Tactics A-Z

How to Start a Movement on Your Campus

You are probably feeling a lot of things right now - anger, frustration, maybe some fear and hopefully a spark of passion, too. There’s a lot that needs changing at your school, and you’re about to join the ranks of student activists nationwide who have made major reforms at their schools. We’re here to help you push for change, from the very beginning until the end.

Before you can figure out what needs to change on your campus, you need to gather information about “The State of Things on Campus.”

When figuring out “The State of Things on Campus” ask yourselves these questions:

What’s the current policy like?: If you’ve never read your campus sexual assault policy, seek it out now. Go to your school’s website and type “sexual assault” into the search box. Next, try searching for “sexual assault disciplinary procedures” and “annual crime statistics.” Read the materials you find and pick out a few things that you think are flaws in the school’s policies. You don’t need any expert advice—your opinion is what matters.

Major issues: What are the main issues on campus? Is it the weak judicial process, the flimsy prevention programming, or the inaccessible survivor services? It can even be a whole combination of things.

Recent events on campus: Gather any articles about what’s been going on, or jot down some personal accounts if nothing has been published yet. Has anyone organized a protest yet? When did that happen and who was involved?

Major players: Who is currently involved with your campaign? Is there a particular group who has taken this campaign on, or is there a particular administrator who is in the spotlight right now?

Needs of students: What are folks on campus saying they’d like to see change? Even if you feel that some student comments are misinformed or misaligned with your mission, take note of what you’ve heard from your classmates.

Current services/programs offered on campus: Some of this information may be included in your policy, but if not, see what’s offered through health services, or perhaps a women’s center on campus. Is there a crisis hotline on campus or any off-campus organizations that offer services to students?

Other invested groups/parties: Are the local police involved in recent events in any way, or any local politicians? Have any alumni or parent groups been involved? How about vocal faculty and/or staff?

Remember, this is just a basic information-gathering practice - this activity is meant to get you and your fellow organizers on the same page, and to give you some information to refer to as you start to narrow down the scope and goals of your campaign.

Assemble partners in crime

The first thing you will need to do is to assemble fellow organizers. It is in your best interest to build as broad a movement as possible—the more players you have on your team, the more likely you will be able to change things on your campus.

Think broadly when deciding who to include in the movement. Don’t just look to the feminist groups on campus. For example, reach out to religious student groups, the Black student union, queer groups, known allied faculty and staff. Every community on your campus is affected by rape. The more people you invite to the table early on, the better your movement will be.

When gathering your fellow activists from every corner of campus think about how to keep folks invested in this movement. Making sure that everyone has a role is good practice, and a good way to give everyone ownership. Some potential roles are:

  • General organizers: responsible for delegating new tasks as they arise, acting as a contact person, keeping track of short-term goals and assignments, and sending out a list of upcoming deadlines after meetings.
  • Media managers: responsible for running any websites, social networking outlets, or listservs that the group maintains.
  • Public Speakers: the face of the organization.
  • Event Planners: including securing venues, reaching out to potential outside speakers, arranging times for meetings that best fit students’ schedules, and collaborating with other student groups.
  • Community Involvement Coordinators: actively build allies and seek out opportunities for students across campus to get involved in the relevant issues.
  • Administration Liaisons: contact school administration, allied professors, faculty, or other campus groups about information.

Authority in Organizing

Effective organizing leads to power, but it is important that organizers do not monopolize that power. Meaningful organizing provides an entire community with more power. No matter matter how benevolent their intentions, when organizers keep information from their membership, or make unilateral decisions that affect everyone, they have become the authority themselves. Once you have your team assembled, it is important to think about how you make decisions as a group, and how power is being spread around in your organizing. Consensus is one way of making decisions: it means that everyone has equal voice when making decisions and that all decisions are respected. It may be more time consuming and difficult, but when it works, collective intelligence comes up with better solutions than individuals ever could!

Some things to think about:

  • How do you determine leadership?
  • Who leads meetings?
  • How are decisions made?
  • How do you ensure that everyone takes part in decisions and is adequately informed?
  • Have societal oppressions like racism, sexism, or homophobia been recreated in your group dynamic?

Coalition Building

There are a number of reasons why developing a coalition might be a good idea. It can concentrate the community’s focus on a particular problem, create alliances among those who might not normally work together, and keep your movement’s approach to issues consistent. A coalition can develop a coordinated response to an issue, pool community resources, create and launch community-wide initiatives, build and wield clout to influence policy, and work effectively toward long-term social change.

