College students have found their voice through college activism.
Words by Amanda Levine | Photos by Olivia Seidel and Sophia Adornetto
On a rainy, cold spring day of 2017, students marched down the Esplanade, holding signs reading “I defy racism” and “I defy sexism” while others chanted “My body, my rights” and other cheers focused on the Trump presidency. The march ended at front campus, when the students painted the rock with hot pink spray paint, Planned Parenthood’s colors. Around 30 students gathered in Risman Plaza that day while leaders from different student organizations led speeches to encourage students to resist hatred and bigotry.
The first time senior Emma Getz walked into a Planned Parenthood Advocates of KSU meeting she instantly felt welcomed. Activism wasn’t a part of her life until college, but she is now the President of three organizations on campus: Planned Parenthood Advocates of Kent State, The United Nations Children’s Fund KSU and The Flashes of Fem Coalition. Getz is also an intern at the women’s center.
“A lot of times you hear Planned Parenthood thrown around, but I didn’t know a lot about it,” Getz says. “I had never gone to the clinic, but I just knew that the type of people who were in that organization usually aligned with my values, my beliefs and the things I like to do.”
Planned Parenthood’s initiative is to educate college students on women’s reproductive health. During meetings, they discuss topics such as different methods of birth control, prices and insurance. As well as weekly meetings the organization participates in outside events, such as the PRIDE parade in Akron.
Getz compared the protests she participates in on campus to the ones she has gone to that aren’t affiliated with the university. Last January, Getz went to the women’s march in Cleveland which she described as empowering.
“I was amazed at how much people care,” Getz says. “There was a girl who’s up there talking and she was a DACA recipient. She was crying because she was having a really hard time talking about it, and she kept apologizing and were just shouting out ‘Oh, it’s okay. We love you, you got this.’”
Getting involved on campus is a part of the college experience for many students at Kent State. From 4 the Love of Paws to History Club, there are over 400 student organizations to join.
Professor Ashley Nickels of the political science department believes the large amount of opportunities colleges offer is the catalyst for college activism.
“The college experience [is] a space to become immersed in, different opportunities. So getting involved in different clubs, different student organizations, you see students becoming participants and members,” Nickels says. “Over time, as people are invited to engage more, they see this as a being a part of creating change.”
Kent State is no different. Kent has had a history of activism. On May 4, 1970 students were protesting the Vietnam War on Memorial field, when the National Guard opened fire- killing four and wounding nine. The May 4 site, located in Taylor Hall, is now recognized as a national landmark.
More recently, alumna Kaitlin Bennett has held multiple open carry protests along with Liberty Hangout, a student organization Bennett formed on campus. She was previously the president of Turning Point USA-Kent, before resigning. Bennett and Liberty Hangout teamed together to educate fellow students on open carry laws and the second amendment and brought Kent into the national spotlight when her graduation pictures went viral for holding an AR-15.
Tala Niwash, president of Students for Justice in Palestine, didn’t consider herself an activist until she attended Kent State. During Niwash’s freshman year, she went to Blastoff where she found the Students for Justice in Palestine group. It was here that she found people with similar beliefs and values similar to her own, especially after living through the occupation in Israel-Palestine.
“I just started going to their meetings after that. My biggest motivation was that I’m Palestinian, and I lived through the occupation, and know firsthand experience about everything,” Niwash says.
SJP focuses on educating its members about issues in Israel-Palestine. Each weekly meeting involves a discussion about current events and culture. In the spring SJP has a week dedicated to talking about the occupation called Israeli-Apartheid. Each night SJP holds meetings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They constructed a model wall based on the wall Israel built on the West Bank and a map of Israel-Palestine with facts about the occupation.
Last year, Students Support Israel held an Israeli education day for the anniversary of Israel’s independence. SJP held a silent protest against SSI in retaliation where they gathered in Bowman Hall with the Palestinian flag and homemade signs. With masks covering their faces, SPJ walked down the Esplanade to the second floor of the student center where they stood in a line holding the flag and signs.
“We wanted to do something to show people the other side of everything,” Niwash says.
