Five Steps to Ignite Your Inner Activist from Molly Katchpole ’11 and Biola Jeje

I spoke at Roger Williams University two weekends ago. Reposted here is an article about it from RWU’s student paper: Link to original post

They were just simple steps – tweeting and shooting out an email – but they were all it took for Molly Katchpole ’11 to ignite her inner activist, the RWU alumna told students at the concluding event for Social Justice Week on campus last Friday.

In 2011, Katchpole had recently graduated from RWU’s art and architectural history program and was living in Washington, D.C., working two jobs and counting down the days until her six-month student loan repayment grace period would end. With the Occupy Wall Street movement in full force at that time, the public’s discontent concerning economic justice was palpable – everyone, including Katchpole, heard Occupy’s frustration in the news, on the Internet and in social media outlets. So when Bank of America announced a plan to institute a $5 monthly fee for its debit card users to access their money – which would hit Katchpole and other low-income Americans hardest – it was the last straw for her. And then it happened….

She tweeted at reporters covering the story on Bank of America’s new fee. She emailed news stations, expressing her disgust. She voiced her opinion on “ABC World News” with Diane Sawyer. Her goal? To approach the larger issue of income inequality in a relatable manner – as an average American.

With a few simple steps, Katchpole had ignited her inner activist. And on Friday, October 26, as part of Social Justice Week on campus, Katchpole returned to RWU to share with students how they can do the same in a program entitled, “Activating the Activist Within.”

Biola Jeje, a senior at CUNY Brooklyn College, joined Katchpole for the presentation. The two joined forces after meeting at the National Student Power Convergence, a five-day gathering for young activists to come together and share ideas on major issues affecting our generation. Jeje shared her “story of self” – a phrase coined for the art of public narrative – and it is a unique one. Her political awareness was sparked by a passion for theater, enthralled by the transformative content of plays. On a religious mission trip to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, Jeje was inspired by a teacher’s persistence to successfully reestablish a school system in a small community.

“That’s when I realized that one person can really make a concrete change,” Jeje said.

Since then, Jeje has become a core member of Brooklyn College Student Union, an unregistered, unfunded club that addresses issues on and off campus. Jeje is also the CUNY Regional Organizer of New York Students Rising, a statewide student movement in New York’s public universities.

Katchpole and Jeje told the students that, just as they do, we each have a unique “story of self.” But there exist commonalities that unite us to fight against all inequalities. Follow these five steps from Katchpole and Jeje to ignite your inner activist today:

  • Get educated 

There are numerous resources at our fingertips that can provide us with valuable information – use them. Jeje urges, “Learn how to participate in a democracy. Learn how to navigate through society. These abilities are priceless.”

  • Communicate

Katchpole’s advice is simple: “Don’t hesitate to share your stories. Your struggles are likely not mutually exclusive.”

  • Identify a problem

Take from conversations those common issues and define them. Find out what causes those issues, and who and what they affect. “There is no wrong way of organizing,” Jeje says.

  • Seek support

“Feel free to make demands,” Katchpole says. “There are numerous organizations that support activism and are dying to start chapters at universities.”

  • Follow through

Jeje says it’s important to ensure your voice is heard. “Get out there and make a name for yourself!”


Building a Student Movement in the US

Building a Student Movement in the US
credit: Zach Bell

Isabelle Nastasia and Biola Jeje on September 10, 2012 – 4:43 PM ET

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.

Here, Us, Now: Students Come Together This Week to Build a Powerful Nationwide Movement

Here, Us, Now: Students Come Together This Week to Build a Powerful Nationwide Movement

credit: NSPC2012
July 30, 2012  |  by Biola Jeje and Isabelle Nastasia
Originally posted in Alternet

In 1961, busloads of students, sick and tired of Jim Crow segregation, boarded buses to the South to demand an end to segregation. These students exposed themselves to the constant threat of death, via beatings at the hands of vigilantes and white supremacist groups, and in jail, where the police were the perpetrators of the violence against them. Then, in spite of their sacrifice, their actions were condemned as “unpatriotic” by President John F. Kennedy [4] because of the embarrassment [5] they caused the country in the era of the Cold War.