Intersectionality: What It Is, Why It Is Essential

Effective, long-term progressive activism is impossible without an understanding of intersectionality:

  • The ways in which race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other identities intersect and inform individual realities and personal experiences.
  • The ways in which different individual and institutional oppressions connect with and depend on each other.
  • The belief that an individual may simultaneously be oppressed and an oppressor.

Classism and Anti-Rape Organizing

It is necessary to keep in mind that universities are sites of privilege—specific individuals have access to university-level education, and much of our daily lives (income and opportunity) is determined by whether or not we have a college degree. However, within college settings there is great diversity with regard to class and it is essential that organizers educate themselves about class issues that affect student members.

Be aware of the limitations caused by both the social and economic effects of classism and how these affect member access to meetings, time, and hesitancy to engage in activities that might threaten their education.

Ensure that meeting times and places are accessible to working students, and if necessary, offer child care to members with children. For example, avoid meeting times that are during typical working hours for those students who have jobs, and/or provide the minutes of meetings to those members who cannot attend due to work or other issues.

Remember that the threat of expulsion is a consequence of activism for students who receive financial aid or (if your group is engaging in civil disobedience) cannot afford to risk arrest and the costs it incurs.

If asking for group membership fees or expecting members to shoulder the financial burden (with a newly formed or more informal group), be cautious in pressuring all members to do so and keep in mind individual monetary restrictions.

Arrange transportation for members to off-campus events and brainstorm ideas to prevent members from being pressured to spend money on club activities. Some examples are fees for entry to anti-rape related conferences or for off-campus film nights.

Disability and Anti-Rape Organizing

Because the term disability covers a vast array of physical and mental variations, it is unfeasible to present the specific discrimination faced by all individuals who fall under the term. Therefore, the following are some very broad and basic ways in which a lack of awareness about disability can alienate disabled members.

Assumptions: whether these are about a person’s disability, intellect, physical capacity, or potential usefulness to the group.

Inaccessibility: meeting places that are physically inaccessible to all members and don’t take into account door size, elevator access, and service animal entry (these are only a few examples).

Expectations: that a disabled individual can or should communicate in a typical manner. 

Condescension: Addressing an interpreter or a friend rather than a disabled individual.

Patriarchy and Anti-Rape Organizing

Rape and sexism are more overtly and intimately connected than rape is to any other form of oppression. While the causes of such connectedness are debatable, keep in mind that rape is about power, and in patriarchy, women are viewed as and rendered powerless.

It may be a struggle to incorporate men into your anti-rape work without perpetuating patriarchy via male-centered organizing but just be aware that this issue is a complex and ongoing one.

Powerholder Tactics

Some things to look out for when dealing with campus power holders:

Co-optation: “Would you like to join our committee to discuss this?” It’s good to have a say in any discussions surrounding your issue, but that should never be your only tactic, and authority should never be trusted to give you what you want just because it agrees to listen to your concerns.

Intimidation: “You’re here on scholarship, aren’t you?” Threats may be made toward you directly or they may be aimed at programs you support, like an existing rape crisis center. When authority threatens you, it is often effective to publicize the threat widely—this makes it much harder to carry it out.

Fragmentation: “You’re so reasonable and realistic. Is there any way I could just deal with you and not those radicals who won’t listen?” Also seen in uglier tactics like encouraging ethnic tensions, fragmentation is deadly to progressive organizing. You will never agree completely with everyone who is working on your issue, but don’t forget who is on your side and who is in control.

Appeasement: “What if I just give $50,000 to the women’s center and we call it even?” If authority is ready to buy you off, you probably already have the power to win much more.

Distraction: “Isn’t the debate over the campus minority-recruiting program more important?” Student activists are often committed to more than one worthy cause. Don’t let authority distract you from your goals by taking advantage of this.

Stalling: “This requires some serious consideration. Why don’t we appoint a committee to write a report?” They’re waiting for you to graduate.

Making Administration Your Ally

You need people at all levels of power and all stakeholders on board for a successful campaign. You need students, who represent the largest constituency on campus. You need faculty, who may be able to act as liaisons to administrators on campus. You need low-level staff and administrators who will know the bureaucracy at your school and how to navigate it. And you will need high-level administrators to push your policy through. The more people at all levels you can get on board the more likely you are to be successful!

Identify your goals

Because each campus culture is unique, your definition of success in a policy reform campaign is going to be unique, too. A successful campaign could mean a complete overhaul of your sexual assault policy, involving many key players over a few years. Success could also mean that one portion of your campus response to rape is reformed, such as the judicial process or campus prevention practices. It’s important to do some group goal-setting at the onset of your campaign so that you can define your version of success.

One way to set goals is by coming up with S.M.A.R.T. goal criteria. By defining your goals through this lens, you can assure that your goals are S: Specific, M: Measurable, A: Attainable, R: Relevant, and T: Time-bound.

