School’s back in session—and that means it’s time for campus feminist organizers to get back into the swing of things. If you’re an organizer yourself, perhaps you’re excited or overwhelmed about the year ahead of you. Maybe you’re trying to remember everything your organization did last year—what worked, what didn’t. Maybe you’re trying to come up with new ideas. Maybe you’re in charge of the organization yourself for the first time—and maybe the past leaders forgot to tell you the passwords, how to book rooms, and about all the events you have to plan.
If you’re feeling a little lost in transition of leadership, you’re not the only one. It can be difficult for feminist organizations on college campuses to maintain a sense of progression as institutional knowledge is lost and/or forgotten, transitions become clunky, and groups of similar interests arise. This is in part due to the four-year turnover period in leadership.
Or perhaps you’re feeling a little lost in creating a new feminist organization. That’s totally normal. When new feminist organizations form on college campuses, often times little practical literature exists advising students on how to create these organizations based on past students’ experiences. (But if you are looking for that kind of information, Feminist Campus actually has some great resources.)
That’s why I interviewed seven leaders of self-identified feminist organizations on public four-year college campuses in North and South Carolina about best practices of grassroots organizations and nonprofits and needs of campus feminist organizations in the South last Spring. I wanted to gather some practical knowledge that young organizers could harness, especially going into this next year. During these somewhat informal interviews, I asked organization leaders about their organizations’ difficulties, successes, and needs. Simply put: it is important that we understand organizers’ successes so we can replicate them, problems so we can solve them, and needs so we can fill them.
While this information is tailored to Southern, college organizers (particularly in North and South Carolina), it can be helpful for organizers of all ages.
Where Campus Feminist Organizations in the South are Struggling
Many of the organizations at southern colleges and universities in this sample are new, and that poses many structuring and name-recognition problems in and of itself. All organizations represented here, even those that were more established, lack support from advisors, lack institutional knowledge, have trouble with retention, lack access to adequate resources to carry out their work, and place a large burden on few leaders to do a majority of the work. Finally, campus feminist organizations represented here seem to be experiencing a widespread fatigue; students who tend to do feminist work are showing up less and less, perhaps because of a burnout problem.
Campus Feminist Organizations’ Successes & Recommendations
- For an executive or leadership board to function, each person needs to have a distinct and clearly defined role.
- This is important whether you prefer a non-hierarchical structure or the more traditional President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, etc.
- Co-positions can help lessen the workload, but it is important that people who share roles work together well and cohesively.
- It can be especially helpful for more than one person to know how to do a certain kind of job, or to have two people from different roles be assigned to work closely with one another and know each other’s projects intimately. That way, the team is always prepared for when a member is sick or has an emergency and can’t make it to an event.
- An executive or leadership board should balance younger and older team members (such as having one older co-chair of a committee and one younger co-chair) to ensure sustainability.
- Common roles to think about when forming an executive/leadership board:
- 2-3 people: oversee the organization as a whole
- 1-2 people: organize finances/raise money
- 1-2 people: record meeting notes, evaluate programs, and record institutional knowledge
- 1-2 people: outreach to other organizations, social media operation, and member recruitment
- 1-3 people: plan events
- 1-2 people: web and graphic design
- When forming an organization’s executive/leadership board, you can also use a committee structure based on:
- Functions (Advocacy, Fundraising, Evaluations, etc.)
- Topics/events (AIDS Awareness Day, Relationship Violence Awareness Month, Sexual Health, etc.)
- Have some form of consistency in meeting patterns.
- Send weekly/consistent emails to members (recaps meetings, reminder of next meeting, etc.)
- Meet in the same place consistently.
- Have a clear agenda for each meeting, and let members know what it is ahead of time.
- Have topics to discuss at meetings.
- Bring in speakers (PhD students in social work, people from the Title IX office or local rape crisis center) for meetings.
- Let respective committees conduct their business during meetings.
- Plan workshops (ex. Self-care, fundraising, advocacy, etc.).
- Make people feel welcome.
- Know member’s names.
- Give them tasks in the organization.
Recruitment and Retention
- Hold social events for members (mixers, parties, picnics, etc.)
