The ‘student activism’ brand can be harmful

This is a graphic design of the word “opinion” in a speech bubble. The background is purple and there are various shapes surrounding the speech bubble.

In this tumultuous political climate, it often seems that the term “activism” is thrown around by everyone — politicians and Twitter pundits alike. Increased civic engagement and awareness have rapidly increased the use of the word “activism,” and the inevitable reality that has followed is one in which its definition is muddied and the threshold for what constitutes activism is lowered. 

One might assume this indicates a greater degree of acceptance for those who practice civil disobedience and social justice organizing. In practice, however, it begs the question of who exactly is benefitting from the fact that activism has suddenly moved from the fringes of society into mainstream culture. All things considered, it is extremely important for USC’s student body to understand who the popularization of activism serves. 

Activism is inherently shrouded in the idea of risking one’s comfort to challenge an injustice of some sort — whether it be social, economic or political, among other spheres — that exists within a particular system. While advocating for a cause by posting, engaging in discourse or spreading awareness about it is important, it is equally important (especially as the cause itself shifts into the mainstream) to understand the stratifications of activism and the degrees of effectiveness within each level. 

Still, though, the social shift toward celebrating activism in all its forms has reached a point where opportunists can claim the title of “activist” as a resume-booster in the hopes that those hiring within the political establishment will see it as a way to diversify the workforce and appease civil society. At face value, this may not seem like an issue: Some would argue it is a good thing that those who fight to achieve equity for marginalized communities are being granted a seat at the table. However, the broad umbrella under which “activism” now falls has allowed for some to unfairly capitalize and for oppressive systems to benefit. 

These aforementioned consequences explain how someone like Ziad “the Activist” Ahmed, who has branded himself as an average, self-starting student activist with progressive values (when in fact he is the son of a corporate multi-millionaire), was admitted to Ivy League universities by writing #BlackLivesMatter in his personal statement 100 times and started his own company. In stark contrast, young Black and brown organizers are brutalized and deemed enemies of the state by law enforcement. 

The latter group, often students, do not and cannot use the “profession” of activism to climb the corporate or political ladder because they are viewed as violent agitators — but it is these same people who do the hard work and don’t benefit with a brand deal or a job on The Hill. The people who incite genuine civil unrest and cultural change are deemed the foot soldiers — incredibly brave, nameless and faceless individuals who provoke and challenge powers at the risk of their safety and autonomy. There is often little to no praise for this line of work in a mainstream fashion. 

It is therefore immoral to compare Ahmed or any other self-proclaimed activist that has been welcomed by the corporate and political elite to the various organizers who have put their lives on the line to advocate for the defunding and abolition of police. Trying to brand “voting blue” as a form of activism (as Ahmed did in a TikTok video) does not hold a candle to standing in front of District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s office nearly every Wednesday demanding her resignation, at the risk of being harassed and abused by the police. 

This isn’t meant to dismiss or discount the importance of advocacy — when the masses begin to speak up about injustice, the sheer solidarity and strength in numbers can be enough to bend the will of elected officials, corporate powers and higher-education institutions. People should care about speaking up for their peers, even when they are not affected by the same injustices, because it is the bare minimum and an integral part of being a decent, compassionate person. 

The issue inherently lies in the fact that mainstream acceptance of “activism” is a farce. The current political, media and corporate powers have cherry-picked whose activism is worthy of media coverage and praise and whose activism is violent and dangerous because it makes them uncomfortable. However, it is often the latter group that really puts pressure on oppressive systems to change through tangible sacrifice, setting the foundation for and preceding all the social media and mainstream “activism” that follows. The distinction is necessary to make — put simply, it is important to recognize the work of those who are often viewed as agitators or aggressors when they demand justice and equity rather than only uplifting those whose activism is more palatable and moderate.