"We Have No Choice But to Step Up": Youth Activists Come Together to Build a Movement for Student Power
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I'm on a bus with about 50 student organizers as it pulls out of Union Square in New York and heads for the highway, for Columbus, Ohio and the National Student Power Convergence. I have a tiny zine of “pocket chants for your daily taking-of-the-street needs” in my hand, and someone's stuck a red square—the symbol of the Quebec student movement, adopted by US students for their own organizing—on the window above my head.
My fellow passengers, one by one, introduce themselves to the crowd by name, preferred gender pronoun, where they go to school, and four words to explain why they're on the bus. The answers range from “To build student power” through “Direct action gets goods” to “State smashing queer glitter.”
Some of these students know each other and are veterans of several campus battles together, fighting tuition hikes and policing on campus, calling for better access to education and questioning the corporatization of public schools. Others are meeting for the first time. The bus was organized and chartered by New York Students Rising, a coalition of student groups and unions from City University of New York and State University of New York schools.
They're undergrads and graduate students, even high school students, a couple of professional organizers and trainers who'll be speaking at the convergence. I'm the only journalist, and might be the oldest person on the bus aside from the driver.
The convergence we're heading for was pulled together by these students, as well as organizers from Ohio State University (where the majority of the panels, trainings, discussion groups, and arguments will take place) and a few professional organizers. The tagline on the website is “demand the future” and the hashtag used throughout the weekend (and punned on frequently) is #HereUsNow.
These are student organizers who work on climate justice and fight fracking in their backyards; they work on campus to build student unions and they come together to fight statewide tuition hikes. They lead divestment campaigns in solidarity with communities facing foreclosure and struggle to hold their universities accountable to campus workers and to workers overseas who make branded apparel in sweatshops. Some of them were activated by Occupy, others have been activists for years.
They're about to spend five days together, sleeping, for the most part, on one of two church floors, eating food cooked by volunteers in shifts (vegan and gluten-free options available), sharing deeply personal stories, as well as tactics and strategies for winning long-term battles against people who have much more money, power, and who are taken much more seriously in the media. They will drink and dance and stay up til all hours planning direct actions.
And they will inspire us older folks to put aside our learned cynicism and have some hope for the future—hope for real change that's brought about through years of hard work.
Building Student Power
“The country we grew up in is not the country we want to grow old in,” reads the letter at the beginning of the conference's info packet. “Our generation is the most diverse, tech savvy, socially minded generation in our nation's history, and we refuse to allow our future to be sold to the highest bidder. We have no choice but to step up and provide moral leadership for the entire country.”
The convergence started with a greeting from author Naomi Klein and a keynote talk from Joshua Kahn Russell of 350.org and the Ruckus Society, challenging students to move beyond organizing with the “righteous few” and work to include more and more people.