Examples of vague vs. SMART goal-setting:

Vague goal: We will reform our policy in the next year.

Why this doesn’t work: Who is “we”? What does “reform” mean? How are you going to accomplish this? What does a year mean in this context - a calendar year or an academic year? How will you know that you’ve finished this goal? You and your fellow organizers will only get frustrated trying to work toward such an unwieldy and unclear goal.

A SMART goal, or set of goals, will break down the process to make your goals much more manageable. Here’s an example:

  • SMART goal: The research committee will survey a group of 200 freshmen about their opinions on the current prevention workshop by October 15th.

Specific: the goal outlines exactly what is to be done and by whom. Asking the “who” “what” “where” “why” and “how” questions about your goal will help you make it more specific.

Measurable: 200 surveys need to be collected.

Attainable: the goal pushes the talents of the research committee, but is not an unrealistic challenge.

Relevant: completing the goal will inform the group about current campus opinions and help give them direction in their campaign.

Time-based: a date is set when the goal should be complete.

If your group isn’t sure where to start, is having trouble forming or prioritizing goals, or you feel like you’re spinning your organizing wheels, a Teach-In with SAFER will help you set goals for your campaign and jump-start your organizing.

Choosing a Strategy:

All of the tactics we use, from lobbying administrators to writing press releases and holding sit-ins, serve to fulfill one of the three strategies below. To maximize the effectiveness of an organization, it is often useful to choose one of these strategies and use it consistently. However, it is important to remain flexible in your approach and to recognize the unique and important contributions that others make using each of the three strategies.

  1. Consciousness-raising

    For example, work done by educational organizations like Men Can Stop Rape. Consciousness-raising is important because educating people can change their actions within existing systems and move them to action in changing those systems that are unfair.

  2. Activism Within Existing Systems of Power

    For example, women who enter powerful positions in the workforce and alter policies to improve gender equity as they rise through the ranks. Activism within existing systems is important because external agitation cannot accomplish as much without sympathizers who understand and have access to the internal workings of systems of power.

  3. Activism That Challenges Existing Systems and That Creates New Systems of Power

    For example, workers on strike or organizations such as United Students Against Sweatshops. Activism that challenges existing systems is important because activists outside the system don’t have as much to lose, and are free to use more powerful tactics and make more effective demands.

More on Activism Within Existing Systems of Power

Lobbying is activism within existing systems—the use of whatever access to systems of power you already have. Like any other tactic, it is unlikely to be effective alone. Without the power provided by more confrontational collective action, it will result in little substantive change.

Those who agree to serve as the networking/lobbying group will have several preliminary and long-term tasks:

Preliminary Tasks

  1. Prevent fragmentation by ensuring that some of the most skeptical activists (those least likely to trust authority) are in charge of networking and lobbying efforts.
  2. Get to know existing student government representatives and work to get supporters into open positions.
  3. Have supporters join the mailing lists of potential opposition groups if you think they pose a serious threat to your movement.

Long-term Tasks

  1. Meet with administrators. It’s best to arrange at least two meetings: one in which you express general concern and nonspecific requests, and one in which you present concrete demands.
  2. Meet with faculty. Ideally you should meet with as many undergraduate faculty members as possible to present them with some simple statement of support or faculty petition through which they can show their support for your goals.
  3. Meet with trustees if possible. Do not expect decisions to be made in the course of these meetings. They should simply be used as a forum to inform the trustees of your concerns and goals.
  4. Meet with your powerholder(s) often.

How do I deal with hostiles?


The power of your opposition can greatly affect how successful you will be. It is important to understand the tactics of any group or individuals working against you so that you can successfully counteract those tactics.

While understanding opposition groups is important, it is equally important to understand that it is your powerholder(s), not your opposition, who can give you what you want, and it is your powerholder(s) who should receive most of your attention.

Preempting attacks by the opposition

  1. Expect to be attacked. Factor opposition into your strategy and don’t underestimate the power and viciousness of your opposition. Don’t let down your guard after you win your new rape prevention policy or program.

  2. Own the language. Frame your issue from the beginning to preempt their attacks. Don’t let the opposition own neutral concepts like “liberty,” “rights” and “due process.”

  3. Build alliances early. Don’t wait until the attack is underway to reach out to powerful allies in your community.

  4. Ask SAFER for help. That’s what we’re here for.

Self Care 101

Self care is recognizing the importance of taking care of your mental, physical, and emotional health, and taking the necessary steps to do that without feeling guilty. It is especially important to not feel guilty practicing self care when you may need it most, such as after a series of roadblocks in your campaign. Take time for yourself before jumping back in to tackle those obstacles.

