Student activism workshop emphasizes empathy, civility

Leon Mire, Associate News Editor

The idea that university staff can support student activism that is both fearless and respectful was one message workshop participants heard as part of the EIUnity Diversity Conference.

Workshop presenter Jessica Ward, assistant director for the Office of Student Standards, said activism is important because it changes people’s personalities and values.

“We need to take action sometimes to stand up for what you believe, but it always needs to be based in dignity and respect,” she said.

Workshop presenter Kelsey Cripe, assistant director of residential life, presented some tips for staff and advisers when talking to students planning to protest.

Her three tips were to get all sides of the story, build a relationship with the students and be educated about the issues students are protesting.

Activism should be focused on making one’s opinions heard, not on attacking or disrespecting other people, Ward said, because personal attacks are both immoral and counterproductive.

Advisers must also ensure the safety of students planning to protest, she said.

Ward and Cripe asked the audience what they thought about staff actually participating in student protests.

Heather Webb, director of the Office of Student Standards, said she thought staff can participate to a limited degree.

“There’s a line between being there and being all up in the middle of it,” she said. “But I think you should be there, because students might have a lot of feelings and might look to you to help process them.”

But activism is not limited to protests, Ward said, and pointed to the shirt she was wearing, which read, “Ask me about my pronouns,” as an example of transgender activism.

Ward said it is important for staff to support students even if they do not agree with their political or other personal beliefs.

“It doesn’t matter how I feel about the president. If you’re in my personal circle, you know how I feel. But professionally, it doesn’t matter,” she said.

Megan Corder, an associate resident director and graduate student majoring in college student affairs, said she tries to limit expressing her opinions online.

“If I’m friends with my students and I post something (they disagree with), I then say to them, ‘I won’t support you in this capacity,’” Corder said.

She said she tries to find the right balance between expressing her own views and supporting the students where she works.

Students should realize that discomfort is an important part of personal growth, Ward said. She compared discomfort to how a pearl is made: a grain of sand lodges itself uncomfortably in the oyster’s shell, so it forms a pearl around the irritant.

“Without that discomfort, you would never have this beautiful thing,” she said.

Cripe said protests are an outlet for students who feel their voice is not being heard.

Protests are especially common on campuses because college is when students are being challenged mentally and spiritually, she said.

Ward said sometimes students are too eager to protest and they should first seek other avenues to resolve their conflicts.

“I understand that you’re mad that your meal swipe didn’t work, but is it really appropriate to do a stand-in in the dining hall?” she asked rhetorically.

Advisers to student groups need to have good judgment about when peaceful protests are actually necessary, she said.

Leon Mire can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].