Sanjay Seth, a dual-degree student at Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, describes his top four tips for effective student organizing, based on his experience organizing the One Harvard Climate Initiative to build professional skills and relationships across Harvard's schools on the topic of climate change. The organizing effort was partially supported with seed funding from the Student Sustainability Grant Program.

As graduate students, we share responsibility for getting climate change education right. There’s no blueprint for teaching a topic like climate change. It’s complicated – and so is Harvard.

So, this spring, building on coursework for Marshall Ganz’s Organizing course at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, I organized a team of students from across five graduate schools at Harvard to launch the One Harvard Climate Initiative.

As a student organization, our goal is to build professional skills and relationships across schools and organize students to improve the climate change curriculum and cross-school student experience at Harvard.

This organizing effort led to the creation of a new program, the Climate Leaders Program for Professional Students at Harvard, which will provide a platform for students from across Harvard to engage with others who share their interest in climate-related work. So far, our efforts have been well-received and continue into the coming academic year.

In order to encourage others to organize around their own areas of interest at Harvard and other colleges and universities, this case study will share four tips for success in student organizing.'

1. Develop a strong team

Be ready for a lot of meetings. After more than 20 one-on-one meetings with students, administrators, and faculty, I helped organize a leadership team of 8 people from 5 Harvard graduate schools, with a lead for each school that organized their own team of students.

I believe our organizing project was successful, in part, because we took time at the beginning to get the right people in the room – and because I didn’t assume my efforts alone could carry our team.

However, once you get the right people in the room, you have to keep working to get the process of teaming right.

Before we jumped straight into our task list, we each talked about what made us care about this work we were about to start out on. We set aside time to discuss our shared purpose together and what strategies and tactics would be most effective. We mapped out our strategy on a timeline.

It turns out that if you want people to participate actively on your team, offering one’s effort and opinion has to be able to meaningfully impact the group’s direction.

Moreover, at each weekly meeting, we strived toward clean decision making, pre-determined meeting agendas, regular report-outs on progress across campus, pluses and deltas to keep learning as we work, and clear next steps and work assignments. We worked to try to ensure that each team member’s ideas were considered transparently within a facilitated discussion that kept the momentum moving forward.

Meeting culture is pretty important. It turns out that if you want people to participate actively on your team, offering one’s effort and opinion has to be able to meaningfully impact the group’s direction. You can’t be too precious about your own vision, if you want to create a team with a shared vision.

The most important takeaway for building a strong student team, especially when you are organizing across schools, is to start with building relationships between the members of your team, before you try to start crossing things off your to-do list. 

2. Make yourselves visible

As a student organization, the time and presence of students is your strongest resource. Once we had our team together and our strategy forming, we conducted a survey of more than 100 students from 8 schools, to listen to what other students had to say. We held a workshop with around 50 students from 9 schools, to think through approaches to tackle issues identified in the survey. And we pulled together a newsletter that goes out to around 150 email addresses across 9 schools, to keep folks in the loop about progress.

Demonstrate to a wide range of stakeholders that you have a resourceful and effectual organization that is worth joining and supporting.

These efforts allowed us to listen broadly and adjust our strategy, while allowing us to show that we actually have students feeling passionate and organized around an issue. In our meetings with stakeholders, we always brought data from our surveys, quotes from our students, pictures from our events, and several team members to the table.

The most important takeaway for having your voice heard is to demonstrate to a wide range of stakeholders that you have a resourceful and effectual organization that is worth joining and supporting. Be visible.

3. Seek out allies and ask for what you need

Find your allies. As part of our outreach efforts, we received support from the Harvard University Office for Sustainability, the Harvard University Center for the Environment, the Harvard Business School’s Business & Environment Initiative, and many others.  Moreover, by participating in the Council of Student Sustainability Leaders and the Climate Solutions Living Lab, our team had already-existing networks to build upon across the University.

People want to help good ideas find a home...

Once we formed a clear and concrete idea of what would have the highest impact for our students, based on feedback from surveys and workshops, we wrote a proposal and asked for a meeting with Harvard’s Vice Provost for Research. At the meeting, we showed that we believed in our organizing efforts and asked for what we thought would make a difference.

The most important takeaway for making an ask is that, if you have a well-designed listening process for your constituency, you should stand behind the conclusions of that process and ask for what you think is needed. Generally, people want to help good ideas find a home. Don’t start by worrying about being turned down. First, try to give people a chance to say, “yes!”

4. Celebrate your wins

Our proposal was accepted and even expanded upon by our new partners. As a result, this term, we have kicked off a pilot program, the Climate Leaders Program for Professional Students at Harvard in partnership with the Harvard University Center for the Environment.

The program creates an application-based, year-long cohort program with a retreat, workshops, and dinners for up to 40 students from at least 5 Harvard graduate schools with a professional interest in climate-related work.

If you are lucky enough to get a meaningful win for your student organizing campaign, make sure to recognize the progress you made together...

After our proposal was accepted, we held a ‘thank you’ party with around 50 students from 8 schools to celebrate the end of our first campaign and the transition to summer. At our celebration, we took a moment to thank everyone who participated, with special recognition given to members of the organizing team.

The most important takeaway about making progress is that it’s not enough to get a win. If you are lucky enough to get a meaningful win for your student organizing campaign, make sure to recognize the progress you made together, appreciate the time it took to make it happen, and end things well.