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Abstract

The emergence of social media has greatly influenced 21st-century student activism. It has also given rise to the birth of “slacktivism,” an online form of self-aggrandizing, politically ineffective activism. This theoretical article delves into the conceptualizations of what constitutes student activism versus slacktivism in a digital age. While there are distinctions between the 2, we highlight how most discussions of activism describe how activism is done as opposed to what it is. Within this context, we offer 10 theoretical underpinnings of activism and slacktivism to serve as conceptual points of self-reflection that student activists can use in order to explore whether or not they are truly engaging in activism. This examination, we argue, is critically important as the distinction between slacktivism and activism becomes increasingly muddied. For student activism to realize its democratic and developmental potential, students need to be clear about whether they are engaging in activism or slacktivism.
Journal of Diversity in Higher Education
Activism or Slacktivism? The Potential and Pitfalls of
Social Media in Contemporary Student Activism
Nolan L. Cabrera, Cheryl E. Matias, and Roberto Montoya
Online First Publication, April 3, 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000061
CITATION
Cabrera, N. L., Matias, C. E., & Montoya, R. (2017, April 3). Activism or Slacktivism? The Potential
and Pitfalls of Social Media in Contemporary Student Activism. Journal of Diversity in Higher
Education. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000061
Activism or Slacktivism? The Potential and Pitfalls of Social Media
in Contemporary Student Activism
Nolan L. Cabrera
University of Arizona
Cheryl E. Matias and Roberto Montoya
University of Colorado, Denver
The emergence of social media has greatly influenced 21st-century student activism. It
has also given rise to the birth of “slacktivism,” an online form of self-aggrandizing,
politically ineffective activism. This theoretical article delves into the conceptualiza-
tions of what constitutes student activism versus slacktivism in a digital age. While
there are distinctions between the 2, we highlight how most discussions of activism
describe how activism is done as opposed to what it is. Within this context, we offer
10 theoretical underpinnings of activism and slacktivism to serve as conceptual points
of self-reflection that student activists can use in order to explore whether or not they
are truly engaging in activism. This examination, we argue, is critically important as the
distinction between slacktivism and activism becomes increasingly muddied. For
student activism to realize its democratic and developmental potential, students need to
be clear about whether they are engaging in activism or slacktivism.
Keywords: slacktivism, armchair activism, student activism, power, hegemony
In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron wrote the classic
spoken-word recording, “The Revolution Will
Not Be Televised.” Within it he offered,
You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised
Despite the popularity of TV, Scott-Heron
(1970) thought social progress occurred in the
streets and not on the couch. Forty-five years
later, commentators are furiously debating the
role of social media in political activism. For
example, conservative commentator Andrew
Sullivan (2009) proclaimed during the uprising
in Iran, “The revolution will be Twittered,” as
he saw social media playing a central role in
fostering social change. Conversely, Malcolm
Gladwell (2010) delivered a scathing critique of
Internet activism in “Small change: Why the
revolution will not be tweeted.” Within his
piece, he argued social media does very little to
produce tangible social change and is becoming
a substitute for in-person activism. These de-
bates involve the perceived importance (or lack
thereof) regarding social media in contempo-
rary social movements. The situation has be-
come more complicated as social media is in-
creasingly utilized by contemporary, grassroots
organizers (Obar, 2014; Obar, Zube, & Lampe,
2012), including college students (Biddix,
2010). Yet embedded in these online activities
are instances of lackluster support hidden under
the guise of simple “shares,” “likes,” and “fa-
vorites.” Can online displays of support equate
to activism or should they be seen as “slacktiv-
ism”? Christensen (2011) succinctly defined
slacktivism as “political activities that have no
impact on real-life political outcomes, but only
serve to increase the feel-good factor of the
participants” (p. 1). Thus, social media create
Nolan L. Cabrera, Center for the Study of Higher Edu-
cation, University of Arizona; Cheryl E. Matias, Urban
Community Teacher Education, University of Colorado,
Denver; Roberto Montoya, Urban Ecology Program, Uni-
versity of Colorado, Denver.
Special note to student activists: May you always allow
your heart, spirit, and intellect to guide your participation in
the struggle for a more equitable, socially just society.
Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-
dressed to Nolan L. Cabrera, Center for the Study of Higher
Education, University of Arizona, College of Education,
Room 327B, P.O. Box 210069, Tucson, AZ 85721. E-mail:
ncabrera@email.arizona.edu
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Journal of Diversity in Higher Education © 2017 National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education
2017, Vol. 1, No. 2, 000 1938-8926/17/$12.00 http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dhe0000061
1
tensions for contemporary activists because it
poses the central and ongoing question, “Am I
engaging in activism or slacktivism?”
Historically, college student activism has
been at the center of higher education curricu-
lar, faculty, and student body diversification
efforts—in particular along the lines of race/
ethnicity (Rogers, 2012; Rojas, 2006; William-
son, 2003). However, most social movement/
social activism scholarship is retrospective in
nature and centers how activism is done as
opposed to what activism is (e.g., McAdam,
1986; McAdam, & Paulsen, 1993). In a digital
age, forward thinking is increasingly important
for activists because without an understanding
of what constitutes activism, it can be difficult
to grapple with the aforementioned question
regarding activism/slacktivism. As Freire
(2000) reminds critical self-reflection is a core
component to the development of conscientiza-
ção (the combination of critical consciousness,
self-reflection, and engaging in antioppressive,
collective action). Thus, one component of ac-
tivism is self-interrogation, but how can one
meaningfully do this if they cannot define ac-
tivism? Within this context, we develop and
offer 10 premises regarding the nature of activ-
ism.
We build the 10 premises in the following
way. First, we offer Lukes’ (2005) three di-
mensions of power because competing power
dynamics are at the core of activism, yet
power is rarely defined explicitly in these
analyses. Second, we highlight how college
student activism has historically been at the
center of many higher-education diversity ef-
forts. Third, we offer the empirical literature
on slacktivism, highlighting how the distinc-
tion between activism and slacktivism is
blurry and sometimes activism, in a digital
age, relies on the slacktivism of the masses.
