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A teacher's secret to engaging student activists

Keene, NH - From the constant flow of students through Keene State College's Student Center yesterday, their first day of "Arts & Activism" was a success. Groups from around the Monadnock Region surrounded the Mabel Brown room with tables full of literature, petitions and displays. The question is, were the groups a success?

Live music played through the event from 2-6 pm. The groups ranged from rock to acoustic mountain music, and were enjoyed by all. Students remained seated on the floor throughout the event, occasionally got up to dance and adults were seen dancing behind their tables. One husband and wife were twisting and turning away, clearly enjoying themselves.

Students were encouraged to meander through the tables and sign petitions. The ECHO Action table had a constant buzz of students visiting and at times, a crowd compared to other tables. Accompanied by my friend Pat, we were kept quite busy, our chairs never afforded the opportunity to get warm.

Organizations ranged from the Keene Democrats, Planned Parenthood, local progressive organizations and a group trying to stop a quarry to KSC groups for Campus Ecology, Eco-Reps, Ban The Plastic Bag, Solar Fest and fossil fuel divestment. Some tables had groups of friends chatting. They offered free pins, chocolates, and raffle tickets.

Among those at the tables, Pat and I saw a lot of people we know and chatted with them. I asked questions about what their groups were working on, discussed climate issues and upcoming rallies.

After one group of students left our table, the woman next to me asked, "What are you doing to get them all at your table?", I answered, "I just really like young people!" In fact, I was feeling a little like a student magnet and was really enjoying it! So, what's the secret?

ECHO Action's table had free "Protect The Granite State / No Northern Pass" tees and green rubber "Green Team" bracelets and a newsletter signup sheet, but there were three things we had that others did not.

1. Familiarity

2. Relatability

3. Opportunity

Last year I was invited to speak to a class of activism students who were tasked at finding a group they connected with and participating in an event. A group of them decided to work with me and participate in our "Pipelines are scarier than Halloween" march from Ashuelot River Park to Central Square in Keene.

They learned about the Kinder Morgan Northeast Energy Direct (NED) pipeline, were encouraged to call the school newspaper and radio station to promote their attendance in the event, and to have a sign-making workshop, inviting other students. They did all this and a tabling session in the student center.

The group of about 7 students were really nice and engaged in their work, but I wouldn't say they were overzealous about it. On the day of the march, they surprised me by showing up in costume, with great signs and one even brought his dog in costume. The pipeline opponents were very excited to see the KSC group and thanked them for attending. The best part, the students seemed really happy to be there.

Pipeline opponents were in costume and had a large pipeline beast art installation that walked down the street with us. One of the men in the group used the bullhorn to repeat, "Thank you New Hampshire citizens for paying for the pipeline. Kinder Morgan thanks you for paying for the pipeline!" in a very quirky and effective voice. Cars honked at us as we marched down the sidewalk.

For a group of only about 50 people, we were pretty effective in raising interest. At the town common, people impacted by the pipeline and state representatives took turns speaking, some displaying posters with information on them. Speeches were short, persuasive, energetic and diverse. After that, we stood around the circle, a spot always busy with traffic and stop lights, and held our signs, waved and were honked at. Overall, a pretty darn positive experience for first-time activists.

Students had the opportunity to be a part of a community event of importance to citizens. They were involved and appreciated. When students saw me at the Arts & Activism event, they came by to say hello and introduced their friends. That familiarity gave me the opportunity to engage students I already know and meet their friends.

I'm a high school science teacher by training, so I genuinely like young people and their energy. The group I worked with were friendly and polite, so I couldn't help but like them. This comfort with students gave me a level of relatability. I'm in touch with the needs and concerns of students.

I certainly didn't know all the students, but I'm friendly, reach out to shy students who are hovering, trying to decide if they should come closer or ask a question, and I know one of the biggest secrets to getting their interest. Have you guessed yet what it is?

Most people will tell young people who they are and what they do. That's important and good for about 15-30 seconds. After that, their eyes glaze over, their feet start to shift and they start looking for a means of escape.

Chat them up. Ask them about themselves, what brought them to the event, what other tables interested them and, (cue the pixie dust sound) I offer something just for them. Yesterday, it was a potential internship.

In April, students are just weeks away from final exams, summer vacation, jobs and internships. Timing is everything. In 3 hours I had 3 full pages of students who were interested in learning more about what we do and possibly volunteering with us. That magic thing they received was an opportunity.

When there was a buzz around the table, I talked fast, handed out mini flyers and reminded students that if they weren't interested, a friend might be and asked them to pass on the information. When I had a little more time with students, I extended the opportunity even further. I told them that upon successful completion, they would receive a written recommendation from a professional. Oooh! Eyes light up for that one!

After years of experience in working with young people, these are things that work for me. Activism is at an all-time high right now. College students are involved in politics and social issues. A lot of them are getting involved because of their friends and because it's fun and empowering.

The tips I use may not be appropriate for every group. You have to know your own strengths and play to what your group's needs are. You may be looking for students with a particular interest, background or career path. Whatever it is, be approachable, be kind, patient and friendly. What they need most is our encouragement and to be welcomed and wanted, so be a great mentor!

If you would like to see photos of the Halloween pipeline march and the pipeline beast, or photos of the students I mentored last year, you'll find two galleries on this page at the ECHO Action website.

If you're a Keene State College or Franklin Pierce University student in the Monadnock Region of Southern New Hampshire, and you're interested in an internship, you'll find information on the ECHO Action website. You can follow ECHO Action NH on Facebook and Twitter!

~ Stephanie Scherr

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