"We Have No Choice But to Step Up": Youth Activists Come Together to Build a Movement for Student Power
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.
This would prove to be a theme throughout the weekend—seasoned organizers pushing students to move beyond what Russell called “self-expressive actions” and what labor organizer Stephen Lerner called “feel-good civil disobedience” into real movements with real power. Keron Blair of the Midwest Academy noted that you don't win simply by being right—you win by getting enough people being right with you so that you can build real power.
Getting a fractured progressive movement to agree on anything can be nearly impossible—it's hardly just college students who wind up siloed and isolated, burned out and despairing. The convergence alternated between workshop blocks where smaller groups chose between multiple options to learn press basics or to analyze power on campus, to discuss student debt (full disclosure: I was a panelist for the student debt discussion) and student unionism, and large group trainings and assemblies where climate activists and radical anti-capitalists, feminists and LGBTQ organizers came together to learn and support one another.
The students had to struggle to overcome differences between them—not just political differences, but differences of race and class and gender and identity. They came together immediately to set rules and boundaries for the communal sleeping spaces , but tensions erupted in some of the sessions anyway. But unlike meetings and gatherings in one's home space, the students here had to work through those differences to continue to share space and work together—and they did so by sharing their personal stories.
Stephanie Rivera, a Rutgers student and participant, wrote of her experience:
On our last night, we did a workshop that really dipped into our personal lives. And like one of the students there said in regards to workshop, “So many people who come into activism carry so much pain.” This statement could not be any more true. The stories shared were enough to bring almost all of us to tears. We all know pain, and I think that is why we strive to make this world better. I strongly believe that what has almost killed us all is a fire that burns to keep us doing what we do. I often thought to myself at the convergence, “If there was any group of people I would want to start a student revolution with, it would be with these very people in this very room.”
Too often, issues of gender, sexuality, race and identity are kept separate from the main group, placed in side discussions that don't reach those who really need to learn. While the students did organize a queer caucus and a people of color caucus, they also brought these issues to the large group discussion and worked through them together, building a stronger base for their movement.
2011 saw revolutions around the world, led by students working side by side with workers and the unemployed, but in 2012 the movements that captured the world's imagination were started and led explicitly by students. In Quebec, student unions struck against tuition hikes and won over the support of the province when the government cracked down with Law 78, banning protests without prior permission and locking the students out of their universities. In Mexico, students stood up against a corrupt election and are challenging their country to live up to its promises of democracy. And in Puerto Rico, technically part of the US but mostly ignored by its media, students rose up and struck against tuition hikes and privatization and are being threatened with prison sentences.
Representatives of each of those movements joined the US students in Ohio to share their stories, inspire and debate strategy, and build international solidarity.
“It's important, it's an international fight for education; with the globalized world we require international cooperation with movements, not only the US but also Latin America, Spain, African countries,” Arturo Cuevas-Bautista of Mexico's Yo Soy 132 told AlterNet.
Emilie Joly from CLASSE, the largest coalition of student unions in Quebec, told the students that she wanted to make them “professional complainers.” Organizing about small things, she pointed out, proves that tactics work and allows for small wins that build momentum—the Quebec student strike was built over years and has spread to the general population, inspiring a movement against neoliberalism and privatization all over the province. In Mexico, what started as a student-led protest against rigged elections and media corruption has galvanized the population and brought hundreds of thousands into the streets.
“If you're fighting for the same thing you can all work together,” Valeria Hamel of Yo Soy 132 said. “Letting everyone in society organize, you don't have to be radical to organize and to protest.”
Of course, you don't gather hundreds of student radicals in one place without planning some direct action. A group of participants in the conference, many of whom had never met beforehand, came together to plan an action at Obama's campaign headquarters in Columbus, to call the campaign's attention to the issues that matter to young people today.
In 48 hours (and very little sleep) they pulled together a march, rally signs, and speeches for representatives to give outside of the office on different issues: student debt, prison and immigration, state violence, LGBTQ issues, and the climate.
No representative from the Obama campaign came out to speak with the students, but they were able to take over the streets for their march to the offices, and a few police officers threatened arrest but mostly let them say their piece. The ubiquitous “Here, us, now,” turned into a chant for the street, became “Hear us now!” a demand to those in power.
“I think we all learned a lot in the process, because none of us really knew each other beforehand, we were just learning together,” said Aislinn Bauer, a former student from Hampshire College who was part of the action. She pointed out that students are not apathetic, that they're organizing to reclaim their future from the wealthy, from corporations, from politicians who can't be bothered to come to them. Students who, four years ago, might have been part of the Obama campaign are now organizing outside his headquarters to hold him accountable.
Demand the Future
The last afternoon of the convergence was dedicated to future planning—for another convergence, for mechanisms for staying in touch, for coordinated days of action around the country and the world. Students broke into working groups to plan, collect contact information, and then came together to share steps, as around the edges students on their way out the door hugged, said goodbyes, exchanged contact information. The #hereusnow hashtag on Twitter filled up with reflections and thank-yous.
Angus Johnston, a CUNY professor who runs the site studentactivism.net, posted his thoughts, including, “Trust is a risk worth taking” and “Sharing stories is life-altering.”
On the bus back to New York, the NYSR crew held their own debrief session, sharing their highlights and criticisms, planning next steps for their own state and region, and continuing, as they had all weekend, to dig deeper into the ways that issues intersect, into the little oppressions that make working together difficult, and coming up with solutions to take the next step.
Traffic jams and a bus driver switch made the bus ride take a full 13 hours, most of which was overnight, but there was little complaining. Four nights of little sleep on church floors might have taken their toll on everyone's mood, but these students were willing to deal with much more in order to push their movement forward.
Pundits often ask why American students are so apathetic, why they're not involved, why they're not striking and revolting the way students in other countries have been. There are many answers to that question, but the students at the National Student Power Convergence were anything but apathetic. They were fiercely engaged, willing to debate points of theory or organizing strategy for hours on no sleep, willing to speak up in front of hundreds of their peers to tell deeply personal stories, to ask for respect for their feelings and lives, willing to risk arrest to call the President to account, and most of all, willing to work overtime to create a space for all of that to happen, and where everyone was fed, supported, and respected.
Occupy Wall Street might be quiet for now and the country's attention focused on the upcoming elections, but the student movement didn't take the summer off, and will be heading back to school with new tools and tactics to resist corporatization of their schools, to fight for greater access, to help reclaim the future for all of us.