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Animal Protection > Activist Index

Organizing Student Groups
from No Compromise Issue 11
by Adam Weissman

In the tightly knit community of the college campus, animal rights groups have a chance to seize public attention to a degree that is impossible in any other forum. Campuses are limited and fairly uneventful communities (similar to small towns), where any news is big news. Additionally, because students are geographically concentrated over a comparatively small number of buildings, student activists can maintain an extremely high level of face-to-face visibility.

Getting Started

Most schools have activities offices where you can find out everything you need to know about acquiring formal recognition and funding for a new group. Many institutions require a statement of purpose, a member list, formal officers, and a proposed budget.

It is helpful to assemble a small steering committee of animal liberation-minded people on your campus. If you don't know any other pro-animal students, contact a local animal rights group and ask if they know of any students on your campus. Leave notes on windshields of people with animal rights bumper stickers on their cars. Approach clubs with similar goals--like environmental groups--and announce your intention to start a group and pass around a sign-up sheet to see if anyone wants to be involved. When you have a core group of about five or six students, hold a series of meetings to brainstorm potential club goals and to wade through the administrative red tape necessary to get a group started.

Below are some of the issues that need to be discussed in steering committee meetings and some of the work that must be completed before official meetings begin.

Budgeting

Some schools automatically fund new groups while others require students to appeal to the student government for funding. Most schools, though, will require that all budgeted funds be roughly pre-allocated, meaning that you will have to guess in advance on which issues/programs/events you will be spending the money. Don't forget to find out how much flexibility you have in reallocating at a later time.

Costs and Benefits of Formal Recognition

Formally recognized groups have access to meeting space and, possibly, offices, funding, and a level of respectability to administration that will facilitate dialogue. On the other hand, many schools place severe restrictions on what groups can and cannot do. In the past, animal rights groups, such as at Brown and the University of Guelph, have been forcibly disbanded following Animal Liberation Front raids. Some militant student animal rights groups deliberately avoid recognition so their school cannot threaten to disband them when they use tactics such as home demonstrations against vivisectors.

There is a simple way to enjoy the best of both worlds: operate an unrecognized group specifically for activities not approved of by school policy for recognized groups. For example, New York University requires that groups holding rallies and other street events formally register these actions. Worse, they can decide the time, place, and location. NYU student activists avoid being hampered by these policies by either making other local organizations the official demonstration sponsor or by using an ad-hoc name such as NYU Students against Animal Cruelty, as opposed to the formally recognized Students for Education on Animal Liberation.

Publicity

As people tend to make group commitments early in the school term, it is critical to begin outreach as soon as possible in the semester. Investigate activity/club fairs at your school, hang posters announcing your meetings all around the campus, make and distribute "show card"-sized handouts announcing your group, and table at concerts on campus and well-traveled areas (like student centers in colleges and main entrances in high schools). High schools students can stuff all faculty mailboxes, particular those of teachers with homerooms and, after a little research, possibly include information on your group in the school's daily announcements. Try to include a new announcement each day with a different animal rights fact. You should also approach the campus radio TV stations, as well as the student newspaper about running an announcement about your group's first meeting.

Even if there isn't a specific campaign that launches the group, a steering committee should try to define both long-term and short-term goals. This does not mean that the steering committee will define the whole agenda for the duration of the school year. Rather, the committee will develop a base of ideas to draw upon when the group is officially launched, regardless of whether they are actually used or not.

The First Meeting

Involve everyone. People come to animal rights meetings with a varying level of knowledge, experience, and commitment. It is important to balance the need to keep a meeting well-organized, structured, and fast-moving on the one hand, while making people feel like they are actively involved participants whose input is valued, on the other hand.

Stick to the agenda. The first meeting should have a very clearly-recognized facilitator and a formal agenda, as should all subsequent meetings, generally speaking. The facilitator should structure the meeting and keep things moving.

Provide give-aways. Animal rights literature on a range of issues should be available at the meeting. Supplying free vegan food, if possible, creates a welcoming environment.

Show an animal rights video. Starting meetings with a video is invariably an excellent ice-breaker. One of the best videos for this purpose is Their Future in Your Hands--short, informative, and powerful, but not overwhelmingly gory. If you do intend to show graphic videos, you should inform meeting attendees in advance and give them the opportunity to turn away or leave the room for the duration of the film. Following the video, have people in the room say their names, what brought them to the meeting, and any special interests.

Discuss some of your potential projects. It's fine to develop a few ideas through the steering committee and then discuss them with the group, but it is also important to be open to new ideas and to not force campaigns on people if they seem uninterested. Rather than taking on an intimidating, monster campaign from the outset, a group can building itself through smaller, simpler tasks and goals.

