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Getting involved in activism on Grounds and in Charlottesville

A guide to some of the organizations in and around U.Va. that are leading campaigns, building community and advocating for the groups they represent

More than 450 contracted independent organizations crowded the South Lawn, the Amphitheater and Peabody Lawn Aug. 23 at the Fall Activities Fair, handing out phone wallets and gathering computing IDs of interested students. A number of these organizations offer opportunities for students to engage in activism, ranging from political campaigns to environmental justice to mental health. 

Beyond Grounds, there are many organizations in Charlottesville building campaigns that work with students — these organizations work to spur change and bring issues to the forefront of the University community, like the locally-founded petition that called for the removal of the George Rogers Clark statue. 

The groups below are just some of the major voices on Grounds and around Charlottesville and do not represent the full span of ways students can get involved in activism in the community. While many of these organizations are run by University students, they provide students with an opportunity to immerse themselves in advocacy that involves the local Charlottesville community 

Websites like the Activists' Guide can connect students with local groups, and the @UVA organizations page includes a full list of groups concerned with advocacy, multicultural efforts and more.

Minority rights and racial justice

Numerous groups on Grounds and in Charlottesville aim to support and advocate for historically marginalized and underrepresented communities — some are as broad as the Minority Rights Coalition, which is an umbrella organization representing the interests of seven different CIOs, and others are as specific as oSTEM at U.Va., which provides support for LGBTQ+ students in STEM.

The MRC was founded in 2000 and is currently comprised of the Asian Student Union, the Black Student Alliance, the Latinx Student Alliance, the Middle Eastern Leadership Council, the Muslim Students Association, the Native American Student Union, the Organization of African Students and the Queer Student Union. 

The group has advocated for and supported a number of petitions for progressive change on Grounds — they worked with Young Democratic Socialists of America at U.Va. to implement a credit/no-credit grading system and support for the tuition freeze. Most recently, the MRC spearheaded a campaign to remove the Frank Hume Memorial Fountain — a statue that honors Confederate spy Frank Hume and was recently rededicated by the Board of Visitors. 

In Charlottesville, individuals and student groups also successfully advocated for the removal of Confederate statues. Statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were removed in July following years of advocacy — third-year College student Zyahna Bryant, who first authored the petition to remove the Lee monument as a freshman at Charlottesville High School in 2016, was in attendance at the statues’ removal. 

A statue of George Rogers Clark located on Grounds was also removed in July, largely as a result of petitions and protests organized by local activists and student groups like the Native American Student Union. This year, NASU is continuing to build the organization, supporting Native students and working with the University administration to increase Native enrollment and promote equity in admissions, according to Zac Russell, president of NASU and fourth-year College student.

“We're very excited to see what the new year has in store, especially as the first in 100 years in which students won't face the image of George Rogers Clark enacting genocide,” Russell said.

One of the other organizations which brings together students and local activists is Charlottesville BLM, a local chapter of the global organization Black Lives Matter. Charlottesville BLM is beginning a campaign to defund the Charlottesville Police Department and build a city without policing. Another organization is the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville, which is currently leading a campaign to collect donations for Afghan refugees in Charlottesville. 

The  Asian Student Union has also been successful in championing minority rights — they organized the “Not a Model Minority Campaign” that dispels the myth that all Asians are self-sufficient, well-educated and upwardly mobile and highlights the unique experiences of Asian Americans at the University. 

Sanjeev Kumar, president of ASU and third-year Commerce student, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily that the organization is currently working on a campaign pushing the University administration to provide better resources for Asian students in the University community. Similar demands were made in 2018, when the Asian Leaders Council released a report on academic reform. 

“We are currently working with several other Asian organizations on Grounds to push the University administration to provide better resources, funding, and representation for the Asian American community,” Kumar said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Many of these demands were made years ago and were never addressed by the University in any capacity, so the Asian Student Union is working on getting those through.”

undocUVA is a collective of students that work to create infrastructures of support for undocumented people and migrant communities at the University and beyond through the University website, providing scholarships, and training over 800 people to be allies for undocumented individuals. In an email to The Cavalier Daily, President Caroline Campos, a fourth-year College student, explained that the organization’s priorities for the upcoming year include building financial, social and academic infrastructure for undocumented students. They will also continue their support work for local asylum seekers, as well as expand their advocacy to workers and community members. 

Political activism and campaigning

There are a number of CIOs that offer students a chance to get involved in politics. Two of the most well-known political organizations, College Republicans and University Democrats, regularly organize campaigns for candidates and advocate for political issues within the Charlottesville community and across the nation. 

College Republicans concentrated their efforts last year on campaigning for Delegate Nick Freitas’ congressional campaign. The group made over 20,000 voter contacts, according to Libby Klinger, College Republicans president and third-year College student. This year, Klinger said the group plans to campaign for Republican candidates in the Virginia House of Delegates races and the Virginia gubernatorial race.

“Our priorities this year are twofold — campaign for Republican candidates and provide a strong community for conservative students on Grounds,” Klinger said.

