Now More Than Ever: Lessons for Rebuilding the Student Movement in the U.S. Today

Group of students, some wearing "New SDS" shirts, marching holding placards.

By Pablo Barbanegra

As I seriously consider the prospect of seeking economic asylum from the “Great Recession” in the university, I find myself ruminating more frequently on my experience as a student organizer. The group I helped found at my university, a chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), is no longer there; even though I only graduated two years ago.  It has vanished without a trace; the only sign alerting to our short-lived existence is an infrequently updated student organization website that still list’s our student group’s name as an active organization.  It doesn’t come as a surprise to me that the group fell apart after the graduation of a few core members.  Despite learning many important lessons near the end of my time as a student organizer, their late implementation greatly hindered our chances of success; as such I think our demise as a group was inevitable.  This is a fate suffered by many student organizations in the U.S.  The student organizing landscaped is littered with the corpses of militant sounding acronyms, cancelled domain names, and list serves that were deleted due to inactivity.  Yet, this dump site could be rehabilitated, and there are plenty of good reasons as to why it must be.  In the following analysis I intend to discuss my own experience and trajectory as a student organizer, lay out what I think are the most important lessons, and outline what I believe students need to be doing in order to build a powerful and combative student movement.

My early attempts at organizing on campus were a resounding failure.  The first two organizations I helped to create were greatly hindered by our complete unfamiliarity with any basic rules of organizing. We figured we would simply find an issue (or several), produce a flyer or fact-sheet, and go do some activity around it.  With our membership in the single-digits, our tiny groups had to rely on spectacular actions to make our point. While most of us found these activities entertaining and militant (for Miami standards), the militancy did not translate into greater power or influence amongst the student body. If anything, it probably served to alienate us further from them. At this point, I would say that these groups’ activities largely remained within the realm of awareness raising, and while this is a critical part of any groups strategy, it can’t encompass the entirety of your group’s work.  The truth is that many groups never go beyond this stage because they lack basic student organizing skills. Awareness raising can usually be done with very few people, and because many political student groups tend to be small this is something that is usually within their capacity as an organization.  Both of these groups soon collapsed after a semester or two, and I was left both physically and emotional drained.

I soon learned that this is called “activist burnout”, or simply “burnout”.  I was burned out in large part because as one of the more committed and knowledgeable student activist I was constantly taking on more work, often filling in the gaps in our groups.  We had no systematic way of teaching or passing on skills in our group, whoever knew how to do something did it.  If you knew how to do a lot of things and other in your group didn’t, then that usually meant that you would be doing more and more work in order to get things done.  As you can imagine, this is extremely inefficient.  So, being burnt out led to me pulling myself away from student activism. Yet, in a few months time, a seminal event would take place at the University of Miami (UM). The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had been organizing UNICCO employees, and many of the janitors and students had gone on hunger strike.  At the time I was taking a Labor Studies course and my professor was involved with the struggle at UM.  He actually had a union organizer come to our school to speak to us about what was happening at UM.  Since this was the only significant labor action in Miami since the FTAA protest, I was really excited to learn more about it and get involved.  Going to UM to take part in this fight got me energized about trying to bring this fight to my school, Florida International University. I met a lot of people at the UM hunger strike, and one of them, an employee at South Florida Jobs with Justice (SFlJwJ) encouraged me to start a chapter of USAS at my campus. At first I had some doubts about just starting a chapter of some already existing organization, but eventually decided to go ahead with it after consulting with some friends, and agreeing on the perceived benefits of tapping into an already existing network with a recognizable name.

It wasn’t long after starting our group that an SEIU organizer got in touch with us and informed us about the organizing they had been doing with our janitors. They asked for our help, which we were pretty glad to offer, and sent two of our members to get trained at the USAS summer conference that year.  We learned a lot about USAS and what other chapter were doing, but really did not receive any sort of systematic, in-depth training on how to organize on campus.  When we returned, we got busy trying to build up our group so that we could be of use to the janitors organizing on campus.  We really had no idea of how we were going to do this though.  We knew nothing about developing a strategy, selecting appropriate tactics, building up our membership, or setting ourselves up for our next fight or goal.  We basically did what the union asked us to do.  The fight at our school would not see us engaging in hunger strikes or building occupations, much to our displeasure. Instead our school administrators would call the SEIU’s bluff and take the employees in-house, granting the janitors union membership in a relatively weak AFSCME local, and getting the SEIU of its back.  The janitors got pay raises, union membership, and a whole host of other benefits. In turn, we were back at square one.  We had barely established relations with the janitors, and had no real way of fighting back if the school decided to renege on some of its concessions or not rehire some of the more militant workers.  This was not a good position to be in.

