Beyond Voting: Movement Building and Activism

Within the last few months one of the biggest issues facing our national community has been systematic police racism and brutality. These issues are ingrained in our national history and are not new. In fact, they are closely linked with the violence and oppression civil rights activists like Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were fighting against during the Freedom Summer. Our country has a long history of devaluing black lives in many different ways, and the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and many others have re-centered these problems, ignited a national conversation, and sparked activism across the country. As a person with white privilege, I have been asking myself what my role should be in these movements and how I can use my own power to support and show solidarity with people of color in my community.

I decided to organize a “Know Your Rights” event to directly address student experiences with campus security officers in my own community, Allegheny College. Although I knew that this would not “solve” the incredibly complex issues with police militarization and institutional racism faced by my peers at Allegheny and many others, I felt that such an event would fill an important gap at my school. I partnered with the Allegheny Pre-law Club and the Association for the Advancement of Black Culture to present the workshop, which I co-facilitated with a local attorney in November. We focused on student rights when interacting with police and with campus security officers. Between thirty and forty students came out, and we not only presented facts about state and national laws relating to police conduct and citizen interactions we also shared our own experiences with college security and officers in the Meadville area.

From these discussions it became clear that our school’s dorm search policies are unacceptably vague and disproportionately impact students of color. In response to this, myself and other students have taken on the task of researching other school’s policies. We are organizing student support and demanding that administrators rewrite the room search policy in our student handbook.

One of my goals as an Andrew Goodman Foundation Vote Everywhere Ambassador is to show my community that we can vote in more ways than one. Although it is essential to participate in elections, we also ‘vote’ everyday based on how we choose to spend our money and time. By learning about our rights, forming coalitions, and showing administrators at our college that we are well informed and passionate about issues that impact us, students can bring about real change in our communities.

Although learning about our rights may not seem to have any direct bearing on what is going on in Ferguson and New York City right now, I believe that our actions are connected to these movements and do make a difference. We cannot know when our rights are being violated until we know what our rights are in the first place. The students who attended the workshop and learned something are now empowered to go out and share this knowledge with others. After we graduate, we will be living and working all over the country (maybe even all over the globe) and we will be ready to use this information in our new communities.

We are extremely privileged at Allegheny in that we do not face significant amounts of police violence. But by standing up to injustices (however big or small) at our own college we show that no level of police abuse will be tolerated.

I know that I still have much to learn, and I am still looking at myself to try to identify my own privileges and how I can use them to empower others and dismantle systems of oppression. I still do not know the best way to show my support for activists on the front lines in Ferguson or to show solidarity with the many communities and people of color who face police brutality on a daily basis. I do know that I am incredibly grateful to have been given the opportunity to learn more about these issues as a Vote Everywhere Ambassador, and to continue to be a part of this national conversation. I encourage all of my fellow students to think about how they can use their votes to create change in their communities and to engage in this ongoing dialogue.

About the Author

Brianna is a junior at Allegheny College majoring in global health and minoring in  political science. She is passionate about eliminating health disparities, patient rights, police  accountability, and other issues related to social and economic justice. She previously served as a public policy intern with Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida and in the Washington D.C. office of Senator Elizabeth Warren. She now works as a social media and outreach coordinator for the Allegheny  Center for Intercultural Advancement and Student Success. After graduating Brianna hopes to pursue a  career in health policy or radio journalism.