Sociology professor at Kent State-Stark Katrina Bloch says activism is “engaging in activities to try and further positive change.” Bloch and Nickels both agree college is a space where students with different backgrounds can get together and share their personal experiences.
“They’re asked to think about their ideas, think about what’s important to them and reevaluate those thoughts.” Bloch says. “For some students it’s just reaffirming what they already knew, coming to new ideas, but then you create a space where you can act on those.”
Before the 2016 election, Kevin Cline, a senior majoring in public communication, hadn’t been involved with campus activism. Later, he noticed there weren’t any Libertarian groups on Kent State’s campus and worked with recent Kent graduate Colton Dalton to create one.
Young Americans for Liberty’s national branch worked with Cline and Dalton to start a chapter at Kent. YAL says they are a nonpartisan group that isn’t associated with any political party on campus, including the Libertarian party. They aim to focus on educating students on libertarian values.
“We don’t back candidates or legislation or anything like that. A good way to differentiate is we’re pro lowering taxes and tax cuts, but we wouldn’t endorse a tax cut bill,” Cline says.
For the past three years, YAL has hosted an event on Risman Plaza where students can sign an eight foot beach ball to advocate free speech. The goal of the event is to educate students on the First Amendment. In addition to the beach ball event, YAL has focused on informing others on their civil liberties, such as the “Restore the 4th” event. Last spring the organization went up to students and asked if they could look through their phones and bags to inform students on the fourth amendment.
“I think in a messaging standpoint, the best thing is to find out what [students are] passionate about. So politics in government in general, intrude on all of our lives,” Cline says. “I like to say that you may not care about politics, but politics sure as hell cares about you.”
In fact, Nickels believes activism on college campuses comes from being exposed to people with the same values.
“The more you move from this involvement as a member of an organization to adopting kind of that as part of your identity definitely influences your own form of activism, seeing yourself as an activist, seeing yourself as an agent of change,” Nickels says.
Organizations like SJP and Planned Parenthood Advocates partner with other activist organizations on campus as an effort to fight oppression. They both partnered with other clubs to work together to educate other students about their values.
SJP partnered with the Spanish and Latino Student Association to host an open panel about the similarities between Israel building a wall on the West Bank and President Trump’s idea of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I feel like most of the organizations that we do deal with are activists and they’re all fighting for their interests and what they want to see in the future,” Niwash says. “We all just help each other out by standing in solidarity.”
Unlike Planned Parenthood and SJP, YAL only partners with other organizations on nonpartisan issues. Because they are not a political party group, they can’t work with the College Democrats or the College Republicans to support a candidate or policy; however, YAL and these two organizations have held debates together on a wide range of social issues.
After the election of President Trump, Cline noticed a rise in right-wing groups organizing on campus. He believed the election gave people with these platforms a space to voice their opinions.
“Post 2016, I think there’s a lot more political tension on campus than there was because there is a battle of these ideas that we’re both bringing to the table with the left and right wing,” Cline says. “I’ve had a lot of great interactions with people that we have completely different worldviews, and every time we talk we get to learn something new about them and they learn something new about me. We generally agree more than we disagree is what I find.”
Nickels says although people are mobilized by political events, it is hard to see if there is a rise in activism or not. However, some research has shown mass demonstrations leading up to — and following — the 2016 presidency have been some of the largest.
“There was a mobilization of people interested in re-engaging in politics or engaging in new ways,” Nickels says, “I think for many, especially on the left, this was motivated by concerns around what the implications for a Trump presidency might mean for policies that were both important to them ideologically, but also had very real implications for their lived lives.”
For Cline, activism doesn’t stop at the campus. Cline and his friend have recently opened Mil Liberty Initiative. This organization is an advocacy nonprofit that focuses on “advocacy of the ideas of liberty to improve people’s everyday lives.”
Like Cline, Getz also has a love for activism that goes past her college experience. After college, Getz wants to work for the Peace Corps and eventually attend graduate school or work for a nonprofit organization.
“I think activism is probably my passion. I think it’s what drives me,” she says. “Quite honestly, that’s pretty much what I want to do for the rest of my life.”