- Have some form of direct service (in addition to advocacy) with a visible pay-off that can let people feel like they’re making a difference, for example:
- Mentor a high school feminist group once a month
- Give violence prevention seminars in middle schools
- Raise money for the Rape Crisis Center or Sister Song
- Sign up for shifts as legal observers and volunteer escorts for abortion clinics
- Make membership application only, so that every member is assigned a job during their time with the organization.
- Apply for 501c(3) non-profit status so that members can gain real world experience learning how to manage a volunteer advisor board, finances, etc.
- Use relatable, popular, and fun social media content, including memes, videos, and funny captions, to engage wider audiences in your work and recruit new members.
- Have big goals and small goals.
- Start with more manageable tasks, and build up.
- Small goals let people see a result fast and feel successful.
- Small goals prevent burnout on your way to achieving big goals.
- Change things up.
- Revisit your organization’s constitution, bylaws, structure, etc. from year to year.
- If a program or organizing tactic doesn’t work anymore, don’t be afraid to adjust.
- In doing this, try to make sure all members have a chance to be involved in the process.
- Cosponsor events.
- It lessens the burden on the organization to publicize and organize on its own.
- It gets the word out about the organization.
- Retain records of events, funds, grants, faculty who support you, etc.
- If you do this, people know what has worked well in the past and don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it’s time for a new program, to write a new grant, or to seek advice from a faculty member.
- Google folders are a particularly user-friendly and shareable way to do this. (It is a good idea to have a paper binder in the archives of your school with updated information each year to preserve your history and allow others to research your organization.)
Examples of Successful Programs
- Domestic Violence Awareness Month Die-Ins: Have students lie down in a public place on campus to show how many deaths are caused in your state from relationship/domestic violence (or another form of oppression e.g. police brutality, violence against transgender women, etc.)
- Get Out the Vote Efforts: Hold voter registration drives in high trafficked areas on campus. Use caravans to get people to polling places on election day.
- Feminist Bake Sales: Bake goodies and charging people different amounts based on their identities and corresponding pay gaps. (Note: Do be sensitive, as this has been difficult in the past.)
- Sex Trivia Nights: Mix in fun questions along with health related questions. Partner with a local coffee shop or bar if you can.
- No Shame November: A month of shameless feminist stigma breaking. At the end of the month, students gather around a fire, make s’mores, and burn ideas of shame and stigma they’ve internalized.
- “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” Photo Campaign: Make pretty “Instagram frames” or paint posters that say “This is What a Feminist Looks Like”. Stand in a highly-frequented spot on campus and ask people to take pictures with their head in the frame or with the posters. Take one picture with their phone for them to post and another with your camera. (Try to rent a professional camera from a campus library if possible or borrow one from a friend if you don’t have one.) Have a piece of paper where students can 1) sign that it’s okay to post their picture on social media 2) indicate if they want to be tagged in the picture when it’s posted, and 3) write their name if they do want to be tagged.
- Speak Out: Rent a public space on campus. Plan in advance for there to be content/trigger warnings of interpersonal/sexual violence around the area of the event. Ask Student Affairs to send a campus-wide email notifying students of the event as a trigger warning. Let survivors of interpersonal/sexual violence submit their stories to be read, either anonymously or identified, however they prefer, at this event. Ensure there are support people from the local rape crisis center or your campus at the event. Work with your local rape crisis center in planning this event.
What do Feminist Orgs on Campuses in the South Need?
- On making non-hierarchical structure work within campus feminist organizations
- Regarding how involved staff and advisors are for feminist organizations and other types of organizations (religious, athletic, etc.) on other campuses across the nation
- On starting an activist mentorship program (i.e. older students mentoring younger students)
- Best practices
- For attracting younger organization members
- For organizing rallies/protests on college campuses
- For addressing sexism in the classroom, particularly when professors ignore the gender components meant to be taught in their classes
- For continuing feminist work where stigma surrounding feminism is significant
- Funding: How to apply for grants/university/student government funding
- Models for implementing violence prevention & response programs
- Collaborations across university organizations in the south, particularly those at universities with more resources and programs
Research Conducted February-May 2018
Always remember that none of this is set in stone; a successful tactic for one organization may not work for another organization. It is always important to consider the individual needs of your organization to best discern what will best suit your needs. You know your revolution better than anyone. Happy organizing!