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The New Student Activists: The Rise of Neoactivism on College Campuses

reviewed by Ricardo Montelongo - September 21, 2020

coverTitle: The New Student Activists: The Rise of Neoactivism on College Campuses
Author(s): Jerusha O. Conner
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421436671, Pages: 240, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

On March 7, 1965, civil rights leader John Lewis led hundreds of protesters over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to demand voting rights for African Americans. The actions and sacrifices of then 25-year-old Lewis impacted the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act. As a student activist, Lewis believed in getting into “good trouble” to create action for societal change. Fast forward 50 years later to the summer of 2020, a new generation of leaders continue Lewis’ legacy of “good trouble” in organizing marches, rallies, and protests for social justice and racial equity. Building a bridge between the social activists of the past to the activism of today is key to Jerusha O. Conner’s timely book, The New Student Activists: The Rise of Neoactivism on College Campuses. Conner adds up-to-date knowledge on how activism is viewed, felt, and provided by this new generation of college and university activists.

The New Student Activists: The Rise of Neoactivism on College Campuses is a thorough overview of Conner and her research team’s year-long study of college student activists. Using both survey data from activists representing over 120 campuses in the United States and interviews with 40 self-identified student activists, Conner reanalyzes this initial data for her book to provide a thorough yet straightforward profile of what influences college student activism today. Conner constructs an interesting and enlightening forecast on the future of activism using perspectives from both progressive and conservative college organizations. In addition, she shares narratives from student activists to provide readers background and context on dimensions of activism.

In the introduction, Conner highlights the increased diversity found in today’s college student populations. Current student activism, she explains, avoids competition between issues and is “in favor of building diverse and inclusive coalitions” reflecting the wider range of social identities held by today’s college students (p. 4). Contemporary student movements, the author writes, “seems to be a function of the intersectional analysis that movement actors have brought to bear as they forge links across and within movements” (p. 5). Today’s activists participate in a wider range of issues reflective of issues found in these wide-ranging identities, as well as attention to self-care while performing this work. She structures these developments within the social and economic frame of neoliberalism developed by Pauline Lipman (2011). As applied to higher education, neoliberalism creates organizational structures that promote self-interest and devaluate discussions on social problems and political action. Conner intentionally attaches the prefix neo to activism to counter neoliberal thinking. Neoactivists, she writes, “describe one subset of contemporary college student activists who deliberately link their social justice work to the pioneering activist efforts of their predecessors” (p. 8). Neoactivism is explained to be a dialectic relationship between student activists and the neoliberal university using past activism as guideposts to develop strategies and critical consciousness. The author’s introduction to her book concludes with a summary of the current sociopolitical environment where neoactivists and their work are placed, emphasizing the rise of the Trump administration and the movements of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.

Chapter One provides various definitions of activism as developed by student activists. Key to these definitions is how activism is tied to students’ identities. Conner uses her survey to collect these various definitions to develop five central themes of activism definitions. Her book focuses on the three most prominent themes in her study: taking action, effecting change, and targeting injustice or oppression (p. 35). The author analyzes these themes to present various perspectives of what it means to do activism work and to identify as a student activist. Ranging from creating observable changes to the status quo to performing “collectivist activity… to support or work on behalf of others” (p. 37), Conner examines the many facets of activism to provide a comprehensive understanding of activist identity and how various identity dimensions (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender identity, socioeconomic status, and others) intersect to impact activist engagement and action.

Chapter Two provides information on how students become activists and the enticement to become an activist. Conner starts the chapter by providing the story of how one student’s lifelong commitment to activism originates from an animal ethics course during his first year of college. The course is described as creating a ripple-like effect where the student “got pulled into activism” (p. 56), which led to additional activist interests and activities. The author uses this story to springboard into her analysis on what contributes in becoming an activist. Influences such as college courses, involvement in college student organizations, and engagement in protests during college are described by several additional student narratives within the chapter. Conner explains that current student activists have a gradual “turning toward activism” (p. 59) rather than an immediate pivotal or triggering moment. This characteristic of neoactivism is explained as the merging of students’ strengthening activist identities onto more active sociopolitical behaviors.