Finally, we offer 10 premises generally rooted
in seminal scholar/activism literature that fur-
ther help delineate the core of what activism
and slacktivism are. We do this because stu-
dent activism has been at the center of push-
ing higher education to be more democratic
and inclusive (Broadhurst, 2014; Pasque &
Vargas, 2014), and therefore grappling with
the tensions slacktivism poses is central to
realizing this potential in a digital age (Bid-
dix, 2010).
What Is Power and How Is It Related to
Student Activism?
Within institutions of higher education, stu-
dent activism has historically challenged the
power structures that exclude minoritized pop-
ulations from full participation (P. Lee, 2011;
S. A. Muñoz, 2015; Rogers, 2012; Rojas, 2006).
To explore the nature of power we rely on
Steven Lukes’s (2005) three-dimensional view.
We think Lukes’s theorizing of power is the
most relevant to this analysis for two reasons.
First, his three-dimensional view offers a more
nuanced and thorough understanding than the
colloquial X participates in decision making
that affects Y (although this is part of his for-
mulation). We detail these nuances later in this
section. Second, Lukes’s (2005) radical view
most closely aligns with the epistemological
and ontological perspectives that tend to guide
the type of social activism explored in this ar-
ticle.
Within Lukes’s (2005) three-dimensional
view of power, each additional dimension is
both a critique of the previous that also incor-
porates components of the others. According to
Lukes, the one-dimensional view of power in-
volves A exerting his will over B, making B do
something he would not have done of his own
accord. For example, a campus administrator
creates a “free-speech zone” making other areas
of campus off limits for social protest. This is an
exercise of power because the campus admin-
istrator (A) compels students (B) to contain
their protest activities to a specific area when
they could, otherwise, protest throughout the
campus. The two-dimensional view additionally
argues that if B makes a plea to A for a policy
change, A has the ability to enact change and
does nothing; this is also an exercise of power.
For example, if student protesters (B) demand
that a campus administrator (A) only allow
sweatshop-free clothing to be sold in the student
union, and the campus administrator ignores the
petition, this is a demonstration of power in and
of itself.
Then, Lukes (2005) critiqued the one- and
two-dimensional views as being overly behav-
ioristic, arguing that power can also be exer-
cised through social structures which are be-
yond the scope of individual decisions. This
leads to the third dimension, which incorporates
hegemonic forces. Hegemony refers to the cul-
2 CABRERA, MATIAS, AND MONTOYA
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tural and discursive practices, which make so-
cial oppression appear naturally occurring as
opposed to structured (Gramsci, 1971). The
power in this structure, according to Lukes
(2005), is that it restricts the range of options
available to the masses, and reflects the prefer-
ences of the dominant social class. For example,
institutions of higher education pursue out of
state students to increase tuition revenue even
though this pushes out low-income and racial
minority students (Jaquette, Curs, & Posselt, in
press). Within this neoliberal paradigm, institu-
tions try to maximize their individual market
share, but the logic of capitalist production is
left unquestioned (Slaughter & Rhoades, 2000).
Thus, neoliberalism limiting the range of op-
tions for institutions of higher education is an
example of power. Conversely, student activists
agitating to make institutions more open and
inclusive can also be an example of exercising
power (Biddix, 2010; Pasque & Vargas, 2014).
Student Activism and Campus Diversity
Student activism has been central to increas-
ing campus-based diversity whether the issue
involves affirmative action (Rhoads, Saenz, &
Carducci, 2005), curricular diversity (Rhoads,
1998b; Rojas, 2006; Slaughter, 1997), faculty
diversity (P. Lee, 2011), or supporting undocu-
mented students (Gonzalez, 2008). Across a
swath of diversity-related issues, student activ-
ists have been at the center of advocating for
increasing inclusion, making the college cam-
pus a more democratic space (Broadhurst, 2014;
Rhoads, 1998a; Rogers, 2012; Rojas, 2006;
Williamson, 2003). Some have even argued that
these forms of social protest are developmental
mechanisms for students learning and being in-
volved in participatory democracy (Biddix,
2010; Kezar, 2010; Rhoads, 1998b; Slocum &
Rhoads, 2009).
There is a small, but growing area of research
that explores relationships between student ac-
tivists and institutional agents (e.g., Gaston-
Gayles, Wolf-Wendel, Twombly, Ward, &
Tuttle, 2005). Frequently, student activists and
representatives of colleges/universities are
framed as mutually antagonistic entities. As
Barnhardt (2014) argued, “[Activist] tactics op-
erate as a public expression—by a group—that
challenges the taken-for-granted authority rela-
tionship” (p. 45). Kezar (2010) modified this
notion by arguing that faculty and staff partner-
ing with student activists can actually help, col-
lectively, to push institutions of higher educa-
tion to be more democratic, inclusive spaces.
Gaston-Gayles et al. (2005) offered a similar
argument specifically focusing on the history of
student affairs professionals. They highlight
how prior to the 1960s, student affairs profes-
sionals were primarily disciplinarians. This era
shifted the ethos to one where student affairs
professionals are more mediators who, interest-
ingly, are also able to promote social change on
campus.
While many have written about college stu-
dent activism, few have actually defined it. For
example, Rhoads (1998a) clearly operational-
ized student demonstrations as “visible public
protests organized by students to call attention
to a particular concern or set of concerns” (p.
vii, italics in original). Within this important
text, however, Rhoads never defined student
activism. Instead, he began with action (student
demonstrations) and worked backward, defining
those engaged in the action (activists). This is a
very common theme in the scholarly literature
as most analyses regarding campus-based stu-
dent activism tends to focus on discrete histor-
ical movements and instances of social protest
(e.g., Biondi, 2012; Cohen & Snyder, 2013;
McAdam, 1986; C. Muñoz, 1989; Rogers,
2012; Williamson, 2003). Frequently rooted in
social movement theory, many of the analyses
either center the tactics/repertoires of the activ-
ists (e.g., Barnhardt, 2014; McAdam & Paulsen,
1993; Van Dyke, 2003) or explore the develop-
mental opportunities that student activism of-
fers (e.g., Biddix, 2010; Kezar, 2010; Rhoads,
1998b). These scholars did not have to concern
themselves with differentiating between activ-
ism and slacktivism because they focused on
events which were already deemed activism.
