Study USA

Unlocking Group Power: Social and Political Participation

Every semester, one student from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Tori Dylla will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Inequality in America program this spring semester. Tori is a senior at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Global Studies and minoring in Asian Languages and Literature. For more information about the Inequality in America program, click here. In their second post, Tori helps motivate you to get out there and work for change!

Fed up with the reality of the world we live in, people in the United States have unified across the country in social movements. From the Women’s March to Black Lives Matter to March for Our Lives, people have created spaces where the voices of our most vulnerable friends and neighbors are lifted up to share their experiences and demand social change. The 2017 Women’s March drew an estimated 470,000 protesters in Washington D.C. and an estimated 90,000-100,000 people marched here in St. Paul, MN. Since Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests began there have been over 2,349BLM protests across the country and it has incited many more demonstrations related to racial justice such as voting rights, mass incarceration, economic inequality and barriers to education and healthcare. Most recently, March for Our Lives turned out what crowd analysts believe may have been one of the largest attended protests in American history; an estimated 800,000 people marched in Washington and 20,000 people marched in St. Paul along with upwards of 800 sister rallies on sensible gun control across the nation on Saturday, March 24th.

Many of us may want to participate in these movements, but we face cognitive barriers to participation such as feeling like we are just not the “activist type,” we’re not extroverted enough, we’ve never participated in a rally before, we don’t know enough about the issue to get involved. I want to say that if any of these barriers apply to you, that your feelings are real and valid. However, these barriers are a social construct called learned helplessness, which limits our voices and thus your own personal power and the power of these movements. We need to push back against these ideas personally and alongside others so that the issues we share on social media are changed in our society. Sharing about social issues and movements on Facebook and Twitter is not a bad thing—in fact, it is a valuable tool for spreading messages about when and where events are happening. However, it can’t end there. Physical participation in social movements is critical for change making because it illustrates the collective power and beliefs of constituents to the politicians who write and vote on new laws.

A group of young people stand behind a white banner that reads, one is too many!

Leveraging power to create social change relies on large amounts of people showing up physically to plan and participate in public discussions, marches, rallies, and lobbying in order to not only get the attention of those who have the power but also pose a large enough threat to lawmakers that that they make the changes we want to see in our society. A key aspect of leveraging that power is reminding politicians that we, these thousands of people, vote and we will not vote you back into office if you do not support us. We have to not only protest, but also send our demands to the capital and vote in order to make legislative change happen. However, when it comes to getting physically involved in social justice movements many of us can find more than enough reasons to not get involved.

Four students stand in a row holding up neon signsWhen I was deciding whether or not I would join March for Our Lives this past Saturday I too questioned whether I had the time or the energy to get involved. What pushed me to go to the event was not just hearing the stories of the students leading the movement or knowing the mass quantity of people affected by school shootings, but knowing that March for Our Lives’ leaders are students like me—all of which are still in high school or younger and definitely twice as exhausted physically and emotionally. Knowing that my silence is a cue to my legislators that I am happy with gun laws now and don’t want to seek change—the exact opposite of how I feel—I had to be involved.

I did not go to the march alone. In fact, I brought four friends with me—three of whom are also HECUA students. Don’t feel like you need to act alone in social justice movements, bringing along friends will not only better support you while you are there, but also the movement as more people are getting involved. My classmate Brittany had this to say about why she felt had to get involved: “I teach kids at the Boys and Girls Clubs across the cities. I hate the idea that my students, who are often already born into communities with high crime rates, aren’t able to call their school a safe space. No child should have to grow up living in fear.”

Like the youth leading Black Lives Matter Protests, March for Our Lives’ leaders symbolize the individual power we all hold. Youth who, for the most part, are not experts in politics and current legislation surrounding social issues are changing our futures with their voices and their bodies. Overcoming fear was the first step for all of these leaders and it is the first step for all of us to get involved. One high school student from St. Paul told me this was her first time participating in a protest and she was there because “I’m more afraid of guns than protesting now. Watching students from Parkland speak… you can’t not get involved,” she said.

In HECUA’s Inequality in America program we draw on Paul Loeb’s book Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times to dismantle the feelings of powerlessness that keep people from engaging in social movements. Loeb writes about the “false myth” that a person taking a political stand has to be a “larger-than-life figure—someone with more time, energy, courage, vision, or knowledge than any normal person could ever possess.” If that were true, then youth would not be the primary leaders of our movements today. If youth were not leading movements today then who would be? If we ignore politics, or only comment on it over social media, then we are leaving ourselves and our private lives vulnerable to the goals of large organizations like the NRA who do lobby and do make their physical presence known in the capital.

Our next steps as active political citizens are to take our issues right to our legislatures’ offices. Click here to find out who your legislatures in MN are. Once you know call or write to them with why you want them to support sensible gun legislation. All you need to do is pick up the phone, tell their office assistant—or possibly their voicemail box—your full name, zip code and purpose for calling. That’s it! It will take you all of three minutes to do this. If you have more time, follow Moms Demand Action-MN on Facebook and sign-up to lobby with them at in St. Paul on April 18th, 2018. Share this information with your friends so we can leverage our collective power to make a real impact.

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