Nevertheless, the students persevered, understanding that the violence they were confronted with was a reflection of the state, not the justness of their mission. They continued their “Freedom Rides” despite these threats of violence, and the result was the eventual enforcement of Sarah Keyes v. the Carolina Coach Company, the landmark 1955 civil rights case that banned the segregation of buses.

Fast forward to June 2012. Two students occupied President Obama’s campaign office [6]in Denver, Colorado while engaging in a hunger strike, effectively shutting down the operation. The students were undocumented and calling for an end to the deportation of young people whose parents brought them into this nation when they were children. Both of these students put themselves on the line, exposing themselves to enormous risk. And herein lie the roots of Obama’s executive order halting the deportations of young people: in the sacrifices of young activists.

Too often our generation is considered apolitical, a generation that won’t bother to fight for our future as it is being legislated away. This August, however, students nationwide will gather in Columbus, Ohio to disprove that assumption. The National Student Power Convergence will bring us together for four days, where we will reflect on the struggles of our movement — including the marginalization of queers, people of color and women — and construct a plan for action.

From student debt to racial justice, environmentalism to student democracy, students and youth have been organizing for as long as there have been students and youth. Though we don’t intend to reinvent the wheel, we do want to come together to connect our differences into a common struggle, learning from each other in the process and building for the future.

In May of this year, we wrote in AlterNet [7] about the need for universities in the US to develop student unions that have legitimate student power on their campuses, and thus a better chance at combating some of the common issues facing universities here and abroad. This summer we are working to build what we previously described. One of our mottos — “Here. Us. Now.” — is not only a call for students everywhere to escalate our efforts as organizers in this moment when movements are expanding worldwide, but also a call for us as students to assert our own power in the institutions that are bleeding us dry.


The issues facing young people in the United States are escalating, sometimes, it seems, on a daily basis. The federal DREAM Act immigration legislation has been hanging in the balance for more than 10 years. A figure [8]was recently released by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement indicating that a person of color has been killed by the police approximately every 40 hours since January 2012. Youth unemployment, an issue not given due importance in the mainstream conversation, has only gotten higher. This, and so much more, is the rather desperate context in which we locate our work.


The National Student Power Convergence is a joint effort by students doing grassroots organizing and those connected to larger institutional organizations such as Rebuild the Dream [9]. Radicals and progressives are joining hands because we realize that our liberation in the student struggle is intricately connected. The Convergence intends to be a space of shared resources, building connections among campus communities through grassroots organizing, as well as utilizing social capital generated through many progressive organizations. Through the Convergence we hope to augment individual organizing efforts; allow students and youth to draw larger, deeper connections to the work they are doing on their campuses; and contextualize their work in the narrative of the broader movement.

For example, Julieta Salgado, a student organizer from Brooklyn College, aims to use the Convergence as a way for students all over to come together and ultimately put a stop to the increasingly corporatized university system and create the alternatives we want to see. “We can resist the things that harm us, that misrepresent us, but that is limited. The next step is creating the settings we desire: the curriculum we want, the culture we want,” says Salgado.


We believe now is the time for students and youth to converge because our generation is on the verge of a “movement moment” — a time in our history where society as a whole begins to stand up to the power structure, resist and win. The gains in the undocumented youth movement [10] and Occupy Wall Street’s ability to revitalize tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience — which eventually spread to over 1,000 cities — are both evidence of that sentiment. A year ago, the political conversation was all about our nation’s debt ceiling; today, a conversation about economic inequality has begun. That is an effect, we believe, of the very “movement moment” we are describing. We know that if we can effectively harness this energy, we can organize ourselves in a way that shifts larger, national conversations to include the concerns of students and young people.

Remarkably for an undertaking of this kind, the Convergence has been coming together rather fluidly, with many of the 80 young people involved in the planning organizing with people they have never met. For some, the Convergence planning process has created a sense of community that supersedes physical space. Through colorful Google spreadsheets and back-to-back conference calls, we are working remotely to secure housing, donations, food and transportation for the 300-plus students we expect to attend.

