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When Students Speak Out: Understanding the Motivations for I, Too, Am Mobilization

by Richard S. L. Blissett, Dominique J. Baker & Benjamin C. Fields - 2020

Background: Beginning in the 2013–2014 school year, students across colleges and universities in the United States created a series of campaigns similar to the original I, Too, Am Harvard photo campaign (which focused on highlighting the negative campus climate for black students at Harvard University).

Purpose: This study illuminates some of the reasons why students decided to mobilize in order to provide a clearer understanding of what students are identifying as problems on college campuses.

Subjects: Evidence in this study is drawn from two sources: student newspapers from campuses with a campaign supplemented by interviews with students who were involved with the campaigns.

Research Design: This qualitative case study uses both the newspapers and the interviews as sources of evidence.

Results: We find that the campaigns were primarily motivated by negative campus climates for students from historically marginalized populations, and that these climates were in place before the movements emerged. The campaigns developed within a larger macropolitical context in which there was a larger focus on inclusion. Also, the movements tended to have a specific focus on exposing microaggressions, providing a space for students to speak out, and expressing solidarity.

Conclusions: If institutions have a vested interest in creating more welcoming environments, then proactively addressing the experiences of students on campus, expanding the scope of diversity initiatives to include this focus, and providing spaces for students to be able to express and discuss their experiences may be critical to success.

College and university students across the United States (and around the world) have used visual and social media to express discontent with the inhospitable climates on their college campuses. One particular movement, inspired by the 2014 I, Too, Am Harvard campaign, spread quickly across the United States and was an important part of a national conversation about the inclusivity of institutions of higher education. The movement began with a primary focus on the experiences of black students, and it expanded across universities to include students identifying as women, queer, and with other historically marginalized populations (Baker & Blissett, 2018).1 These campus campaigns, as a collective, provide a rich source of information for understanding how to help colleges and universities strive for the creation of inclusive environments, especially in the wake of student mobilization (specifically, the development of collective student movements aimed at addressing some shared problem, either at their colleges and universities or other social institutions) and action.

One question that follows this movement, then, is, “What should universities do?” Firstly, these organized collective actions were ostensibly in response to something. To the extent that those with the power to change the instigating circumstances agree that those circumstances were (1) problematic and (2) severe enough as indicated by the mobilization to warrant action, it seems prudent then to investigate what social movement actors viewed as the instigating circumstances. There are several ways to approach this question, including looking at the demands made by university groups (Chessman & Wayt, 2016; Ndemanu, 2017) and investigating the statistical predictors of mobilization (Astin, Astin, Bayer, & Bisconti, 1975; Baker & Blissett, 2018). A limitation of investigating the demands is that they are final, politically filtered products of mobilization. While they are certainly important, they may omit certain nuances that arose throughout the mobilization process. Similarly, broader quantitative analysis of the predictors of mobilization using national data, such as those in Baker and Blissett (2018), is limited by the inability to capture factors in the mobilization story that are not readily available as accessible quantitative data, such as campus climate and historical effects. We fill this gap in the literature with the current research, focusing on qualitative information gathered directly from social movement actors and the primary outlets tasked with reporting on campus events: college and university student newspapers.

Secondly, student collective action has long been a part of American higher education. Whether or not it can be reasonably expected that there will come a time when student protests will be a nonissue, whether by the lack of need or by political suppression, it does seem that they are currently part of the political reality that colleges and universities inhabit. As such, it is important that campus administrators have a sense of what to do in response to student organizing. Resources addressing this topic exist in a scattered capacity across the United States, ranging from the Robinson-Edley report from the University of California (Edley & Robinson, 2012) to a book from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (Axmacher et al., 2014). These sources often approach student organizing from a legal framework focused on civil disobedience and the best responses during mobilization events. We add to this literature by focusing on a specific set of campaigns, as a part of a broader movement, that addressed a particular set of equity and inclusion issues.

In this study, we focused on the student campaigns that arose following the I, Too, Am Harvard project in March of 2014. During the spring of 2014, Carol Powell, a Harvard student, led other black students attending Harvard University in creating publicity for a play, written, and directed by another black student, Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence (the play was based on the Langston Hughes work, I, Too, Am America). The publicity included pictures of black students sharing either racially discriminatory statements that had been said to them or the students’ possible response to those types of statements on dry-erase boards (Butler, 2014). These pictures were hosted on various social media platforms, such as Tumblr, which allowed news media and students attending other institutions to learn of the tactic. Following press in outlets like BuzzFeed (Vingiano, 2014), students attending other institutions began to use similar tactics to highlight discrimination against not just black students, but also women, other racial/ethnic minorities, and other historically marginalized groups. Recent research has found that at least 40 institutions in the United States had some type of I, Too, Am (ITA) campaign (Baker & Blissett, 2018), and international campaigns have arisen in places ranging from McGill University in Canada to École Nationale d’Administration in France to Sydney University in Australia to Oxford University in England.

While that same research investigated the institutional antecedents to this type of student mobilization, the quantitative analysis was not able to deeply investigate the processes and meaning-making attached with the decision to have an I, Too, Am campaign. While there is indeed extant qualitative research focusing on meaning-making in student activism (e.g., Harrison & Mather, 2014; Ruiz, Cheng, Terrell, Lewis, & Mattern, 2017), our work adds to the literature by focusing on a specific cross-institutional movement while pulling information from several different universities focusing on the same target. Drawing on both campus newspapers’ articles that covered the respective campaigns as well as a small set of interviews from campaign leaders, we investigated where these campaigns came from through a qualitative case study design. In particular, we investigated the research questions:


How do the environments and events within institutions relate to the creation of ITA campaigns?


How do the students who participated in the ITA campaigns describe the expressed goals and motivations of the campaigns?

An important presumption for the application of the results of this research inquiry, as mentioned before, is that those trusted with the power to change colleges and universities, namely administrators and faculty members, have a committed, student-centered interest in addressing the contexts that motivate student mobilization. It is important to acknowledge, however, that there are still questions about this presumption, as noted by both theoretical and empirical works. For example, Hamer and Lang (2015) outline the extent to which long-standing structures of faculty work that center on productivity combine with a primarily white faculty population to produce an environment where concrete action towards anti-racism and the dismantling of structural violence in higher education is stifled. Similarly, Patel (2015) highlights the struggles that emerge at the juncture between a named desire for diversity and the embeddedness of institutions of higher education within a history of white property entitlement. A discourse analysis of administrative responses to diversity-related student activism at one university by Hoffman and Mitchell (2016) found that the use of diversity language often served to stifle action to address activist concerns and place the burden of systemic problems back onto the students. Altogether, Hoffman and Mitchell (2016), among others, suggest that the presumption of vested interest by higher education administrators and faculty is not guaranteed. Therefore, the combination of our research on motivations for mobilization as well as administrative responses is critical for understanding the issues that exist in reality.