Thus, we are left with how Justice Potter Stew-
art defined pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio
(1964): “I know it when I see it.”
One scholarly piece that comes closest to
defining activism is Urrieta’s (2009) Working
From Within. His analysis focused on Chicana
and Chicano educators who work to affect so-
cial change within educational institutions. He
argued traditional forms of activism (e.g.,
marches and boycotts) were not the only ways
that change can occur, and sought a more ex-
pansive view of activism. Despite this, he did
3ACTIVISM OR SLACKTIVISM?
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not explicitly define the underlying conceptual
underpinnings of what constitutes social activ-
ism much like the rest of the scholarship in this
section. Thus, the analyses of student activism
do not offer a means to answer the central
question, What is student activism? We return
to this issue in our 10-premises section, but we
first address, What is slacktivism?
What Is Slacktivism and How Is It Related
to Activism?
Analyses of student activism tend to be sep-
arated from analyses of slacktivism; therefore,
we need to rely on nonhigher education schol-
arship to frame this concept. Slacktivism has
been divided into five subcategories: clicktiv-
ism, sympathy, political, charity (direct), and
charity (by-product of consumption), and the
term tends to be pejorative (Christensen, 2011;
Morozov, 2009; Vie, 2014). Christensen further
argued that slacktivism is not a new phenome-
non. For example, the term was actually created
in 1995 as a synonym for “armchair activism”;
however, contemporarily slacktivism has be-
come equated with politically ineffective, on-
line actions (Morozov, 2009).
Although Morozov’s (2009) book Net Delu-
sion is one of the most cited pieces regarding
slacktivism, he only mentioned slacktivism on 6
pages of the 408-page book. The book was
actually written in opposition to Internet utopia-
nism. Many social commentators, according to
Morozov (2009), were quick to dub the Internet
an inherently antiauthoritarian and democratiz-
ing sphere, and this never materialized. For
instance, Morozov analyzed the number of peo-
ple who “liked” the “Saving the Children of
Africa” Facebook page versus those who actu-
ally donated. He argued that the 1/100 of one
penny donated (on average) by every person
who liked the page would be better served if
people actually had strong ties to a specific
cause. That is, the cause would have been better
served if all those people who liked the page
actually dedicated some time and resources to
it. This is commonly referred to as the “replace-
ment thesis,” where slacktivism takes the time
and energy of more meaningful engagement.
In defining slacktivism, political ineffective-
ness is a core characteristic (Christensen, 2011;
Morozov, 2009), but scholars disagree about
how to operationalize efficacy (Vie, 2014). For
example, Vie (2014) analyzed the Human
Rights Campaign’s Facebook campaign that en-
couraged supporters to change their profile pic-
ture to the red logo in support of gay marriage.
While the individual actions of changing profile
pictures could be deemed as mere slacktivism,
Vie (2014) argued the massive online response
helped the issue gain prominence in the popular
discourse. Vie (2014) furthered this discursive
shift challenged societal power dynamics, and
as a whole was an effective form of online
activism.
Furthermore, delineating between activism
and slacktivism is conceptually difficult to op-
erationalize because the line is very blurry (e.g.,
Christensen, 2011; Jones, 2015; Hu, 2014;
Y.-H. Lee & Hsieh, 2013; Obar, 2014;
Segerberg & Bennett, 2011; Šteˇka & Mazák,
2014). Each is a descriptor of behavior where
the same individual can sometimes engage in
activism, other times slacktivism, and some-
times participating in slacktivism is a precursor
to involvement in more meaningful social pro-
test (Kristofferson, White, & Peloza, 2013).
Šteˇka and Mazák (2014) explored political en-
gagement in the 2013 Czech parliamentary
elections, and they found that those engaged in
typical forms of slacktivism were also more
likely to also participate in traditional forms of
social activism. Obar (2014) additionally ar-
gued that slacktivist activities were central to
the strategies of larger advocacy groups; how-
ever, Obar also noted smaller advocacy groups
tended to focus on more traditional forms of
activism because they could not divert their
limited resources to risky slacktivist activities
(Obar, 2014; Obar, Zube, & Lampe, 2012).
Y.-H. Lee and Hsieh (2013) found that people
who signed a petition were significantly more
likely to give money to that particular cause.
Interestingly, they also found that people who
decided not to sign the petition, were signifi-
cantly more likely to donate to a completely
unrelated cause, a phenomenon the authors re-
ferred to as moral balancing.
Jones (2015) had similar findings when an-
alyzing social video sharing. Though video
sharing is often considered slacktivism, Jones
found that these activities related to increased
activism. In fact, Jones (2015) went as far as
to specifically critique Morozov, claiming,
“there is no evidence for Morozov’s substitu-
tion thesis” (p. 12). Instead of activism/
4 CABRERA, MATIAS, AND MONTOYA
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slacktivism being an either/or, Jones found it
was more of a both/and situation. As Karpf
(2012) argued in his analysis of MoveOn,
“Digital activism is not a replacement for the
Freedom Riders of the 1960s; it is a replace-
ment for ‘armchair activism’ that arose from
the 1970s interest group explosion” (p. 8).
Karpf (2010) further clarified that, for exam-
ple, signing petitions were not an end in and
of themselves, but were the means to the end
of gaining access to people in power.
There is, however, a downside to slacktivism
(Breuer & Farooq, 2012; Cornelissen, Karelaia,
& Soyer, 2013; Waugh, Abdipanah, Hashemi,
Rahaman, & Cook, 2013). For example, Breuer
and Farooq (2012) found in a Brazilian anticor-
ruption campaign, entertainment-based forms of
engagement on social networking sites did
nothing to increase offline participation in the
campaign. Others claim that engaging in “click-
tivism” as a public display of morality can have
immoral consequences (Cornelissen et al.,
2013). Interestingly, Cornelissen et al. (2013)
found those who publicly “liked” a cause were
more likely to privately engage in immoral be-
havior after their public “morality” was estab-
lished.