Self care is important no matter who you are or what you do, but is especially needed for those who work in emotionally charged fields. It is not selfish to be an activist and practice self care; you cannot fully help others if you are ignoring your own mental, physical, and emotional well-being. The first step in being able to take care of yourself is recognizing when you are feeling burnout.

Tips on Building Communities of Activists that Value Self Care

  • Use part of every meeting to check-in on how everyone is doing and what people’s capacity is, if anyone needs help on a project, etc.
  • Make a commitment to understanding others’ needs. For example, don’t make your co-organizers feel guilty about taking time for themselves.
  • Do fun things together! Plan a social event such as bowling or a potluck.
  • Always celebrate successes no matter how “small” they are. It is important to stay positive and encourage each other.
  • Don’t make assumptions about anyone’s history of sexual assault or interpersonal violence. Be aware that there may be survivors present when talking about sexual violence. If the content of the discussion is triggering, allow yourself to take care of yourself first. As a group, don’t judge anyone who needs to step out either for a few minutes or for the remainder of the meeting.

What Can Media Do For Me?

Working with the press

Sharing your story with the media can be a way of fighting back against rape culture or a way to make your voice heard. Many choose to speak out against administrators who have been hostile or unhelpful to them, either as a way of beginning a conversation on campus or escalating a pre-existing student movement. Working with the press can also be a way of healing from violence by taking control of your story and breaking the silence surrounding sexual assault.

Going to the press has the potential to be both liberating and re-traumatizing, and it can be scary not knowing how others will react or respond to your story. One way of protecting yourself when you decide to go public is to make sure the journalist who reports your story will do so sensitively, respectfully, and responsibly. Some questions to ask before an interview include: Has this journalist written about sexual assault before? Have they reported stories about sexual assault in a way that is not victim-blaming or sensationalizing? Do they let survivors’ voices shine through, or do they seem to use survivor quotes to support their own narrative?

Experienced and empathetic journalists at your school newspaper, feminist or anti-oppression blogs, or smaller online publications can be great people to approach to share your story publicly. You can also email us at communications@safercampus.org if you would like to be referred to a publication or journalist who might be interested in reporting your experiences.

Finally, if you do go public with your experiences with sexual violence, know that there will probably be some awful people on the internet who might say some terrible things about you or about rape culture. If at all possible, try not to read the comments on these stories, or ask a friend or loved one to look through them for you. As always, self care is so, so important whenever you share your experiences with others, so make sure you set aside time after interviews or a story is released to do something that relaxes you. The world is so grateful for your voice!

Case Studies

Skidmore College

Students at Skidmore College had been working for a more accessible sexual assault policy and better prevention programs for years. After a weekend-long SAFER organizing training, the longstanding group re-wrote its mission and renamed itself SAFER-Skidmore. With SAFER’s help, the group found out that the college’s committees on sexual assault and campus safety had never met. Using organizing tactics from the training to publicize this fact, Skidmore’s organizers found themselves sitting in committee meetings within weeks, and pushing through their proposal for a new Safe Sex office and rape crisis center in their student center. These students formed the hiring committee for the new full-time staff person who runs the office.

Middlebury College

On the train ride back from SAFER’s New York organizing training, five Middlebury College students hammered out a plan to reform their campus sexual assault disciplinary procedures. The students used the specific tactics practiced at the organizing training. The Middlebury group publicized the problems with the policy using witty and hard-hitting posters that got students talking. In response to the call for reform, the university created a Sexual Assault Policy Working Group, and students won an anonymous reporting system.

Simons Rock College of Bard

At Simons Rock College of Bard the SRC (Safe Relationship Coalition), an age-diverse group with support from CHI; Women’s Center, ADAH (Anti Discrimination and Anti- Harassment Task Forces); Queersa; Community Council; Health and Counseling Services; and the BSU (Black Student Union), succeeded in creating a sexual assault policy where none had existed.


New College of Florida

“The safe dialogue and space fostered at the SAFER teach-in I attended gave both validation and a voice to people who are typically made silent or speechless. I felt safe to speak to the peers who attended as me.” -B.R.

“The SAFER campus teach-in helped myself and others at my school define concrete goals for the upcoming year. The time we spent combing through our school’s Title IX policy helped us develop more inclusive language so we no longer alienate those reporting. SAFER campus helped engage more students to help end sexual violence on our campus.” -Shelby

Portland State University

“The teach-in that SAFER facilitated for our student group at Portland State University provided us the necessary tools and language to further our impact on campus. The teach-in was vital for our group to take the next steps to combat sexual assault on our campus and gave us the support we needed in order to create change. Thank you SAFER!”