growth has allowed me to see what is in the eye of administrators,” Bohannon said. “I saw that administrators really were struggling to respond to students who were mad, and these earlier conversations helped me see the entire process of enacting change — not just the one sided view as a student.”
Williams agreed and said this approach should be the standard for students seeking to create change.
“That just shows how students can effect change when you come together organized and come in seeking to bring about change and not just to arouse your hurt feelings or express frustration.” Williams said. “That definitely can be a part of it, but the main objective should be, ‘Okay, we’re upset, but now what are we going to do about it?’”
National vs local solutions: Using national problems as a method to effect change at home
Video by Emmanuel Morgan
Dooley said those problems were evident at other universities, much like activism as a whole. Earlier this year, Dooley attended a conference with other college vice presidents, and they discussed the topic of protesting on campuses. One common trait they mentioned was a fad sweeping across the country. Students seemed to be collecting national issues and applying them to their separate institutions. Because of this, colleges had to keep an keen strategic eye to their responses.
“Even a couple of years ago, some of the activism was directed outward, so students protesting or raising awareness to issues that affected them, but it was sort of about national policies,” Dooley said. “I think the past couple of years, I feel there has been a shift for students to turn to their institution and have their institution take stances.”
Whether it be as simple as writing a statement, or as drastic as changing a policy, most students anticipate that their administrators will respond to national or state issues. When North Carolina enacted House Bill 2, Lambert condemned the bill.
When Trump signed an executive order barring travel from seven majority Muslim countries, Lambert trekked to Washington, D.C, to voice his concerns with senators. Dooley said because of this style of leadership, other universities can see a template for how to respond to such issues.
“I may not be able to protest a national policy or a state law, but I’m sure I can expect that my institution is going to do something to address the national or local problem,” Dooley said.
Assistant Vice President and Dean of Campus Life
Tyson agreed and said even if the university does not respond, student activists will still take national matters into their own hands. Scott was killed in Charlotte, a nearly two- hour drive away from Elon. Crutcher was shot hundreds of miles away in Oklahoma.
Still, Tyson said distance does not stifle the pain or the urge to speak out against it.
“Individuals are still affected and recognize that it’s a problem, regardless of how far away something may seem,” Tyson said. “A lot of the incidents that affect police brutality are affecting black men. It definitely affected me because I have a little brother who’s a junior in high school who will be a black man. I have a father who is a black man.
“It incites something because even though it is far from home, we see it’s an injustice to a human being and at the end of the day, if you’re human, you shouldn’t be OK with that.”
Dooley said this approach is pivotal to localizing solutions to national problems. Being active, even when the situation may not immediately affect you, shows awareness of the problem and a desire to fix it.
“You always have a desire to influence the things you can influence and your most immediate environment,” Dooley said. “ I can’t do anything about the problem of racism across the United States, or inequality along the lines of race or sexual orientation or gender. I may not feel like I can influence that on a national level. But I may be able to do that on a campus level.”
Strategic Violence: Explaining the methodology behind violent protests and their effectiveness
Michael Bodley’s perspective on the national scene of protests has increased exponentially in the past year. He attended Elon and was editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, leading the coverage of the tumultuous times Williams and Bohannon experienced. Now, as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, he’s seen protests through a different lens — a more violent one. The 23-year-old covered a protest that received national attention and created an estimated $100,000 in damage, according to authorities.
Breitbart news editor Milo Yiannopoulos visited the University of California at Berkeley in February, and the community swarmed to protest his politically right-wing ideology. Bodley said as soon as night cover fell on the college, things escalated. Soon, he found himself following hoards of people and pushing his way through a herd of tightly packed demonstrators. He said there were more than 1,000 demonstrators there, all mixed in different races and appearances. The majority wanted to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.
A part of that group thought otherwise.
“It was a smaller, more louder group that wanted to cause trouble,” Bodley said. “No one is sure where they came from.”
This tactic is normal regarding protests in large cities. Many demonstrations start peacefully, but a tangent of the group decides to shift the focus. When uptown Charlotte erupted after Scott’s death in September, 70 percent of those arrested were out of state, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, 200 people were arrested in Washington, D.C. amid the estimated 900,000 who attended the event. The violent few came simply to stir trouble. Bodley said this tactic puts police in a tough spot because they want to facilitate a safe environment for people to express their opinion, but others want to interfere with that process for their own desires.
