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Here, Us, Now: Students Come Together This Week to Build a Powerful Nationwide Movement

In the face of massive student debt and an uncertain future, students are coming together to build the future on their own terms.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Catherine Jones via Shutterstock.com

 

In 1961, busloads of students, sick and tired of Jim Crow segregation, boarded buses to the South to demand an end to segregation. These students exposed themselves to the constant threat of death, via beatings at the hands of vigilantes and white supremacist groups, and in jail, where the police were the perpetrators of the violence against them. Then, in spite of their sacrifice, their actions were condemned as "unpatriotic" by President John F. Kennedy because of the embarrassment they caused the country in the era of the Cold War.

Nevertheless, the students persevered, understanding that the violence they were confronted with was a reflection of the state, not the justness of their mission. They continued their “Freedom Rides” despite these threats of violence, and the result was the eventual enforcement of Sarah Keyes v. the Carolina Coach Company, the landmark 1955 civil rights case that banned the segregation of buses.

Fast forward to June 2012. Two students occupied President Obama’s campaign officein Denver, Colorado while engaging in a hunger strike, effectively shutting down the operation. The students were undocumented and calling for an end to the deportation of young people whose parents brought them into this nation when they were children. Both of these students put themselves on the line, exposing themselves to enormous risk. And herein lie the roots of Obama’s executive order halting the deportations of young people: in the sacrifices of young activists.

Too often our generation is considered apolitical, a generation that won’t bother to fight for our future as it is being legislated away. This August, however, students nationwide will gather in Columbus, Ohio to disprove that assumption. The National Student Power Convergence will bring us together for four days, where we will reflect on the struggles of our movement -- including the marginalization of queers, people of color and women -- and construct a plan for action.

From student debt to racial justice, environmentalism to student democracy, students and youth have been organizing for as long as there have been students and youth. Though we don’t intend to reinvent the wheel, we do want to come together to connect our differences into a common struggle, learning from each other in the process and building for the future.

In May of this year, we wrote in AlterNet about the need for universities in the US to develop student unions that have legitimate student power on their campuses, and thus a better chance at combating some of the common issues facing universities here and abroad. This summer we are working to build what we previously described. One of our mottos -- “Here. Us. Now.” -- is not only a call for students everywhere to escalate our efforts as organizers in this moment when movements are expanding worldwide, but also a call for us as students to assert our own power in the institutions that are bleeding us dry.

Here

The issues facing young people in the United States are escalating, sometimes, it seems, on a daily basis. The federal DREAM Act immigration legislation has been hanging in the balance for more than 10 years. A figurewas recently released by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement indicating that a person of color has been killed by the police approximately every 40 hours since January 2012. Youth unemployment, an issue not given due importance in the mainstream conversation, has only gotten higher. This, and so much more, is the rather desperate context in which we locate our work.

Us

The National Student Power Convergence is a joint effort by students doing grassroots organizing and those connected to larger institutional organizations such as Rebuild the Dream. Radicals and progressives are joining hands because we realize that our liberation in the student struggle is intricately connected. The Convergence intends to be a space of shared resources, building connections among campus communities through grassroots organizing, as well as utilizing social capital generated through many progressive organizations. Through the Convergence we hope to augment individual organizing efforts; allow students and youth to draw larger, deeper connections to the work they are doing on their campuses; and contextualize their work in the narrative of the broader movement.

For example, Julieta Salgado, a student organizer from Brooklyn College, aims to use the Convergence as a way for students all over to come together and ultimately put a stop to the increasingly corporatized university system and create the alternatives we want to see. “We can resist the things that harm us, that misrepresent us, but that is limited. The next step is creating the settings we desire: the curriculum we want, the culture we want,” says Salgado.

