The art of advocacy at MIT
Where do students fit in?
On May 1, MIT Corporation Member Barun Singh ENG ’06 called for MIT students to advocate for themselves. This is difficult with MIT’s current structure of advocacy, which lacks proper forums to share problems and ideas. Students advocate through the student groups they are a part of, and student groups are forced to make advocacy entertainment. Events such as Alpha Chi Omega’s Lipsync for raising domestic violence awareness and the Chorallaries’ Bad Taste, which makes fun of scandalous occurrences on campus, are fun but students do not leave the show with a heightened sense of awareness — they are often focused on the event itself, and not the issue at hand. I would like to explain why advocacy currently happens as it does and make suggestions for how to get students more involved in politics.
This past semester I explored the needs of MIT students engaged in service, advocacy, and political discussion through Hope in Action (HIA), a student group dedicated to supporting service, social justice, and advocacy on our campus. We were able to add questions to the 2011 All-Undergraduate Survey by the Office of the Provost, and found that only 10 percent of MIT Undergraduates plan on doing something involving politics during their time here. However, more than 50 percent of our campus is dissatisfied with the administration’s response to their concerns.
We held service leader dinners sponsored by the Public Service Center and met with groups like MITOccupy, The Forum, and TGBSM to find out the current state of student involvement. We also held a workshop exploring how student groups can improve the reach of political discussion on campus. From all these resources, we have made the following observations on why students aren’t involved in activism.
1. We like to do things for ourselves. An administrative call to attend a State of the Institute Address or to participate in a Diversity Summit does not draw a rousing crowd like a student-organized event such as Bad Taste.
2. MIT students are skeptical of how much political advocacy and discussion can do. Because of this, they are hesitant to attend political events if they think it will be a time sink. During MITOccupy’s kick-off event, WakeUp MIT, a couple of freshmen introduced themselves by saying “You have to prove that this is important.” I have experienced the same skepticism on multiple occasions.
As a result, we need to engineer discussions, increase transparency, and connect our community in the best way possible. After delving into what makes students tick I suggest working towards two things:
1. Make interactions more transparent by developing online platforms that are relevant, easy, and efficient. Many students voice their opinions and problems on http://isawyou.mit.edu/. MIT Mental Health has taken note of this and has used the site to gauge the state of MIT’s mental health. This is a great move which other organization should follow. The UA has tried to move their interactions online, but it doesn’t have a low barrier to entry. A better way for the UA to connect with students online would be to increase transparency by creating a live feed of what decisions the administration is making and allow students to comment.
2. Allow the entire campus to get together and talk. The administration should sponsor a day of conversation on political and advocacy issues. There are tons of ways that we can get students interested in having conversations. Let the faculty and students in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Comparative Media Studies, Political Science, Women and Gender Studies build a case for why we should care and build forums where students can candidly express what they think. That will give the administration the answers they are looking for and furthermore increase the feeling of community.
If you support these suggestions or would like to add your own you can write into the Tech’s online comment feed, apply to an Institute Committee through the UA, or add comments on HIA’s website at http://bit.ly/HIA_MIT.