Under the presumption that the voices of students are conveying real information about the state of the university, it seems prudent that institutions of higher education have an interest in attending to the concerns of their students or, at the least, understanding what those concerns are. Recent years have seen the rise of public acknowledgement of anti-racism and other anti-marginalization/discrimination campaigns on college campuses, all of which paint a picture of American higher education as still struggling with making college inclusive to students of all backgrounds (Barnhardt & Reyes, 2016). To better understand how the current research contributes, we outline (a) the characteristics of institutions previously associated with student mobilization, (b) strain theory, one theory of the mobilization process, and (c) the antecedents prior research would posit precede these mobilizations.


Prior research on campus social movements, which has employed a variety of methods ranging from qualitative, single institution case studies to national quantitative investigations, reveal generally consistent patterns. Researchers have found consistent evidence of significant institutional predictors of student collective action, including larger undergraduate enrollments (Altbach, 1981; Altbach & Laufer, 1972; Astin et al., 1975; Baker & Blissett, 2018; Barnhardt, 2015; Lipset & Altbach, 1969; McAdam, 1992; Rhoads, 1997, 1998, 2003) and higher selectivity (Astin et al., 1975; Baker & Blissett, 2018; Lipset, 1993; Soule, 1997; Van Dyke, 1998, 2003). Research on the influence of the control of the institution (public or private not-for-profit) and geographic region is less conclusive (Barnhardt, 2015).

Recently, analyses of the antecedents of nationwide collective actions have focused on the anti-sweatshop movement and the anti-racism movement. Barnhardt (2015) conducted a document analysis to find public and private not-for-profit institutions participating in the National Collegiate Athletic Association with students mobilizing around the issue of sweatshops from 1998 to 2002. The author found that, for a random sample of 149 institutions, union summer involvement, total student enrollment, diversity requirement in general education, and the number of area studies majors were positively associated with the odds of student collective action. The percent of students who lived in-state and who self-identified as a racial/ethnic minority were negatively associated with the odds of collective action. The author highlighted the way that diversity requirements in general education and area studies majors can create an institutional culture of student mobilization and action, which could lead to the results she found.

Focusing on the anti-racism movement, Ndemanu (2017) and Baker and Blissett (2018) examined more recent episodes of collective action. Ndemanu (2017) used document analysis to investigate the demands that black students attending 73 different institutions had submitted to their respective administrations in order to investigate the antecedents of student unrest. The students began submitting these demands in 2015. The author found that the two most frequent demands were an increase in underrepresented racial/ethnic minority faculty and staff at the institution and mandatory cultural sensitivity for faculty. On average, the students demanded that the representation of faculty and staff who identify as underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities increase by between 10 and 30 percent. Contemporaneously, Baker and Blissett (2018) investigated the antecedents of the I, Too, Am campaigns, using data on institutional characteristics to predict the presence of a campaign, and found that institutions’ selectivity, size, and percentage of Pell grant recipients were predictive of the presence of an I, Too, Am campaign. While students originally mobilized around issues of race, the authors found no evidence that the racial diversity of institutions (defined as enrollment share of students who identified  as white, black, Latino, Asian, and other race) was associated with the odds of students mobilizing. Also, the authors did not find evidence that the changes in institutional characteristics, e.g., the change in the enrollment of black students, from year-to-year or over a five-year period predicted the odds of students mobilizing. Baker and Blissett’s (2018) findings generally aligned with previous research from Astin et al. (1975), but the lack of evidence on a relationship with racial diversity raises important questions. In particular, given the often-explicit racial focus of the I, Too, Am collective actions, what else could it be, beyond racial diversity, that is driving mobilization?


The theoretical framework within which we situate this particular study comes from the literature on mobilization more broadly. Strain theory (sometimes referred to as grievance theory) posits that collective action occurs in response to a buildup of tension or concern within a group of individuals about a certain phenomenon (Buechler, 2016). This theory originally focused on the way this strain would create a breakdown in societal bonds or weaken social cohesion, leading to collective action (Snow, Cress, Downey, & Jones, 1998). Scholars have since amended the theory to allow that individuals may respond to the increased strain by aligning with others with similar concerns about the stimulus event in order to create collective action from a solidarity perspective (Tilly, Tilly, & Tilly, 1975). Traditionally, this meant that, “ambiguities or conflicts in normative expectations, strains and stresses in the social structure, and events that undermine the predictability and ‘naturalness’ of everyday life” (Buechler, 2016, p. 94) could lead to collective action.

This does not mean that increased strain automatically leads to collective action. The feasibility of collective action, such as availability of resources and ability to communicate across interested parties (Turner & Killian, 1987), does play a role in whether individuals will mobilize. However, strain theory suggests that the impetus or desire for collective action comes from the buildup in tension. In other words, strain is a necessary but insufficient antecedent to collective action.

Snow et al. (1998) synthesized multiple scholars’ work on strain theory. The authors articulated, based on that analysis, that if normal, everyday life is interrupted, individuals will be more likely to mobilize. This would be particularly true if the collective group experiences disruption or interruption in their lives and if there is not already a systematic response in place which can mitigate the disruption.  The authors then outlined four conditions or scenarios that would lead to collective action based on their conceptualization of strain theory:


Accidents that throw a community’s routines into doubt and/or threaten its existence;


The actual or threatened intrusion into and/or violation of [citizens’] sense of privacy, safety, and control;


Alteration in subsistence routines because of a decrease in the ratio of resources to claimants or demand; and,


Dramatic changes in structures of social control. (Snow et al., 1998, p. 16)

All of these conditions include a change or shift in the status quo for individuals, which leads them to mobilize.

Applying strain theory to the ITA campaigns, Baker and Blissett (2018) attempted to find the tipping point for student organizers based on quantitative data on institutional characteristics by investigating not only, as predictors, current states of institutions, but also changes in institutions over time. As discussed in the prior section, Baker and Blissett (2018) found evidence of a relationship between the percentage of students from low-income backgrounds but little on the enrollment share of underrepresented racial/ethnic minority undergraduate students. In addition, the authors found little evidence that shifts in demographic characteristics of institutions were associated with mobilization. Therefore, even though the publicity around the movement focused largely on the differential enrollment and experiences of racial/ethnic minorities, particularly black students, the empirical tipping point associated with mobilization was not the share of these students enrolling. However, this study was limited in its use primarily of data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which does not capture more climate-related aspects of university life. For these reasons, the current study investigated the antecedents to mobilization using qualitative investigation techniques. Using the two different types of data, university student newspapers and student organizer interviewers, we can more deeply understand how strain theory applies to the ITA movement using a more inductive approach.