Yet, these concerns soon took a backseat to a new organizing prospect being offered by SFL JwJ.  With all the recent student organizing happening in Miami, they felt it might be a good idea if student activist started making more formal links with each other.  The small size of the Left in South Florida, and the geographical isolation of many of the campuses can prove to be a somewhat desolate environment for student organizers.  Three student organizers spent the summer getting some training and laying the groundwork for this emerging network.  The network came together pretty quickly, and a well attended student activist conference was organized for that Fall, but our rapid success would soon prove to be our undoing.  At the conference, the already visible tensions between different political tendencies within the burgeoning student network came to a head.  With no real experience and theoretical knowledge of how to deal with these differences, the group slowly deteriorated, until one week people just stopped showing up to the meetings.  It was a painful realization, but one whose lessons would not go unheeded.

As a last ditch effort to save the student activist network, SFlJwJ and the SEIU helped us raise money for a genuine student organizing training.  This was perhaps the most important and valuable gift either of these groups could have given us.  Whatever their reasons may have been for offering this to us, the intensive, three day Grassroots Organizing Weekend (GROW) training illuminated so many things about student organizing.  I describe this as an epiphanic or “ah-ha”moment, so much so that I began qualifying my student organizing experience as Before GROW (BG) and After GROW (AG).  It wasn’t so much that the training itself was some kind of panacea, but more like a large flood light that had been turned on in a relatively dark area.  It helped us to demystify a lot of the work that goes into student organizing, and in turn got us thinking more strategically about organizing.  Despite the usefulness of the training, it was too late for our student activist network.  Yet, the training made us realize that many of errors we had made where due to our overall lack of general student organizing know-how.

It’s often said that there is an easy way to learning something and a hard way.  When it comes to student organizing, the work may be difficult but it doesn’t mean the lessons learned need to be.  Of course, it’s hard to know which lessons you should be learning when you don’t even know where you’re messing up.  Since you’re usually in school for only 4 years, you have to make the most of your time, and this implies a fast learning curve on the part of student organizers.  That’s why trainings that lay out the basics like understanding power relations, group building and leadership development, how to choose a campaign, learning how to use a strategy chart, coalition building, and planning actions are so important.  These training often encompass the hard-learned lessons of previous organizers, and therefore allow new organizers to bypass the self-defeating process of “reinventing the wheel”.  The trainings also emphasis the need to think strategically about campaigns, and to make our goals specific and realizable over a length of time.  Yet, these training are often pricey, and probably difficult to afford for a newly form student organization.  I think part of any strategy to rebuild the student movement has to figure out a way to provide these training to student organizers at low or no cost.  While there already exist organization like the United States Student Association, which provides their members and some interested groups with GROW training, I don’t know if they’re doing this in the most effective manner.  For example, I think that for the price of one of their training’s I could have provided four or five.  I would have gladly taken a pay cut and focused on training local schools which would have dramatically decreased the cost of the training.  One thing is for sure though, student organizing trainings are a necessary tool for rebuilding the student movement, and as such should be made widely available at a low cost (if any).

