The endless (vicious) cycle of awareness campaigns

Opinion by Lily Zheng
May 8, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

Awareness campaigns – efforts to inform an audience on the existence or complexity of an issue or demographic – are student activism’s bread and butter. For every issue, it seems, we students have run or are running a campaign to “raise awareness,” “promote conversation” or “encourage dialogue.” Back in December, the No More campaign aimed to “bring awareness to the issue [of sexual assault in Greek life].” In April, the Women’s Coalition hosted a workshop to “foster dialogue” between student groups fighting against sexual assault in general. The second annual Out of the Darkness campus walk aimed to create “awareness for suicide prevention”; Syrian Refugee Week aimed to show solidarity by “raising awareness of the [refugee crisis]”; Transgender Awareness Week aimed to use awareness to “precipitate action.” Practically every major effort to organize students on campus has relied on awareness as the foundation and building block of activism – and that’s where we, as activists, have gotten it wrong.   

I have nothing against awareness campaigns on principle. I’ve organized and participated in more than I can remember, and plenty have left me inspired and ready to do more. Awareness campaigns are effective in spreading a particular message or idea in a short period of time – simple but memorable ideas like “have consensual interactions,” “respect trans people” or “end white supremacy.” Yet, that’s all they do. Awareness campaigns only raise awareness; they do not create change; they do not end injustice. To do these things, awareness campaigns must guide people towards action – towards donations, letter-writing, sit-ins, lobbying and other forms of active work. But at Stanford, so many would-be movements begin and end with awareness campaigns, brief one-shot actions rich in inspiration and crucially lacking in anything more.

Stanford’s student body is more aware than activists give it credit for. Students know that mental health is a big deal, that trans people have it bad, that racism and police brutality are terrible; we just don’t do anything about it. It isn’t because we don’t care – it’s because we do care but don’t know where to start.  We are saturated with events and information, dragged down by assignments and papers – it’s all we can do to go to events, if that. Organizers and student leaders shouldn’t be surprised when our awareness campaigns are unsuccessful if all they do is tell people about more things that are wrong, and fail to give them any clear way to make them better.

Unfortunately, the easy answer (give students clear ways to act after awareness campaigns) is, at best, an incomplete one. The reality of Stanford is that, as long as students are constantly cycling in and out of this university, activists will never be able to move past awareness campaigns.

Those of us who have organized events or run campaigns know that it is a thankless task. There are always more ignorant people, more uninformed audiences, more well-intentioned allies who have no idea what they’re doing. There is and always will be a need for more awareness campaigns, every year, on every issue. Student groups find themselves stuck in an endless cycle of the same basic 101 of advocacy, struggling between educating the student body, recruiting and educating new members and maintaining organizational efficacy as key leaders graduate and leave the organization.

Does this mean awareness campaigns are useless? Just the opposite – awareness campaigns are key, but they must follow demands for change, not precede them. This forces us, as activists, to reframe our goals from “what do we want?” to “how will we get it?” It forces us to learn tactics and strategy, to make strong and beneficial coalitions between our different movements and to take seriously the power of the student body, the average person uninvolved in our organizing but who nonetheless cares about the same issues.

What we don’t have time for, as a campus, are awareness campaigns that amount to little more than self-congratulatory back-patting and only symbolic support for the communities we claim to help. We have hard work to do, and organizing is a skill for which positive intent alone cannot compensate.


Contact Lily Zheng at [email protected].

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' – she loves messages!

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