Student Union creates Activist Equipment Supply to ‘promote civic dialogue’

| Staff Reporter
A cluster of patterned chairs stand around a well lit room with a grey carpet. A blue wall will a logo reading "student union" stands in the background next to desks with computers and papers sitting on themHolden Hindes | Student

The Student Union office is located on the second floor of the DUC

Student Union announced the Activist Equipment Supply, a fund aimed at student organizations with common activist materials such as megaphones, poster boards, spray paint and vigil candles, Sept. 28, in a partnership with the Gephardt Institute for Civic and Community Engagement.

Students aiming to access the supply must apply at least 24 hours in advance and can pick up the reserved items from the SU office on the day of the action. Students must agree not to violate SU or university guidelines when using borrowed equipment from the supply, according to the registration form. The list of students who register for supplies will be accessible to SU members only.

In a statement to Student Life, Student Union President junior Ranen Miao wrote that the guidelines for use of the supply are in the process of being finalized and that policy violations will not be conducted through SU.

“We are still working with students on the guidelines for usage, and those guidelines will evolve as we better understand student needs, especially regarding privacy and the types of protests students engage with,” he wrote. “SU does not participate in Student Conduct cases. If a student is found in violation of university guidelines, the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards is responsible for taking on cases.”

Miao said that he first thought of the idea in late 2020 after a conversation with a classmate who wanted to organize a protest but could not find a megaphone.

“I thought, ‘It would be great if Student Union would be able to offer that resource to people,’” Miao said. “Our organization has always been rooted in protest and in supporting the right for students to engage in protest and activism, and I think this is really built on that legacy.”

Student Union was established during the 1967-1968 school year when students were protesting the Vietnam War. In 1969, the organization set up a fund to bail students out of jail for protesting the war.

Working with Gephardt Institute Student Engagement Coordinator Colleen Smyth, Miao applied for funding through the Common Ground Grant. Any student, faculty or staff member can apply for up to $1,500 of funding through the grant, which Smyth said was created in response to the political divisiveness following the 2016 presidential election.

As a partnership between the Division of Student Affairs, the John C. Danforth Center of Religion and Politics and the Gephardt Institute, the “spirit of the grant [is to] promote some civic dialogue across campus,” Smyth said. “It’s about building bridges and the spirit of inquiry, asking questions, being curious and promoting civic dialogue. Protest is oftentimes a form of civic dialogue if it starts conversations.”

During the committee review process, Smyth said there were questions about how students would access the materials, where they would be stored and whether or not people would be hesitant to use the equipment “because it’s been institutionalized in some way” through the supply’s partnership with the Gephardt Institute. Ultimately, Miao’s proposal was approved by the Gephardt Institute’s Common Ground Grant review committee in Spring 2021, which is when he ordered the equipment so that it would be available for the fall semester.

All undergraduate students can access the Activist Equipment Supply, according to Miao. The only reason why someone would be denied access is if they previously borrowed items that were either damaged and not compensated for, or not returned at all, Miao said.

The supply was first announced to the student body in an email from Miao, Sept. 28, but Student Union had the equipment starting in early September, according to a follow-up statement from Miao. This enabled the organization #MeToo WashU, which began as an Instagram account (@metoo_washu) dedicated to providing survivors of sexual violence with a platform to share their stories, to utilize the supply for a vigil and protest in early September.

“When the items for the Equipment Supply first reached the office, an organizer from #MeToo WashU reached out and they were offered the opportunity to utilize the resources,” Miao wrote.

#MeToo WashU wrote in a statement to Student Life that they used a megaphone and poster boards from the Activist Equipment Supply for their Sept. 10 vigil and Occupy the Red Zone protest. At the vigil, student volunteers “used the megaphone to amplify their voices as they read survivors’ stories.”

The megaphone provided by SU’s Activist Equipment Supply impacted the accessibility and power of the protest, according to #MeToo WashU. “This program lessens the burden of the cost of supplies on student activists, making it easier for low-income students to organize protests should they want to do so,” a statement from #MeToo WashU read.

“After the protest, volunteer facilitators remarked on the transformative effect of the megaphone on speakers’ confidence levels. The megaphone emboldened previously-shy protesters to scream, to cry and to lead,” the statement read. “Without the megaphone and poster boards, our protest would have been less accessible to deaf and hard-of-hearing participants and less effective at catching the attention of — and communicating our message to — fraternity house residents. Best of all, these supplies, when in the hands of protesters, made protesters feel empowered.”

Both Miao and Smyth hope that the supply gives students the tools they need to make their voices heard.

“I’m a big fan of the First Amendment and of every single student’s right to protest and speak out on issues that they feel are unjust, so I really hope that this will offer resources and support for students on campus who are engaging in a wide variety of activism, no matter what their partisan or political background is,” Miao said.

“I believe it can be a resource for students who are really wanting to make their voices heard on campus but might not always have the tools right at the ready to be able to do that. I hope it can be utilized really to amplify people’s voices and things that they’re concerned about,” Smyth said.

Smyth added that students who use resources from the Activist Equipment Supply can have a tangible impact on the University.

“I think students have been responsible too, if you look back in WashU history, for really pushing and moving us along sometimes when we need it,” she said. “Institutions are very slow to change very often, so that feels important.”

Miao hopes to expand the supply in the future to make it even more useful for students. “There’s a lot of items that we’ve purchased already, and the way that we can expand this fund and make sure that it’s sustainable in perpetuity is to make sure that we continue gathering data from students who are using it and seeing where the needs are for the students on campus who are mobilizing and organizing for change.”

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