Originally published in the Nation
Many progressives look longingly to the 1960s in hopes that today’s student activists will glean inspiration and vision from a period many consider a heyday for youth revolt. What’s forgotten is that students of today face vastly different issues and challenges than their generational counterparts of the sixties.
The quality of life that higher education promised US students via the American Dream has already withered away; at the same time, we are being overburdened with mounting student loan debt and the stress of finding increasingly scarce jobs after graduation.
We are the youth without a future building a US movement to address the challenges facing us as millennials. We are on campuses, in tenant associations, a part of statewide climate justice coalitions; we are building student unions; but most importantly, we are all over the country and for the first time, we are actively working to meet one another.
One important recent effort was the National Student Power Convergence. Students across the country worked to make it possible for almost 300 student activists to assemble in Columbus, Ohio, for four days of networking and strategizing. The hope for the convergence was that by bringing youth organizers together around common issues, we could greatly strengthen the organizing and the vision.
From the diverse perspectives that were in attendance to the spontaneously planned action at President Obama’s Columbus headquarters, the convergence’s energy was high and momentum steady. The programming featured mandatory anti-oppression training led by Nayantara Sen of the Applied Research Center. Participants were confronted with the prospects of unpacking their privilege and exploring how oppression operates in their lives—a first for many of the convergence participants—and the process proved integral in helping individuals find common ground as a movement.
While the convergence was an important step in bringing together youth from across the country, many were still wary of reproducing the same hierarchy and tokenization seen in so many student groups and organizations. In order to address concerns that a small group of organizers were leading behind the scenes rather than instituting a democratic decision-making process, people joined in caucuses to discuss their experiences as queer and gender nonconforming people, people of color, vegans and vegetarians, and white anti-racist allies and to call for a horizontal structure for all efforts emerging from the convergence.
Last semester, Quebeçl;ois students effectively shut down universities in response to proposals for a $1,625 tuition hike be implemented over a five-year period. Since February, they filled the streets en masse in protest, having refused a set of “concessions” proffered by the Quebec government. Their mass demonstrations last semester were the largest student protests in North American history. And they achieved results.
As City University of New York (CUNY) students, we look to Quebec as a model of how to mobilize against austerity measures attacking our schools. The transformation of what had once been called the “Free Academy” (where state funding once fully covered the cost of education for all students) has now eroded into a steadily inaccessible promise of opportunity.
If students in the United States hope to have the kind of impact on our universities that we witnessed in Quebec, we need to start at the very beginning. Student unions need to be rethought and established as organizations capable of replacing our currently weak systems of student participation. To start, we need to establish departmental assemblies where students of similar academic interests, who are connected by the university bureaucracy of ‘majors’ can work together to build bottom-up power structures.
Building a participatory democratic student union at CUNY and across New York City needs to happen from the bottom-up. While Occupiers argue that voluntary campus-wide assemblies, similar to those at Zuccotti Park, are sufficient to sustain student power, we know from experience that far more is needed. A couple of the “open mics” that we organized in the fall of 2011 were successful in bringing out over three hundred students but could never transition into active and representative decision-making bodies for the campus.
We got advice from Quebeçl;ois students at the anglophone campus, Concordia University, on how to approach departmental level organizing. As Brooklyn College student organizers, we are starting our own process of unionizing and hope to begin with a few departments to which we can devote our full attention as a framework to be subsequently developed. As we see it, the student leadership established in these initial departments can be used to leverage the university administration around increasing funding in basic student services such as printing, library hours and subsidized textbooks.
With the Quebec student strike’s recent victory in Premier Jean Charest’s resignation, and the new premier’s announcement that the proposed tuition hikes will be rescinded, the global student uprising has been given an effective blueprint for victory. Whether this model can be adopted in the United States remains to be seen.