This document should not be forgotten. Although the New SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) is no longer what it was when this statement was written, the vision expressed herein provides a powerful framework for understanding what it means to organize for social change. Written primarily by Madeline Gardner, Joshua Kahn Russell, Kelly Lenora Lee and Michael Gould-Wartofsky, “Who We Are, What We Are Building” was approved by the direct democratic process of the SDS National Convention in Detroit, July 27th – 30th, 2007. It was subsequently ratified by a vote of SDS chapters. Five years later, it is still worth (re)reading! [alex]
As Students for a Democratic Society, we want to remake a movement – a young left where our struggles can build and sustain a society of justice-making, solidarity, equality, peace and freedom. This demands a broad-based, deep-rooted, and revolutionary transformation of our society. It demands that we build on movements that have come before, and alongside other people’s struggles and movements for liberation.
Together, we affirm that another world is possible: A world beyond oppression, beyond domination, beyond war and empire. A world where people have power over their own lives. We believe we stand on the cusp of something new in our generation. We have the potential to take action, organize, and relate to other movements in ways that many of us have never seen before. Something new is also happening in our society: the organized Left, after decades of decline and crisis, is reinventing itself. People in many places and communities are building movements committed to long-haul, revolutionary change.
SDS can play a vital role by redefining the student and youth movement and how it relates to others. Yet we have a choice ahead of us: We can do what has been done before – reinvent the wheel with the same old cycles – or we can build something new together, something informed by our past and grounded in a vision of what the future might look like. We envision the new SDS in the light of the second alternative.
SDS will forge itself through its actions and speak for itself with its own collective voice. In this statement of organizational vision, we want to highlight the most hopeful ideas and practices in SDS, offering a sense of what our organization might be and what it can offer others. The concepts below are building blocks for our organization.
Here, we begin to evoke our visions for the movement we want to make, but that is not enough: As Students for a Democratic Society, we will work to actually bring it about.
Who We Are
We are here to win.
We really believe we can create a more just society. It is possible, and we can do it – therefore we have a responsibility to do it. Our activism is not simply a matter of “fighting the good fight,” or of insularity or purity, but instead is grounded in the day-to-day reality of what it takes to build a movement that can win concrete objectives and ultimately transform society.
We are in it for the long haul.
Realizing that we can win, we think about what it means to be involved in long-haul struggle, and what it really means to do this for life. We believe there is more to a movement than taking to the streets for a day. We are building our power over the long haul. This helps give perspective on our goals and how we achieve them. We think about how we want the movement – and SDS – to look in five years, in ten years, in twenty years. We think about what we need to do now to get there. We will keep our eyes on the prize.
We are organizers.
As Students for a Democratic Society, we will dedicate ourselves not just to activism, but to organizing. Activists are people who take action to make change in society. Organizers are activists who also work to bring many other people into movements. They help build organizations and spaces that engage and activate new people.
As organizers, we try to meet people where they are, listen to their concerns, and help to amplify their voices. As organizers, we constantly reach out to new people and build alliances wherever we can. As organizers, we strive to see the big picture – not simply our own viewpoint and agenda. We collectively take responsibility for the direction of our organizations and groups. SDS will build a culture of organizing, in which we are always reaching out to people, working with them, building alliances, and creating empowering spaces to make change together.
We will be relevant.
Our actions will be relevant to a context, a community, a target, and a movement. We believe change will be made by many, many people working collectively, not by an elite “vanguard” or a crew of professional activists. Real change is made by mass movements, and we see Students for a Democratic Society as part of a mass movement for social change. We will therefore organize around issues that provide tangible, concrete gains to meet real needs in our campuses and communities.
In order to be relevant and build power, SDS must grow. We have to continually grow in numbers and chapters, as well as in our capacity and the depth and sophistication of our organizing. We will continually reach beyond existing circles, building our base and expanding our scope. We will not allow ourselves to become activist cliques, nor allow our movement to be limited to one culture or subculture.
We seek to be an organization that students and youth from all walks of life can see themselves joining. We seek to build an organization with which groups and communities in struggle can ally themselves. We will strive to be inclusive and accessible.
