Originally published on ZNet.
By Robin Markle (Drew SDS) and Becca Rast (Lancaster SDS).
On December first and second, over 150 youth converged on the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University for the new Students for a Democratic Society’s fourth Northeast Convention, hosted by Philly SDS. This convention was a landmark event for northeast SDS. Since SDS reformed as a national youth run and led organization in March of 2006, with over 50 chapters in the northeast alone, we have been engaged in a gradual process to come together under common goals, theory and practice. Additionally, many of our members are new to the concept of strategic activism and organizing. It is important to SDS that we organize for and with the people around us in our communities and campuses. The members of SDS are not just activists; they are change agents who realize that there must be a long term struggle for their beliefs. In order to reach this we must engage those around us. The members of SDS are going through a collective process of learning to organize together. Not only was this convention the region’s most well-attended to date; the planners also used the space to explore some daring new approaches to organizing and collective liberation strategy. Their efforts paid off in what was undoubtedly the northeast’s most successful convention yet. There were a multitude of workshops, times set aside for networking, a report-back from the summer’s national convention, voting plenaries for action proposals, and new approaches to liberatory work. Members who stayed through Monday also took part in a successful direct action at a recruitment center.
An important focus of the convention was sharing tools for organizing, including ideas, tactics, and campaigns. There was an organizing fishbowl in which SDSers shared their experiences and thoughts on effective organizing. Representatives from chapters as diverse as Rutgers, Lancaster, Harvard and Pace shared experiences with college campus, high school and community organizing. There was a great discussion on various campaigns – like Columbia’s hunger strike against the school’s gentrification into the community, Virginia Commonwealth University’s “Swipe a Stranger” campaign to redistribute food from their dining hall to hungry people in their community, and various chapters’ work to combat militarism, including Lancaster SDS’ Informed Recruitment campaign. Roundtable participants were asked questions such as “What issues common to the daily life of students could SDS build campaigns around that would mobilize thousands of students on every campus across the country?” and “How can SDS use the 2008 presidential election as an opportunity to build power and grow in size?” A large focus of the convention was realizing the importance of strategic campaigns that have the potential to be won.
SDSers also led workshops on media, organizing 101, campaign strategy, and facilitation. An alternative to the workshops was a facilitated discussion on building leadership in SDS – the first time SDS has discussed this topic in a formal setting. Not only did chapters gain knowledge, guidance, and support from other chapters, they signed onto a variety of regional campaigns. Action proposals passed on Sunday included a Debt Reduction Campaign, a commitment to hold actions against the Iraq War in the week of its 5th anniversary, and an endorsement to save public housing set for demolition in New Orleans. SDSers committed both to traveling to Louisiana and holding solidarity actions locally. Other collective regional support was given to participating in bike blocs at direct actions, and several chapters created a network for campaigning for sexual assault resource centers on their respective campuses.
Another exciting part of this convention was attempting a new approach to liberatory work. This included a shift from focusing on how systemic oppression issues play out within SDS to how these same issues also play out in the communities we organize in. We shifted our focus from “anti-oppression” to “collective liberation”: a concept perhaps best explained in the words of Australian Aboriginal activist Lila Watson, “If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time…But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Saturday morning SDSers held a fishbowl around the topic of incorporating a collective liberation strategy into our organizing. Questions that were asked included: “What has SDS done to ensure that people from a wide range of backgrounds and with diverse identities feel welcome as new members? How have we provided ways for them to get involved? What have we learned from the cross cultural/cross racial alliance building we’ve done?”
Following the discussion, SDSers dispersed into small break-out groups to further explore ideas brought up in the fishbowl, and to create action plans for incorporating collective liberation strategy into the work of their local chapters. There were discussions in many of the breakouts concerning how we can combat the white activist stereotype that is associated with SDS. Additionally, there was much discussion on how we can take personal responsibility and use one-on-one relationships to support others in feeling comfortable entering the organization. An important aspect of this was focusing on how we can be allies by collaborating with other groups and doing solidarity work within our communities. SDSers have already begun to follow through on some of these commitments through the previously mentioned solidarity campaign to save New Orleans public housing. On December 13, DC SDS shut down six intersections around their local Housing and Urban Development office. NYC SDS will hold an action at their local HUD office on Monday, December 17. Yale SDS held a banner drop in support of the public housing residents. Around the northeast, SDSers are being vocal about stopping government sponsored gentrification.
Finally, a great aspect of the convention was that so many SDS members gained skills to be able to step into a variety of leadership roles. There were a range of new people who helped organize the convention, facilitate discussions, participate in the roundtables, lead workshops, and present campaigns to the group. This enabled the convention to be a much more participatory event than previous conventions and shows great growth in SDS. The new approaches and shifts in thought made for an exciting and inspiring convention. We hope it will translate into some incredible work by SDS chapters in the months to come.