More specifically, a limitation of the previous quantitative approaches to this subject has been the availability of climate-related data. While the quantitative approaches are indeed informative (including the approach using IPEDS referenced above), as of now, there is not a significant amount of large-scale data on institutional climates that scholars could use to predict mobilization. While the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), for example, does include information on student experiences, it is voluntary for institutions to participate, and it is further voluntary for institutions that do participate to include questions about experiences with diversity. In addition, qualitative approaches allow a deeper investigation of the conditions leading to mobilization as communicated and organized by the students themselves (e.g., Harrison & Mather, 2014; Ruiz et al., 2017). Qualitative research allows for a more holistic understanding of the myriad of motivations leading to student collective action. This methodological approach provides the opportunity for the participants, in this case students, to speak for themselves. In particular, this is necessary in order to investigate some of the motivational antecedents of student mobilization that may be missed in quantitative, demographics-based stories. In the current study, we focused on one likely category of motivations: marginalization and social discrimination.

Incidents of discrimination in higher education have been increasingly publicized (Bauman, 2018). Groups supporting violence and hate crimes have found universities fertile grounds for both speaking engagements and distributing flyers and information (Kerr, 2018). Research primarily separates discrimination in higher education institutions as either being overt or covert. Overt discrimination can be direct actions that target students based on their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or some combination (Harper, 2012). Covert discrimination is often defined as more subtle statements or non-verbal interactions that target individuals based on the same characteristics (often called “microaggressions,” Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000). While focus has generally been on the overt discrimination that students face, the buildup of experiencing the covert methods of discrimination can be just as difficult to overcome for the students. These types of overt and covert incidents can create climates that make it difficult for students to thrive. Scholars have extensively studied how these types of incidents can create inhospitable campus climates for students identifying with historically marginalized groups, such as black women (Commodore, Baker, & Arroyo, 2018), Latino men (Saenz & Ponjuan, 2009), and trans* students (Seelman, Woodford, & Nicolazzo, 2017). 2 Less studied has been how these climates link to student mobilization, particularly with recent shifts in the publicity the news media affords these types of overt and covert incidents.

Strain theory would identify several additional antecedents to students mobilizing using ITA tactics. A potential breakdown in the bonds with the administration and faculty could motivate students to organize. Alternatively, increased solidarity with other marginalized students and their allies both in the students’ home institutions and with students at other institutions could create a tipping point that leads to mobilization. Technological improvements by 2014 allowed students to spread their concerns about the experience of marginalized student groups on their college campus (Blissett & Baker, 2018). Therefore, the increased strain as students learned that their experiences were not isolated, random events could have created new feelings of solidarity with fellow students at their institutions. This change induced by additional strain could increase the feasibility of mobilization, allowing students attending certain institutions to create ITA campaigns. We are interested in further investigating why only certain institutions with similar characteristics previously shown to be associated with having an ITA campaign actually had a campaign. There is a gap in the larger literature of understanding how strains within collegiate environments can lead to collective action. The current work contributes to filling that gap.


In order to investigate our research questions, we approached our analysis as a qualitative, collective case study, allowing us to address a single issue and use data from multiple cases to illustrate the issue (Cresswell, 2007). In particular, we drew on two sources of information to understand the phenomenon: online news articles from school newspapers about the various campaigns and interviews with student leaders in the campaigns. By using multiple sources of information, we were able to gain multiple perspectives on the campaigns and identify ways in which these perspectives align or diverge. This allowed for triangulation of the results, which increases the trustworthiness of the results (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). We triangulated results using a process similar to what Yin (1994) refers to as “explanation-building” in which we began from strain theory to frame the questions we asked of the data, then iteratively reviewed the data (as explained below) to update our understanding of the explanation for the mobilization in question. We chose the I, Too, Am movement as the specific issue for analysis, which included narratives from newspapers and student activists themselves about the experiences of students during the movement and what inspired mobilization. The full list of 40 institutions that formed our sampling frame was drawn from Baker and Blissett (2018).3 Below, we discuss the selection criteria and analysis procedures for the student newspapers and interviews.


To find the online newspaper articles, we began by conducting an internet search for each campaign by name and then looking at the archives of their individual Tumblr (or other social media) page.4 This provided us with a rough estimate of when the campaign began and ended, which became the framework for the news search. Beginning with the website for each institution’s newspaper, we conducted either an advanced search using the timeline derived from the campaign’s web pages or a basic search using the campaign’s name as a keyword (27 of the 40 institutions had advanced search features on their school newspaper website). We also searched for articles using these specific keywords: “equality,” “social movement,” “race relations,” and “equity.” We then narrowed to articles found within the campaign timeline, in order to focus on those writings that were reflecting on what was happening immediately preceding and during mobilization, rather than later articles that discuss them retrospectively in the context of changes that have happened at the institution since.

After the initial search within each institution newspaper’s website, we used a Google News search constrained by the timeline from the original search. Overall, our original search identified 98 media pieces across 28 institutions, with each institution having between 1 and 12 different media pieces. In order to assess possible differences between ITA institutions included in the newspaper analysis and ITA institutions that were not, we used data from IPEDS to check for descriptive differences between the 28 institutions found above and the 12 institutions for which we did not find anything in our search. There were many similarities on important characteristics such as the percent of Pell recipients, racial demographics, gender demographics, and size, but also some important differences. On average, the institutions with articles had lower acceptance rates (were more selective), were more often private not-for-profits, and tended to be located in the mid-eastern United States. Especially because of the selectivity issue, which was found to be predictive of ITA campaigns in previous research (Baker & Blissett, 2018), we recognize that the motivations as found in this qualitative work may be different than those at the institutions that did not have media pieces. We discuss this point again in the final discussion section of this manuscript.

After identifying the 98 media pieces, we divided the 28 institutions among the three co-authors to mark important excerpts. Using an a priori coding scheme as described by Saldana (2009), we marked text excerpts that spoke to nine major types of information, most of which were motivated by strain theory: (1) administrative responses to campaigns, (2) institutional environments covered by the article (but not necessarily expressed by student organizers themselves), (3) important events covered by the article (not necessarily expressed by student organizers), (4) references to I, Too, Am Harvard, (5) inciting events as communicated by or paraphrased from student organizers, (6) inciting environments as communicated by or paraphrased from student organizers, (7) goals of the campaign as stated by student organizers, (8) goals of the campaign as covered by the newspaper (but un-cited), and (9) student responses to the campaign. In total, this process resulted in 236 excerpts across 18 institutions (henceforth referred to as our “sample” institutions). In this manuscript, we focus mainly on the evidence related to the motivations that students may have had for mobilizing, reserving an analysis of responses to the campaigns for future research. The institutions that were excluded were those for which, upon reviewing the pulled news articles, the research team did not find relevant written information that spoke to our research inquiries related to the campaigns themselves. For example, while a series of actions at American University sought to address problems with the racial climate, published online newspaper articles that we found did not specifically cite the Being Black at American University campaign. 5

In order to develop more specific codes, we engaged in a unique process of open coding (Corbin & Strauss, 2008), which was primarily driven by logistical challenges of having three team members spread across geographic space. In this process, each of the three research team members individually engaged in a process of open coding for each of the 236 excerpts. This process, while somewhat skirting the realist ontology that often underlies open coding and grounded theory (Sarker, Lau, & Sahay, 2000), allowed each researcher in isolation to develop an interpretation of the excerpts based on their own understanding (informed by personal positions).6

This process produced, at the end, three different coding systems that were developed individually by the researchers. At this point, one of the team members thoroughly analyzed the three coding schemes and classified the excerpts into three categories: (1) excerpts where all three researchers seemed to align in terms of their coding, (2) excerpts where two out of three researchers seemed to align, and (3) excerpts where the three researchers all differed from one another. While the three schemes indeed used different language, it was apparent in most cases that there was some amount of basic agreement about the content of the excerpt. Out of the 236 excerpts, 69 (29%) fit into the first category, 115 (49%) fit into the second category, and 53 (22%) fit into the third category.