We will present ourselves and our ideas in a way that captivates the political mainstream, instead of alienating it and marginalizing ourselves. A large majority of young people in our society are ready for change. We will appeal to the positive values already commonly held in our society and demonstrate how they are antithetical to our current system.
To build the movement, it is crucial that we maintain humble and open-minded attitudes. Elitist attitudes discourage new voices and ideas. We take seriously the way activist language, attitudes, and subcultures have been alienating and intimidating and kept us marginal. We can be ourselves while being mindful and attentive to the needs of others in their communities, respectfully, without putting appearances above and beyond the goals of changing society.
We will be strategic.
Our actions will be strategic, fitted to a collective purpose, a direction, and a need. Strategy is a lens with which we will approach our organizing. We will have a clear sense of our goals, and evaluate how our actions move us toward them. We will always act with respect to the community and context in which we find ourselves. We will always think about how to build our organization, develop new allies, and support other movements.
Strategic action is not a “line” – not a mandated set of rules, but a shared orientation. Strategic action looks different in different places. Our strategy will guide our tactics – not the other way around. Tactics are like a toolbox. If you are building a house, you need different tools at different times – sometimes you need a hammer, other times you need a screwdriver. But you need those tools to be part of a strategy if you want to build the house. More than any tactic for its own sake, we are committed to strategic action to win our goals.
We will all be leaders and mentors.
We want organizations and movements that create the space for new folks to learn how to organize and take action. Mentorship must occur intergenerationally between SDSers and movement elders and veterans, as well as internally among SDSers of various levels of experience. We especially value such relationships between people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. We view every new member of our group as a peer-mentor, someone to learn from, as well as encourage and teach.
We believe in collective leadership. We reject leadership that centers on individuals whom others blindly follow. Instead, we will strive to create a space where everyone can develop the skills and analysis to be an empowered change maker. We will strive for leadership development that pushes everyone up. We can all be leaders in a way that the different talents, skills and experience we each bring will be used for the good of the group.
If we are all leaders, we must each take responsibility for our choices and think about the group as a whole, not just ourselves. It is on us to develop each other’s leadership – to see the potential in one another and encourage it. We will build one another up, and we will support each other in becoming leaders and taking on responsibilities.
We are learning from the past. We will reinvent our movement.
Younger generations, without realizing it, often re-invent ways of organizing and thinking about change that have been tried before. As SDS, we will ground ourselves in a real sense of our organizing history, valuing the lessons of the movements that have come before us.
We are committed to a process of asking questions about past social movements and organizations. We will ask why and how the movements of the past have succeeded or failed. We will study each situation so that we are ready to build a stronger movement than ever before. To this, we will add our creativity and our own insights. If we hope to win, our generation must engage in a process of reinvention, on its own terms.
We can mobilize the collective memory of generations of organizers, dissidents and revolutionaries, living and dead, “Old Left” and “New.” We will not try to imitate and relive the past, but we will learn from it, improvise and imagine new meanings for our time and place.
We will also give our movement a new creativity in its form and direction, in its adversity to oppression, and in its construction of another kind of politics that hastens a better and more beautiful world. We will reimagine a politics of liberation, liberating our own imagination from the constraints imposed on it by the present system and by the past. If we hope to win, our generation must engage in a process of reinvention, on its own terms.
What We Are Building
We affirm that our organization will be:
1. An Organization That Makes Connections
Students for a Democratic Society will make the connections between students and peoples’ struggles, and between “issues” and the bigger systems of which they are a part. We will ground our work in an understanding of how our issues intersect, how our struggles are connected, and how to actively question and creatively approach those things that separate us. We recognize the importance of fighting injustice on multiple fronts. We know that individual struggles are never won alone.
We are struggling to change a society which depends upon multiple and reciprocal systems of oppression and domination for its survival: racism and white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and transphobia, authoritarianism and imperialism, among others. In order to create enduring change in such a society, SDS will take on these systems by nourishing interconnected and mutually sustaining struggles of liberation. We will consciously and effectively target systems of oppression through collaborative struggle rooted in concrete organizing. We will expand our understanding of issues often viewed as singular to include a more complex analysis of how peoples’ struggles are related and interdependent.
