The Stony Brook campus severely lacks the activity that should be expected of a SUNY school under siege. Between budget cuts and tuition hikes, exploitative food contracts and private sector encroachment on our campus in the form of a hotel, it’s surprising that the Administration building hasn’t been occupied by infuriated students.
Why does it seem as if Stony Brook students are unaffected by measures which so clearly impact them in a direct way?
There are three areas in which our campus is clearly deficient: awareness, community and opportunity. Organizers on campus, though well intentioned, have by-and-large relied on cookie cutter techniques and quantity-based recruitment efforts which have resulted in disappointing event turn-out and a greater deal of stress and responsibility falling on the shoulders of a few, dedicated activists.
In the hectic college environment it’s difficult enough to figure out which classes you still need to take in order to graduate, let alone to understand the full ramifications of our campus’ food service contract. Part of the problem is that there exists an information bubble living alongside an information vacuum. Details tend to float around the activist community via word of mouth. Someone from the Press will tell someone from the Dems about something she heard from someone from Think Magazine. That guy at Think Magazine learned about it from a group of kids in SJA who were talking about it with some of the Stony Brook Freethinkers. This is the information bubble. Rarely is the rest of the student body made privy to the information and when they are it is not in the same, meaningful way. This is the information vacuum. And so, we find ourselves engaging in incestuous activism. Certainly there are the occasional tagalongs and recruits but for the most part the people at the rally in front of the SAC are the people you eat lunch with.
There needs to be a concerted effort to reach out to non-active students in a real and engaging way. Handing out an informational flyer may be effective, if the framing is right, the information is succinct and the content is pertinent in the context of the students’ daily life. Addressing entire classes is a more personal and effective method of disseminating information. Awareness raising events, too, can be effective but beware of soap-boxing with a tiny group of supporters. Five people holding signs and shouting about something at the fountain can actually work to marginalize your cause, raising awareness only of the fact that you couldn’t mobilize more people to help out.
Whatever the process, we need to work on bursting the exclusive information bubble.
Have you set up a Facebook event, invited people en masse, gotten a positive response but been sorely disappointed at the actual turn out? The problem is that we’ve learned to try to reverse engineer the inspiring social action we’ve seen in the past. We see thousands of people flooding our nations capitol and we want to emulate it. The problem lies in the way we attempt to do so.
Quantity-based recruitment efforts have been the priority of recent social movements. Large scale social network soliciting, mailing list sign up and indiscriminate outreach have mostly resulted in one hit wonders, unreliable recruits and most of all: frustration. The reason? A lack of interpersonal responsibility. We are not drawing recruits from a community built on trust and interconnectedness. It costs no social capital to accept an event request and never show up. There is no motive for a faceless recruit to follow through and for that reason we must never expect the person who took two seconds to write down their e-mail address to ever read them, let alone to act upon them.
If our first function as social actors is awareness raising, our other first function is community building. We must facilitate the construction of horizontal connections among students and faculty. One very effective example of this has been the interconnectedness of organizations such as the Stony Brook Press, Think Magazine, the Stony Brook Democrats and the Stony Brook Freethinkers. While there may be no official relation between these entities, the students involved have developed an intricate network through which information is quickly and efficiently disseminated and acted upon.
Another great method of community building is through interactive, non-action based events. The Freethinkers have successfully built a non-religious community by gathering individuals with a common interest and simply asking them to engage in conversation. You may not be filling out petitions or writing letters to your Congressman but you are establishing a personal and emotional foundation which is indispensable.
Resource allocation is something to consider when community building. People arrive if you announce that there’s free food but if you give that food too freely you fail to take advantage of the circumstance. Forcing people to listen to a little speech before getting their food, too, is hardly effective as it’s simply the delivery of information with no personal engagement. There needs to be an element of mutual exchange.
Finally, informed students in the Stony Brook activist community must feel that there is a real ability to effect change. This means retooling our strategy to what is effective rather than what is habitual. Protests are neat exercises in community building but without direct action do very little to actually change the status quo. Even the most apathetic students understand this. Letter writing and petition signing can be effective but is also quite difficult to mobilize considering that they’re, to be honest, boring.
Most of all, though, opportunity entails having a say. Top down “astro-turfing” may be easier for an organization but will lack the fire and effect that grassroots action will have. There needs to be a democratic way in which activists participate in planning.