For all excerpts in the first category (all researchers agreed), a primary code was developed that aligned with the language of the three codes. For example, an excerpt coded with “Institutionalized structure in response,” “Plan to respond to concerns,” and “Institutional change” was finally coded as “Concrete actions forward.” For all excerpts in the second category (two researchers agreed), the team member connected the excerpt to the original source and upon review, developed a primary code that aligned with the language of the two agreeing individual researcher codes. There were 20 (of 113, 17%) cases in which this team member, during this process, disagreed with the majority opinion (including cases when his own codes were a part of the majority) and proposed a different primary code. This primarily occurred in two instances. The first was when the two agreeing individual codes were, semantically, nearly identical to the a priori coding scheme and thus did not provide additional information. Alternatively, the second was when upon review, this team member concluded that in context and upon reflection, the excerpt actually did not provide anything particularly useful in terms of addressing the inquiries posed by the a priori scheme (these latter excerpts, of which there were 12, were removed from the final analysis). Finally, for excerpts in the final category (no researchers agreed), this author reviewed the original excerpt in the context of the full original source material and proposed a primary code. It is important to note that during this process of rigorous re-review, two of the original sources were flagged as possibly being too distantly related to the campaign to be included. As such, the final analysis used 222 excerpts.

At the end, there were 35 different proposed primary codes. At this point, a memo was written to detail this process, and a second member of the research team (after soliciting suggestions from the rest of the research team) engaged in the process of making the coding scheme more parsimonious from a grounded theory perspective (Cresswell, 2007). This other team member reviewed the primary codes with two or less associated excerpts and proposed either (1) keeping the codes the same or (2) changing the codes to other existing codes. The codes were changed when the only excerpts associated with the codes came from a single institution or when the codes actually aligned with another existing code. This resulted in fewer than 10 primary codes being changed (e.g., “Role of allies (support)” and “Role of allies (critique)” being combined into “Role of allies”). This process resulted in 31 final codes for the newspaper analysis.7


It is important to acknowledge that the newspaper analysis described above was conducted after the analysis we conducted with student interviews. While we could have focused on one institution, we decided to collect interview data from students at multiple institutions in order to increase our ability to make analytic generalizations. While case studies often, in order to triangulate findings, rely on collecting multiple perspectives (Yin, 2006), we instead relied on multiple sources of the same type of data in the narrative approach. In particular, it is important to acknowledge that newspapers are not a perfect representation of reality, as they reflect discursive choices made to represent a situation (which is part of why we distinguished our newspaper codes between those that came directly from quotes from activists and those that seemed like summarizations by writers). It is for this reason that we supplement the newspaper analysis with interviews. Combined with the news analysis, the interviews provided important insight into the story of these campaigns.

For our analysis, we were primarily interested in student leaders from the I, Too, Am movement. To identify these leaders, we randomly selected 20 institutions from the full list of I, Too, Am campaigns (as identified in Baker & Blissett, 2018). For each of these institutions, we found e-mail information online and attempted to make contact with their leadership.8 In this process, we held a commitment to critical reflexivity because of our status in power as university researchers (Ackerly & True, 2008). In particular, we were attentive to the acknowledgement that our own status as university researchers may affect the research process for interview participants with possible affective attachments (or detachments) to institutions of higher education.9 To this end, we clarified three important points in our solicitations: (1) ensured confidentiality of the participants, (2) our own histories with anti-racist activism, and (3) the desire to investigate, and not to critique, the work of these students. We finally managed to establish contact and complete interviews with five student leaders, from four different institutions. Each interview was about an hour, during which we used a semi-structured interview protocol to probe participants on our research questions while mostly allowing them to shape the direction of the conversation. Interviews began with a question about the history of the participants’ respective organizations, and then subsequent conversation focused on (a) the inciting contexts and (b) responses from students, faculty, and administrators.10 Because of the geographic dispersion of our participants, all interviews were conducted via phone.11 While qualitative interviews are typically conducted face to face, research has shown that, with an explicit focus on rapport building, telephone interviews can produce similar quality data (e.g., Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004).

Two important characteristics shared in common across the participants are that they were all the founders of their respective campaigns, and they were all previously involved on campus before their campaigns started. These similarities are important because they help us understand the attachment these students may have had to their institutions and collective action in the first place. Lastly, it is important to note that these interviews were all conducted at least a year after the original campaigns, and several of the participants had moved onto other stages of life.

There were also ways in which the participants differed that should be kept in mind in the interpretation of our results. Four of the five participants identified as female. Four identified as racial/ethnic minorities, while the fifth identified as white. One identified as gay,12 while four did not specify. On racial and sexual identity lines, the interviewers did not actively identify themselves, though it is possible that the participants could have used internet resources to investigate. Combining this information, there are two important takeaways. First, all of the interviewees identified with at least one historically marginalized identity. Second, there were several ways in which the interviewers differed from participants. We discuss this point more explicitly in Appendix B.

In order to protect confidentiality on a potentially sensitive topic, we do not share the names of the students or their respective institutions. However, we reference their quotes by pseudonym (purposefully gender-neutral) and, in order to understand the context of their responses, we provide broad information about the institutions, based on the 2016–2017 IPEDS data collection, in Table 1.13 Morgan and Tracy attended the same university, and all percentages were rounded to the nearest five.

Table 1. Pseudonyms and Institutional Characteristics for Interview Participants


Carnegie Classification


Percent Pell

Percent White


















Far West





Far West



Note: All measures collected from the College Navigator.