As we fight to end the wars we see every day, we will also fight against the unseen wars of empire, power and profit against people, especially poor and working people. Our common life will only be reclaimed through organized resistance, through local struggles linked together. We will come to know our friends and allies, and make ourselves real friends and allies to the struggles of other peoples.
2. An Organization for Collective Liberation
Oppressed people are at the forefront of movements for liberation. We understand that our work must target structures of domination in order to build powerful diverse movements for change. We realize that lines of power cut deep in our society, and we must be grounded in the work of combating systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, imperialism, heterosexism, transphobia, and the many other forms of oppression thoughtfully and strategically.
We realize that having a verbal commitment to this work is not enough. We must be doing this work. We are committed to learning how oppression operates and how we can transform it. We are committed to leveraging whatever resources we as students and individuals have, thoughtfully, respectfully, and transparently, for the benefit of larger communities and movements.
We believe the campus must be opened, and the character of both university and education in society fundamentally changed from its historical role as the “Ivory Tower” bastion of privilege. We commit to the fight for access to education and higher education, because they are not privileges but rights, and because reparations for bias in admissions owing to systems of oppression are long past due.
We commit to changing the character of education and to affirm the necessity of Ethnic, Women’s, Queer, and African/a studies departments as correctives to the historical bias of academia. We further affirm that curricula in general must be challenged as to both their means and their ends. Education must liberate society from, and not perpetuate, the condition of domination by a select few.
We are committed to listening to, learning from, and amplifying the voices of oppressed communities and their allies. On our campuses, we will prioritize workers’ rights, gender justice, affirmative action other and issues relevant to oppressed members of our communities. We commit to changing the function of the university, to ensure that the university is not above the community but an accountable part of it, and to ensure respect for workers’ rights, for freedom of inquiry, and for the rights of students.
We are committed to listening to, learning from, and amplifying the voices of oppressed communities and their allies. On our campuses, we will prioritize workers’ rights, gender justice, affirmative action other and issues relevant to oppressed members of our communities.
We know that peoples not traditionally recognized as part of the student movement have always been and still are organizing, at the forefront. We recognize that activism and knowledge is not the sole province of a particular demographic; nor is the struggle left simply for the oppressed to take up. Everyone has a duty to listen; everyone has a duty to act.
We will challenge the standards and scripts of activism and action that do not account for the experiences of peoples engaged in struggle, and will give action power by recognizing the diverse and significant ways in which people resist and combat oppression daily. Ordinary people are continuously resisting in extraordinary ways. We will recognize and support acts of resistance that empower people, whether or not such acts fit nicely into an activist mold.
3. An Organization in Solidarity and With Accountability to Others
As Students for a Democratic Society, we see our work as grounded in strong human relationships. We seek to build relationships on solidarity and trust, standing together and recognizing others’ struggles as our own. SDS will not simply proclaim itself in solidarity, but actively practice solidarity with communities, workers, oppressed peoples, and all allied movements in struggle.
We will build strong movements where we live that can both combat oppression at home and offer meaningful support to other movements and communities, here and around the world. Our solidarity will be locally rooted and nationally/globally linked. It will be solidarity across borders, and solidarity against borders.
Our solidarity will be horizontal, shared below. It will subvert and transform the present relations of power. It will build mutual aid between movements, communities, and peoples in revolt, and freedom and autonomy from the powerful. In order to win, we have to be able to rely on each other’s solidarity.
As Students for a Democratic Society, we will also strive to be an accountable organization, one that recognizes, respects, and responds to the collective agency of those struggling for liberation. We affirm our commitment to making our organizing actively accountable to the communities it occurs in and to the people organizing from within these communities. We declare ourselves ready to respect the experience, recognize the leadership of, and actively support the struggles of those directly affected.
4. A Democratic Organization for a Democratic Society
As Students for a Democratic Society, we believe that it has to be up to people themselves to decide what their common life and their society is going to look like, work like and act like. In a society where all power over people’s lives has been taken out of their hands and placed in the hands of the few, the rich and the powerful, this may seem like an impossible dream, but it can and must be made a reality.
