Looking Outside Council Chambers: Grassroots Advocacy on Campus

When a student expresses a particular concern or interest in a campus affair, someone will likely respond by telling said individual to run to be a student representative. But what if you’ve missed the deadline, or what if that whole council thing has never really been for you? You are passionate about an issue, but you would rather not be involved in discussing other campus issues. Well that’s totally okay! And you’re not alone!

More and more students, both in groups and on their own, are engaging in grassroots advocacy at universities across the province. Here at Western University, there’s two recent student led advocacy efforts that have truly stood out:

Pedestrian Safety: There is currently a group of Kinesiology students who have taken a class project to new heights. These students, whose project focused on pedestrian safety on campus after two fatal accidents in 2015, are now reaching out to students-at-large, student leaders, and administration to have their comprehensive vision heard. Specifically, they are currently using a debate on Rapid Transit to catapult their work into the spotlight. While I may not wholly agree with all they have to say on the matter, their advocacy efforts – ranging from stakeholder meetings to using social media and roaming the library to encourage fellow students to email-in their concerns – are commendable.

CHRW (Western Radio): During the 2016 University Students’ Council election period, a student wrote a comprehensive blog post about his concerns over the amount of student money, without student say, being spent on our campus radio station. After the election, two Councillors brought forward a motion to bring this student fee to referendum. The Council meeting was a sight to see; the number of community members who flooded the room outnumbered Councillors at least two-to-one. They gave a compelling presentation, which focused on the personal stories of the station’s staff and volunteers. By using this approach, they changed the narrative from a cost issue to a people issue. Interestingly enough, this example highlights the role individuals, institutional mechanisms, and community groups all have to play in regards to influencing campus issues.

I believe there are a few key takeaways from the aforementioned two examples:

  1. Use your skills: Are you a writer? Have a knack for public speaking? Or is research your thing? Use whatever you have and do what you know; advocacy is not about who screams the loudest, but who makes the most effective use of their voice.
  2. Spread the word: One voice can start a movement, but student buy-in is necessary for change. Use your networks and your friends’ networks to make a movement of one or a few into a real student movement.
  3. Know your target: Who or what are you looking to impact? Are you targeting administration or your student executives? How much student buy-in do you need? With limited resources and limited time (hello student life), you need to make sure your efforts are as diverse as they need to be, but are not overly scattered.
  4. Be creative and get personal: The more creative you are, the more likely people are going to stop and pay attention to what you are saying and doing. Also, the more you focus on personal stories rather than abstract ideas, the harder it will be for decision makers to ignore the voices involved.
  5. Seize openings: Recognize and take advantage of opportunities to get into the conversation or your foot in the door. There will be times when your issue will not gain traction, no matter how hard you try. When the opportunity does come along, learn how to recognize it and find a way to change the conversation in your issue’s favour.

So, run to be a student representative if you want to (trust me, it is awesome). However, also know change doesn’t just happen on council floors or in board meetings – change on campus can start with you.


Alana Kiteley
Social Science Councillor, University Students’ Council