To examine how students made sense of their experiences and understand how participants interpreted their relationships with the university, we drew on lessons from interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith & Osborn, 2008), a subset of phenomenology. We chose this approach because of its postpositivist lens that allowed us to understand themes in perceived experiences with a single phenomenon—the ITA movement (Cresswell, 2007). The use of this approach informed both our interviews as well as our analysis. First, one member of the research team read and re-read the cases in order to become intimate with the accounts, highlighting places where the interviewee was communicating a specific idea related to the motivations for mobilization (as framed within strain theory). Particular attention was paid to (a) events and environments that participants consistently noted that occurred before the initial mobilization and (b) explicit attributional statements where interviewees cited reasons for mobilization. Initial reading of the cases focused on identifying coherent, unique ideas within each transcript, and thus a record developed of each interviewee’s perspectives. Repeated reviews by the reader were used to confirm that the lists of ideas reflected the participants’ expressed perspectives. For each transcript, the reader had therefore developed intra-case master-theme lists, usually 6–12 items long. These master-theme lists were then compared across participants to identify shared meanings as well as unique themes. This process involved checking interpretations of the master-theme lists with another member of the research team, identifying common themes that existed across cases (e.g., bringing voices of marginalized students to the forefront and elevating voices of people of color being named as similar), and developing a set of final, shared perspectives. The entire research team then reviewed the shared perspectives (gathered from this comparison process). At this point, we completed the main part of our data analysis of the student leader interviews by organizing the shared perspectives into two broad groups: (a) perspectives on the mobilization itself and (b) perspectives on responses to the mobilization. In this paper, we cover those final shared perspectives across respondents that related to the mobilization itself.


The results of the qualitative analysis are below. The newspaper analysis, in total, included 18 institutions (sample institutions). The student interviews included five students across four institutions. All but one of the institutions represented in the interviews were also represented in the newspapers. The information gathered from our student interviews and the newspaper analysis largely aligned. As such, the results from these two different sets of analyses are discussed concurrently. Quotes with pseudonyms are from interviews. Overall, in terms of the environments and events preceding mobilization, we found the collective actions generally seemed to be in response to issues of general campus climate, experiences and cultures in which students felt marginalized, as well as the specific issue of microaggressions. Less common were specific events that motivated mobilization, though there were indeed several universities that experienced such events. In addition, the influence of the I, To, Am Harvard campaign itself appeared across universities.


While most of the sample institutions had at least some discussion of broader environments on campus that preceded mobilization (14/18), four solely had information on the environment as covered by the newspaper (as opposed to being quoted or paraphrased from student organizers themselves). Prominent themes included general campus climate issues, climates of marginalization, and microaggressions faced by students. For example, in newspaper articles, students at Skidmore College expressed that, “As people of color, our voices and experiences are all too often silenced. Our presence here is questioned” (Morris, 2014). In addition, students at New York University and Davidson College noted that there seemed to be an unwillingness or inability to talk directly about issues of race and ethnicity on campus among students.

Similar to the newspaper articles, in all of the interviews, students discussed existing problems on their campuses. Jordan mentioned a “literal feeling where the voices and experiences of people of color were on the margins,” and Tracy discussed “the fact that there was a lot of racism and racial bias that would occur.” These experiences were not limited to students of color, as Jessie noted that their school was very “ignorant in their experiences with the LGBT community.” Across universities, there seemed to be general inclusion issues that may have led students to feel the need to mobilize.

True to the original coverage of the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign by media outlets like BuzzFeed, newspaper articles from at least six institutions specifically highlighted the prevalence of microaggressions. An article from a student at the University of Georgia elaborated, stating that “Microaggressions mean there are things that are said and done to you that feel wrong, but they’re so subtle that if you call it out, then you’re considered overreacting” (Baruchman, 2014). Students across multiple universities felt compelled to address these microaggressions, and thus, started their respective campaigns.

In addition, several university papers noted, both as background and as communicated by organizers, that these campaigns emerged during a time in which there was a seemingly greater focus on issues of diversity and inclusion. Coverage of Fordham University’s campaign highlighted the historical context—“Affirmative action has been an extremely contested topic for nearly 40 years now”—and the more contemporary context—“‘Microaggression’ has recently become a popular term in the media” (Schwarz, 2014). Even at Harvard, which was the first university to take up such a campaign, the paper notes that the effort emerged in the midst of other related issues:

A recent Latino Town Hall and a resulting task force, seek to address Latino student demands. Meanwhile, black student leaders, independent from I, Too, Am Harvard, have been meeting to discuss their concerns and formulate an action plan. These initiatives have demonstrated student concern with issues of community and administrative support. And they’ve raised the profile of racial issues on campus (Gattuso, 2014).

Importantly, we did not find evidence of student participants themselves citing numerical diversity issues. Three universities—Berkeley, Harvard, and Skidmore—did have newspapers that discussed issues regarding representative diversity. For example, a Harvard paper notes that “According to the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid, racial minorities make up a little less than half of the student body. . . . Yet this diversity is a relatively new phenomenon—and the effects of over 200 years of racial exclusion at Harvard remain” (Gattuso, 2014). However, in all of these cases, there was no evidence that student participants themselves held these facts to be motivating.

In regard to any specific events that prompted mobilization, student organizers at three universities recounted a specific personal experience with discrimination. One article noted that the student was leaving the college’s student center during her sophomore year when “an intoxicated white male directed a nasty, racially tinged tirade at her” (Yusko, 2015). In our interviews, four of the five participants mentioned explicit examples of microaggressions they had experienced and witnessed on campus. These instances of marginalization culminated in overall environments where students from specific populations did not feel that they were a respected part of their campus communities. Overall, participants were deep in contexts of marginalization (e.g., racism, homophobia) within their own lives and the lives of their peers at the time when their respective campaigns began.

In addition, six university papers noted events, though less individually directed, that preceded mobilization. At Harvard, a column published in the college newspaper itself, which criticized race-based affirmative action, led to an article discussing the way many students felt that there was a “personal attack challenging their legitimacy at Harvard” and that it “gave license to those who questioned black students’ qualifications” (Gattuso, 2014). Two separate universities, according to their newspapers, were faced with tension after discriminatory remarks were posted on YikYak, an anonymous, locality-based messaging app.14 Out of the interviews with students, three students across two universities mentioned explicitly racist vandalism of campus cultural centers, which served as catalysts for their organization. When reflecting on how they felt, one participant said,

It’s like, I need to do something. I need to do something. I’m not okay with what this looks like. I’m not okay with how this went down. I’m not okay with how this makes me feel. I’m not okay with how my friends feel about this whole situation involving the racist thing. It’s just not being okay, the anger bit, a little bit of just frustration, and then just turning that into energy to create.

Nine of the 17 institutions (excluding Harvard) specifically mentioned the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign as an important precursor. For example, in an article a student organizer at the University of Georgia specifically noted that she “aimed to mirror [Harvard’s] campaign style when she founded it at UGA” (Smith, 2015). Similarly, students from all four institutions included in our interviews were already witnessing experiences of marginalization on their campuses when they came across I, Too, Am Harvard. Jordan mentioned sharing Harvard’s campaign with colleagues and saying, “wow, this is so real because I know [our institution] is no different.” Interviewees consistently referenced Harvard’s campaign as a source of inspiration for a way to bring discussions of marginalization to campus.