Assign specific tasks. At the end of the first meeting people should have specific things to do. Delegate jobs that require little experience but are critical and make people feel valued, such as tabling, postering, and leafleting. Tabling is effective because it inspires people to practice their facts and answers to animal rights questions. You can even hold an animal rights question and answer session to prep people for tabling. Practice is important, but be sure to avoid creating a set of memorized answers. Encourage people to think for themselves and keep reading and learning to better discuss these issues.

Reevaluate the group's structure. By the time the group is holding formal meetings, you may choose to dissolve the steering committee or open it to interested people. I've primarily used steering committees as tools to shelter potential new activists from very boring administrative work involved in launching a group, but other groups have held steering committees as a permanent fixture will into the group's life, to allow a highly motivated few to maintain group focus. This is particularly useful with very large high school groups that run meetings oriented more towards education than action and where members can be as much "audience" as activists.

The Power of Campus Media

It is easy to underestimate the importance of campus media on the grounds that very few students actually read their school papers. Ignoring your school paper causes you to miss out on great outreach and educational opportunities. It is fairly easy to develop one-on-one relationships with educators and reporters at your campus paper by simply visiting their office and talking about your issue. You can also send press releases a few days before every event you hold. Some school papers will allow the animal rights group to write a weekly column, so be sure to ask if this is possibility and find out if you can run photos with the articles.

Campaign for Change

Groups should choose campaigns considering their members' level of interest in an issue, the potential for the campaign to achieve change in policy, the likelihood of changing attitudes of members of the community, and the potential to further the animal liberation movement. Most importantly, the goal of the campaign must be attainable. Taking on a campaign with no chance of success will only promote frustration and apathy once it becomes clear that victory is impossible. It is far more meaningful to take on smaller--winnable--campaigns, thus building confidence and a formidable reputation, and training your members for the bigger battles that lie ahead.

There are many, many animal rights issues to address on campuses, including banning dissection, abolishing animal experiments, ending campus use of rodenticides and insecticides, stopping your school from investing in or purchasing products from companies that abuse animals such as Procter & Gamble, promoting veganism on campus, challenging campus animal agriculture programs, and educating the campus community on a wide range of animal rights issues.

Because the world will not go vegan overnight and meat consumption is such an entrenched practice, promoting veganism works best as a less confrontational campaign. It is hard, after all, to be accusatory, when the majority of the public are the accused.

Campus groups tend to have three major goals in promoting veganism on campus: education, increasing vegan food options, and specially eliminating particularly cruel animal "foods."

Tactics for education include tabling, holding veganism seminars, leafleting with literature such as Why Vegan, promoting awareness of campus vegan options through a vegan guide, and free food events:

Veganism Seminars: These can include videos on veganism, discussion of the ethical, health, and environmental implications of meat consumption, vegan cooking demonstrations, vegan purchasing tours of health food stores, and distribution of lists of vegan-friendly local restaurants. Members of your group can talk about what motivated them to go vegan and how they made the transition, and take questions from attendees.

Campus Vegan Guides: Vegan Guides briefly explain veganism and list all available vegan foods in school cafeterias and at restaurant vendors in food courts. They also flag items to watch out for that may seem to be vegan but may have hidden animal ingredients. These can be distributed far and wide on campus.

Food Distro Events: Vegan bake sales can raise money while informing people that tasty, attractive baked goods can be vegan. Attention-getting events such as "McVegan," where activists set up a vegan burger stand that satirically appropriates the McDonald's logo, catches people's attention, gets them to eat vegan burgers, and gets them thinking about meat consumption, all while keeping a smile on their faces.

Vegan Food in Cafeterias: Campuses have notoriously poor food choice for vegans. However in stark contrast to most other cases where activists request change, college food service programs are often open to requests for change by animal rights activists. It is important to be polite and provide clear options of what vegan foods cafeteria could be serving. You can also request that all food items be labeled with ingredients to make it easier for people to know what is in their food. Be wary of unkept promises by food bureaucrats and be persistent for change, without being critical of food services staff.

Selective Food Bans: Specific foods are so obviously cruel that even meat eaters may support their elimination from the menu. The most obvious is veal. Collect petition signatures from students and submit them to food service. Write editorials for the school paper. Hold educational events where students are asked to step into a human-sized veal crate to get a feel for what life in intensive confinement is like. Post anti-veal poster and stickers on bulletin boards, in bathroom stalls, and anywhere else on campus. Encourage students to write letters. Try to get the student newspaper to conduct a student opinion poll on veal. Try to pass a student government resolution supporting a veal ban. Offer food services a specific vegan alternative. If none of these steps work, consider escalating to protests and ultimately, direct actions.

Historically student organizations have been at the forefront of freedom struggles. Student animal rights groups, with proper planning, can help make animal rights one of the most powerful social justice movements of the 21st century.

Special thanks to Freeman Wicklund and Melanie Bartlett, whose ideas and experiences have been drawn upon heavily throughout this article.

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