With student-led movements erupting on both sides of our national borders, we also seek collaboration from those movements at the Convergence. Organizers have made it a priority to include international student movers and shakers in the programming of the daily events. Members of CLASSE, one of the prominent student unions in Quebec, will be joining hundreds of U.S. students at the event. Emilie Joly, an elected legal committee representative of CLASSE and full-time law student at Université du Québec à Montréal will be one of our keynote speakers; she works to organize students and citizens involved in legal battles related to the 2012 strike. In Joly’s own words:

Throughout the student strike in Quebec, we’ve been inspired by student struggles and social movements in Chile, Brazil, Spain, and Egypt. We are both surprised and excited to note that our movement has inspired others and we see sharing our experience as an important part of building stronger movements. We also believe that we need to build more cross-border solidarity…In the face of neoliberalism and capitalist destruction, solidarity is our weapon. And we need to fight back.

Joly will be joined by two other CLASSE representatives who will lead a workshop on the Quebec unlimited general strike.

It is also our hope that the Convergence will allow for the possibilities of learning from historical movements alongside the struggles of our own time. In order for participants to develop a clear set of goals and a strong community in August, we feel it is important that the Convergence environment, as well as the organizing leading up to the event, does not reproduce the very systems of oppression we are trying to undo. What makes this moment different from resistance times of the past is that we are ever more aware of racism, sexism and classism, but we must continue to combat the internalized ways we subtly reproduce these ills. Some of this ethos was expressed in a Colorlines report on racism:

There’s little question that most Millennials struggle to articulate their views on how race and racism operate in their lives. But our focus groups’ deeper discussions revealed that a structural understanding of racism—of racism as something that grows out of political and economic systems rather than individual animus—is not completely lost on this generation. And that, of course, has serious implications for how they will go about eradicating it from our society.

Students and youth are looking into a catastrophically dismal future, from the destruction of the environment to rising unemployment to the student loan debt bubble; yet not all of youth experience hardship in the same way. We must acknowledge the different layers of privilege in the room if we are ever going to be able to tackle the issues in a way that is inclusive and non-oppressive. We are all in the same sinking boat, but some of us are always given access to the lifeboats last.

By the end of the four days we hope to facilitate massive communication across the movement via the scaffolding of a national structure. This, in hopes that after the national convergence, regional and statewide relationships will be built and regional convergences organized, as the different struggles that comprise our budding movement, from the DREAMers to the Dream Defenders to climate justice groups, gather in the same room for the first time in our generation’s history.

The National Student Power Convergence registration ends on August 5: [11]. For more info about the Convergence, please contact: [12],


Toward a More Perfect Student Unionism: Lessons From the Maple Spring

Toward a More Perfect Student Unionism: Lessons From the Maple Spring
credit: Biola Jeje
May 17, 2012  | by Biola Jeje and Isabelle Nastasia
Originally posted on Alternet 

We students have become morbid about our future. On campuses nationwide, it has become commonplace to see activists holding mock funerals for public higher education. At Brooklyn College at the City University of New York, we too held a funeral procession: out on the quad, in front of a coffin filled to the brim with diplomas, students were able to stand up in front of their peers and share what the death of higher education meant to them. One student, bravely holding back tears, shared how her troubles with financial aid, in addition to the death of her father, had made it impossible for her to continue her degree this semester.

For the majority of us seeking degrees, higher education is indeed dying a slow and painful death. Too little considered, however, is the role we as students are playing in its demise. The combination of tuition hikes, a lack of democratic governance in our schools, ballooning student debt, and the intimate relationship between our financial institutions and our academic ones are certainly killing higher education – but what is killing the student movement is our own complacency with these policies. While here in America, students on many campuses have limited themselves to mourning, elsewhere in the world they have taken to the streets – and there is much we can learn from their activism, in order to better our own.

What We Learned from the Maple Spring

Over spring break this year, we were privileged to travel to Montreal, Quebec, where we witnessed their 200,000-person-strong student strike. In the city of Montreal, francophone students have effectively shut down universities in response to a $1,625 tuition hike, proposed to be implemented incrementally over a five-year period. Since February, they have filled the streets en masse in protest, and as of this writing, they remain on strike (despite some injunctions by fellow students), having refused [4] a set of “concessions” recently proffered by the Quebec government. (The government’s new proposal actually amounted to an increase of the previously proposed tuition hike, though it would have spread the increase out over an extended period of time – seven years, rather than the originally proposed five.)

The position Quebec’s students find themselves in is not unique: at CUNY, we too are facing a tuition hike of $1,500 over the next five years. What has been unique is their ability to build a powerful movement in response to these increases. Here at home, our response has come nowhere close to matching what we saw in Montreal.

