Expanding Notions of Student Activism and Advocacy in the Community College

Expanding Notions of Student Activism and Advocacy in the Community College

Ryan A. Miller, Rachael Forester, Zachary N. Kendra-Dill, Steven C. Smith, Emily Wheeler, Mark M. D'Amico
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7274-9.ch006
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The purpose of this chapter is to explore student activism within community colleges, including opportunities for and barriers to activism. The authors argue that community colleges can and should leverage curricular and co-curricular venues to teach about and promote activism, thus encouraging socio-academic integrative moments that combine both academic and social integration. While four-year institutions might engage students in learning about and practicing activism via opportunities primarily outside of the classroom such as student affairs offices and student leadership opportunities, community colleges can encourage greater student activism primarily in curricular contexts. Indeed, given the demographic diversity present in community colleges—where students often work part- or full-time off campus, spend little time on campus outside of coursework, and have significant personal and family responsibilities—the classroom may be the optimal venue to engage students.
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Scholars writing about college student activism in the United States have often focused on predominantly White four-year institutions (Dixon, 2017). Histories of student activism have not typically focused on the community college context (e.g., Boren, 2001; Rhoads, 1998). Yet, community colleges have contributed to activism in higher education, dating back at least as early as the formation of the Black Panther Party in 1966 at Merritt College in Oakland, California (Heyman, 2016). In another instance at Seattle Central Community College in 1971, the Oriental Student Union occupied administrative offices and successfully pressured the college to hire Asian-American administrators (Long, 2016).

Several examples illustrate contemporary student activism in community colleges, including a peer activist learning community LaGuardia Community College-City University of New York, described as “an alternative model to improving retention in community colleges by highlighting the centrality of students’ activist contributions to their educational practices” (The Futures Initiative, 2018, para. 2). The same institution also hosted a Black Lives Matter summit at with events led by both faculty and students (Miller & Schwartz, 2016). On the west coast, the California Community Colleges earned a second-place ranking on Mother Jones magazine’s (2003) list of “Top 10 Activist Campuses,” noting that “after California announced it was cutting $530 million from community colleges and hiking tuition by 120 percent, 10,000 students marched on Sacramento” (para. 3). Police pepper-sprayed students at Santa Monica College trying to enter a board of trustees meeting to protest fee hikes (Chau, 2012a). During the Occupy movement, Seattle Central Community College became host to an Occupy Seattle encampment that prompted safety and security concerns from college officials (Ho, 2011).

Despite these examples, opportunities for activism beyond the classroom in community colleges may be limited, in large part due to the characteristics that prompt many students to attend community colleges. Reviewing 300 studies related to community college student success, Goldrick-Rab (2010) noted that “students attending the nation’s 2-year public colleges come from a wider range of family backgrounds” than those attending other institutions (p. 451), in addition to tremendous diversity in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, academic preparation, and parental level of education.

Using survey data from two-year and four-year college students, Newell (2014) found that two-year students were less likely to participate in community engagement activities. However, factors including “enrolling full-time, living on campus, and hours worked on or off campus helped explain the differences in engagement of two- and four-year students in community-based engagement” (p. 808). Once controlling for these factors, community college students exhibited greater engagement in political protests than students at four-year institutions in the sample (Newell, 2014). Additional research substantiates community college students’ lower rates of volunteerism and voting compared to their four-year peers (Lopez & Brown, 2006), suggesting opportunities to more extensively engage students. Given the distinctive community college student population and context, activism beyond traditional notions of out-of-class protests and sit-ins must be adopted.

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