There were several repeating themes that suggest a set of two large environmental factors that played an important role in the growth of the I, Too, Am campaigns. First, students were experiencing negative campus climates. We cannot definitively say whether these climates were distinctly more negative than climates at institutions without campaigns, but it is clear that students were compelled to address what they viewed as marginalizing environments. In particular, they felt that racial/ethnic minorities and other minority groups were not respected on their campus, as evidenced by general observations, specific racist campus events, and organizers’ personal experiences with discrimination. Secondly, the movement emerged during a time when more attention was being paid in the public space to issues of racism and marginalization, especially on college campuses. This public focus, to students, allowed them to feel solidarity with students attending other institutions and provided both inspiration as well as a discourse to which students could attach themselves for the purpose of spreading awareness.


By far, the most commonly cited motivations or goals of the campaigns were focused on efforts to counter experiences of marginalization at students’ respective campuses (14/18 institutions). At Bucknell University, a student noted in an article that “It’s not just about structural diversity, but creating an atmosphere that feels inclusive. . . . The ideal situation is a community where students feel included and secure from the moment they are in orientation” (Josephs, 2014). A student at The College of New Jersey stated in an article that “The purpose of the campaign is to put an end to stereotypes” (Shaw, 2014), while students at New York University stated that they wished to “aid in the pursuit of a more diverse and better informed campus climate” (Sreedhar, 2014).

More specifically, nine different institution newspapers (all but two directly citing student participants) mentioned some sort of desire to highlight the microaggressions that their students were facing. In fact, stated movement missions explicitly noted this motivation in several cases, including Berkeley (“to educate others of daily instances of racial micro aggressions,” Morrissey, 2014) and the University of Georgia (“to give those who have dealt with racism and racial microaggressions a platform to express themselves publicly,” Baruchman, 2014). Even if they specifically did not mention the word “microaggression,” several other institution newspapers noted issues regarding student interactions that scholars might classify as microaggressions or related to microaggressions. At Harvard, the paper noted that “It is 2014, and still, black students face offensive comments about their skin, hair, identity, and intellectual capacity” (The Crimson Staff, 2014).

While not speaking directly to the issue of microaggressions, several institution papers also noted a driving desire to provide a space for students from marginalized population to speak and have their voices be heard. At New York University, the I, Too, Am NYU campaign was “created by, and for, people of color at our university” (Silver, 2014). An organizer from the University of Wisconsin, Madison stated that “The goal is not to discourage students from talking about racism, but to encourage white students to be more thoughtful. . . . They should just be more conscious of some of the things they are asking before they say them, especially like sensitive identity questions” (Jin, 2014). For the student organizers that we interviewed, the visual media campaigns also served as platforms for people to be able to discuss their experiences. As Tracy noted, “there was a lot of already collective narrative that was sitting there, waiting to be discussed” and that one main benefit of the movement was “validation for the lived experiences, having the space to even talk about those lived experiences.”

Students from all four institutions included in our student interviews mentioned seeing the tactic taken by Harvard as a way to bring the negative experiences of marginalized students to the forefront in a way that people could not ignore. For at least one participant (Jessie), this movement provided an opportunity to shock people into the realization that students were facing negative experiences on campus.

My biggest thing about it was it's harder to ignore something written down than something you hear in passing, and you hear these stories of people being discriminated against, or you hear your friends say, oh, this person said this to me in my class, or at a party, or in the dining hall, but to actually see it on a whiteboard or written down and to read it yourself. . . I think hit home a lot more, because a lot of people are like holy—excuse my language—shit, that was really said to you, like, are you serious?

This exposure was meant not only to target students, but also to target members of campus administration. Tracy mentioned wanting to “demonstrate to our university and faculty that our community is very visible, it's very active, and it needs the support systems put in place to effectively, essentially go to school.” In an environment where students were not seeing the university respond to their needs, they wanted to highlight the experiences that were going unnoticed, as noted by Jordan: “Something should be done about this, like, these experiences should not go unnoticed, and not only should they not go unnoticed, they also shouldn't go unaddressed.”

Finally, four different institutions had, in their newspapers, discussions about the importance of building solidarity across marginalized groups as a part of their driving motivations. At Oregon State University, they held an explicitly named “Solidarity March.” While the Harvard campaign explicitly focused on black students, New York University students decided to include “students of other backgrounds such as Latino, Asian-Pacific American, Native American and international students” (Sreedhar, 2014). The purpose of this was because “these students still deal with bias and hostility from others, despite the perception of diversity” (Sreedhar, 2014).

We also found this theme of strategic solidarity among our student interviews. In two cases, participants explicitly discussed broadening the scope of the collective actions to include the experiences of groups other than black students. In both cases, this was seen as strategic, as they did not see their institutions as having enough of a critical mass of black students to sustain a movement. In addition, the interviewees found this solidarity to be an important part of the outcome for these campaigns. Jordan saw the solidarity as also strategic in terms of presenting a unified, consistent voice: “Letting people know like, these people on this one campus aren't just making this up, this is happening all over, in universities all over the country and all over the world, and so just kind of adding our contribution to like, kind of corroborate the voice of our, you know, of our classmates on other campuses, as well.”

Overwhelmingly, the campaigns seemed to be created for the purpose of raising awareness about the experiences of historically marginalized students, with the goal of putting the problems in front of others such that they felt compelled to change their behavior. In particular, the campaigns often focused specifically on the concept of microaggressions and pushing people to recognize both the prevalence of and harm induced by the way minority students are treated. This was not only a social or educational act, but also an explicitly political act, in that students were pushing for change. As noted by Jessie, “I wanted to make [the institution] a better place for people so they didn't have to experience it the way I did, and I think that I did leave it a little bit better.” Students wanted to demonstrate the imperative of addressing these issues to their campus administrations as well as build solidarity between people from different minority groups on campus.


The information from both the document analysis of newspapers as well as the student interviews proved instructive for the understanding of the environments and events that may have motivated students to campaign. While the motivations covered were diverse in scope, many common themes emerged that might inform practice. First and foremost, both newspapers and interviewed students repeatedly noted that negative campus climates for students from historically marginalized populations (e.g., black students) were in place before the movement emerged. These climates included general feelings of disrespect towards these populations and specific comments made to people identifying with these populations. In addition, the movement emerged in a historical context during which there was a particular focus on inclusion, both within the respective institutions and across the higher education space in general. The role of the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign in inspiring mobilization is also prominent. Second, in investigating the explicit goals and stated motivations of the campaigns, we found that there was a specific focus on the exposure of microaggressions, the provision of a space for students from marginalized populations to speak out, and solidarity. Overall, students organized to address what they perceived to be racist (or otherwise oppressive) social climates at their universities. As noted by Sam, “I deserve to be treated like a human being.”  

