Are you a young activist looking to make change in your community? Congratulations, you’ve come to the right place! STAND was founded in 2004 as a student-led arm of the Save Darfur movement, which was a mass mobilization of people across the United States determined to prevent, mitigate, and respond to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. We are part of a tradition of nonviolent resistance and mobilization that has won campaigns to garner multiple large and small scale changes to bend the arc of history toward justice. Here’s a look at some of the most important lessons that we have learned throughout our 15-year history and how you can apply them.
Historically, most movements are successful when they use nonviolent direct action, in coordination with peacebuilding, to garner policy or regime change. We saw that with the uprising in Sudan, with the civil rights movement in the United States, with the democratic revolution in Tunisia. We also employed similar tactics at the beginning of our history.
In 2005, 160+ schools and several celebrities participated in a day-long STANDFast, a demonstration to raise awareness for the genocide in Darfur and money for humanitarian efforts. However, the Save Darfur movement wasn’t simply about educating the populace–it had three targeted goals: pressure the United States government to create a special envoy for Darfur, punish perpetrators of genocide, and send UN peacekeepers to intervene in the crisis.
To that end, student activists weren’t just focused on igniting the consciousness of other people through educational events or fasts. They also worked with coalition partners to target leaders through grasstops advocacy, which resulted in that special envoy actually being appointed by President Bush.
Just a few months before the special envoy was appointed, STAND activists protested outside the Sudanese Embassy for 10 days, during which time they met with embassy officials and garnered press for their advocacy. At the time, our website said our goals included “spreading awareness, instigating political action and raising funds for the crises in Darfur.” Even then, spreading awareness was only the first step in creating a movement.
STAND’s history is one of mass mobilizations of young people that have protested, divested, at times been arrested (alongside Rep. John Lewis), and lobbied their congresspeople–850 youth strong from 46 states in 2006–to end the genocide in Darfur. Our history is one of deep empathy, compassion, education, and action.
What has changed since 2006? Largely, the nature of social resistance movements, which have shifted from in-person meetings to largely devolved or digital organizing structures. STAND has changed with the times, and now conducts our organizational planning and advocacy using technology tools and a remote leadership team.
But that doesn’t mean we have to be less effective. By rooting our action in grassroots advocacy’s best practices, building strong relationships across movements, and innovating in the types of tactics we use to gain support, I believe that we can be at the forefront of social change and harness our power like we did in the beginning of the Save Darfur Movement. These three steps are also key to unlocking the potential of individual organizers, so if you’re committed to taking action to end genocide, keep reading.
1. Root Advocacy in Grassroots Action Best Practices
In 2006, Brown University became the sixth campus in the nation to divest from the genocide in Darfur due to efforts by a campus chapter of STAND. Divestment was a concrete way to create change in Sudan: by depriving the Sudanese government of funding, they could influence the actions of the government and reduce their capacity to continue slaughtering citizens.
The divestment campaigns were designed to mirror the effective anti-apartheid divestment campaigns from student groups, which weaponized billions in endowment funds to start a trend that resulted in $1 billion in lost profit due to corporate divestment in South Africa.
The lesson that can be learned from divestment is one of grassroots action best practices. That is, the use of people power to target simple, effective campaigns using strategic tactics that are capable of scaling. These elements–targets, campaigns, tactics, and scale–are key to creating real-world grassroots change.
The first element of a campaign is planning. If you’re an individual activist, it’s important to identify your allies–who can you work with that will help you–and your resources, what you already have that you can leverage to win. Because grassroots action is all about people power, it’s important to convince as many dedicated, passionate folks as possible that your issue is important, specific, winnable, and urgent. However, even just a couple of students can make a big impact. The key is to work strategically with what you have.
After you have your group of invested youth, your next step is to create a campaign goal. This goal has to be SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Divesting Brown from the companies that engage in Darfur was a perfect goal, since they could easily identify the specific impact they, as an individual chapter, were having on it. It’s more difficult to pick a goal like ending the genocide in Darfur–that’s a mission, not a goal–so they started small, knowing that the final step is to scale.
Let’s talk about targets next. The Brown University students identified the body on campus with the power to divest their campus investments from Darfur, the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policies. Not every school has one of these committees, but there are certainly other targets that may be receptive to change and can be identified in the course of a planning phase.
In many cases, U.S. foreign policy is controlled by opaque actors in the State Department, White House, USAID, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That is one reason that divestment presents an appealing alternative to lobbying U.S. officials by changing the policy goal to align with more accessible targets. However, these government actors can still be effectively targeted–particularly the Senate, given its role in foreign policymaking as well as Senators’ positions as elected officials.
That’s when tactics come into play. Different tactics can be strategically deployed for different goals, depending on the response of targets. It’s best not to start with tactics—they change depending on our targets and goals. When the Brown students started their divestment efforts, the Advisory Committee in control of the power was by all accounts incredibly amenable to their interests–they cared about the genocide and wanted to do their part to reduce culpability. Thus, tactics involved to further the goals of this campaign were fairly mundane: they did research, held meetings, and gave presentations, which was all that was needed to convince Brown to divest. Sometimes all it takes is for a group of students to lobby their Senator for them to change their mind on an issue and cosponsor a bill.
However, other targets might be more obstinate. As I discussed earlier, STAND’s history is rooted in tactics of protest, especially nonviolent direct action. Nonviolent direct action is more than simply a rally, but it is a specific action that causes a disruption in society to bring attention to a problem, without violence–think, the civil rights sit-ins. Nonviolent direct action, to put it bluntly, works. It means putting yourselves as activists at risk, and should only be used as a last resort. However, when it is done properly, it has an immense power to attract media attention, ignite action, and shame targets into acquiescing to campaign goals. Here is more about using direct action for your campaigns, how to deploy them strategically, and a list of unique nonviolent direct actions that can be used in a campaign (look under noncooperation). Remember: mobilization is not the same thing as organization–one is a short-term demonstration, and another is a long-term strategy for policy change.
