The How-To’s Of Student Activism: Reflections on CAPE’s Student Activism Forum
On 14 October (Saturday), CAPE – which stands for Community for Advocacy & Political Education – organised its second event, a forum on student activism.
On an early Saturday morning, over 40 participants quickly filled up the lecture theatre to hear the stories and experiences of 3 panellists we had invited: Priscilla Chia, co-founder of anti-death penalty campaign We Believe In Second Chances; Rajeswari Indulekshmi, co-founder of queer women’s group Sayoni and leader of Same But Different, the recently published LGBT legal guidebook; and Ryan Ng, co-founder of Society Staples, a social enterprise advocating for a more inclusive society for differently-abled people.
Personal Motivations & An Activist’s Purpose
The speakers shared about a range of experiences, from what motivated them to get involved in advocacy to the challenges of engendering social change. Many were deeply personal experiences; for instance, Priscilla was deeply affected by the plight of Yong Vui Kong who was just about her age when she read about him in the news. Similarly, Ryan decided that he had to do something after reading online about a group of special needs educators who insulted and denigrated their students.
This resonated very strongly with me, as I had gotten involved with LGBTQ advocacy for the first time for a very personal reason as well over the Health Promotion Board’s youth sexuality resources.
Often, advocacy is not about finding a Big Problem and applying a Big Solution. Rather, it is usually about simply being aware of what’s going on around ourselves and contributing what we can do to make things better, no matter how insignificant we may think our efforts might be.
On how students can get involved, the speakers noted that student activism does not need to be about starting something new or doing something differently. Many great organisations and people are already out there doing amazing work and there is always more that they can do with some help from others. In particular, Indu shared that students also often bring something different to the team: youthful idealism. This can spur new ideas and new ways of doing things in existing groups. Students can simply start by approaching these groups and individuals to offer their time and support.
The speakers also concurred that the ultimate purpose of their work is to make themselves and their work obsolete. That, they agreed, should be the ultimate goal, not becoming the biggest, most popular or richest charity. This means thinking about changing systems and institutions with all other organisational goals being mere (but nonetheless crucial) means to a larger end.
Challenges & A Culture of Care
After their sharing, the floor opened for questions and participants quickly flooded the speakers with a diverse range of questions – from leadership succession and volunteer management to fundraising and burn-out.
In particular, two questions struck me: firstly, proving one’s legitimacy despite being a student and young person and secondly, maintaining one’s drive and faith in the work we do in the face of the leviathans of resistance.
It seems that the answer to both questions is twofold: what we need to do ourselves and what organisations should do as well.
Responding to the first question, Indu noted that just as organisations and more experienced activists should be open to hearing and engaging with younger activists, whether they are students or not, it is also important for us to practise humility – to accept that we might not know as much or may be wrong about something.
As for the second question, all three agreed that it’s ultimately about knowing how to take care of ourselves – to prioritise, to learn to say no when we need to, to give ourselves a break once in a while. For Ryan, this comes in the form of travelling when he gets to recharge from work. Pacing ourselves is crucial because social change doesn’t happen immediately; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Most importantly, Priscilla shared that it’s important to surround ourselves with supportive and affirming friends who can help keep us grounded and make the journey less lonely and difficult. Indeed, this was also partly why we decided to set up CAPE to foster a sense of community and support among students and young people who are passionate about social causes and changemaking.
The Rest Of The Day
After the panel discussion ended, we heard from Prof Matthew Schneider-Mayerson who teaches Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College who provided us with some theoretical frameworks for guiding advocacy work.
Over the course of his workshop, we were split into small groups to try to apply these principles in developing a campaign, which I and many others found especially useful. From identifying a campaign goal to strategising how to communicate our message to different audiences, these are practices I will definitely adopt in my own work in future.
The day ended with a short break-out session where we huddled together based on particular interests, be it migrants’ rights or environmental conservation. My group focused on LGBTQ issues and we had an engaging discussion applying what we had learnt earlier in the day to a particular social movement.
Beyond the learning points I wrote about above, I think my biggest takeaway from the day’s programme was hope. To see so many other young people come down on an early Saturday morning because they cared and wanted to do something about things they deeply cared about gave me hope that the future of Singapore is in great hands. Also, hearing from the speakers how the civil society landscape has developed – Indu and Priscilla both joking that they never would have thought they would be invited to speak about activism on a university campus in their time – made me hopeful that change is taking place, slowly but surely.
CAPE will be organising two welcome sessions for interested students who want to get involved with our group and student activism in general on 17 and 21 October and you can find out more about the events here.
Daryl Yang currently serves as Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network, a network constituted of five student-led organisations with the aim to foster safer and more inclusive campuses, and was previously Coordinator of The G Spot, Yale-NUS’s gender & sexuality alliance. He is a fourth year student reading a double degree in law and liberal arts at Yale-NUS College and the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore.