Editor’s Note: The power of youth to challenge the status quo has been demonstrated repeatedly for the past couple of years. From the Arab Spring to the Spanish indignados, to student strikes in Chile and Quebec to the rise of Occupy Wall Street, youth have demanded a break with a corrupt status quo that leaves them facing a bleak, uncertain future. But now what?
Here in the U.S. student activists will gather in Columbus, Ohio from Aug. 11 to 14 for the National Student Power Convergence to discuss how to build a broader movement for justice and equality. In this blogpost, Isabelle Nastasia, an organizer with New York Students Rising and a summer intern with The Indypendent, explains why she is going to the Convergence.
In 2006, I was one of thousands of volunteers who traveled from across the United States to “help” rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
I was fourteen and went down south from New York City with a group of students and teachers from my high school. We worked with an organization called the People’s Organizing Committee (POC). Similar to the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (no doubt because of the influence of founder Curtis Muhammad who organized with SNCC in the 1960s), POC taught volunteers about the principles of consensus, bottom-up organizing and specifically, black leadership. As a white girl, that meant stepping back while my classmates of color took a more integral leadership role in the organizing with local residents. These were my first experiences with racial justice organizing, they were the most formative for me, probably because it was the first time that I saw people of my generation as agents of change, really fighting against injustice on the ground.
“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound together with mine then let us work together.” -Lila Watson
Upon my return to New York City, after being told by organizers of POC (not unlike what Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers told the Students for Democratic Society after the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project) to go back to my community and organize against racism in my own city–my friends and I started to do just that. We started by organizing using the resource book “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”, doing guerrilla theater in the hallways of my school with follow-up debrief sessions to balance theatrics with political education. Our school administrators stifled us, saying that we were personally attacking them and our fellow students for social conditions we could not change. We didn’t buy it.
Later that year, my sophomore year in high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba with a youth delegation to break the travel ban through civil disobedience and learn about the effects of the US embargo against Cuba first-hand. Speaking to the people of Cuba about their education system and universal health care, I began to see that there were alternatives to the U.S. way of doing things. These were my first experiences seeing the effects of United States imperialism, and while I didn’t agree with everything I saw in Cuba, I realized that the struggle was much bigger than me.
The end of my junior year in high school, I fell in love with a girl. We kept our relationship a secret for around six months before telling our friends. It was impossible not to notice the kind of privileges heterosexual couples had: walking through the hallways holding hands, not having to worry about violence– having your sexuality be totally assumed and normalized. Coming out, I didn’t have the language to describe why I was angry about these things until I found feminism. Not book feminism. Or what I had learned from school about “women’s rights”– feminism to me was a community that actively worked to shape their own realities against the odds of oppression. It acted as the support system. And it saved my life.
“We are all direct beneficiaries of the willingness of someone else to struggle so that we all might have certain basic rights and exercise them.” -Reverend Lucius Walker
Entering college at CUNY, I looked for queer people and students who were passionate about racial justice, because these were the communities that I had identified with in high school. Brooklyn College at the City University of New York is an incredible campus with dedicated faculty and students, however, it didn’t take long to realize that my school was under-resourced in providing thousands of working class and students of color of New York City with meaningful degrees. I found my community with the Brooklyn College Student Union, a student organizing group that struggled for years to get off the ground. We held workshops and student walk-outs every year until October 2011, when Occupy Wall Street turned the eyes of the U.S. to economic inequality for the first time in decades. Our organizing group is made of almost entirely women and queer people. We have a lot to share with our fellow student organizers across the country.
I want to be in a room full of the best and the brightest youth organizers of the U.S. and hear their stories. Student Power, to me, means building legitimate power for youth and students in the United States to combat injustice where ever we see it. But we have to be in the same room and get to know one another first. I can’t wait.
Here. Us. Now.
This article was originally published by StudentPower2012.