Kristofferson, White, and Peloza (2013) also
explored the difference between public versus
private displays of slacktivism. Specifically, the
more private the slacktivism, the greater the
likelihood of subsequent and deeper engage-
ment with a cause. For those primarily engaged
in public displays, the opposite was true (Krist-
offerson et al., 2013). Thus, slacktivism be-
comes counterproductive when it moves the
focus from the cause to the individual. Within
educational contexts, Matias (2014) argued that
narcissism is central to White teachers who
“save” urban students of color. Regardless to
intent, Matias argued such “altruism” in this
case is a narcissistic maneuver that functionally
assuages White racial guilt and is ineffective at
serving students’ needs. If narcissism and inef-
fectiveness are cornerstones of slacktivism,
what are the foundations of activism? A consis-
tent theme in the student activism scholarship is
the competing power dynamics that either foster
or inhibit social change (Barnhardt, 2014; C.
Muñoz, 1989; Rhoads, 1998a, 1998b; Urrieta,
2009; Van Dyke, 2003).
Ten Points of Reflection: Student Activism
and Slacktivism
We are centrally concerned with the question,
“Am I engaging in activism or slacktivism?”
This is difficult to assess because definitions of
social activism are scant in the scholarly litera-
ture (see Student Activism and Campus Diver-
sity section). Within this context, these prem-
ises are intended to explore the nature of student
activism and slacktivism, which can serve as
points of critical self-reflection as a core com-
ponent of conscientização (Freire, 2000). While
our primary purpose in offering these 10 prem-
ises is to support student activists, they will
likely have relevance to university staff, faculty,
and administrators. Kezar (2010) argued that
campus social change is most effective when
university employees partner with student ac-
tivists, but frequently these relationships do not
form because faculty, staff, and administrators
misunderstand the purpose and nature of activ-
ism as we later elaborate.
Premise 1: Student Activism Involves an
Intentional, Sustained Connection to a
Larger Collective
While we are proponents of individual
agency development, that in and of itself is
insufficient to promote social change. As Ca-
brera (2012) argued, “A social movement of
one is not a social movement at all” (p. 396).
Therefore, for actions to be considered student
activism, they must be intentionally connected
to a larger group. As Anyon (2014) offered,
educational reform will not happen until activ-
ists collectively work with others to “engage in
contentious politics” (p.163) that go beyond the
expectations of “organiz[ing] a movement
alone” (p. 163). Thus, it is important that local-
ized activism (contentious politics) be contex-
tualized among larger challenges to oppressive
social structures (a movement).
Defining this larger group becomes increas-
ingly difficult in a digital age. For example,
Waugh et al. (2013) found in the 2013 Austra-
lian Federal Election that many candidates had
inflated numbers of Twitter followers because
of fake accounts. These were then used to create
a false sense of a candidate’s popularity because
their tweets would be favorited and retweeted
extensively by automated profiles. This is one
5ACTIVISM OR SLACKTIVISM?
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example of how measuring the scope of online
networks is difficult to assess; however, this
does not undercut the importance of virtual so-
cial ties in contemporary student activism. His-
torically, student activism entails organizing a
collective of people toward a larger social goal
(Barnhardt, 2014; Broadhurst, 2014; McAdam,
1986). This collective is a means by which
students have exercised their power in advocat-
ing for campus reform (Rojas, 2006), and com-
pelling institutions to respond (i.e., the first di-
mension of power; Lukes, 2005).
Social networks are foundational to creating
this collective, and in the digital age it usually
entails developing them both online and in per-
son (Biddix, 2010). The online, however, can-
not be a substitute for the in person (Chris-
tensen, 2011). Part of what makes slacktivism
so frequently ineffective, in particular “clicktiv-
ism,” is that it can remove people from the
collective (Kristofferson et al., 2013; Morozov,
2009). That is, the more public the display of
slacktivism, the lower the subsequent engage-
ment with a larger social movement (Kristoffer-
son et al., 2013).
Premise 2: Student Activism Involves
Developing and Exercising Power
The complexity and nuances of power offers
a more thorough analysis of what constitutes
activism versus slacktivism. For example,
Lukes (2005) argued that exercising power
means making a group to do something they
would not otherwise. This distinction is criti-
cally important in operationalizing student ac-
tivism versus slacktivism. If an action does not
compel the other side to react, there has been no
meaningful demonstration of power. This
should not be misconstrued to imply that activ-
ism necessarily results in a stated goal. When
there are competing power dynamics, there is
no predetermined outcome, and thus, activism
cannot be defined by wins and losses. Rather,
when student activists do not compel their op-
position to respond, their demonstration of
power is minimal.
Sometimes, the student activist strategy in-
volves building awareness around an issue (Vie,
2014), but this type of organizing provides ad-
ditional nuance to analyses of slacktivism and
power. Awareness campaigns develop a constit-
uency of empathizers focused on a specific issue
such as breast cancer (Jacobsen & Jacobsen,
2011). The actual cultivating of empathizers is
not an exercise of power per se, because it does
not compel anyone to act (Lukes, 2005). Rather,
it is more the development of potential power
that can be later exercised in the form of direct
action, lobbying, or even fund raising (Jacobsen
& Jacobsen, 2011; Vie, 2014).
An interesting contemporary example of ac-
tivism and power dynamics comes from the
Occupy movement that started as a critique of
Wall Street greed and spread to dozens of col-
lege campuses throughout the country (Mc-
Carthy, 2012; Wollan & Harris, 2011). Many
have declared Occupy a failure because they did
not secure any structural or policy changes in
terms of alleviating income inequality (e.g.,
Mataconis, 2012; Weiland, Guzman, &
O’Meara, 2013). Returning to Lukes’s (2005)
third dimension of power, hegemonic structur-
ing limits the range of acceptable options avail-
able to the masses, reflecting elite interests. Due
to the efforts of Occupy, the term “The 1%” has
entered the popular lexicon and income inequal-
ity is an issue open for discussion. In this sense,
Occupy opened a closed discourse on income
inequality, but it was only through exercising
their counterhegemonic discursive power.
Some have offered a similar critique of Oc-
cupy to the movements of the 1960s. Anyon
(2014) acknowledged there still exists massive
racial disparities despite the efforts of 1960s
activism, but she also claimed, “[T]o argue that
the Civil Rights Movement failed, is to trivial-
ize the mass oppression that went on before” (p.
149). Thus, student collective action does not
require social transformation to be activism.
