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Permalink to original version of “A letter to a new student leader” A letter to a new student leader

Greg Krikorian*, a student from U of Maryland, reached out to share her upcoming activism project, and I had to share. It’s important that everyone interested in equitable Title IX activism support her in her efforts as much as they did mine, if not more so.


Dear Sage,


Hope all is well. My name is Greg Krikorian and I am a freshwoman at the University of Maryland. I really admire the work you have done and continue to do for girls and women. Some friends and I have started a group called Students Advocating for Students, and our goal is to fight against unfair and biased Title IX procedures as well as other civil liberties for students. Rather than having individual groups at campuses, we intend to be a movement encompassing thousands of students across the country. We are currently in the process of drafting letters to school administration at Tufts University (my friends college) and University of Maryland. In these letters we highlight everything wrong the disciplinary system biased against young women. We are not demanding change, but requesting opportunity to meet with the administration so there can be a more open dialogue on the subject and hopefully a more fair system can be enacted in the long run. I was wondering if you had any advice to offer regarding dealing with administration and building a large following of people. Our website is http://www.sa4s.org/ if you have any interest in checking it out. Any help would be greatly appreciated, I was personally affected by this unjust system and want to do as much as I can so others don’t have the same fate.


Best,


Greg Krikorian


Hi Greg,


Thank you for your patience, and I’m proud to hear that you are leading an effort to help students know their rights. I am confident that your effort will go far!


You asked for advice regarding speaking with administrators and building a large following of people.


I’ll start with the latter since there’s a shorter answer: Follow Anil Kumar’s example by building a positive, low-pressure community with a focus on mentoring, building friendships and advocating for personal growth. If you care about your members, they will want to be around you. Anil observed that passionate activism, while necessary in many cases, is exhausting. Protests and other organized efforts are valuable, but in her words, a community needs to “bide its time,” striking only at key moments.


I point to Anil because you are targeting a national audience. My experience targeted a small area, so I had different tactics for building a following. Since students are under pressure to graduate and move on, I adopted a more aggressive model that won’t suit a broader vision, but may help your ground troops assigned to a campus should they emerge.


As for talking to decision makers: Accept now that no one has to listen to you.


Every problem you point out is work. No one wants to do work.


Any letter, email or voicemail you send is one among literally hundreds, if not thousands of grievances, commendations, and ramblings that altogether make up someone’s day. Even if a provost or president actually hears your plea in the noise, administrators don’t have the powers of intervention that students often assume that they do.


I had to learn this the hard way when challenging a self-defense course at Kennesaw State U. Months of ignored emails led me to escalate my dispute to the University Relations office. I learned there that the course director was simply waiting for me to graduate or finish the semester. And why not? Just because I know the right thing to do doesn’t mean someone has to do it.


Put yourself in the shoes of a dean of students, which is a possible contact for you: You sit down and open your inbox. 395 messages since you clocked out yesterday. What goes through your mind? Okay, fire drill reminder for the Fark N. Moosedick science building. Oh, right. Gotta speak at that thing. Shit, budget advisory committee meeting at 1. Where was that agenda? Knock at the door. No, Jess, you need to make an appointment to see me. No, I can’t adjust your schedule, see your adviser. Mary is trying to seduce Dr. Hooknose for that ‘A’ again. Yeesh. And, of course. The DOE has more hoops for us, so round table for us at 6 PM. Figures. Wait, Neil Tyson is guest speaking and they need me to ask prescribed questions?!


And so it goes.


Out of that whirlwind, how would you respond to someone coming up complaining about how the university affects fifty percent of the student population? Even if it were said in the nicest way possible, you would gleefully grin and say in the most politically prudent, liability-dodging way that you will roll up your sleeves, take a deep breath, and jump right on letting this not be your problem thank you very much.


But there is hope. You are just faced with the challenge of making the issue bigger than yourself, and getting students passionately invested in the welfare of women and girls. The more students are willing to come to your events and voice their concerns with you, the more pressure they can place as a community on student government, unions, department heads and so on. Once you have that passion, you can leverage voices into building a better community. You get people to stand with you by giving a shit about them and being generally awesome company. That’s more than what the system offers anyway, right?


The way you get that to decision makers? Most administrators are trained to be neutral and cannot take a political position without risking serious trouble. Give them an “out” from the work and the controversy while making all the good stuff (and ONLY the good stuff) sound like their idea. It might not make them do much, but it will make them want to nurture your passion and growth using their limited power. More often than not, being approachable and understanding a la Columbo causes them to fill you in on valuable information about the workings of a school that gives you an idea of your next moves.


Stick to the most non-controversial presentation of your subject matter. Study negotiation, sales, and rhetoric. Know your rights, policies, and perks of your position. Remember that most people think emotionally, and speak to the value you bring more than the wrongs wrought by others. Say you want to help the suicidal find better counseling or flesh out local food pantries. Ask them where to find people and if they are willing to make a statement to a better community. But most importantly, make sure YOU are in charge of those efforts, and when you execute them, make sure women benefit as much as men do. Offer the equitable services that no one really finds. Prove your way is better, document the ever-loving shit out of everything, and then work your way up to a VP or Provost to talk about starting programs in collaboration with a student organization or non-profit that you control or influence. Find the Title IX coordinators, ombudswomen, university counsels and all the other little worker bees that control parts of policy and keep them accountable to their jobs.


Eventually, things will start looking better. Even if only a little bit. Even if only in one place.


A better system comes from constant work that brings incremental changes. Revolutions don’t happen overnight. Learn to work with defective systems, the lazy and the hopeless, because that is the hallmark of a skilled activist and leader.


I hope that this helps you, and I am excited to hear more about your ventures. Keep me posted.

* Name reprinted with written permission.