Last year, University Democrats registered over 1,000 students to vote, made over 10,000 phone calls to voters and sent over 350,000 text messages in support of progressive candidates. According to Hunter Hess, UDems president and fourth-year College student, this year the organization is excited about returning to in-person campaigning for the November election. The organization is hosting voter registration drives on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:30 to 2 p.m. this semester. 

“Our goal is to get back to knocking on doors and talking to voters face-to-face,” Hess said.

Students can also get involved in groups such as Young Democratic-Socialists of America at U.Va. — past YDSA’s campaigns have included helping to secure the optional credit/no-credit grading option for students and advocating for a tuition freeze for most undergraduate students, which the Board of Visitors approved in April 2021. This year, the group is focusing on expanding and improving mental health services at the University.

YDSA is hosting an event titled “Intro to Socialism” at 7 p.m. Monday in the Physics Building Room 204. Interested students can fill out an interest form, show up to events and follow the organization’s social media accounts.

Other groups center around advocating or educating students about specific issues — Students for Justice in Palestine is an organization that advocates for academic, cultural and economic boycotts of Israel. These three principles are central to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement that aims to put pressure on the Israeli government and advocate for Palestinian rights and liberation. 

As international media outlets covered escalating violence between Palestine and Israel in May, SJP and student-run CIO Hoos for Israel aimed to counter misconceptions about the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis and advocated for aid for those affected. Hoos for Israel released a statement urging the community to avoid spreading common misconceptions and oversimplified social media graphics.

SJP organized a protest — attended by around 200 individuals — in May calling for the United States to curb funding and support of the Israeli government as well as a letter campaign calling for divestment from Israel. 

A student leader in SJP spoke to The Cavalier Daily about the organization on the condition of anonymity due to the history of Palestinian-American college students getting blacklisted from future job opportunities and career paths due to their organizing work. 

According to the leader, SJP is focusing this year on building a coalition with other organizations at the University, increasing the visibility of the organization, increasing membership and raising the funds necessary to run a divestment campaign. Last year, they were proud of the coalition that they built with other organizations at the University, such as Young Democratic-Socialists of America at U.Va. and U.Va. Beyond Policing.

“I think building a coalition across various organizing groups on Grounds allows us to really paint the picture of an intersectional struggle and advocate for collective liberation,” the student leader said.

Indivisible Charlottesville is a local group which aims to “[resist] the Trump agenda and [hold] reps in the VA-05 district accountable.” In January, the group started a letter-writing campaign calling for Representative Bob Good’s removal. They were also strong advocates of removing the Confederate statues.

Reproductive health

Students interested in reproductive justice or advocating for the pro-life movement will also find a number of groups that interest them — Planned Parenthood Generation Action is a student-led reproductive rights organization at the University and Hoos for Life is a student organization that promotes awareness of the pro-life movement and educate students about pro-life issues.

Elliana McGovern, president of PPGen and third-year Batten student, said that before the pandemic, one of PPGen’s priorities was working with the Elson Student Health Center to make emergency contraception more readily available on the weekends. After classes moved fully online in the spring of 2020, PPGen pivoted its focus to providing mental health and self-care resources for students. 

During the past year, PPGen also reflected on their status as a reproductive rights organization, not a reproductive justice organization. While reproductive rights largely center on a woman’s individual reproductive freedom and has historically focused on issues such as sex education, family planning and access to abortion, reproductive justice is more intersectional, focusing on the ways that gender, socioeconomic class and race affect reproductive health care. The reproductive justice movement was founded by Black women in the 1990s because of the ways that BIPOC women were excluded in the reproductive rights movement.

“We know that Planned Parenthood has historically been a white woman organization and we want to work on making our particular chapter of PPGen a very inclusive space where everyone feels welcome, not just based on their race but also their sexuality and the way that they identify in the world,” McGovern said.

This year, McGovern says that she wants the organization to work on inclusion and diversity to better represent the University community. They are also trying to build more relationships with other student groups. 

Caitlin Mea, a fourth-year College student and President of Hoos for Life, discussed the organization's priorities in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

“Our priority this year is to help those within our own community who are struggling with crisis pregnancy situations,” Mea said. “We will be fundraising for pregnancy resource centers that provide free assistance to pregnant women so that these women do not have to feel forced into abortion by their circumstances.”

Mea said that the organization’s priorities go beyond abortion and that they will be raising money for Mary’s Shelter, a shelter in Fredericksburg that provides resources for women and their children. 

“Our current plan for the year is to show that being pro-life is also being pro-woman by assisting women with the root causes that cause them to seek abortion in the first place,” Mea said. 

Outside of student organizations, Charlottesville NOW — a local chapter of the National Organization for Women — has been focused on eliminating discrimination, promoting feminist ideas and protecting women’s rights, including reproductive access, since 1975. Throughout the pandemic, the organization has been focused on hosting monthly meetings. In honor of the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the group held a meeting entitled “Reproductive Rights Under Threat” featuring Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Joe Platania and Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Areshini Pather.

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