Conversely, a key distinguishing feature of
slacktivism is there is no meaningful cultivation
or exercise of power (Christensen, 2011; Krist-
offerson et al., 2013).
Premise 3: Most Contemporary Student
Activism Utilizes Social Media, but Not All
Social Media Usage Is Activism and
Slacktivism Is Contained on the Internet,
but Not All Internet Activity Is Slacktivism
All too often, the use of online platforms to
advance activist goals is simply derided as
slacktivism (e.g., Gladwell, 2010; Morozov,
2009). We argue that it is too simplistic to
define all online activism as slacktivism, even
6 CABRERA, MATIAS, AND MONTOYA
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though many commentators have overstated the
importance of social media in contemporary
social movements. For example, former Presi-
dent George W. Bush security advisor Mark
Pheifle declared, “Twitter and its creators are
worthy of being considered for a Nobel Peace
Prize” because of its role in the civil unrest in
Iran (Khan, 2009). Clearly, this was a far reach,
but it does not make the opposite true: that
social media use only represents slacktivism.
One need only examine the online presence
of contemporary student organizers such as
Black Lives Matter (http://blacklivesmatter
.com/), United We Dream (http://unitedwedream
.org/), and the Dream Defenders (http://
www.dreamdefenders.org/) to understand that
having an online presence is critically important
to 21st-century student activism. From an em-
pirical perspective, Obar (2014) and Obar,
Zube, and Lampe (2012) found that while there
is uncertainty about the efficacy about social
media usage in activist campaigns, virtually ev-
ery Canadian and U.S. organization in their
samples had an online presence. Thus, social
media are tools and as with any other, they can
be used effectively for social change or ineffec-
tively as self-gratification. The core consider-
ation is whether or not an online presence is at
the service of cultivating or exercising power
(see Premise 2).
The individual gratification coupled with po-
litical ineffectiveness is a key defining charac-
teristic of slacktivism (Cornelissen et al., 2013;
Kristofferson et al., 2013). In particular, the
more public a display of support for a cause
online, the more likely the action represents of
self-serving slacktivism as opposed to socially
transformative activism. There is nothing inher-
ently wrong with people in activist circles feel-
ing good about their efforts. The problem arises
when the self-gratification becomes an end in
and of itself as opposed to a byproduct of the
action.
Premise 4: To Be a Student Activist Is a
Description of Behavior as Opposed
to an Identity
Throughout this article, we primarily focus
on activism/slacktivism as opposed to activists/
slacktivists because the former are descriptions
of behavior whereas the latter are descriptions
of identities. Focusing on whether or not a per-
son is or is not an activist unintentionally un-
dermines the importance of student activism. If
activists engage in activism, what happens
when the activist slips into slacktivism? We are
not interested in working through the nuances of
individual activist identity as that terminology
(individual activist) is an oxymoron (Cabrera,
2012). Instead, we are guided by DiAngelo’s
conception of being a White person engaging in
antiracist practice: “I am a white woman whose
academic, professional, and personal commit-
ment is for people of color to decide if, in any
given moment, I am behaving in anti-racist
ways” (Multicultural, social justice educator,
2015). Her focus is behavior and we prefer this
analysis because action is of central importance
in activism.
Many think of themselves as activists just
like many think of themselves as antiracists, but
concurrently take no actions in support of the
cause they support. Additionally, even those
who engage in activism can slip into irrelevance
due to inactivity. For example, Alinsky (1989)
offered,
The trouble with a long jail sentence is that (a) a
revolutionary is removed from action for such an ex-
tended period of time that he loses touch, and (b) if you
are gone long enough everybody forgets about you.
Life goes on, new issues arise, and new leaders appear.
(p. 156)
Much like DiAngelo, Alinsky focused his anal-
ysis on action/inaction. For those who are jailed
for protracted periods of time, their abilities to
engage in activism are severely limited. If too
much inactivity occurs, Alinsky argued that the
grassroots moves on as inactive people become
irrelevant. Contemporary student activism fre-
quently relies on social media as a component
of organizing (Biddix, 2010), and this begs the
question, Does a social media hiatus also lead to
activist irrelevance in a digital age?
Premise 5: Student Activism Must Entail a
Degree of Risk
A key distinction between activism and
slacktivism is the risk that each activity re-
quires. “Liking” a Facebook page generally
does not put a person in danger, but engaging in
activism does. McAdam (1986) analyzed the
differences between those who participated in
7ACTIVISM OR SLACKTIVISM?
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Freedom Summer
1
versus those who did not.
Through his empirical work, he proposed a the-
oretical distinction between “high-risk activ-
ism” and “low-risk activism.” Implicit in this
formulation is that risk (at varying levels) is
core to anything under the umbrella “activism.”
This makes intuitive sense given the centrality
of power dynamics contextualizing social activ-
ism. That is, because social activism is about
challenging power structures it will incur a level
of risk taking.
The concept of risk adds a contextual layer to
the issue of activism. Civil disobedience as an
exercise of the first dimension of power (Lukes,
2005) has been a hallmark of student activism
since the 1960s (C. Muñoz, 1989; Rojas, 2006;
Williamson, 2003), but not all who engage in
civil disobedience incur the same level of risk.
For example, U.S. citizens who conduct civil
disobedience for undocumented students to re-
ceive in-state tuition may receive a financial
penalty or probation for their actions, but un-
documented students engaged in similar behav-
ior could be deported and separated from their
families (S. A. Muñoz, 2015). Even DREAMers
who disclose their undocumented status can
face deportation (S. A. Muñoz, 2015), which is
a more serious consequence than documented
allies face by being part of this larger move-
ment. Sensitivity to risk is critical in assessing
who should be involved in separate components
of the larger movement. If there is no risk is
involved, however, there is no activism and it
frequently becomes a manifestation of slacktiv-
ism (Gladwell, 2010; Morozov, 2009).
Premise 6: Student Activism Must Be
Guided by a Utopian Vision or a Vision of
What Social Progress Looks Like
Student activism for the sake of activism
becomes a form of public narcissism under the
guise of promoting social justice (Urrieta,
2009). To combat this, localized actions have to
be contextualized within visions of social prog-
ress and possibilities of a nonoppressive future.