As theorized in the review of the literature, there were indeed characteristics of institutions’ cultures and precipitating environments that seemed important in the mobilization of the I, Too, Am campaigns. Strain theory posits that there is an accumulation of discontent that leads people to mobilize, and we found that the most commonly expressed and reported antecedents to these mobilizations were related to negative campus environments for black students and other students from historically marginalized populations (though this does not have to be mutually exclusive as black students can also be members of other historically marginalized populations). In addition, in terms of disruptions of daily life that could spark mobilization, several universities had indeed seen specific racist events that were expressed as important. Overall, while certainly not discounting other factors that likely played a role, as theorized by perspectives such as resource mobilization theory (e.g., McCarthy & Zald, 1977) and political process theory (e.g., McAdam, 1982), we argue, based on the presented evidence, that there were concrete, negative experiences that were important in students’ decisions to mobilize. Of course, we are limited in our ability in this research to distinguish between reported motivations and “actual” motivations, but the qualitative evidence we present here goes a long way towards understanding the “strained” experiences that universities may want to watch.

What are universities to do? If the institution has a vested interest in creating an environment where students of all backgrounds feel welcome and accepted and are able to thrive, we believe our results provide some important points of direction. While there is indeed a need for further discussion about the extent to which administrators have this interest (and, in fact, is a subject within our broader research project), those who already see universities as needing to be accountable should be able to gain important insights from this work. As said best by Jessie, “We're not our parent's generation, and the generation under me is not my generation, they're even more different and open and honest and out and everything, so I think that institutions really need to change with the generations that are coming.” While a full analysis of the options available to policymakers lies outside of the scope of this article, we particularly argue that the lessons gained from this research emphasize the need for student voice in the institutional policymaking process.

The students in our study spoke at length about the circumstances that led to their mobilization. Proactive solutions, therefore, should work to make it such that those circumstances do not exist. Before these situations started, students were already facing microaggressions on their campuses, and students at several campuses had experienced particularly troubling racialized events. There exist around the globe programs at colleges and universities that are meant to foster a more understanding campus that is truly welcoming to people of all different backgrounds. Echoing the suggestions of Garces and Jayakumar (2014), it seems that institutions of higher education could benefit from changing the discussion on diversity from a focus solely on by-the-numbers diversity to focus more so on the environments in which students from minoritized populations are living and learning. This is not to say that critical mass concerns are not relevant, but rather to suggest that an additional concern for the environment could be equally as important. However, in the meanwhile, there may still be instances of racism and discrimination on campus. Colleges need to have systems in place to respond to these issues in a way that is sensitive to the deep meaning that these incidents hold for students. The institution must publicly be aware of and vigilant against the issues it has for students to feel that it cares for their concerns. This vigilance includes the swift, comprehensive, and justice-bound addressing of any larger incidents.15

In addition, in a sort of preemption, institutions might consider trying to meet the goals of these campaigns before they arise. Overall, students, as communicated by the newspapers and the students we interviewed, sought to create brave spaces for people to voice their concerns while also creating political waves to expose and press for changes to unacceptable environments. These actions suggest that there were not already spaces for healthy and responsive dialogue on these campuses in which these discussions could happen. There are two streams of recommendations we might suggest here. The first is a reorientation of structures of communication and governance such that students have a more responsive, institutionally embedded mechanism for voicing their concerns. The second is the intentional cultivation of support networks and spaces for students to discuss their experiences, such as intergroup dialogue programming (e.g., Zúñiga, 2003). If universities believe that their students’ voices are critical both for the effective and just functioning of the institution as well as for the students’ own development, it must create spaces where those voices are valued.

As noted before, our results are limited to the extent that the current analysis focuses on the universities with campaigns that are likely to be more successful and those that saw coverage of their campaigns. There are likely many untold stories from individuals at other universities not covered here, and an investigation of those experiences is also important. The results we found here may, by virtue of the fact that they are drawn from a subset of successful mobilizers, highlight issues that are specific to the kind of institution that is likely to have a campaign in the first place. First, it is important to note that the investigation here is not, and should not, be the end of this story. More research needs to be conducted in order to fully develop a research-based approach to addressing the issues students are facing. Second, however, the value of this particular research endeavor to practice is that it provides a context within which higher education professionals may seek to understand their students. Future work will elaborate on the evidence we found concerning university responses to the movement. In addition, for the research community, we believe that our results emphasize the importance of understanding the dimensions of mobilization motivations that are based in discontent. While other perspectives, including those on the financial, social, and political resources available to the movement, are also important, the students in our work shared concrete, negative characteristics of their environments that motivated them to mobilize. In this way, the campaigns are important sources of political information for researchers and practitioners alike. Our work supports the notion that, in the journey towards making institutions of higher education more inclusive, students can provide valuable insight.


1. Various authors on these subjects make different choices about how to refer to specific racial subgroups, including “black,” “Black,” and “African American.” We respect the authors’ choices, but we use the term “black” in our own syntheses to maintain consistency.

2. We use the term trans* as this is the terminology used in the cited manuscript (Seelman et al., 2017). There is significant debate about whether transgender, trans*, or another word is the more appropriate term for students (for example, see Titman, 2013). We choose to use the terminology the authors of the cited work selected but recognize that, ultimately, students should be referred to by the identities they prefer.

3. For a statement of author contributions, see Appendix A.

4. The original search was conducted in late May/early June of 2017. In February 2018, a follow-up search was conducted of those institutions without found articles in order to ensure that nothing was missed. We did find articles from one institution (College of Wooster), which were missed on the first round because of a mistake in the name of the movement (“I, Too, Am Woo” versus “I, Too, Am the College of Wooster”). We added these documents to the analysis at that point and analyzed them in a manner identical to the original process.

5. Other universities, beyond American University, that the research team excluded at this step included University of Colorado, University of Connecticut, University of Illinois, University of Iowa, Notre Dame University, University of Virginia, Williams College, Carnegie Mellon University, and Cornell University.

6. See Appendix B for our statement of reflexivity in regard to the analysis of the news content.

7. See Appendix C for a graphic of code prevalence and Appendix D for selected examples of excerpts and how they went through this process.

8. See Appendix E for the recruitment message.

9. See Appendix B for our statement of reflexivity regarding the interviews with movement facilitators.

10. See Appendix F for the base interview protocol.

11. We acknowledge and thank Matchless Transcription for their assistance in transcribing the interview audio.

12. Our use of the term “gay” here intentionally leaves gender unspecified as to protect the confidentiality of participants.

13. Authors collected this data from College Navigator.

14. It is notable that YikYak has since been discontinued partially, as reported by some, because of the prevalence of discriminatory posts from anonymous users (Safronova, 2017).

15. The University of Oklahoma is an example of an institution that attempted to swiftly and comprehensively respond (Svrluga, 2015).


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For the analysis of newspaper content, the third author conducted the initial search and data collection, including the distribution of content to the team for initial analysis. After all three team members coded the excerpts, the first author analyzed the coding schemes for agreement and developed the set of primary codes. The second author narrowed the full coding scheme and grouped and collapsed codes into a final code set, which was then confirmed by both the first and third authors.

