Thinking towards a more effective activism

Looking critically at forms of activism shows that we need to take an informal and direct approach

Last December, Vanderbilt’s director of LGBTQI life Chris Purcell wrote an article for Inside Higher Ed titled “Celebrating Builders and Burners in Student Activism,” a thought provoking piece which I believe was heavily overlooked. In it, he describes two forms of activism: burning, activism which disrupts business as usual and existing power structures, and building, which seeks to build new and functionally different power structures.

However, further in the article Purcell makes another distinction in activism: formal and informal. Formal activism, one might imagine, uses formal channels such as student government to act for change, while informal activism can be any activity, and it’s usually considered disruptive. Protests, sit-ins, and other activities we might call “direct action” fall under the category of informal activism. Thus, we can define activism in a matrix, with the quadrants named formal burning, formal building, informal burning and informal building.

Using this model, I would argue that the best form of student activism is informal building activism, or constructive direct action, because it is the most consistent and wields the most power. However, it is also the hardest form of activism to achieve and find opportunities for.

While each form of activism has value in its own right, in the current state of the world, informal activism is more powerful than formal activism. Purcell gives an example of “formal burning activism” as a student filibustering in student government. While some people enjoy a good filibuster, just as many more people grumble that it’s preventing anything from getting done.

This applies on a national level also; President Obama’s tenure from 2010 onward saw many complaints of “obstructionist Republicans” after the party regained House majority and several more seats in the Senate. The filibuster in particular is a favorite tool of Senator Rand Paul, who famously delivered a thirteen-hour filibuster on drone strikes in 2013, a ten-hour one over an NSA surveillance program in 2015, and more recently in early February of this year to stall the national budget past the approval deadline. The latter in particular received criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, scolding Paul for preventing Congress from moving on from the long overdue budget.

Formal building activism, then, can be as simple as passing legislation or otherwise using “proper channels” to realize a constructive goal. Yet, its power is limited, largely because it depends on existing authority to willingly acquiesce to the activist. Usually, this only happens when their interests align, or if existing authority somehow benefits from the desires of the activist.

The argument against protests is similar to the argument against filibusters because they share this same “burning” quality: they get nothing done.

Before David Ter Kuile was hired as Director of Campus dining, senior Ania Szczesniewski, in a piece discussing a desire to have Wendy’s off the Taste of Nashville program due to its unethical labor practices, wrote about how she sat in on a student meeting to describe what should be sought in a new director for campus dining. “I suggested one who listens to workers and is ready to make moral choices instead of only financial ones,” she wrote. “It was received with a snarky response about me wanting another ‘Brexit.’” This reaction to Szczesniewski’s contributions  illustrates the limits of formal building.

Furthermore, on the subject of Wendy’s, Szczesniewski wrote earlier in the piece that she was told that Wendy’s would not be taken off the Taste of Nashville program unless there was enough economic incentive—which again shows that formal building activism depends on the interests of the activist and the administration aligning.

It is no wonder, then, that Szczesniewski and many other students turned to “informal burning” activism or classic direct action by participating in a march in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. This happened at universities across the country—my friend at The Ohio State University mentioned how his studying was interrupted by a march through their library—with the goal of bringing attention to an issue and escalating it by disrupting business as usual.

It is usually at this point that people get uncomfortable with activism—which is funny, because that’s precisely the point. My friend recalls how most people in the library were more annoyed than anything else, and even on a national scale any march or protest that puts bodies on the line in streets or highways is usually met with eyerolls at best and injury at worst. For some, marches, protests and sit-ins are nothing more than disruption and bad behavior that is unjustly rewarded by sympathizers.

As funny as I find people being in a sense righteously bothered by actions which have a deliberate intent to bother, the reason why accusations of protesters and direct activists being nuisances who get nothing done hold any water is because this is still “burning” activism; it does not directly address problems and by definition does not construct alternatives. In this sense, the argument against protests is similar to the argument against filibusters because they share this same “burning” quality: they get nothing done.

Though I would disagree that burning activism is tantamount to absolutely nothing, it is true that it does not directly solve issues since it cannot construct alternatives by definition. Otherwise, it would not be burning activism in the first place. Therefore, Purcell is correct to write that when it comes to burning and building activism “One seems incomplete without the other.”

Student activists of any cause ought to pursue their goals through informal means

With both forms of burning activism, formal and informal, unable to construct alternatives and with formal building activism very limited, we are left with one form of activism: informal building. Theoretically, this form of activism has the most potential; with no need to worry about “proper channels,” red tape or any administration or authority to need to appeal to or even acknowledge, the sky’s the limit for informal building activism.

Yet, while we can point to examples of filibusters, formal demands, or protests, we cannot so easily point to examples of informal building activism that are as tangible. Purcell’s example is “a queer student of color who starts an affinity space for community healing and support,” which, while excellent and within the definition of “informal building,” is still moderately vague; it lacks defined tactics and praxis. Fortunately, however, there is one example of this activism from recent Vanderbilt history: The Heist.

During the fall semester of 2016, controversial figure Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at Vanderbilt. In response, students organized what was called The Heist, a counter-event which was more or less a really big party, scheduled on the same day and at the same time. Milo’s power was thus destabilized by student-organized power by constructing an alternative: students could either listen to a guy spew questionable views already well vocalized, or they could go to a party with music, food, t-shirts and giveaways.

The Heist’s success can be partially attributed to the fact that Milo wielded very little power. He was a guest at a university whose students and faculty, on the whole, generally disliked him. This is not to take away from what the Heist accomplished, but informal building activism is much more difficult the more power a structure or organization has. It is quite difficult to imagine how we as students can use informal building to address grievances with Vanderbilt administration. Beyond these walls, it is harder still to imagine this sort of activism to counter power structures such as large corporations and the state, who have greater capital and firepower.

Furthermore, another reason for the lack of informal building activism is in part for lack of trying. Purcell writes, “[t]oo often, some administrators privilege particular forms of activism (those students who go through formal channels and play nice) over others (students who use more informal channels or tactics of supposed disruption).” The point of informal building activism, however, is to pay no mind to these “proper channels” or care about anyone’s permission. Often, these are manifestations of the power structures one is trying to work against. Again, like informal burning, if informal tactics made the administration comfortable, they wouldn’t be informal in the first place. The point is, quite seriously, to disrupt.

I wish I had better answers or some kind of roadmap to offer the frustrated activist within us, whether frustration stems from ResEd, Dining, or an overall disappointment with how Vanderbilt administration handles broader issues of inclusion or injustice. But at the very least, in light of the inefficacy of formal activism, I think student activists of any cause ought to pursue their goals through informal means.

No, not everyone will be comfortable with informal activism, even some activists might question themselves. No, the activists’ goal(s) might not be fully realized, especially if they only engage in burning. No, it will not be easy, especially building, where opportunities seem too few and far between, compounded by clouds of pessimism and discomfort.

But not trying at all will certainly accomplish nothing.

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Dominic Rottman
Dominic Rottman ('20) writes for the Opinion section of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He is majoring in Political Science and Communications in the College of Arts and Science. He enjoys drinking (and then complaining about) coffee, reading (and then complaining about) political and philosophical literature, and finally writing (and then complaining about) his own points of view.


  1. The informal burning activism of protest is a form of bullying. In your example, protesters disrupted students studying in the university library. If the students confronted the protester physically, that is, if they stood up to the bullies, there could easily be a fight. But why should the protesters be the only ones who get to use their physicality to get their way? Why should the rest of us have to accept that our activities will be disrupted? Why are we not justified in (literally) fighting back?