The Student Power Convergence: Putting the “Student” Back in Social Movements
This weekend, students from across the U.S. and the world will descend on Columbus, OH, for the Student Power Convergence. It’ll be the first time in a generation that young people converge under the broad banner of student movement.
Though the convergence is not a direct outgrowth of Occupy Colleges—the Occupy solidarity network that spawned last October—it’s a natural offspring of this past year’s insurgencies.
“The student movement had developed at a really fast pace, and it was really important that we get the major movements for social justice together,” says Will Klatt, a member of the Ohio Student Association involved in initial Convergence talks earlier this year alongside organizers from across the Midwest, Northeast, and California.
“The convergence is trying to bring together student organizers from all walks of life—environmental organizers, graduate student organizers, student labor organizers—like how Occupy did,” adds Sean Collins, a student at the State University of New York inAlbany and an organizer with New York Students Rising. “We’ll be able to go back to our states and say, we’re all on the same page, and we can now start doing something in a more coordinated fashion to build up something else.”
In the SUNY system, state legislators passed a “rational tuition” plan last year, which calls for steady yearly tuition increases similar in scale to the fee increases that spurred students to go on strike in Quebec. A contingent of Quebecers, whose strike resumes on August 17,will be at the Convergence.
“Just the idea of fighting back—that’s one of the things that I want to bring forward in Columbus,” says Emilie Joly, a law student at the University of Quebec at Montreal and a member of CLASSE, the coalition of student groups that called for the strike. “We’re always being told in Quebec that we’re the ones who complain while we have the lowest fees in Canada. But we’ve gotten these lower fees because we have fought.”
Members of Mexico’s #YoSoy132 will also share stories and tactics. “Our movement started as a spontaneous scream, showing that we were no longer going to continue to allow the media duopoly to manipulate information and lie to the Mexican people,” says Valeria Hamel, a student at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México in Mexico City. “To get to the point where we are now, we had to organize ourselves, which was a difficult task. However, we successfully managed to do it, and we have now more than 150 local assemblies around the country.”
Coordinating struggles across the vast and uneven terrain of American higher education—not just between states, but within them—is the challenge that students face in recapturing the spirit of 1970, when a national student strike shutdown over 450 college and high schools in protest to the Kent State shootings and Vietnam War.
Building the Movement, State by State
In New York, students in the SUNY system face tuition increases, program cuts, and state policy that encourages SUNY schools to phase out arts and humanities and partner with corporations for sci-tech research. Over at the City University of New York, austerity runs from K through CUNY. “It has become a lot harder for students who didn’t do well in the New York public school system,” says Biola Jeje, a convergence organizer from Brooklyn College. “They’ve been cut out from public colleges, and told to go to community colleges, where they end up staying way more than two years and run out of aid.”
New York also has New York Students Rising and Students United for a Free CUNY, which have built chapters at a number of different campuses and held major statewide walkouts and direct actions this past year—a potential model for student movement at large.
North Carolina has a similar infrastructure. Nearly all of the state’s 16 four-year campuses are active with the NC Defend Education Coalition, which turned out hundreds of students to protest the University of North Carolina Board of Governors’ 10 percent tuition hike–a response to $414 million in higher education cuts from the Republican state legislature. A number of progressive student groups and faculty have come together to fight the rollback of protections for UNC workers, university-led gentrification in Chapel Hill’s Northside neighborhood, and a lack of transparency in the deployment of UNC’s $2.2 billion endowment. Chapel Hill students held an “alternative commencement” this spring to protest Michael Bloomberg’s invitation as commencement speaker. For September, students are organizing Festival Liberación to counter the Democratic National Convention.
In Georgia, despite the dually neoliberal (read: tuition hikes) and racist (read: anti-immigration policy) transformation of higher ed, coordinated action has been a harder bargain. Since 2007, tuition at Georgia State has increased by nearly 50 percent. In 2010, the Board of Regents passed Policy 4.1.6, which bans undocumented immigrants from attending the state’s top schools.
“The low expectation for political activity in Georgia is what feeds into things happening,” argues Hira Mahmood, a recent Georgia State graduate and Convergence organizer. The convergence, she says, is an opportunity to recruit new student organizers and channel global student consciousness into a stronger statewide campus network—“taking all these intense experiences that we’ve had in Georgia and reconfiguring what activism looks like in the South.”
While the concept of convergence projects an aura of spontaneous unity—a flashy signal to the rest of the world about America’s growing Québécois tendencies, or to talking heads attempting to take stock of the so-called youth vote—the power of the Student Power Convergence lies in its potential to build, strengthen, and coordinate bases in different states. This doesn’t mean that the Convergence won’t give rise to the next Students for a Democratic Society—only that building power on the local, campus level is necessary for anymass student movement to take hold.
In a 1968 manifesto on student-labor alliance, Fred Gordon from SDS warned against rejoicing in national movement while ignoring local struggle: “‘I want to serve the people if they’re miles away and it’s all very abstract’…this is not a very good approach.…as the rich and their government tighten the screw on the people, we have to up the ante….Otherwise we’ll turn into a bunch of fancy-talking ‘radical’ phonies on a self-serving ego trip. Who needs us?”
Contact James Cersonsky at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cersonsky.