For the student interviews, contacts to the universities in our sampling frame were split evenly between the first and second author, and all respondents came through contacts from the first author’s half of the list. The first author conducted four interviews, and the second author conducted one. The first author conducted the analysis of transcripts.



Given the qualitative nature of this work and the way in which our own identities as researchers play an important role in both our positionality and the construction of power within the relationships established in research (e.g., Ackerly & True, 2008; Milner, 2007), we take a moment to be transparent about our own identities, particularly to the extent that they are related to the issues at hand in this study. Details on specific author contributions to the data collection and analysis are in Appendix A.

The authors identify along a range of identities, with the first author identifying as a queer man of mixed race (black and Asian), the second author identifying as a black woman, and the third author identifying as a straight white male. During their graduate studies, the first and second author participated in student-led advocacy work to address negative campus climates for black students, which later expanded to include other marginalized populations. The third author was a graduate student at the time of this writing and has experience as the editor of a college newspaper, which is relevant to the study at hand.

First, it is important to note that the stories expressed by students and student newspapers were familiar to the authors, whether by direct experience or understanding of the medium. This familiarity has both benefits and drawbacks, and the methodology used in this research both allowed those experiences to inform interpretations while also comparing those interpretations to others’ experiences. Second, in the interviews (conducted by the first and second author), the noted history with similar activism was included explicitly in initial outreach to assuage possible fears about bias against student protest. Personal information about the authors was not disclosed during the interviews, but any interviewees who were interested could have easily found this information via an internet search. We recognize and were conscious of the ways in which our own identities, which are likely particularly relevant in discussions with students involved in identity-based social movements, may have influenced the extent to which people were able to share, and as interviewers, we worked to ensure participants that our purpose was not to critique the movements, but to help the broader community understand their perspectives. Overall, while the authors’ identities were an important part of the analysis, the diversity of perspectives among the authors provided a rich source of experiences that, we believe, enhanced the research process.








Author Codes (and Overlap)

Initial Primary Code

Final Primary Code


“shared their personal experiences in confronting racism and sparked a dialogue on campus”

A1: Expose stories


Highlighting microaggressions

Highlighting microaggressions

A2: Race, Inclusion

A3: Direct action

Oregon State University

“The essence of a strong community is solidarity between people of color, race, ethnicity and gender identity”

A1: Solidarity


Solidarity across marginalized groups

Solidarity across marginalized groups

A2: Inclusion

A3: Campus culture, Multiple identities

New York University

“This for us was an opportunity to make sure those experiences were being heard as they need to be and to aid in the pursuit of a more diverse and better informed campus climate.”

A1: Expose stories, Push for general inclusion




A2: Inclusion

A3: Creating inclusion

Bucknell University

“both felt enticed them to go through with the project was to address various microaggressions felt by minority students on campus”

A1: Culture of marginalization


Highlighting microaggressions

Highlighting microaggressions

A2: Race, Microaggressions

A3: Movement goals, microaggressions

Davidson University

“Issues of race and ethnicity are infrequently discussed in a direct manner at Davidson”

A1: Lack of cultural competency


Lack of cultural competency

Other campus climate issues

A2: Institutional climate, Race

A3: Direct action

Fordham University

“’Microaggression’ has recently become a popular term in the media”

A1: Current discussions about diversity


Current diversity focus in climate

Current diversity focus in climate

A2: Microaggressions

A3: Microaggressions, Media response

Note: A1, A2, and A3 refer to author-specific codes, respectively. Excerpts were selected such that there would be representative cases of the different coding situations we encountered in our process.



Dear [Interviewee],

My name is [Researcher Name], and I am a [Researcher Position] from [Researcher Institution]. I am sending this message to solicit your input in a project initiated by a colleague of mine ([Other Researcher Name]) and me that explores the work of [Campaign Name]. In light of the student movements addressing the experiences from historically marginalized populations on university campuses around the nation, we seek to understand the work of these movements. In particular, we focus on visual m]edia campaigns and ask two research questions. First, what kinds of institutional environments lead to the mobilization of these visual media movements? Second, what institutional responses to these movements lead to more or less perceived success?

We hope to interview at least two student organizers or participants in your organization. Interviews should take no more than an hour and will be conducted either via phone or Skype. For the purpose of protecting participants’ confidentiality, the names of interviewees will not be reported in any published material, and we will avoid the presentation of any potentially identifying quotes or accounts.

For our part, both my co-investigator and myself have been deeply involved in student activism efforts on our own campus, and this we understand that these campaigns have been in response to experiences that may have resulted in significant stress for those involved. The purpose of this study is not to critique these movements, but rather to help us as a nation best understand the steps we need to take in order to move forward.

We hope you consider participating in this study. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me either in reply to this message, at [Researcher Email], or via phone at [Researcher Phone]. Thank you for your time.


[Researcher Name]

[Researcher Department]

[Researcher Institution]



1. Briefly, can you start by telling me the history of how this initiative began?

2. What was the state of the college/university’s environment at the time when this initiative began? In other words, to what kinds of issues were those involved in the initiative responding?

3. Was there any specific event that sparked the start of this project?

4. Can you outline for me what the goals of the initiative were when it started?

5. Did those goals change over time?

6. Keeping these goals in mind, what kinds of things do you and your colleagues think would have indicated success? In other words, what were you looking for in order to know that your work was making a difference?

7. Throughout this work, have people responded to the initiative?

8. In terms of the responses you have discussed from people in positions of power, how satisfied have you been? Do you think the responses were adequate?

9. Are there any ways in which you think the responses could have been better or more appropriate?

10. Overall, how successful do you think this project has been in achieving the goals you discussed earlier?

11. What do you think were the most important factors for the successes you did see?

12. What do you think were the most important factors in the challenges you faced and any things you think were not successful?

13. What do you think is the most important thing that has come out of the initiative?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 3, 2020, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22991, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:35:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Richard Blissett
    Seton Hall University
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD S. L. BLISSETT is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy at Seton Hall University. His research interests focus on the attitudinal and behavioral dimensions of the politics of education. Recent publications include an analysis of citizens’ information seeking behavior when learning about charter schools, a study on the predictors of school board members’ policy priorities, and a series of studies looking at student mobilization on college campuses.
  • Dominique Baker
    Southern Methodist University
    E-mail Author
    DOMINIQUE J. BAKER is an assistant professor of education policy in the Simmons College of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University. She has recently published the article “Beyond the incident: Institutional predictors of student collective action” in the Journal of Higher Education with Dr. Richard Blissett as well as the article “Impact of community college student debt levels on credit accumulation” with Dr. William Doyle in the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Dr. Baker is currently involved in research projects focused on creating inclusive campus climates and analyzing student financial aid.
  • Benjamin Fields
    Vanderbilt University
    E-mail Author
    BENJAMIN C. FIELDS is a college counselor at KIPP Colorado and a research assistant at Vanderbilt University. He is currently involved in a project examining the social mechanisms driving post-doctoral fellows out of academia. His main research interests lie in identity development and control.
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