Thus, activism relies on the creative imagina-
tion of activists; the imagination to envision a
future that does not currently exist and is fre-
quently not even discussed due the power of
hegemonic structuring (Lukes, 2005). As Freire
(2004) argued:
If, in reality, I am not in the world simply to adapt to
it, but rather to transform it, and it is not possible to
change the world without a certain dream or vision for
it, I must make use of every possibility there is not only
to speak about my utopia, but also to engage in prac-
tices consistent with it. (p. 7)
Freire did caution that this vision of futures
possible is irrelevant if it is not linked to col-
lective action as an exercise of collective power
(Lukes, 2005). However, in order to get to a
point of action, student activism relies on this
vision as a starting point for action.
Solórzano and Delgado Bernal (2001) made a
similar argument when they examined different
forms of student educational resistance. They
identified four, and not all are equally effective
at promoting equity based upon the intersection
of (a) critiques of oppression and (b) being
motivated by social justice. If, a student has no
critique of oppression and is not motivated by
social justice, Solórzano and Delgado Bernal
(2001) argued they are engaging in reactionary
behavior. If a student critiques social oppression
and is motivated by social justice, the authors
argue this represents transformative resistance
and can actually promote social change.
2
Within these formulations, the critique of op-
pression is important, but counterproductive if
not complimented by a vision of social justice.
They further argued that students who critique
oppression but have no way to channel it fre-
quently do self-harm (e.g., drop out of school).
The distinction is critically important, but
also highlights a limitation of this article. There
is some student activism that is at the service of
oppression instead of being a challenge to it.
For example, affirmative action bake sales
could be considered a form of activism, but they
exist at the service of systemic racism by both
denying the existence of minority student op-
pression but also framing White students as the
“true” victims of racism (Park, 2013). There-
fore, we are not dismissive of this type of stu-
dent activism, and instead we want to be ex-
plicit that this type of theorizing is beyond the
1
Freedom Summer refers to the approximately 700
largely White volunteers who, in 1964, volunteered to travel
through the South to register Black voters (McAdam, 1986).
2
They also explored self-defeating resistance and con-
formist resistance, but a description of these additional
forms is beyond the scope of this article. We explored
reactionary behavior as an example to juxtapose against
transformative resistance.
8 CABRERA, MATIAS, AND MONTOYA
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scope of the current article. Instead, we under-
stand social progress in the Freirian (2000)
sense where oppression is the antithesis of hu-
manity, and therefore, antioppressive collective
praxis allows all to become more fully human.
While a central component of Freirian peda-
gogy is a strong criticism of oppression, critique
without a vision of social progress can foster
nihilism (West, 2005). To combat nihilism hope
is necessary (Freire, 2004).
Premise 7: Hope Is Foundational for
Student Activism
Freire (2008) referred to hope as “an onto-
logical need” (p. 2), but too often hope is con-
fused with optimism. West (2005) offered an
important distinction:
This hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism
adopts the role of the spectator who surveys the evi-
dence in order to infer that things are going to get
better. Yet we know that the evidence does not look
good. . . . Hope enacts the stance of the participant who
actively struggles against the evidence in order to
change the deadly tides of wealth inequality, group
xenophobia, and personal despair.
Within this formulation, hope is a foundation
for creating the vision of social progress (Prem-
ise 6), and therefore, it is also a core component
of student activism. However, the relationship
between hope and slacktivism is not as clear
because it is not simply the polar opposite of
activism. For example, a person could be hope-
ful, take action, have no connection to a larger
collective (Premise 1), and might be engaging
in slacktivism. Thus, the presence of hope does
not necessarily mean the presence of activism,
but in the absence of hope there is no activism.
Specific to educational space, Duncan-
Andrade (2009) agreed that hope is founda-
tional to addressing inequality, but he did not
find all manifestations of hope equally effective.
He argued that hokey hope, mythical hope, and
hope deferred all represent “false hope” in that
they do nothing actually support the progressive
educational social change. For example, he de-
fined hokey hope as at the belief that hard work
allows minortized youth to overcome oppres-
sive circumstances (p. 182). He then described
mythical hope as believing that social progress
will naturally occur over time with no critique
of the social structures that perpetuate inequal-
ity. Finally, he defined hope deferred as those
who are aware of social oppression, but are
overwhelmed by the odds stacked against them
and they do not act (p. 184). Instead, Duncan-
Andrade (2009) argued that only critical hope
effectively addresses inequality.
Critical hope is a multifaceted approach to
educational practice in that it involves (a) ad-
dressing the material conditions of the urban
youth; (b) critical self-examination that engages
youth pain in a method of illuminating shared
experience and fostering a sense of shared
struggle; and (c) breaking down barriers be-
tween advantaged and disadvantaged communi-
ties as a means of fostering radical healing (p.
187). Freire (2004) offered a similar sentiment
by claiming, “After all, without hope there is
little we can do” (p. 9). Plainly, hope becomes
an essential element needed to undergird social
activism; however, both Freire and Duncan-
Andrade acknowledged that hope by itself is
insufficient. Rather, hope is a necessary attri-
bute that fuels the struggle whether manifest in
person or online. Essentially, hope is the onto-
logical need of student activism (Freire, 2008).
Premise 8: Even Though Student Activism
Seeks to Change the Political Landscape, It
Is Not the Same as Political Governance
(or Campaigning)
During the 2016 U.S. Presidential primary
campaigns, there was considerable misunder-
standing about why Black Lives Matters (BLM)
interrupted self-described socialist Bernie Sand-
ers’s speech. Many commentators viewed the
BLM interruptions as alienating potential allies,
and several expressed disdain for their tactics
(Carson, 2015; Forgue, 2015). These criticisms,
however, were predicated on confusing social
activism for political campaigning. Political
campaigns require candidates to secure the
highest percentage of votes to win office, and
they frequently become popularity contests. We
do acknowledge, however, that they are not
purely popularity contests as evidenced by the
45th president being elected despite losing the
popular vote by approximately 3 million votes
(Krieg, 2016).
By contrast, the function of activism is to
foster social change, frequently through creat-
ing social tension, and popularity is not the
primary concern. For example, in 1966 Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., had a 72% negative
9ACTIVISM OR SLACKTIVISM?
