You sat for hours and planned: sent emails, made posters, sent texts, argued, discussed, and maybe even cried. Eventually, you came to the day where you’d be able to harvest the fruits of your labor. You may have organized a protest, a sit-in, a discussion, a film screening, a general body meeting, a conversation with administrators, or maybe you were on a panel. You raised awareness of a cause you are passionate about and gave a voice to those who don’t have one. You wondered if whether you said or did the wrong thing, reacted the wrong way, or failed. However, in the wake of a job completed, if not well done, all your fears seemed irrelevant, because you’d already re-thought and overanalyzed how everything went. You can sleep well knowing you did your best, that no one was hurt, and that all those hours up late were worth it; minds were changed and something good was brought about from your hard work. You wake up the next day and scroll through your DM’s and Facebook timeline and you come across a post or an article about your event the day prior. Immediately, a smile comes to your face, more exposure to the cause you fought so hard to bring to light, but as you read you realized that there are typos, words misconstrued, quotes taken out of context, and that the feelings and facts you shared are left ignored. After all that hard work, you think, was it worth taking a B instead of an A in that class you skipped, just to get a typo-filled misrepresentation of your heartfelt endeavors?
Welcome to the life of a student organizer. Some call us “leaders” and “activists” and some call us “snowflakes” and “radicals.” Some of these terms carry some sort of glory that I’m not comfortable with. But being in uncomfortable situations is what makes our work so important. Those of us who push for change willingly put ourselves in those spaces so that the majority doesn’t have to. We accepted that our college experience would be defined by being uncomfortable, tired, and frustrated when we made the decision to speak to a school administrator for the first time.
Every student leader has a different reason why they do what they do. Many of us came to college eager and ambitious, ready to change the world. Some of us wanted to shake up the table, some of us wanted to be the representation we didn’t see when we were younger, and some of us are just overachievers who like to overwhelm ourselves with anything we can possibly add to our schedules. But for most of us, what the outside sees as obstacles we placed in our own paths, we see as a boulder we must move so that the person behind us can walk a clearer, safer path. That boulder is the emotional labor we take on without thinking twice. I am happy to move that boulder, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t break my back.
I am beyond grateful for the work I do and the people I work with. Some of my greatest friendships were forged through late nights and long rants with peers whose passion and strength will take them the furthest of places. Among the horde of faculty, some of whom I speak out against, there are professors and administrators who have helped me grow and learn as I push through my toughest days and whom I look up to.
While I boast about the incredible and unforgettable experiences I have gained through my extracurricular activities at university, I can’t help but offer a word of advice to optimistic students who are eager to get in on the fight. It’s okay not to put your communities’ and your institution’s problems on your shoulders. But, if you are anything like me, and can’t sit still while the world seems like it’s spinning out of control then at least prepare for what you’re getting into. Speaking in front of a crowd in your school’s courtyard may make you feel amazing and powerful as you hold signs, take photos, and raise awareness for a cause you are passionate about, but it is also a sore throat from your repeatedly ignored shouts, an empty stomach because you didn’t have time to eat, and crying in front of strangers because you’re so overwhelmed with emotion. It is rewriting every email a dozen times so that your words are polite enough, but still have a bite to them. It is squeezing meetings into your already packed class schedule, re-explaining parts of your identity over and over again, and endlessly trying to prove the value of your work. This is the burden of emotional labor that no one talks about.
When I read an article one morning that criticized the work that my peers and I accomplished I got upset, not because I was criticized, but because hours of careful labor were hardly listened to and dismissed without consideration. It seemed like there wasn’t even thought as to why I do what I do. No one is perfect and no student leader, organizer, or activist is the same, all of our work looks different, but one commonality is the effort, devotion, and commitment we give to improving our campuses for those around us and those who come after us.
I am not even halfway through my college experience, and I am already exhausted, not because of everything I do, but because of everything I feel. I look to my peer mentors and other student leaders that came before me, who stood in worse positions and won, even if the victory was small, to show myself that the fight is, indeed, worth it. I’ll never forget a 10-hour demonstration I held on Indigenous People’s Day when tears were streaming down my face and students and faculty came in solidarity and said that my dedication to the cause of indigenous representation motivated them to have conversations with their peers and families. On the days I feel defeated, I remember moments like these and remind myself that the emotional labor we put in has beautiful rewards, even when we can’t see them or benefit from them ourselves.
When you see a student who is organizing an event, about to talk to your school’s administration or is speaking out about a cause, go up and ask them what they do and why they do it. Seeking to understand why we do this is the most important way you can support student activists and it may even be a way to get in on the fight yourself. I advise you to listen to a phrase one of my mentors likes to say, “Seek first to understand then to be understood” and know that every boulder we move, makes the road to a better future a little bit clearer.