Campus activism event ideas and advice
January 26, 2006 9:38 AM   Subscribe

What are the most successful/engaging/popular events you've seen put on by campus activist groups? Any general tips for organization or planning? A new campus pro-choice group has sprung up to fill an ideological void, and a friend is running the show.

I'm asking this on behalf of my very involved girlfriend. She sez:

"What are some good, easy to plan pro-choice demonstrations/events to put on a campus, particularly a conservative campus?

"I just started a students for choice group at my university after some anti-choicers started their own 'students for life' group. They seem to have much more time, energy, and organizational skills than we do, and they have a better presence on campus than we do. My pro-choice group desperately needs to make a huge statement on this campus ASAP, but every member of the executive board has a horrendous schedule, so it also needs to be something that's easy to plan.

"Our group is full of very passionate people who aren't afraid to be controversial, so please feel free to be as open as you like with suggestions."

We've seen this thread, but we're looking for more concrete event ideas than it offers.
posted by electric_counterpoint to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
stuff with humor, and participatory stuff--i've seen great game-show parodies educating and entertaining people about issues--think three chairs set out somewhere and a funny host with a portable mic (if it's allowed), and students walking by enlisted as the contestants, and some little trinkets/prizes. Guaranteed to draw a crowd, and not at all offputting.
posted by amberglow at 9:51 AM on January 26, 2006

alternatively, very shocking works too, but can cause a big backlash, which hurts. I've seen actual "back-alley abortion" setups done, with the girl "dying", with fake blood and everything.
posted by amberglow at 9:53 AM on January 26, 2006

I've seen this on the Main Green here at Brown; adapt it to whatever is the most trafficked area on campus. Hang a string between trees. Place wire hangers on said string. Two easy steps! Accompanying signs are usually good, too.
posted by awesomebrad at 9:59 AM on January 26, 2006

Have underground dance parties for fundraisers with kissing booths. Get a sponsor from a local sex shop to throw in kinky prizes.
posted by dobie at 10:17 AM on January 26, 2006

The most attended, and as far as I could tell, well enjoyed event that didn't cost too much while I was at college was a trip to the nearest roller skate rink. Really. This wasn't that long ago either. Rinks will rent themselves out for the night for like $500 or something. Call a local school bus company and tell them you think you'll need to move 500 students (or whatever...) 5 miles, between the hours of 8pm - 11pm. They'll tell you how many school busses you need and the schedule you need them on and how much it'll cost ($500 I'll say.) Make it free to students, transportation, rental, use, etc to get them to come. They can drive if they want to, or take a bus. Get DJs from the radio station to DJ the party for free. Oh, and you might be able to try and pull this off too. If the rink will let you, and your school too, get an area of the rink to be a beer garden. Call the local microbrews, tell them what you're doing and that you expect to have 300 drinking age young and impressionable college students there. They'll donate two or three kegs for free (really, this works, I've done it a handful of times.) You might need to put up a banner of theirs, or something. While you're at it, ask them for free cups with their logo on them so you don't have to buy those. Get a someone to check ID and be responsible for the beer garden and you got it all done.

Email me (in profile) if you want more details.
posted by pwb503 at 10:26 AM on January 26, 2006

I'm going to cite an example of a diametrically opposite demonstration I've seen recently a number of people I know have found very effective (hopefully there's something of value in this).

This was put on by a pro-life student activist group at UC Berkeley, an institution that is, as a whole, obviously pro-choice. The pro-life group tied hundreds of blue ribbons to the trees in an area with a lot of foot traffic. Every single ribbon signified what they saw as a lost life due to abortion. The idea of making the viewer visualize large abstract numbers is obviously not a new one, but it's undeniably effective.

Now that I think about it, this technique could be adapted to your group rather easily - e.g., each ribbon could symbolize a death of a woman as a consequence of an illegal abortion before Roe, or some such.
posted by Pontius Pilate at 10:58 AM on January 26, 2006

Posted for an acquaintance:
Hi. I am the founder and former president of a law students for choice in (conservative) upstate New York. I ran into many of the same problems. I think the best way to set up a great response/program on your campus is to contact your local (or nearest) Planned Parenthood. Most offices have an administrative person dedicated to running or helping student organizations. They are very open to sharing ideas, helping to get speakers, providing signs, literature, condoms, buttons, free-give-aways, etc. They also understand the need to prepare fast and easily. Also, I would suggest going to for ideas on programs and These are both graduate level SFC groups, but facing and addressing the same issues. They will also list campus groups and there may be one near you that you should reach out to. Joint programs always attract more supporters (and opponents). Lastly, use the media (press releases) and MOST importantly, MAKE SURE YOU ARE SAFE. For ANY event, contact security on your campus and request that they be present (especially for events open to the public). Talk to Planned Parenthood about this...there are some tale-tell signs and tactics that opponents will use at events and you need to be prepared on how to handle them. You are doing an extrodinary thing for your generation! Keep fighting!
posted by alms at 11:13 AM on January 26, 2006