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rating according to a Gallup poll (Appleton,
1995). Contemporarily, there is almost univer-
sal approval of Dr. King’s life work, and Apple-
ton (1995) argued, “The overwhelming ap-
proval which Dr. King is remembered today
stands in ironic contrast to the way he was
perceived by White Americans while he was
alive” (p. 11). Some reasons for his unpopular-
ity included Dr. King’s scathing critique of
U.S.-based imperial violence in Vietnam and
his use of direct action as a form of agitation
(Branch, 2013).
Agitation is a key component to student ac-
tivism, but this term frequently has a negative
connotation. W. E. B. DuBois, however, offered
a different interpretation:
They say: “Do not agitate—do not make a noise;
work.” They add, “Agitation is destructive or at best
negative—what is wanted is positive constructive
work.” Such honest critics mistake the function of
agitation. A toothache is agitation. Is a toothache a
good thing? No. Is it therefore useless? No. It is su-
premely useful, for it tells the body of decay, dyspepsia
and death. Without it the body would suffer unknow-
ingly. It would think: All is well, when lo! danger
lurks. The same is true of the Social Body. Agitation is
a necessary evil to tell of the ills of the Suffering.
Without it many a nation has been lulled to false
security and preened itself with virtues it did not pos-
sess. (DuBois, 1971, p. 4)
Within this formulation, agitation functions as a
social conscience that awakens the masses to
the suffering they have ignored. This is not a
pleasant process because, as the cliché goes,
ignorance is bliss, and the predictable response,
to use another cliché, is to shoot the messenger.
Social media, however, offer new avenues for
collectives to foster this type of agitation via
cyberspace, and effective agitation provokes a
response and is therefore an exercise of power
(Lukes, 2005). One need only examine the im-
pacts of “Black Twitter” to understand this po-
tential (Clark, 2014). While there is the possi-
bility to create agitation via social media,
slacktivism is largely defined as being politi-
cally ineffective which also means it is defined
as being unable to cause the social disruption
activism seeks to create (Christensen, 2011).
Fundamentally, the agitation is both a necessary
and unpleasant component of student activism,
but this is also part of the reason activists are
frequently unpopular (Bashir, Lockwood, Chas-
teen, Nadolny, & Noyes, 2013).
Premise 9: Very Few People Actually
Engage in Student Activism
One of the biggest points of contention in the
activism/slacktivism debate surrounds a mis-
identification of activism within a larger, inten-
tional, collective effort. For example, people
who “like” a cause on Facebook, are frequently
accused of engaging in slacktivism (Gladwell,
2010; Morozov, 2009). While the lines between
activism and slacktivism are blurry where one
can frequently lead to the other (Y.-H. Lee &
Hsieh, 2013), specific instances can be identi-
fied as activism or slacktivism. Within this con-
text, we offer a slightly different interpretation
of the dynamics that Gladwell (2010) and Mo-
rozov (2009) critique.
We begin with the premise that only a small
proportion of those involved in movement-
based politics can be considered activists. For
example, organizers of the 1968 grape boycott
went to major cities to convince consumers to
stop purchasing table grapes from California
and support farmworker union organizing (Da-
vis, 2008). College students were also recruited
to push their campuses to participate in the
boycott (Weiland, Guzman, & O’Meara, 2013).
The activists convinced enough consumers to
boycott grapes that growers were compelled to
negotiate (Chavez, 1976; Davis, 2008). While it
took thousands of people to effectively make
this demand on the growers, not everybody who
participated should be considered an activist.
Those who only boycotted grapes were part of the
activist strategy, but they were not necessarily
engaging in activism. Their level of risk was min-
imal (Premise 5), they did not have to be hopeful
(Premise 7), and they did not have to be guided by
utopian visions (Premise 6) to participate.
This is analogous to the issue of slacktivism
and online organizing. The biggest critics of
slacktivism argue that people who like a Face-
book page or simply donate $1 are limiting their
activist potential (Gladwell, 2010; Morozov,
2009). The problem with this formulation is that
the critiques are being lodged against people
who should not be considered activists in the
first place. They are part of the activist strategy
of cultivating and exercising power (Premise 2),
but their actions should not be considered ac-
tivism. It is akin to criticizing those who
stopped buying grapes in 1968 because they did
not fully realize their potential for promoting
10 CABRERA, MATIAS, AND MONTOYA
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social change. They were largely uninterested in
being labor activists, but they were willing to
support activist strategies. This dynamic only
becomes problematic when people click a page,
boycott a product, or make a nominal donation,
and convince themselves that they are activists.
In the absence of this dynamic, critiques of
slacktivism rest on confusing those who are
engaging in activism with those participating in
strategies of activism. Social responsibility is
not the same as social activism, and many slack-
tivism critics confounded the two.
Premise 10: Social Media Are More
(Although not Entirely) Democratic Spaces
for Organic Intellectuals
Despite the changing terrain of contemporary
activism and the incorporation of social media,
organic intellectualism continues to play an im-
portant role in agitating for social progress
(Cammarota & Romero, 2014). Gramsci (1971)
argued that intellectuals are central in both the
maintenance and disruption of inequality. He
famously pronounced, “All men are intellectu-
als, one could therefore say: but not all men
have in society the function of intellectuals” (p.
115). Gramsci further argued the solution to
transforming the hegemony of the bourgeoisie
was creating the hegemony of the proletariat.
To create the alternative hegemony, Gramsci’s
theorized that social progress required a new
form of intellectual. He critiqued the traditional
intellectual who, with a disinterested eye, en-
gaged in scholarly activities without concern for
their relevance. Instead, Gramsci (1971) argued,
The mode of being of the new intellectual can no
longer consist of eloquence, which is an exterior and
momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in
active participation in practical life, as constructor,
organizer, ‘permanent persuader’ and not just simple
orator. (p. 116)
To be the permanent persuader, however, the
organic intellectual needs a platform. While
social media are not entirely democratized
spaces as some proponents argue (Dahlberg &
Siapera, 2007), there are more opportunities
on the Internet than from mainstream media
outlets (Biddix, 2010).
According to Herman and Chomsky (1988),
the conservative/liberal media bias debate is
irrelevant. Instead, the corporate-controlled me-
dia, “are effective and powerful ideological in-
stitutions that carry out a system-supportive
propaganda function by reliance on market
forces, internalized assumptions, and self-
censorship, and without overt coercion” (p.