Chapters Three through Five provide the dimensions of activism to understand how students develop into activists in higher education environments. Activism, as outlined by Conner, includes emotional and relational, intellectual, and behavioral dimensions. The emotional and relational dimension include support provided by family and peers in student activism in college. The intellectual dimension describes high school experiences and college involvement opportunities that influence the turn towards activism. Student clubs and organizations and the impact they play in providing activism opportunities are highlighted within this specific dimension. The behavioral dimension looks at strategies neoactivists use to get their work done. The author explains that neoactivists have a wide-ranging way of assessing accomplishments, or “wins” (p. 149), from their activist work. Student activists identify five types of wins: changing hearts and minds, successful coordination of an event or action, increasing organizational presence, promoting institutional cultural shifts, and advancing changes in college policies. Conner’s arrangement of these chapters provides an informative profile of the student activists in her book. Examining both the internal and external influences that play a part in developing a neoactivist identity, her book takes readers on the journey towards becoming an activist, starting with the earliest experiences in understanding activism in high school up to transforming campus culture and policies in college.

The author concludes with thoughts on why high school and college students play pivotal leadership roles in social movements. Throughout her book, she often reflects on the influence and wisdom of youth activists such as Emma Gonzalez and her Marjory Stoneman Douglas peers advocating for gun control after experiencing the worst high school shooting in the United States. Conner sees such student activists as the future in college student activism. Unafraid of doing the necessary work to create change, learning from past movements, and revising lessons from them to respond to today’s issues, neoactivists continue to challenge college and university decision-makers to respond to social changes and to resist neoliberal tendencies in college administration.

I found the author’s intentionality in making sure her student sample fully represented all forms of activism to be one of the book’s strengths. Important college activism activities found in the Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA rights, Take Back the Night, and other movements are all highlighted within the student narratives Conner features within each chapter. Her book is also cognizant that today’s college student activism contains both progressive and conservative leanings. The descriptions of student activists in the book also include responses and narratives from participants in organizations addressing conservative issues. This is important to state since the author made efforts to frame her findings in what she labels “The Trump Effect” (p. 75), making note of how the ascendency of the Trump administration during the time of the study affected student activists. While there is a diversity of student voices included in the book, there is a lack of institutional diversity found in the book. While the author notes that survey data is “collected from a diverse sample of 237 participants,” she generally states that they are “from four-year residential colleges and universities” (p. 33). I would be interested in learning more about the institutions represented, since student cultures and campus environments play an important role in not just student activism, but college student involvement. The expansion of institutional diversity might also lead to more diversity within the student activist sample, where voices mostly represent a White, middle- to upper-class background. The increasing number of Minority-Serving Institutions nationwide might be interesting to highlight or add for readers.

Overall, Conner’s book is an engaging study on today’s college student activists. I recommend the book for higher education student affairs professionals looking to enhance advisement of activist-focused student organizations and activist-centered student leaders. Conner’s study provides helpful insights appropriate to share with students to help them understand the impact of activism on college campuses. The book is a valuable resource for high school educators and college faculty looking for current thought on today’s activist movements. Conner provides scholarship that helps students understand how activist icons like John Lewis and others contribute to today’s college student activist movements in continuing a legacy of causing “good trouble.”


Lipman, P. (2011). The new political economy of urban education: Neoliberalism, race, and the right to

the city. Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 21, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23441, Date Accessed: 10/21/2020 3:21:40 AM

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About the Author
  • Ricardo Montelongo
    Sam Houston State University
    E-mail Author
    RICARDO MONTELONGO, Ph. D., is an associate professor of Educational Leadership at Sam Houston State University. His primary research interests include the impact of Latina/o/x college student organizations; diversity issues in higher education; and (critical) digital pedagogy. His publications can be found in About Campus, ACPA Developments, CLEARVoz Journal, College Teaching, International Journal of Information & Learning Technology, and Journal of College Student Development. He is currently developing a multi-year study on spirituality issues in higher education student affairs. He received his Ph.D. in Higher Education from Indiana University and a M.S. in Student Affairs Administration and B.S. in Psychology both from Texas A&M University.
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