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Student activism groups grapple with engaging Stanford community, meeting students’ needs online

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Student activist groups have shifted their outreach initiatives to a virtual format and reevaluated their advocacy goals to address new student needs amid the pandemic.

The realm of social media activism has grown since last March, with many nationwide movements, most notably Black Lives Matter, relying on online methods of organizing. 

Many groups on campus developed a social media presence long before the pandemic. However, they are no longer able to rely on in-person events to garner support. Fossil Free Stanford (FFS) members Miriam Wallstrom ’23 and Christopher Rilling ’22 said it has been challenging to engage members of the community via a computer screen. 

“Now they can just sort of sit behind a computer and ignore my emails,” Rilling said. “People are a lot more siloed and it’s more difficult to connect with them.”

However, students say engagement difficulties have not halted their respective group’s agenda. According to Wallstrom, FFS’ June 2020 petition for Stanford to divest from the fossil fuel industry garnered over 1,000 student signatures through promotion on Twitter and Instagram. 

Stanford’s Basic Needs Coalition (BNC) similarly harnessed social media and other online forums to raise over $170,000 to cover housing, food and healthcare costs for members of the Stanford community during the pandemic. According to BNC member Sreya Guha ’22, for students requesting access to the funds, people wishing to donate and people wishing to join the organization, “social media has been an important part [of] keeping the community up to date.” BNC frequently updates its Twitter and Instagram pages, which have over 1,800 followers between the two platforms.

While many groups have used the wide circulation of information through Twitter and Instagram to their advantage, others are skeptical, worried that online activism will devolve into mere virtue signaling. 

Organizers of Sexual Violence Free Stanford (SVFS), a group started by the Associated Students of Stanford University Undergraduate Senate Committee on Sexual Violence, said that they exclusively use their online presence to emphasize the need for action. 

“One thing we didn’t want to do with creating an online presence is just build an avenue for people to not really do anything beyond publicly aligning themselves with us,” said committee co-chair Krithika Iyer ’21. “We only use our social media as a way to make clear, direct, concrete asks from the community.” 

Some of these calls to action include attending the Santa Clara County Audit of Sexual Violence Policies in Schools and emailing local government officials following the U.S. Department of Education’s changes to Title IX policies. 

Sexual Violence Free Stanford Instagram post for Santa Clara Board of supervisors Audit of Sexual Violence Policies in Schools. (Screenshot: Sexual Violence Free Stanford)

Given the sensitive nature of the issue of sexual violence, SVFS members said that they have been careful not to exploit survivor stories for online attention. Co-chair Maia Brockbank ’21 said that while posting survivor testimonials would likely result in a larger following, “that doesn’t feel like a positive form of activism.” However, she also said that “social media holds a lot of potential for real education and engagement.“ According to her, balancing these two pieces is “a tough line.” 

The absence of most students from campus due to Stanford’s limited campus housing capacity has also impacted the needs that some groups seek to address, according to Guha and Brockbank.

BNC, for example, aims to provide aid to students, staff and workers to help mitigate financial problems, which have been exacerbated due to the pandemic. The group’s first Instagram post came hours after the University’s cancellation of autumn quarter housing for frosh, sophomores and transfer students, and the account continues to spread information about the impact that University decisions have on the Stanford community. 

Members of SVFS are also concerned about students’ ability to process and report instances of sexual violence — both on campus and at home. 

“It’s harder to gain a sense of the needs of our community and who we’re serving,” Brockbank said. “So much is even more hidden than it usually is, which is already one of the biggest challenges to working in the sexual violence sphere.” 

As activist groups move their advocacy work to online platforms and adapt to the changing needs of the Stanford community, they continue to express hope for the future and find community amongst each other.

“I’m pretty optimistic for activism after the pandemic,” FFS member Kunal Sinha ’24 said.

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Marli Bosler is a writer in the News section. She is a freshman from Kirkland, WA, and she enjoys making Spotify playlists in her free time. Contact The Daily’s News section at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.