Finally, the Brown University campaign is such a great lesson because it scaled. The campaign was replicated not just at other campuses, but the student leaders were able to make Providence, RI (where Brown is located) the first U.S. city to divest from Darfur, gaining national attention.
When campaigns are rooted in best practices, they are poised to win.
2. Build Strong Relationships Across Movements and Groups
However, advocacy campaigns don’t exist without immense people power, and that can be difficult to sustain. In the new digital age, some advocacy groups report fewer attendees at in-person events and meetings because social media fractures in-person civic life (don’t worry, up next is how to harness digital power for change). It’s no secret that there are fewer STAND chapters across the country than there used to be. However, our relationships are as strong as ever, and have the potential to grow.
In 2010, Notre Dame students gathered nearly 1,000 signatures to ask President Obama to continue supporting peacekeeping in Sudan. The students running this campaign used a rally to increase media attention, but they also did something unique. They leveraged the “Notre Dame athletic brand” to create social change by creating a coalition of unlikely student allies to attend the rally, which included representatives from Student Government, the Notre Dame men’s basketball and lacrosse teams, the Center for Social Concerns, and the Campus Ministry, among others. This event drew many supporters, and subsequent press coverage provided a signal boost to the petition.
Building strong movements means exploring and creating new allies. The Notre Dame students worked across disparate campus groups to organize a large mobilization and find common ground on an important issue. The chapter at the University of Pittsburgh employed a similar strategy in 2008 by partnering with a large number of diverse student groups to host events on campus.
Now, STAND is exploring partnership opportunities with youth peacebuilding organizations around the world, and has already partnered with many anti-genocide groups, including The Enough Project, Students Organize 4 Syria, and other organizations. With youth movements like the March for Our Lives and the Sunrise Movement gaining traction, youth activism hasn’t felt this palpable since the Save Darfur movement first started.
But it’s not just about finding partners, it’s about creating lasting relationships with each other. That’s why we send each other professional development opportunities in our Slack Channel, build community in our annual retreats and weekly phone calls, and are creating an alumni network.
As an activist, you must invest in everyone who helps you, by authentically showing up and helping them in return. It may look different, depending on the situation, but could mean anything from looking over a resume, to attending an event, to sharing a post on social media. Take the time to learn who your allies are, what their goals are, and what personal experience brings them to this work. By investing in those relationships, you broaden the movement and demonstrate your commitment to helping others in real time.
3. Innovate in Tactics Using Youth and Technology
This is a vitally important lesson for every activist in the 21st century. In 2006, MTV hosted a competition to raise awareness for the situation in Darfur. The Darfur Digital Activist competition resulted in students at the University of Southern California creating a viral educational video game that depicted the struggles of a Darfurian refugee, to place users in the shoes (literally) of those displaced by the conflict. STAND co-founder Nate Wright helped launch the game that year.
Students took care to ensure that the game was accurate and sensitive by consulting with humanitarian workers, but also embedded calls to action within the game by presenting players with options such as petitioning elected politicians to support the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, starting divestment campaigns, or writing to the President.
Not only was the game a huge success, helping win the prestigious Governor’s Award Emmy among other awards, it also illustrated the immense power that innovations in technology can have for building empathy for human suffering and genocide. A Michigan State University study found that the game “elicited greater role-taking and resulted in greater willingness to help the Darfurian people than reading a text conveying the same information.”
Many advocacy organizations misunderstand or underestimate social media and other digital tools’ power, but youth sure don’t.
Take high school student Feroza Aziz, whose TikTok on the Uyghur crisis amassed more than 3.6 million views and spurred news coverage. The mass atrocities being perpetrated in China are the subject of a recent STAND blog post, and advocacy efforts are gaining steam.
Designing video games and creating TikToks are still only the tip of the iceberg of the power of technology for increasing advocacy and awareness. The #MeToo movement has sparked a worldwide reckoning with sexual violence and power, and the potential for digital organizing is huge. By utilizing our intimate knowledge of technology, youth can innovate new ways to reach people, bring them into the fold, and activate them to engage in campaigns.
Furthermore, in the post-coronavirus and climate change-aware world, it is vitally more important to explore alternative advocacy tactics that don’t involve travel or in-person events. That’s why STAND is investing in creating digital organizing guides and strategies to equip our grassroots with the tools they need to organize virtually–and why we already conduct the majority of our organizational work via Slack and Zoom.
These three principles, of grassroots action, building relationships, and innovation in youth and technology have been central to STAND’s practices throughout our history. By understanding STAND’s past, we unlock keys to our future, and can map a trajectory forward guided by grassroots action and mobilization of youth.
“More people, and particularly more young people, are getting involved in politics, recognizing that everything they care about seems to be coming back to this political question—that the humanitarian is no longer simply humanitarian,” Samantha Power said in 2017 as reported by Slate.
She spoke the truth our generation seems to know inherently: that problems of oppression, equality, war, and genocide cannot simply be solved through humanitarian work alone. We need to fight for political victories–and we need to win.
Jordan Stevenson is a senior at Eastern Washington University, where she is majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in Global Public Policy, and minoring in Economics and Spanish. As an MC member, she co-leads STAND’s State Advocacy Lead program, communications operations, and policy process. Prior to joining STAND, Jordan served as a Global Youth Advocacy Fellow for Planned Parenthood, lobbied for women’s rights and U.S. foreign policy with Population Connection, and researched Indonesian political rights with the U.N. Development Programme. She currently works on campus at the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis, is an LGBTQ Policy intern with GLIFAA, and does economic development work in Kenya with Partnering for Progress.