Student Activists Prepare for Divestment Efforts and Promoting Social Change While Teaching Columbae


More than a dozen student organizers gathered at the Columbae Residence Wednesday night to learn advocacy skills from activist Melissa Byrne and coordinate future efforts. The students plan to implement the strategies they learned in their advocacy for campus change, including calls for divestment of endowments and a boycott of working at Google and Facebook.

The students spoke with Byrne, who worked on Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns and organized a number of human and civil rights protests, about strategies for direct action and how to delegate responsibilities within groups of protesters,

The workshop was organized by Fossil Free Stanford and SumOfUs, a global consumer group aimed at holding big business accountable for their impacts on political, economic and environmental systems. The students gathered in Columbae’s living room on the third day of the house’s “Fuck the System Week,” a week-long series of activities and events focused on social justice and activism and culminating with a “Fuck the Man” concert featuring artist Ivy Sole.

“Each year we have a week focused on art, activism and social justice themes, and we host events throughout the week,” said Christopher Rilling ’22, one of the organizers. of the event. “The goals for today are, one, to learn direct action techniques on campus for whatever social justice goal you have and, two, to meet other activists who are also interested to bring about change on campus.”

The students spoke with Byrne about the techniques and elements of direct action, from “viz” (visibility) to “bird-dogging” (questioning authority figures on the subject of the demonstration). Byrne shared his experiences working to effect change, from protesting the war in Iraq in 2003 to organizing posts on Stanford campus for students to boycott work at Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Google.

Activist Melissa Byrne addresses a crowd of students and activists in Columbae’s living room. (Photo: ULA LUCAS/The Stanford Daily)

“A campaign we are currently working on is about how tech companies, especially Facebook and Google, are not good corporate citizens, how they let misinformation run rampant. [to] how they let hate run rampant,” Byrne said. “We’re working on a campaign where we’re asking students to pledge not to work for these companies as long as they behave this way.”

Participants created their own signs, writing messages such as “Boycott Google, Meta” and “Divest Now”. Student activists lined up in front of Columbae and along Mayfield Ave carrying their signs. Byrne told students that facilitating group communication through apps like Signal, designating safe places for vulnerable activists and designating an organizer as a “police liaison” are all tactics that ensure protesters can stay in safety and organized at future events for the causes or groups that the students are involved in.

Byrne also stressed the importance of using bright colors and eye-catching slogans when making effective signs.

Placard-hoisting is a popular protest tactic at Stanford – in February, grassroots organizers attended a placard-making event and later carried their placards to Dinkelspiel Auditorium to protest the former’s speech. Vice President Mike Pence at Stanford.

A student activist works on a sign calling for divestment, a key goal of Fossil Free Stanford. (Photo: ULA LUCAS/The Stanford Daily)

Jason Swanepoel ’23 said the event helped him learn “how to make picture-worthy panels” and “have cohesiveness between panels” during protests. “I share this with the groups I’m part of, trying to form consistent and effective protests and actions,” Swanepoel said.

“The point is to achieve material change in people’s lives, because we can do other things for fun,” Byrne said. “We don’t have to organize and we don’t have to act; we do it because conditions compel us to do so.


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