When tuition has gone up at CUNY over the past few years we have responded with a rally here and there; it has been decades since students have been able to effectively shut down the university. The 1960s was the last time we saw mass student protests and building occupations at CUNY; the result was the opening of the university’s doors to students of color – and unfortunately, the transformation of what had once been called the “free academy” (where state funding once fully covered the cost of education) into an institution where tuition became a mandatory part of enrollment.

What allowed our counterparts in Quebec to mobilize so quickly and with such numbers, when our own student response to similar increases has been so subdued? We realized that the main difference lies in their movement’s ability to obtain real, institutionalized student power – something we do not yet have in the United States.

In Quebec, student organizing bodies on campuses have equal seats at decision-making tables alongside faculty and the administration. In the United States, we have nothing like this. Just as unions have been on a steep decline in this nation for decades, so too have campus organizations that answer to students (rather than the whims of the administration) and that hold real power. We believe that if students in the United States hope to have the kind of impact on our universities that we witnessed in Montreal, we will need to first establish radical, federated student unions here at home, organizations capable of replacing our currently weak systems of student participation. Without this shift, our struggle will be long, indeed.

Still, there are aspects of the Maple Spring we must refuse to replicate. For instance, the Quebec strike has not yet adopted anti-racist analysis regarding what true access to higher education might look like. Many of the students of color we spoke with offered mixed reviews of the student associations and the representation of racialized people in the movement. While they all clearly asserted they were anti-tuition hike, they also said they would feel more comfortable voicing and expressing solidarity if the movement adopted an anti-racism platform as a component of the strike.

Though anti-racism is and always has been a part of the analysis of the CUNY student struggle – from the 1969 occupations of City College and Brooklyn College by Puerto Rican and African-American students, to the Student Liberation Action Movement (SLAM) at Hunter College in the mid-1990s – not every campus has been so thoughtful about the role race plays in access to higher ed. As we build a national movement for student power we must maintain our vigilance in keeping these issues at the center of our work.

How do we begin to establish the structures of power we need? The task may seem daunting, but at the Edufactory’s University is Ours! Conference we attended in Toronto at the end of April, we gained even more insight from our comrades to the North about how we might start. For instance, building toward a new student unionism from within departments – where we and our classmates are already organized into majors and similar academic interests – could be an effective way to gain momentum and generate collective buy-in from communities that already exist. These departmental unions would then become part of a larger, university-wide student union, would bridge the interests of many separate groups, and join them into an organized and non-hierarchical governing body. This is a model of organizing student unionism that has roots stretching back to the 1960s – and has been used to great effective in Quebec.

As Jasper Conner points out in his treatise, Towards a New Student Unionism [5],

“In Quebec, University unions take action when department unions put forward proposals to the rest of the campus. University unions are where students coordinate on things that affect all students, but again, don’t make decisions on issues that don’t affect all students. [Student] unions would follow this pattern, federating outward to the state level where most issues of funding are decided, at least for state schools.”

It isn’t nearly as hierarchical as it sounds; in fact, the larger bodies proposed here would be made up of delegates, as well as assemblies much like the spokescouncil institutionalized by Occupy Wall Street last fall. Furthermore, student unionism structured in this way also addresses important feminist and anti-racist critiques around lack of accountability in our movement leadership, which often leads to the reproduction of social hierarchy and the continuation of organizational practices that exclude women and people of color from the decision making process.

Alongside strategic unionizing, it seems to us self-evident that occupation of physical spaces must play a larger part in student organizing in the future. Occupy Wall Street was not the first movement to emphasize occupations as a key tactic; the US student movement has a rich history of reclaiming administrative offices in order to achieve our goals. At CUNY, the student movement has begun to move in this direction: in recent weeks, we at Brooklyn College launched a mass student day of action [6] to protest tuition hikes, which included a rally and sit-in at Boylan Hall — right outside the office of the president. Street protests [7] in other parts of the city are now taking place as well. It is a good beginning, but it is only that. We need so much more.

Given how profoundly US students have been cut off from channels of power at universities, the road before us may be long. But if we hope to achieve our goals, we first must realize, collectively, that the social conditions we face as students are not inevitable. We can’t just erect tents in the middle of our campuses and expect the world to change around us. We need to take control of our own minds, as well as take space. Only then will we breathe new life into our educational system.