Dream Defending, On-Campus and Beyond: A Multi-sited Ethnography of Contemporary Student Organizing, the Social Movement Repertoire, and Social Movement Organization in College


Much of the extant higher education literature examining student activism and social movements in college is limited by both chronological time and physical space. In addition, very little is known about the ways in which technology generally and social media specifically are embraced in contemporary student organizing practices. Accordingly, my multi-sited ethnographic study focuses on the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based, racially and ethnically-diverse multi-campus social movement organization “developing the next generation of radical leaders to realize and exercise [their] independent, collective power; building alternative systems; and organizing to disrupt the structures that oppress [their] communities” (Dream Defenders, 2014). More specifically, my study is intended to contemporize research on student activism in college by using robust, real-time ethnographic data to examine off-campus organizing undertaken by Dream Defenders’ organization and their use of new and social media technologies. Drawing from and modifying resource dependency/resource mobilization perspectives and new social movement theories, I conceptualize the interactive use of the aforementioned technologies as mobilizing structures and in the construction movement frames– parts of the social movement repertoire (Tilly, 2004) of contemporary student organizers.

The findings from my study indicate the use of alternative and activist new media in contemporary student organizing is part of a larger, dynamic interactive process of traditional organizing practices to include four primary domains: occupation and agitation, power building, political participation, and civic demonstration. More specifically, findings further indicate the use of 1) mediated mobilization, and 2) culture jamming (Lievrouw, 2011) as alternative and activist new media practices within the Dream Defenders’ social movement repertoire. The former harnesses the power of social media to leverage new and existing networks of college student organizers in on-the-ground mobilization. The latter, however, utilizes the production of digital art for purposes of social and political critique, which also serve as a diagnostic frame by which contemporary student organizers are able to identify problems/issues of concern and attribute of blame to key political targets.

Overall, my study makes scholarly contributions to the empirical, theoretical/conceptual, and methodological domains of higher education research generally and student activism scholarship in particular. First, the findings from my study challenge higher education scholars to consider the importance of moving beyond campus contexts to investigate students’ lives, which are increasingly occurring off- and away from campus. Second, my findings expand understandings of the ways in which contemporary college students relate to technology and social media beyond social uses, entertainment purposes, and utility for the delivery of instructional content to include harnessing alternative and activist new media for creating social change. Lastly, my findings strongly counter the prevailing narrative regarding millennials’ lack of awareness of their history by providing evidence of their use of history as a non-material resource upon which they draw to increase legitimacy as part of their social movement repertoire.

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