306). Due to the internal logic of capitalist
production, the mass media reflected the biases
of its corporate sponsors, which returns to the
concept of hegemony (Gramsci, 1971; Lukes,
2005). If the masses have their options limited
but they are concurrently unaware that these
limitations are being imposed upon them, they
pacify themselves. Therefore, there is no need
to rely on coercion because this corporate bias
excludes the voices of social equity from mass
media outlets. Thus, social media have helped
to partially circumvent this dynamic, allowing
more opportunities for the voices of budding
student organic intellectuals to reach the masses
(Kahn & Kellner, 2004).
Conclusion
The recent rise in contemporary student
activism (Pasque & Vargas, 2014) in a digital
age has opened new possibilities for promot-
ing social justice on campus and beyond (Bid-
dix, 2010). Campus activism is ripe with po-
tential for creating democratic space and
engagement (Biddix, 2010; Pasque & Vargas,
2014), is an untapped arena for student devel-
opment (Kezar, 2010), while sometimes of-
fering the possibility of activists and institu-
tional actors working together to promote
progressive social change (Rhoads, Saénz, &
Carducci, 2005; Weiland, Guzman, &
O’Meara, 2013). This is particularly impor-
tant for diversity efforts as student activism
has played, and continues to play, a central
role in agitating to this end (Broadhurst,
2014; Gonzales, 2008; P. Lee, 2011; Rhoads,
1998a; Rhoads, 1998b; Rhoads, Saenz, &
Carducci, 2005; Rojas, 2006; Rogers, 2012;
Slaughter, 1997; Williamson, 2003). Digital
engagement is increasingly becoming part of
the campus activist toolbox (Biddix, 2010;
Tatarchevskiy, 2011); however, not all forms
of online participation are equally effective at
unlocking the potential of student activism
and some nuance is needed in these discus-
sions.
The pronouncements that social media are
simply arenas for people to delude themselves
into thinking they are being part of progres-
11ACTIVISM OR SLACKTIVISM?
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sive social change (e.g., Gladwell, 2010; Mo-
rozov, 2009) are largely overblown. These
authors specifically critique the utopian prom-
ises of the Internet that have not materialized,
but they also tend to conflate social movement
participation with social activism. Therefore,
it is presumptuous to assume that social me-
dia are inherently ineffective platforms for
challenging and transforming oppressive so-
cial conditions. Instead, they are tools that
have the potential to bring together a collec-
tive that can be used to apply pressure when
necessary (Kahn & Kellner, 2004; Karpf,
2010, 2012). The difficulty of contemporary
student activism, however, is that it almost
requires an online presence, but an online
presence without a connection to actual grass-
roots organizing slips into slacktivism (Chris-
tensen, 2011). This is a blurry line because
slacktivism can sometimes lead to subsequent
activism (Jones, 2015; Y.-H. Lee & Hsieh,
2013; Šteˇka & Mazák, 2014).
With this context in mind, we did not offer
the list of activism/slacktivism premises as 10
essential components, but rather a guideline
to support student activists self-reflect given
frequent uncertainty. We argue that this is
critically important because too often student
activism focuses on highlighting social
wrongs and too little on critical self-
examination (Urrieta, 2009). This was one
core component of Freire’s (2000) conscien-
tização, and one that is also difficult to apply.
Additionally, these premises can help guide
faculty, staff, and administrators, as they engage
with contemporary student activists. Kezar
(2010) argued that it is substantially more ef-
fective for university employees to work with
student activists instead of against them from
both institutional progress and developmental
standpoints. In particular, it is critically impor-
tant for campus administrators, faculty, and
staff, to understand student activism in its own
terms. For example, campus administrators fre-
quently misunderstand the point of student ac-
tivism and confuse it for governance (see Prem-
ise 8). This is, in part, because they are
responsible for running institutions of higher
education. Therefore, they frequently offer the
benevolently patronizing advice, “Aren’t you
alienating your allies?” forgetting that student
activism is about creating tension and not pop-
ularity.
In addition, understanding the complexities
and commitments required to engage in student
activism challenges university employees to re-
spect the commitment of activists even if they
disagree with the activists’ stated goals. That is,
activism requires a coordinated collective
(Premise 1), hope despite massive structural
barriers (Premise 7), strategic leveraging of
power despite students having little (Premise 2),
while students putting themselves at risk (Prem-
ise 5). This is why Weiland, Guzman, and
O’Meara (2013) argued,
Through protest, students not only learn about such
issues but also discern ways to exert their will on
outcomes. They move from simply knowing about
injustice to doing something about it. Educators have a
role in helping students through this progression. (p. 8)
That is, many universities shy away from stu-
dent activists because campus unrest can be
unsettling. Rather, Weiland et al. (2013) chal-
lenged this tendency and argued that it is actu-
ally a privilege to work with student activists. A
brief word of caution is warranted here. It
would be inappropriate for a faculty member
when dialoguing with campus activists to offer
one of the premises to argue, “See, you’re not
even engaging in activism.” Rather, these are
meant as points of engagement, dialogue, and
self-reflection.
Ultimately, we have to grapple with the ten-
sion that true social progress will not occur on
social media alone. As Gil Scott-Heron (1970)
continued:
The revolution will not be televised, will not be tele-
vised
Will not be televised, will not be televised
The revolution will be no rerun brothers
The revolution will be live
There is no substitute for in-person social ac-
tivism to create the “tensions” described by Dr.
King (1964); however, this does not preclude
online space from being able to generate new
tensions (Karpf, 2010, 2012). If social justice is
the overall goal, then online activity can and
needs to be one component of this strategy. Yes,
Scott-Heron was correct that the revolution will
be live, but online engagement can be con-
ducted in real time. Struggling with the tension
between in-person and online engagement de-
fines this generation of student activists, as both
12 CABRERA, MATIAS, AND MONTOYA
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are integral components of realizing the possi-
bility of more inclusive colleges and universi-
ties (Barnhardt, 2014; Biddix, 2010).
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Received September 30, 2015
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Accepted February 23, 2017 !
16 CABRERA, MATIAS, AND MONTOYA
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