Food. Provide free food. It doesn't matter whether the campus is conservative or liberal or just crazy, college students love free food.
posted by Anonymous at 11:47 AM on January 26, 2006

I wouldn't focus too much on what great event to put together first. I'd start with some small, scale, participatory things that make people feel good about their contributions (clinic defense, volunteering at clinics, small educational programs).

I helped organize some progressive orgs at college and the key thing is not getting 100 or even 20 new people at your meetings or events, but to hold on to a much bigger percentage of people who do come. Have a weekly meetings to plan your other activities and give updates. Make sure there is an agenda, that one or two people don't talk too much and that there is room for discussion.

When someone new shows up, try to talk to them, see what they're interested in and (here is the key), get them to do something - come to an event, arrange for a speaker to come from another org, make a flyer, volunteer at the clinic, etc. If you can't talk to all the new folks at the meeting (make sure you've sent around a sign up sheet), give them a call afterwards and do the same thing.

Also, at every meeting have a little 30 second announcement about recruitment - it is important, we need to build a movement, we need more people to get involved so we can get more done, so please put out the word, make annoucements in your classes, bring a friend etc. Even if you don't get all these things done, just starting to institute a culture of recruitment and organization building will be helpful.

In our case, we just built one person at a time, who then brought their friends and we went from having 3 people at meetings to 50-75 at regular meetings and more for big events. It is sometimes tedious, but it is this kind of nuts and bolts organzing and follow-up that will build your organization.
posted by krudiger at 12:32 PM on January 26, 2006

Side note here -- go talk to the school newspaper adviser. Not the students, the faculty adviser. Get him/her to introduce you to the student editors and then get friendly with them, too. Position yourself as the "voice" of your campus organization. Tell them they can contact you AT ANY TIME when the pro-life crowd does something, so you can provide a counter-quote and statement. When ANY pro-life event happens on campus, you should, in-person, deliver a well-worded, professional statement to the campus newspaper that counters the other organization's statement.

Why do this? Because the campus paper doesn't know they need it, they don't know how to get it, but it will make them look like better journalists for getting it. Because the adviser is the best route to take to get the student editors to notice you. Because the campus newspaper will be more likely to cover YOUR event, when you hold one.

This is public relations 101 at work here. There's a reason it works. ;-)
posted by frogan at 1:21 PM on January 26, 2006

I think there are better questions to ask. Like,
  • What concrete* issues are important and relevant to the people in your community? (your whole community, not just the self-selected members of your group) ... *concrete means things that can actually be changed by someone in power. A concrete issue is "student health insurance doesn't cover contraception", not "people around here need to be more pro-choice." If you are on a conservative campus, you are going to need allies if you want to make any change that will actually affect people's lives (which you do, right?). So pick a first issue that you can bring in other groups on who might not be the usual suspects. You want to make more people pro-choice? Then surprise them by not being the fringe group the anti-'s want to make you look like. Start something that can have broad support. You don't have to answer everything the other side does, and if you constantly engage the battles you have no hope of winning, then you're missing opportunities to make the smaller concrete changes that are essential steps on the way to your goal (of worldwide pro-choice hegemony or whatever)
  • Who has the power to give you what you want on your issue (make the insurance program cover contraception, for example)?
  • What kind of power do you have, or can you get, over that person? (can you vote them out of office, or threaten to? who do they answer to? can you embarass them? what do they care most about that you have the ability to take away?)
  • What resources do you need (people? money? contacts?) to do what you need to do to that person to get what you want?
  • Now, what do you need to do, with what you have, to get those resources (what can you do on the way to your goal that will get a lot of people involved or raise money?), or, if you have what you need already, what will put the right kind of pressure on the person who can give you what you want?
Answer those questions and you'll know what to do. The plan comes before the action. Unless you just want to have a feminist social club, which can be fun too, but won't change a whole lot.
posted by crabintheocean at 1:33 PM on January 26, 2006

You could screen a documentary about what abortion was like pre-Roe. We did this at my campus in St. Louis in the late '80s (though showing a different doc, the title of which escapes me now), right around the time there was a St. Louis case before the Supreme Court challenging Roe, and it was quite successful.
posted by scody at 2:20 PM on January 26, 2006

This isn't exactly the kind of answer you're looking for, though I should note that I wish you all the luck in the world.