Another major obstacle facing the student movement is the inability of most organizations to become institutionalized.  It’s not uncommon to hear of a certain organization that is very active for a few years, largely with the help of its seasoned leadership, but upon the graduation of several key members it falls apart.  If these student organizations keep disappearing after a few years, it makes it quite difficult for a movement to build the necessary traction to win some of the longer term goals.  The main obstacle to institutionalizing has to do with student organizations not being able to build new leaders and recruit new members in order keep the organization going.  Granted, this is a task that’s easier said than done, but what really makes the likelihood of this happening minimal is that most student organizers don’t know how to do this effectively.  Often time, the progressive groups on campus tend to be rather small, rarely surpassing a membership of 30 people (at least I’ve never seen one).  Out of those 30, maybe 10 will constitute as core members.  It takes a really disciplined group to be able to juggle recruitment, leadership development, and running a campaign, all the while going to school and sometimes working a job.  Here’s where I feel a national organization could be quite useful, as organizer schools or training could be permanently setup for member organizations to send new recruits or future leaders.  Though I think the immediate task is to get students trained in basic student organizing skills so as to develop a new batch of leaders than can survive the departure of the previous leaders.

The next critical issue has to do with the focus of the student movement.  I feel that too much of the work that students do can be described as, for lack of a better term, solidarity work.  Now, let me say this upfront, I’m not against students connecting the dots and recognizing that their desire for liberation is often tied with the struggle and desires of non-students (campus workers, professors, community organizations, workers or other dominated groups struggles’ abroad, etc.).  Yet, it seems odd to me that while almost all of these other groups are fighting for their self-interest, student organizers tend to largely neglect their own concerns and issues as students.  It may be the case that the category of student is somewhat ambivalent, and because student organizing is of an inter-class nature these student concerns may be quite varied.  Though, from a working class perspective there are clearly some struggles that stand out.  What I take issue with is the predominance that solidarity work has amongst student organizers in relations to the more “bread and butter” student issues.  I have often heard students refer to themselves as “privileged” in relation to other sectors of the university and society.  While some students may indeed be “privileged” economically and so forth, the mere fact that one is a student should not serve to qualify one as such. I think that the perception that student specific demands are the demands of a more “privileged” sector of society, whether explicitly or implicitly is quite prevalent amongst many progressive student organizers.  This, in turn, I think leads to a de-prioritizing of student specific issues by student organizer and organizations.

So, while I don’t believe students shouldn’t be engaging in solidarity work, I think that more organizing needs to be done around the “bread and butter” student issues to rebuild the student movement.  Currently, the affordability of higher education is under attack, and thus, presents an important area of struggle that could affect a large sector of the student population, especially those who’re working class. Therefore, I think students need to be fighting more on issues that pertain to making higher education more accessible.  These could be fights around tuition hikes, increasing financial aid, bringing down the cost of books, student debt, and potentially free higher education.  Yet, I don’t see how we’re going to win these fights unless there is a strategic refocusing on these issues on the part of student organizers and organizations.  I think that it will be largely through these fights that progressive student organizations will begin to generate some mass appeal amongst the student body; as these are issues that tend to affect many students directly. I feel that it’s out of these types of struggles that progressive student organization can develop a solid base of support for organizing students today.  The levels of consciousness and struggle amongst students in the US are quite low, perhaps the lowest they’ve ever been, and we need to take this into consideration when trying to determine which struggles require our immediate attention. I believe that it will be largely these “bread and butter” struggles that will help to reinvigorate the student movement, and eventually make it possible to not only win our own struggles as students, but to potentially engage in solidarity work with a greater capacity as our base grows and develops.

Through this account of my own organizing experience, I hope to have demonstrated why I think trainings, the institutionalization of student organizations, and a refocusing on student specific issues by student organizer and organization are necessary for rebuilding the student movement.  The trainings are key to helping students think strategically about organizing, make the most of their time as organizers, and avoid as much as possible “reinventing the wheel”.  Once students have mastered these basics, the chances of their organizations being able to reproduce leaders and recruit new members to keep the organization alive are highly increased; though eventually something like a national student organization can greatly aid in ensuring that this type of development is happening across the board, and that student organizations on the ground have enough time to focus on both the development of the group and the winning of campaigns.  A refocusing on student specific issues is necessary for the rebuilding of the student movement as these issues will often have a greater mass appeal and allow student organizer and organization to build up a base.  These student organizations can then engage in solidarity work with greater capacity, and hopefully have a greater impact on what these other struggles can achieve.  Rebuilding the student movement will not be an easy task, but one that is nonetheless necessary, as students worldwide have shown their capacity and commitment to struggle for a better and more just world.