Let Them Scream!
Higher education administrators should support student protests and uphold institutional values
On campuses and in communities worldwide, students and young adults are protesting in the name of justice. Over the past ten years, we have seen college students protest after officer-involved deaths of Black Americans, for climate justice, and for the rights of women domestically and globally. While the hearts of students and community organizers are warmed at the sight of students protesting, for many higher education administrators, campus protests raise concern. Concerns that students will destroy property, students will physically clash with other groups or campus police, or that students will disrupt the learning environment. In turn, many administrators attempt to quell protests before they get started. The irony is that many of our current higher education administrators were once student protesters themselves. Some were silenced by their administrators, while others persisted amid attempts to silence them. So why silence the efforts of today’s students?
Students have been protesting and exercising activism strategies on college campuses since the 1960s. During the Civil Rights Movement, college students were involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and they were instrumental in their communities and Freedom Summer(McAdam, 1988). Students protested the Vietnam War and Apartheid in South Africa. Many students who participated in protests during the 1960s, 1970s, and early 2000s have become state and federal legislative leaders and higher education administrators. I argue that while many former protesters might not participate in protests or demonstrations anymore, many still participate in other forms of activism. They intentionally choosenot to support private sector businesses that do not align with their values (boycotting), sign petitions, donate their time and resources, and/or use their platforms and spheres of influence to advance justice whenever possible.
Some of the Boomers or Gen X-ers, who serve in many higher education leadership roles, might say that the world has become more violent and that protesting on campuses can quickly get out of control. While these concerns might prove legitimate in some cases, these instances should be treated as outliers and not the norm. I offer that persons (administrators, parents and families, or community members) might be equating protests with riots. Riots specifically involve violent features such as the destruction of property and are often not connected to a broader justice-oriented goal. Conversely, many protests are peaceful and empowering spaces, including those that our current college students attend and organize.
Late millennials and Gen Z-ers currently populate our campuses. The issues they are facing are not new, such as calls for racial justice among minoritized racial and ethnic groups, war, and the erasure of women’s reproductive rights. What is different is that the United States of America they are experiencing is the most divided we have seen in decades, and extremism is a constant presence in our socio-political environment. If the world they are facing is reaching such a critical point, why would we quell their voices?
Allowing students to scream in the name of advancing justice is deeply aligned with the values of higher education. Research has shown that participating in protests can increase students' sense of belonging, identity development, and positive mental health outcomes (Smith et al., 2023; Hope et al., 2018; Ballard & Ozer, 2016). In higher education, we want students to feel like they belong to a community. Participating in activism, such as protests, allows students to be in a community with other people who share their same values and can provide them with meaningful connections to others. Being in community with others can promote feelings of racial pride (Phoenix, 2020). Additionally, protests can act as a source of education and exposure that allows students to develop a sense of how they want to influence their communities during or after college. Students might also garner feelings of hope and empowerment(Smith et al., 2023; Ginwright & James, 2002). Hope and empowerment have been shown to be protective mental health outcomes (Griggs, 2017). Protests also provide an emotional catharsis for students (Smith et al., 2023; Ballard & Ozer, 2016).
The elements of protesting that help to generate these positive attributes are the ability to gather around a shared cause and to freely use their voices at whatever volume they choose (Smith et al., 2023). Also, hearing from speakers or hearing the stories of others impacted by the subject of the protest enhances the communal experience (Smith et al., 2023).
While many institutions might argue that students should use traditional forms of civic engagement to exercise their voices, I argue that activism and civic engagement are not in contrast. In fact, these two concepts must work together intimately to truly advance justice. Disruptive forms of activism, such as protests and demonstrations, are used to grab the attention of lawmakers and those in positions of power. Civic engagement can capitalize on the work of activism to increase voting and discourse with change-makers. Similarly, higher education administrators can support student protests and uphold institutional values.
I hope today's administrators who were once protesters, and those who still protest, will remember how it felt to scream for what they believed in. Administrators must encourage students to use their voices. However, with the increased knowledge and insight about the mental and physical toll of fighting for justice, administrators must also encourage students to practice self- and community care during and after protest participation.
Supporting an environment where students are encouraged to engage in activism, such as protesting, does not mean we abandon the values of our institutions. We must denounce and challenge actions and ideas such as discrimination and bigotry. In some cases, we must acknowledge that there are two sides to an argument and that multiple truths can exist simultaneously. We cannot erase the pain of history. However, we also cannot allow difference and conflict to make us forget our humanity or believe that change is impossible. We must use strategies, such as restorative practices and intercultural dialogue, to help students engage in conflict with love and empathy in their hearts.
Ballard, P. J., & Ozer, E. J. (2016). The implications of youth activism for health and well-being. In Contemporary youth activism: Advancing social justice in the United States (pp. 223–243). ABC-CLIO.
Ginwright, S., & James, T. (2002). From assets to agents of change: Social justice, organizing, and youth development. New Directions for Youth Development, 2002(96), 27–46.
Griggs, S. (2017). Hope and mental health in young adult college students: an integrative review. Journal of psychosocial nursing and mental health services, 55(2), 28-35.
Hope, E. C., Velez, G., Offidani-Bertrand, C., Keels, M., & Durkee, M. I. (2018). Political activism and mental health among Black and Latinx college students. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 24(1), 26–39.
McAdam, D. (1988). Freedom Summer. Oxford University Press.
Phoenix, D. L. (2020). Black hope floats: Racial emotion regulation and the uniquely motivating effects of hope on Black political participation. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 8(2), 662–685.
Smith, S. A., Arria, A. M., Fryer, C. S., Roy, K., Green, K. M., & Dyer, T. V. (2023). “It Just Felt Nice to be Able to Scream”: A Qualitative Examination of the Experiences of College Students Participating in the Black Lives Matter Movement. Journal of Adolescent Research, 07435584231202216.