As someone who has worked as a progressive organizer on campaigns at many different levels, I have to say that the key to successful early organizing is something that goes against all of our instincts as progressives: dictatorship strong leadership. When I saw the phrase "Executive Committee," it made me wonder if the group is spending times on meetings and imaginry admininstrative things that ought to be spent on action.

I know that it is counter-intuitive, but having a single person in charge (and having a group willing to sort of be ordered around) is about the only way to kick ass in the way required to build institutional momentum like the kind your friend is looking to create. A relatively uninspired action (like bird-dogging an anti-choice speaker or handing out flyers) can be a rousing success if it is well-organized, well-attended, and you get all the right photos/quotes done well. Likewise, the most genius action in the world will suck if no one shows up. You can't successfully organize without discipline and accountability, and you can't have those things without a strong leader.

Crabintheocean is right-on. Know your goals, then think about your tactics. That is the difference between strategic organizing and a bunch of old hippies sitting around doing parliamentary procedure.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 4:21 PM on January 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

While access to emergency contraception isn't abortion/choice exactly, it is a reproductive right of sorts. If for some reason access is limited (e.g. tough to get at the student health center, or a nearby pharmacy doesn't fill the script, or one of the close hospitals doesn't offer it to rape victims, etc), that issue might be something to tack onto your agenda. Another thing to look at is if your student health plan covers prescriptions, but not birth control.

Not that abortion rights aren't important; but plan B and/or birth control kinda falls into a pro-choice group's "jurisdiction" I think. And abortions are pretty rare compared to BCP & pregnancy scares; reminding people of the other territories some pro-lifers want to encroach on will remind them why the topic is still important. Something as simple as fliers with torn condoms on them can call attention to the issue. (obviously torn, so nobody tries to tear one down to use)

Just some thoughts. Good luck!
posted by neda at 7:11 PM on January 26, 2006

I was a liberal political organizer (at UC Berkeley, no less!) in the early 90s (before the University of Chicago showed me the error of my ways) and from my experience:

(1) Ignatius is 200% right -- 100% for what he said (you need command and control and a bias towards action and against by-law-ism and consensus building) and 100% for what he didn't say -- visible hierarchy and potent rank are great tools to recruit and attract ambitious people who will work their tails off as indians for the hope of becoming the chief.

(2) You need to make it cool. Anyone who wants to join a geek club has their pick of anime and Renaissance Faire societies to hang out at. Every effective political club I saw in 5 years at Berkeley had at least a few very socially adept and quite good looking people conspicuously involved, threw parties on a regular basis, and generally made a heavy effort to be a group worth seeing and being seen with.

(3) You need to think SHORT-TERM and pile up the wins. Being well-led and cool will get people involved, but you'll keep people only by keeping them "fed" with a sense that they're getting something done, making progress.

(4) Don't worry that you're in the minority -- it's an asset, not a liability. The contrarians and the enemies of consensus always have the most fun and make the biggest impact. A big part of why I eventually became a conservative was out of admiration for the joi de vivre and the fearless self-expression of the Berkeley rightwingers, which I acknowledged and admired even when I thought I disagreed with virtually everything they had to say.
posted by MattD at 7:25 PM on January 26, 2006

"visible hierarchy and potent rank are great tools to recruit and attract ambitious people who will work their tails off as indians for the hope of becoming the chief."
Just make sure you use your "strong leadership" to keep people who are just there for status out of leadership positions.

There's a quote I can't attribute that says "leaders get in front of their people and march; organizers get behind their people and push."

I agree wholeheartedly with the need for leadership, and I publicly disdain anarchist-types who think an organization sensibly based on principles of democracy, responsibility and accountability (rather than popularity, bullying, and inaction, aka 'consensus') is a dictatorship... but you can get strength of unity without dictatorship.

democracy is important, if only as a reality check -- it's your job as a leader to tell your people what you think is the right course of action, but if you can't get people to vote your way you're never going to get them to march your way.

strong leadership can be a good tool to more effectively accomplish your group's goals and improve people's lives, but it has to be driven by those goals and not by personal ambition. that's how cults get started.

people should get behind you as a leader because they have faith in you that you will always do what is best for the group's issue campaign, and that you put the group's goals before everything else. the people who work their asses off just because they want to be boss may make great cannon fodder, but they need to be shown the door before they get too big for their britches.
posted by crabintheocean at 9:32 AM on January 27, 2006

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