Now

We believe now is the time for students and youth to converge because our generation is on the verge of a “movement moment” -- a time in our history where society as a whole begins to stand up to the power structure, resist and win. The gains in the undocumented youth movement and Occupy Wall Street’s ability to revitalize tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience -- which eventually spread to over 1,000 cities -- are both evidence of that sentiment. A year ago, the political conversation was all about our nation’s debt ceiling; today, a conversation about economic inequality has begun. That is an effect, we believe, of the very “movement moment” we are describing. We know that if we can effectively harness this energy, we can organize ourselves in a way that shifts larger, national conversations to include the concerns of students and young people.

Remarkably for an undertaking of this kind, the Convergence has been coming together rather fluidly, with many of the 80 young people involved in the planning organizing with people they have never met. For some, the Convergence planning process has created a sense of community that supersedes physical space. Through colorful Google spreadsheets and back-to-back conference calls, we are working remotely to secure housing, donations, food and transportation for the 300-plus students we expect to attend.

With student-led movements erupting on both sides of our national borders, we also seek collaboration from those movements at the Convergence. Organizers have made it a priority to include international student movers and shakers in the programming of the daily events. Members of CLASSE, one of the prominent student unions in Quebec, will be joining hundreds of U.S. students at the event. Emilie Joly, an elected legal committee representative of CLASSE and full-time law student at Université du Québec à Montréal will be one of our keynote speakers; she works to organize students and citizens involved in legal battles related to the 2012 strike. In Joly’s own words:

Throughout the student strike in Quebec, we've been inspired by student struggles and social movements in Chile, Brazil, Spain, and Egypt. We are both surprised and excited to note that our movement has inspired others and we see sharing our experience as an important part of building stronger movements. We also believe that we need to build more cross-border solidarity...In the face of neoliberalism and capitalist destruction, solidarity is our weapon. And we need to fight back.

Joly will be joined by two other CLASSE representatives who will lead a workshop on the Quebec unlimited general strike.

It is also our hope that the Convergence will allow for the possibilities of learning from historical movements alongside the struggles of our own time. In order for participants to develop a clear set of goals and a strong community in August, we feel it is important that the Convergence environment, as well as the organizing leading up to the event, does not reproduce the very systems of oppression we are trying to undo. What makes this moment different from resistance times of the past is that we are ever more aware of racism, sexism and classism, but we must continue to combat the internalized ways we subtly reproduce these ills. Some of this ethos was expressed in a Colorlines report on racism:

There’s little question that most Millennials struggle to articulate their views on how race and racism operate in their lives. But our focus groups’ deeper discussions revealed that a structural understanding of racism—of racism as something that grows out of political and economic systems rather than individual animus—is not completely lost on this generation. And that, of course, has serious implications for how they will go about eradicating it from our society.

Students and youth are looking into a catastrophically dismal future, from the destruction of the environment to rising unemployment to the student loan debt bubble; yet not all of youth experience hardship in the same way. We must acknowledge the different layers of privilege in the room if we are ever going to be able to tackle the issues in a way that is inclusive and non-oppressive. We are all in the same sinking boat, but some of us are always given access to the lifeboats last.

By the end of the four days we hope to facilitate massive communication across the movement via the scaffolding of a national structure. This, in hopes that after the national convergence, regional and statewide relationships will be built and regional convergences organized, as the different struggles that comprise our budding movement, from the DREAMers to the Dream Defenders to climate justice groups, gather in the same room for the first time in our generation’s history.

The National Student Power Convergence registration ends on August 5: Studentpower2012.org. For more info about the Convergence, please contact: info@studentpower.org,

Biola Jeje is an undergraduate student at Brooklyn College studying political science. Last year she helped form New York Students Rising, a statewide network of student groups organizing in defense of public higher education.

Isabelle Nastasia is an undergraduate student in the CUNY Baccalaureate Program studying critical pedagogy and intersectionality. She is a co-founder of New York to New Orleans Coalition, a youth-led service-learning organization. Her writings on youth empowerment, anti-racism and student organizing have been published in the Indypendent and the Journal of Urban Affairs.