More than 200 protesters were arrested in Washington, D.C. after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Photos by Anton Delgado
Assistant Professor of Sociology
Bodley said a popular tactic violent protesters used was “black bloc,” a practice where protesters dress in all black, cover their faces and identity, and cause as much anarchy as possible in designated teams. They are organized and prepared. Bodley said because of these premeditated actions by a few, it’s not accurate to paint everyone with a broad brush.
“It’s not fair to blame the protesters,” Bodley said. “In actuality, the violent ones are not an accurate representation of what they are trying to accomplish.”
Ghoshal agreed with him. He also said he understands why some people want to violently protest, but questioned its effectiveness. With all of his expertise, he said he can only think of one violent protest that was effective change in the United States’ history — the Revolutionary War. In today’s protest, he said that approach is outdated. The statistics back this up. Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist and TED Talk presenter, said that in her research, she found that 50 percent of violent protests will be unsuccessful in changing policies. To Ghoshal, protesters must find a different avenue.
“When people take to violence, they have to keep the end goal in mind,” Ghoshal said. “Violence may be the quick and easy path, but in my opinion, it only escalates the problem.”
Tips for success: Common traits used by many protesters that create lasting change
Most researchers and activists agree that organization is the biggest staple to a successful protest — not violence. It was the biggest tip echoed. Tyson said when she helped plan the march at Elon in September, she wanted to use every tool possible. Bodley said the same thing, and because of his profession, he said he greatly appreciates how social media can rally people together for one cause. But Kenneth Brown Jr., an activist at Elon who served class of 2019 SGA president for two years, said clarity of the message is the most important aspect of a successful protest. Brown has been involved with activism since high school. When he thinks of protests, he wants people to articulate their goals well — whether that be through demonstrations or meetings.
“A part of activism is that while you are marching and demonstrating, you also have to be able to go to the small event and be able put yourself inside of other people’s shoes,” Brown said. “And before you begin to yell and march and do all of these things, you might as well figure out what you’re are yelling about.”
And when students adhere to that advice, Dooley said they must be patient. He said students may be in a rush to seek immediate results and may become irritated when things don’t happen rapidly.
But he said they have to trust the process.
“The problems that we are facing weren’t created overnight,” Dooley said. “It’s hard, but sometimes students have to recognize that the solution to this problem may not come when you’re here.
“Your university is constantly changing and the problem may not be addressed and solved before you graduate. It may be — if you are an alum and in five to 10 years —you’re going to come and say, ‘Wow, this is a different Elon than the one I attended, and I know that the things that I did when I was a student helped change that,’” Dooley said.
Having the difficult conversations to move forward
Video by Emmanuel Morgan
Tyson said she was surprised that these problems are still prevalent as they were when her father was her age. Now, she says it’s her generation’s turn to lead the charge for fixing them.
But people have to take the initiative to talk about them. It’s easier said than done.
The last presidential election displays how divided the United States is on issues many people protest. Ghoshal said he doesn’t want to predict what will happen. But he did say that the country is heading down a slippery slope.
“Our country is verbally more polarized than it has been in history,” Ghoshal said.
Still, he said an effort has to be made.
SGA Executive President
In some of his classes, Ghoshal makes it a mandatory assignment for his students to call their local state senators and leave a message regarding a problem they want fixed. Even on the micro level, Elon students have taken a same approach. SGA Executive President and senior Morgan Bodenarian is an activist and has been outspoken on issues she cares about in the past. In September, she was part of the SGA cadre that supported the march planned by Tyson. Now, as a prominent leader on campus, she’s making it her mission to lead the charge for change. She says it has to be done by example.
“It starts at the top,” Bodenarian said. “Student leaders have to be the ones who are not afraid to start the conversations. Even if we agree or disagree on a certain thing someone believes, the fact that we are talking means we are getting a step closer to understanding one another.”
Tyson said she’s glad to be a part of this new surge of student activism, and her father is a motivating factor to continue this work. The differing of opinion she has with him is the perfect example of how to start the road toward a brighter future. Young people are restless. They are hungry to enact change. And because of their newfound freedom, they’ll do everything in their power to voice it.
Tyson said she will always stand up for those who feel oppressed. She has the resources. She knows the different approaches. She has the support.
But until people start to step outside themselves and actively speak to one another, nothing will truly change.
“At the end of the day, you have to understand each other,” she said. “My father and I are in that process right now and I think that represents this question as a whole. If we just take the time to get to know each other and listen, a lot of these problems will go away. But until then, you’re going to see more people express themselves with active voices.”