Speak Up! Step Up! Facilitating Social Action Engagement With Students by Dre Domingue, Ed.D. and Dave Neely, M.A.

Black Lives Matter.  Transgender inclusion and accessibility.  Sexual assaults and gender violence.  Debates about immigration.  These current social issues, among many others, are inciting students to give voice and take action on college campuses across the United States and internationally.  Regardless of the positions students hold on these issues, student affairs practitioners must offer resources to guide students in making informed decisions and facilitate their leadership development as students engage in different types of social action.  While popular, existing strategies including intergroup dialogue and service-learning offer spaces for dialogue, critical-reflection, and introductory interpersonal skill development, these programs are not typically designed to address students’ desire to take immediate action or keep up with the rapid emergence of hotly-contended social issues.

As practitioners committed to social justice, we rely on these leadership and student engagement models as we work to support students in taking action.  In 2010 we co-authored the chapter, Why Is It So Hard to Take Action: A Reflective Dialogue About Preparing Students for Social Action Engagement (Domingue & Neely, 2013).  The chapter presents a written dialogue between the two of us exploring the successes and challenges we have encountered engaging in action in our own lives and facilitating students’ actions for social change.  Drawing  on our personal facilitation and teaching experiences in combination with what we have learned from the literature and trusted mentors, we provided a list of six key suggestions for facilitating social action engagement which include:

  • Placing an emphasis on social action engagement at the beginning of courses or workshops and maintaining this focus throughout the duration of the program.
  • Providing current and historical examples of social action and activism, particularly of other students and young people.
  • Providing frequent and consistent support.

In revisiting this chapter that we began writing five years ago, we recognize some gaps and limitations.  For example, we identified the potential costs and risks of engaging in social action, but we did not explore the significant costs of not acting on our learning and commitments to social justice.  We have also noted that programs such as intergroup dialogue, the Social Change Model of Leadership, and peer education approaches have key limitations.  Many existing initiatives place a primary focus on consciousness-raising and developing cross-cultural communication skills, but do not directly prepare students for thoughtful action.  Additionally, long-term, sustained groups often reach only a small percentage of the students on our campuses, and existing program curricula and course syllabi designed in advance, frequently are not flexible enough to account for rapidly emerging events or social media activism.

In March 2016 we had the opportunity to facilitate a workshop session at the ACPA’s annual Convention in Montreal.  The purpose of this workshop was to provide strategies for practitioners to support college students as they engage in intentional, critically-reflective social action.  We also strived to expand the conversation by inviting participants into a dialogic exchange about useful strategies and approaches.  All too frequently, we work in isolation, seeking to solve problems on our own, or by reaching out to a small number of trusted colleagues on our campuses or in our professional networks.  This workshop allowed participants to draw on the insights and practices of a room full of student affairs colleagues from many different campus contexts.

We began our workshop by inviting participants to share pressing social justice issues they observed on their campuses. Some of those issues included the following:

  • Islamophobia
  • Gender-neutral bathrooms
  • A student walk-out to highlight the prevalence of racial microaggressions
  • Institutional push-back to increasing the number of staff/faculty of color
  • The system-wide consolidation of HBCUs

After generating a list of some current campus issues, we invited participants to break into small group to discuss these challenges.  These small-group conversations were guided by two key prompts:hat is an educator’s role in supporting students to take action? And What are you doing that’s working?. Next, we invited participants to share some of their top strategies. What follows is the compiled list of all strategies shared by the workshop participants:


  • Acknowledge my role & middle person responsibility to students and administration
  • Push the importance of relationships and understanding power in relationships
  • Push them students to name goals and brainstorm tactics
  • Be true to what you know and believe. What can you facilitate? What can’t you?
  • Build coalitions and think about unlikely partners
  • Make connections with academic courses
  • Listen
  • Start small-work with small groups to understand issues, themes and future effects
  • Discuss with peers to see if there are any trends
  • Grow, inform, plan (grow groups, inform larger groups and issues, plan next steps)
  • Engage in one-on-one conversations about students’ engagement and offer support
  • Point students to resources about specific movements that they are interested in
  • Advise students about college/university policies so they are aware if the movement or act violates anything (not to stop them, but to simply make them aware)
  • Find support/mentor safe spaces and people that you can trust with your heart when others may question
  • Consistently ask questions. Learning about social justice should be never-ending
  • Model what you teach
  • Ask how students are feeling about current events
  • Remind/post/promote or co-sponsor events with offices on campus doing social justice- based work
  • Talk about what else I have been up to with student leaders I’m close with
  • Listen to student voices (student leaders, students, student paper)
  • Ask questions
  • Ask how I can serve and support and what does that look like against the expectations as a professional
  • Facilitate conversations, especially with those who don’t know or understand, meet them where they’re at and break down their questions so you can help better answer
  • Reframe perceptions
  • Include student leaders
  • Collaborate with faculty
  • Start with students who want/have the potential to be leaders
  • Bring multiple perspectives to the table
  • Encourage students to develop a focused message
  • Build relationships
  • Hold a program
  • Implement service-learning
  • Educate students about the issues (engage in dialogue)
  • Help them facilitate partnerships (help them make connections to each other and others doing the work)
  • Provide feedback
  • Give them a space to discuss/be heard
  • Show them they have support
  • Make action a priority
  • Trust that people have the wisdom to contribute to identifying and making change around issues
  • Challenge people to get the story directly from those affected and take that learning to inform strategies
  • Find ways to build student leadership with things like coalitions
  • Engage in dialogue with administration and the division of student development
  • Connect with student government
  • Give students space to speak and have their voices heard
  • Involve governing bodies or institutions
  • Connect with local agencies and organizations
  • Invite guest speakers
  • Allow voices to be heard through indirect communication (not removing posters or flyer, etc.)
  • Discuss with student facilitators how/if their actions impact other students (positively or negatively)
  • Don’t wait for an incident to build relationships and train folks
  • Provide space and resources, take direction from students
  • Keep “giving permission.” Encourage action, planting that seed of possibility every day
  • Provide support and spaces for dialogue and action while prioritizing student voice/student driven decisions in those spaces/methods
  • Validate emotion in action/activism

As with many workshops at Convention, 60 minutes was simply not enough time to engage in the topics as deeply as the group desired.  For that reason, we are using this blog post and a subsequent webinar to continue the conversation.  Please share your reactions and join the conversation! Also stay tuned for a webinar on this same topic coming soon!

Dre Domingue, Ed.D. is a higher education consultant who is a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her teaching and scholarship focuses on social justice education, critical pedagogy/facilitation, social identity development, and college student leadership development. Her dissertation and subsequent publications explores Black women college student leaders’ experiences with oppression at predominantly White higher education institutions. Prior to teaching, she held several student affairs positions working in LGBT student services, residential education, and a women’s center. Dre is also the current Chair for ACPA’s Commission for Social Justice Educators.


Dave Neely, M.A. is a Residential Learning Communities Specialist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is also a doctoral candidate studying Higher Education.  His dissertation research explores student outcomes of incorporating aspects of intergroup dialogue into a multi-semester, civic leadership program.  He has taught numerous courses focused on social justice education utilizing experiential education approaches including intergroup dialogue, service-learning, and educational theatre.  He has held multiple positions in student affairs and higher education more broadly, including working as a Senior Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at New York University.

For more than a decade, Dre and Dave have collaborated on numerous projects related to social justice education and social action, including co-facilitating workshops, co-teaching, and writing a book chapter titled Why is it so Hard to Take Action? A Reflective Dialogue about Preparing Students for Social Action Engagement that was included in the recently-published ACPA book, The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators.

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