What Comes First — Student Issues or Student Power?

Kathryn Seidewitz Feb 14, 2013

After environmental activists spent the summer blockading the planned Keystone XL pipeline, students across the United States began urging their schools to divest from fossil-fuel companies. Others, meanwhile, have focused on organizing campus workers, agitating for campaign-finance reform or boycotting goods that support the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Still others, however, have decided to take another approach: to start by building power for themselves, within their institutions.

As U.S. student activism remains strikingly dormant and fragmented, campus organizers are grappling to find the means to mobilize their peers into movements large enough to effect change. As they do, they find themselves facing the chicken-or-egg question of whether they should begin with the issues they care about or with their fundamental lack of access to the decision-making structures that govern them. Traditionally, student organizations have focused for the most part on issues — like those working on divestment campaigns today. But more and more student activism of the last year and half, especially in the wake of the Occupy movement, has been decidedly oriented around students’ voice — or lack thereof — in their administration and in their education.

“If young people are empowered to really be changing conversations and impacting the ways in which we are building our society now and making decisions about the future, those decisions will be better,” Roshan Bliss, a student organizer at the University of Denver, explained.

The first step in this process has come in the form of convergences oriented around creating structures and bringing activists together. This was the purpose of the National Student Power Convergence in Columbus, Ohio, last August. There, students from throughout the United States met and strategized along with members of the student movements in Chile, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Québec. Students took the contacts and ideas made there and brought them back to their campuses where they could be implemented. Bliss was among those who attended the meeting, and he returned home determined to plan his own. The resulting Rocky Mountain Student Power Convergence took place from January 3 to 6.

The Rocky Mountain event — like its national counterpart — was meant to bring together existing student leaders in Colorado for the sake of creating lasting structures and alliances across the state. Students at every level attended, from high schoolers to graduate students, as well as concerned non-students. As a result, Colorado students have begun to plan a Colorado Student Power Alliance to coordinate their future activities.

While the Colorado Student Power Alliance is still in its early stages, students in New York have a relatively more established structure that can be looked to as an example of what they are trying to achieve. New York Students Rising is a statewide organization that began in the spring of 2011 as a coalition of student groups rallying against massive cuts to the state’s public university system. Just as it was getting started, Occupy Wall Street began in the Financial District of Manhattan. The two initiatives played off of each other, and, thanks in part to the help of Occupy Wall Street’s press team, New York Students Rising gained wider support. With an eye toward statewide issues, it helps organizers on various campuses mount local campaigns. The campaigns this semester, for instance, focus on student-oriented concerns like opposing the increase in public-transportation costs in New York City and supporting a bill that would require the state’s research universities to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. There are also plans to launch a speaking tour among several campuses across the state to raise awareness about the organization itself.

New York Students Rising operates with four paid positions: a State University of New York/Upstate regional organizer, two City University of New York organizers and a director of development, as well as 20 to 30 core organizers who volunteer their time. Together, they make decisions at regular retreats before each semester. Core organizers then return to their campuses with statewide initiatives in hand and promote them among fellow students. The details of recruitment and execution are up to the individual chapters. Through such structures, New York Students Rising strives to create a framework of accountability that allows for horizontal, inclusive decision-making.

“When we organize, [many of us] are very aware that we don’t want to rereate harmful hierarchies,” Eirik Bjorkman, the State University of New York/Upstate regional organizer for New York Students Rising, said. He urges student organizers in other regions to find a structure that fits their needs like New York Students Rising has, blending centralization and open participation. “There are structures that are in place that work for community organizing,” he explained.

Through organizations like these, students are no longer fighting on behalf of others but principally for themselves. Organizers presuppose that students are not merely dependents of their parents or of society but intellectual workers with rights and agency. They hope that large numbers of students will most likely mobilize around the issues that concern them most directly — such as last summer’s massive uprising among Québecois students against tuition hikes. But the reality is often more grim. Events and actions oriented around student issues in the United States are often under-attended and little-reported-on.

In contrast, campaigns oriented around issues external from students’ own lives have had more widespread appeal, especially on more conservative campuses where the left-leaning, process-oriented Occupy movement had a weaker influence. Students at Georgetown, for instance, a university with strong conservative factions, have managed to win the support of the College Republicans for a fossil-fuels divestment campaign. The College Republicans might be far less interested in the building of student power as New York Students Rising envisions it, but forestalling climate change is a cause they are willing to consider.

Of course, issue-based campaigns and student-power organizing can coexist fluently; more and more, issue-oriented activists are adopting the language of student power in their work. Organizing around the environment, also, could conceivably lead to advancing campaigns related to student issues specifically. After all, issue-based campaigns are for many students their first step in exercising power as political agents.

“[Divestment campaigns] are about students having a say in the university,” Sydney Browning, a student at Georgetown leading the divestment campaign, said. “The students are responsible if we let our university invest in these terrible companies and we should be doing something about that.”

Guido Girgenti of 99Rise, an organization based in Los Angeles and New York concerned with campaign-finance reform, said that he largely focuses on organizing students because the influx of big money in political elections is a student issue. Unrestricted campaign contributions influence a range of issues that students care about because they prevent radical change within the political system.

“Whenever I go to campuses, I talk about student issues,” Girgenti said. “I say student debt is skyrocketing, we didn’t pass the DREAM Act even though there are so many undocumented kids in college, the recession makes it so hard for graduates to get jobs. We can’t deal with the student-loan bubble because banks profit off of that. We can’t deal with the recession because Wall Street banks profit off of that.”

For the most part, each of these campaigns nowadays shares a common thread: horizontal, directly democratic organizing. Though the climate divestment campaigns take their direction from big players in the environmental movement like Bill McKibben and his, how they organize on campuses actually mirrors the methods of other activist student groups in the use of small, consensus-based meetings with open access. If that remains the case, divestment and other issue-based campaigns like 99Rise have the potential to bring large amounts of students out for a fight while speaking the language of student power. According to Guido Girgenti, organizations like his can forge connections among existing struggles.

“Student power exists in solidarity between existing movements,” he said. “There is a deep intersection between all issues. Student power is building those bridges.”

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