Student activism in the Trump era

Donald Trump took his seat as the 45th president of the United States on Jan. 20. Less than two months later, global citizens have been banding together and protesting in response to his leadership.

The Women’s March in Washington, D.C. and around the world, and the demonstrations across the globe against Trump’s travel ban, are just a few examples of solidarity. And students are no stranger to this type of activism.

Students have a long history of social activism, and the number of student activists is on the rise.

According to the American Freshman National Survey from 2014 to 2015, there was a 2.9 per cent increase in those who said there was a “very good chance” of them participating in student protests while in college.

Priscilla Kosseim, a fourth-year business student at Carleton University and president of Carleton University Women in Business (CUWIB), said she believes student activism is important.

“Youth activism is playing a much greater and important role in shaping the future,” Kosseim said.

So what role do students play in today’s activism?

Demonstrations against Trump in Ottawa

Communities around the world participated in sister marches to  the Women’s March on Washington on Jan. 21 and 22 to express solidarity with American women and minority groups, and to address concerns with the incoming U.S. administration.

According to a report by The New York Times, crowd scientists estimate that 470,000 attended the march in Washington alone.

Ottawa Police estimated around 8,000 people attended the march in Ottawa, holding signs vowing to resist hateful rhetoric and to stand together during this time of political change.

The RCMP reported around 1,100 people participated in a human chain around the U.S. embassy Jan 30 in Ottawa, as a response to the travel ban placed against seven Muslim-majority countries to the U.S.

Days later, the Ottawa Citizen estimated 250 people participated in a rally at Parliament Hill on Feb. 4 against Islamophobia.

Elizabeth Bolton, an Ottawa rabbi and organizer of the travel ban protest at the U.S. embassy, said in an interview in January that it is vital for people not to remain silent in the face of any injustice.

“We know that this an important moment to show visibility, and also to show solidarity with the various groups who have been showing up,” Bolton said. “There can be no borders when it comes to essential human rights.”

What about student involvement?

Professor John Malloy, chair of the department of political science at Carleton said that the university is important to further discussion about the current political stream. 

“The university is a place of ideas and Donald Trump has gotten a lot of people debating ideas, which in a generic sense is a good thing,” Malloy said. “I think from an academic point of view, we’re interested in getting people to reflect on the deeper issues here—what prompts these policies and we can certainly debate these policies.”

According to Malloy, many university professors and academics at Carleton have brought discourse about American politics into their classes in attempts to further analyze the current political position North America finds itself in.

“Obviously everything about the Trump administration has been fairly controversial, and so it has mobilized a lot of activism in the United States and also a lot in Canada,” Malloy said.

Several Canadian universities have publicly responded to Trump’s travel ban. Carleton’s office of the vice-president said in a statement that they had begun working with international students and students who were currently abroad to ensure their safety and support them.

“We hope that Canada, and specifically Carleton, will continue to serve as a model of openness and peace during these difficult times,” the statement said.

Student groups have also been outspoken against some of the new policies being put forward.

Carleton’s Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) published a letter to the student body expressing sorrow over the events following the ban, as well as solidarity with students targeted by the implementation.

“We stand in solidarity with our Muslim members and the Somali, Iraqi, Iranian, Sudanese, Yemeni, Libyan, and Syrian communities in Canada, the USA,” the statement said. “You are unconditionally loved and welcome at the GSA, at Carleton University.”

But Mars Ramlogan, a second-year social work student at Carleton, said not enough students have been active in the political discourse as of late, although resources like the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) provide a good platform for students to become more socially active.

“I’m definitely seeing a lack of activism from the Carleton community in general,” Ramlogan said.

“[OPIRG has] been pretty vocal about a lot of things that have been happening in America and they always run really good workshops on issues like Islamophobia or anti-Blackness,” they added.

Samiha Rayeda, a fifth-year law and human rights student and volunteer and outreach coordinator at OPIRG, said she believes student activism in a university is key, to not only implement community changes, but also political ones.

“Students have been historically at the forefront of social issues so it is important for students to promote activism and be involved in activism in the world in general, but also in their universities,” Rayeda said.

Kosseim said her student group has been actively participating in recent movements as well, primarily those geared towards gender equality.

“Universities tend to rally together . . .  and the creation of groups like CUWIB represent the voice of youth against inequalities among gender and other minority groups in business,” she said.

What does the future of student activism look like?

Rayeda said she has enjoyed attending the events that have taken place over the past two months, but feels saddened by the fact that activists are still pushing to make changes that were brought to the forefront years ago.

“It was a mix of hope and also regret that this is something that people still need to fight for, I saw signs where people were commenting ‘I can’t believe I’m still doing this’. . . but also for all the other protests it was really nice to see a lot of students there,” Rayeda said.

She said she hopes Carleton students will continue to participate in activism as this presidential term progresses.

“It was important to see lots of students at the past protests because it makes them aware that protesting is a way of . . . democratic change,” she said.

As for protests, Bolton expects there to be more buzz within the activist community.

“It does not stop here. There’s not a chance that this will be the last gathering here in Ottawa,” Bolton said.

With files from Aaron Hemens and Nadia Miko

– Photos by Trevor Swann