As Students for a Democratic Society, we demand and practice nothing less than direct democracy in which everyone participates and nobody dominates. We reaffirm liberation movements’ historic call for “All power to the people.” We reclaim power, in the feminist sense, as “power with,” not “power over.” People must be free, and have the resources they need, to democratically determine the conditions and shape the possibilities of their lives.
We understand that we cannot really be free until all are free, until the means of a free life belong to everyone. We will therefore fight for autonomy and self-determination, alongside the communities most affected, for all of us who have been systematically denied it: For workers’ power in the workplace, for youth and student power in the schools, for empowerment of communities of color, of all genders and sexualities, and for peoples’ control over their own lands and the policies that affect them and their own lives.
5. An Organization That Practices Participatory Democracy
In SDS, participatory democracy is synonymous with direct democracy. We understand direct and participatory democracy to mean that all members of SDS have a right to meaningful participation in decision-making within their organization.
People have a right to participate in decisions proportionate to the degree they are affected by them. Everyone is encouraged to access channels to decision-making, and those who do access them will be held accountable to the rest of the organization.
We are committed to a process that ensures that all voices get heard. We are committed to setting up our organization in such a way that those with limited time and limited resources can all participate. If our organization is open only to those who can sit in endless meetings, it is not a participatory organization. If our spaces do not nurture diverse voices, they are not democratic spaces. Accountable, recallable delegation can be democratic. Roles and responsibilities can be democratic.
Participatory democracy must be horizontal, empowering, and organized.
6. An Organization that Values Autonomy and Accountability Among Ourselves
Autonomy and accountability go hand in hand. Local chapters know their needs and communities best, and they can best respond to their local conditions. We affirm a value of self-determination and self-governance. Autonomy is about building room for local experimentation and diversity.
Autonomy means little, however, without accountability. Without accountability, “autonomy” becomes reactionary. We are an organization because we are stronger together than individually. SDS chapters are accountable to one another and to SDS collectively. Being accountable means consulting with each other and offering positive, constructive critique, in a way that assumes the best about every SDSer. It means respect, and it means compromise for the good of the group. It means approaching one another as allies to build with.
In SDS, we will organize locally according to our own needs and the needs of our communities. At the same time, we will organize them in a way that is conscious of, and contributes to, the larger collective project we are engaged in together as Students for a Democratic Society. We will be accountable to our common goals, values, and commitments. We will be accountable to each other. Only through collective struggle will we win.
Beyond our shared visions and principles, we are striving to build a certain culture in SDS. A culture can’t be written down on paper and approved at a convention. It must be made every day, every time we interact with each other.
If we really do want to win a new society, and really are committed to long-haul struggle, our organizations and movements must support us as whole people. They must be fun, nurturing, accepting, and positive.
We commit to supporting each other in our work for personal and collective transformation. We will see one another as allies, even when we disagree, and we will work to find common ground. We understand that we are on the same team, one that welcomes debate and dissent, and one that’s responsible to itself and to others.
We commit to building mutual support and trust in one another. That can be difficult, but we are up to the task. We recognize that politicization is a process. We know we all come into this organization with different kinds of understanding and experience. We will support each other in this process. We will meet one another where we are, and move forward together.
As Students for a Democratic Society, we will launch a project of renewal and reinvention. We will renew the Left and reinvent the way we organize. We will make our organization useful, accessible and intersectional. We will make our organization relevant to people’s lived experiences, easily understood and widely applicable, and aware of the complexity and interconnectedness of peoples’ struggles.
We will practice solidarity and work towards freedom and self-determination for communities and peoples. We will strengthen a revolutionary form of unity, from below and to the left, that recognizes our differences and builds our collective power.
Every positive change that appears to come from the powers above actually comes from below, through the struggles of “ordinary” people, writing our own history. We will draw our ink and prepare to write a new history together. Our generation does not have the luxury of cynicism. We do not have a scarcity of imagination. Resisting and rebuilding, remembering and reinventing, we will help make the world anew.