Op-eds, Opinions

Schilder ’20: Hashtags don’t vote

Op-Ed Contributor
Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Political engagement has skyrocketed since the 2016 election. Mass rallies are increasingly frequent, more non-politician candidates are running for local office and research indexes of political engagement have shot upwards. But in a time when hours on our phones are spent complaining on Facebook to garner “likes” instead of speaking with our representatives, we have to ask ourselves about the quality, not quantity, of our political engagement. Are we involved in politics to serve our communities, or are we only motivated by our resumes? Do we follow through on the political work that we sporadically begin? Do we practice all that we preach in our self-righteous social media rants and our grand professions of social values?

It seems that our generation thinks showing up for a rally armed with some friends, a witty sign and a cute Instagram post with the insert-relevant-hashtag-here counts as effective activism. Yes, rallies are important, and showing solidarity is always meaningful. Town square gatherings to debate and protest are one of America’s earliest forms of democratic engagement. Rallies like the DACA protection rally at the Rhode Island State House last year are powerful demonstrations to members of our community that they are supported and that their voices are heard.

But rallies require follow-through. If we want real policy change — the change we rant about on social media — we have to keep showing up. It is not enough to stand at one march, congratulate ourselves for participating and then go home. Rallies are insufficient in producing substantial policy change when they are not followed up with phone banks, canvasses, lobby days, email campaigns and, especially, votes. If we want change, we need action items, plural.

We observed the pitfalls of a lack of follow-through in the aftermath of the 2017 Women’s March: Unprecedented turnout and energy were converted to little (if any) legislative action. The March was a historic demonstration which motivated many women to run for office and reinvigorated the political consciousness of many young people nationwide. The turnout at the March made an important statement about the values of modern Americans and renewed many people’s hope in a future that respects the rights of women, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, LGBTQ+ individuals and the Earth. But the Women’s March had no clear policy goals, no concrete or actionable “next steps.” We know what we marched for, but what did we march toward? I use the Women’s March as an example, but this is a pattern we observe each time we rally. Can you think of any concrete national legislative changes that are directly attributable to a recent march?

It is easy to respond that obdurate legislators, not marchers, are at fault. But the recent teacher strike in West Virginia challenges this narrative. Teachers had specific demands, and they took collective, organized and (most importantly) sustained action to achieve them. Rather than standing in front of the West Virginia State Capitol for a few hours chanting catchy slogans, teachers took strong, intentional action that left the state no choice but to work with them on their demands. And ultimately, they were successful. This is how effective change happens: following up a clear message with decisive, unrelenting action to produce results.

For examples of effective activism, we need only to look to our peers. There are so many students at Brown who put in innumerable thankless hours each week, collecting signatures, lobbying senators and knocking on doors. Look at Gabe Zimmerman ’18 and Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere, for example. Their tireless, humble and rarely recognized work was directly influential in reinstating No-Fare RIPTA passes last year for individuals experiencing homelessness. The March for Our Lives has also shown us that students can be impactful: In the wake of the Parkland shooting, praises abound for youth leadership, and politicians and the media alike are heralding a new era of youth-led activism. The problem is, millennials consistently have the lowest voter turnout of any age group in America, despite being the nation’s largest voting-eligible age group as of 2017. We have more power than ever before, but by not sustaining our political engagement (even enough to vote!), we waste it.

The moral of the story is, talking and caring about politics isn’t going to cut it. Meaningful action means more than sharing articles on Facebook. Change requires getting your hands dirty. It requires knocking on doors, making calls, going to community organizing meetings and showing up at the State House. Sporadic “feel-good” activism might earn you social capital or a resume boost, but it is not going to solve the tremendous challenges we face. While you remain comfortable in the Brown bubble, climate change continues to worsen, Americans continue to go unhoused or uninsured, immigrants continue to face deportation and prisons continue to swell.

So please, come to rallies. Show up for marches. But then go home and call your senator, your reps, your mayor’s office. Canvass for an issue or a candidate. Lobby at the State House. Vote in primaries and midterms. Join a local activism organization. If you hold a community rally, identify some feasible but powerful actions that you can point people toward. If you want change, your Instagram post is not enough. If you want to help people in your community, patting yourself on the back is not enough. We’ve got a long road ahead, and we have to sustain our energy to fight for the change we need.

The Brown Progressive Action Committee’s motto goes: “Don’t agonize, organize.” Just remember not to self-aggrandize.

If you want to take political action or learn about events and local activism opportunities, consider following the Brown Progressive Action Committee page on Facebook or reach out to to be added to the listserv. While BPAC is progressive and run by Brown students, it is also non-partisan and available as a resource for everyone. Virginia Schilder ’20 is chair of the Brown Progressive Action Committee and can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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