Giving Form to a Stampede: The First Two Years of the New Students for a Democratic Society

Joshua Kahn Russell and Brian Kelly

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.” – Sun Tzu

Recently, at a party, one of us was introduced as an organizer involved in launching the “new” Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The person raised her eyebrows. “I don’t know anything about the new SDS,” she said, “but it makes me think of a Beatles reunion tour with none of the original members. Why would I want to see that?”

We were also skeptical at first. We knew we needed to learn from movements and organizing traditions that came before us, and to root ourselves in history as part of moving forward. But do we really need a half-assed reunion tour or more Sixties worship? Surely, we thought, we should be building new organizations, not trying to reignite old ones. And why would we want to restart one with as fractious a history as SDS?

The new SDS celebrated its second birthday on Martin Luther King, Jr. day in January of 2008. The new organization bears little resemblance to the original SDS. But building an organization with the same attention-grabbing name, aspirations to inter-generational organizing, and roots in student power and participatory democracy hit a nerve in the US. Within a year, we had hundreds of chapters and thousands of members across the country, the vast majority of them new to organizing. SDS quickly became what is likely the largest self-identified revolutionary youth organization in the country. It has been an exciting time, producing lots of interest and opportunities, as well as mistakes, disputes, frustrations, and heartbreaks. Two years later, we want to step back and examine the birth of SDS1, distill the dynamics of its growth, and draw some lessons from the challenges we have faced. While we have each played different roles within the organization, we have also each done our best to maintain a broad view of the national direction of our group.

More than anything, SDS has so far been a vehicle for introducing political organizing to young people across the United States. This introduction happens differently in different places, and there is great diversity among SDS chapters on a local level. We will try to explore the organizational dynamics of national organizing, while recognizing that these national dynamics have not necessarily been replicated in all local chapters, and that they don’t necessarily capture the experience of SDS across the country in a uniform way.2

Our hope in helping launch SDS was that it would become more than a place for people to share ideas and more than a common banner under which people could gather. We hoped it could be a space to collectively assess the political moment, strategize about how to engage it in a coherent way, and build a base of young organizers in the US as part of a larger mass movement. If we could coordinate our efforts across the country, we reasoned, young radicals would no longer remain isolated, feeling like they had to reinvent the wheel. With mechanisms to make quick decisions and respond immediately to changes in our political landscape, we could become an organization that effectively tackles pressing political problems3 and makes meaningful contributions to larger movements as young people. Nevertheless, despite its accomplishments, SDS has faced serious organizational challenges and setbacks. If SDS is unable to meet these challenges, it is difficult to imagine building the mass base we need to build a new society.

SDS is on the brink of what may be a make-or-break year. In exploring both the possibilities and challenges it faces, we have identified a spectrum of assumptions about how change happens. While many members came to SDS with at least some analysis of how society works, SDS has engaged in little political education or internal debate about what we think it will take to build a revolutionary movement. Most SDS projects and adventures continue to be informed by a mixed (and often contradictory) set of approaches, tools, and biases that flow from a number of unexamined assumptions.

If SDS is to overcome its own contradictions, it needs to be more intentional in collectively building an understanding of how people can change society. Because we see social change as happening through the collective organized action of millions of people, we need clarity about where we are going and about the commitment required to get there. This means navigating the immediate decisions that organizers must make with an eye to the practical tasks involved in achieving larger goals. Rather than become paralyzed by insular searches for “purity of politics and process” detached from the needs of movement-building, we must create organizational vehicles capable of compelling large numbers of people to move forward together. SDS must focus on the important political issues of our time and engage them decisively if we want to avoid collapsing into a marginal network of self-referential activists.

Where Were We?

It’s easy to mistake reasoned disillusionment for apathy. In a now infamous New York Times op-ed entitled “Generation Quiet,” Thomas Friedman claimed that youth today embody an apathetic student culture, more interested in blogging about social change than actually creating it. Professors across the nation decry the level of disengagement they see in their students.

By launching SDS, we thought we could prove them wrong. We believed that skepticism and disillusionment are different from apathy. Disenchanted skeptics understand that change needs to be made, they just don’t believe it can be done. Those who are apathetic, on the other hand, just don’t care. It’s no coincidence that the most popular forms of progressive media in the US are based on sarcasm and comedy. The Onion, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show are popular because they speak to the reasoned disillusionment of our generation.

Young people do not need to be convinced that society is broken. What our generation needs is a sense of agency. We need to show each other that change is possible, that there are ways of reorganizing society, and that there are groups with a plan to make it happen. By rooting itself in the tradition of an older organization of the same name, SDS hit that nerve amongst students. The result was an attractive force for lots of new (progressive, mostly white) people, many of whom had never had any experience in social movements, as well as young radicals who were excited to feel like they were a part of something big for the first time.

At the same time, the increasingly transparent atrocity of the Iraq War was politicizing students across the country. SDS was largely a response to the political void on American campuses: there was no national, multi-issue, radical student formation. The Iraq War, along with domestic attacks on civil liberties and human rights (especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), were central to politicizing youth and students. However, no one was connecting local student anti-war work nationally with the political breadth that SDS seemed capable of.

Pre-existing student anti-war groups chose to affiliate as SDS chapters, and became our organizational grounding. At Brian’s school, Pace University, the anti-war group became an SDS chapter. On Josh’s Brandeis campus, the group Radical Student Alliance also affiliated. The name SDS gave us the kind of buzz we needed to gain national attention and to connect with others.

What is SDS?

SDS began as a concept – a meme that was set loose among youth in the United States.4 Embedded in the idea was the possibility of a national student organization that could transcend ideological factionalism, carry explicitly revolutionary politics, and ground itself in student power. That idea has opened a doorway into movements for social, environmental, racial, and economic justice for thousands of young people in the US.

Within its first year, SDS chapters led student walkouts for immigrant rights on May Day, organized large youth contingents at anti-war demonstrations, successfully blocked the deployment of weapons from ports, shut down military recruitment centers, fought education budget cuts, waged free speech battles, ousted a University president, built student unions (in a US context where student unionism has been almost non-existent), ran for student government seats, and practiced solidarity with local community campaigns. Some of the more visible early chapters of SDS recruited members through viral media stunts, pushing the boundaries of acceptable protest in order to spark debate, controversy, and to excite a base of newly-politicizing youth.

The flashy actions included acts of civil disobedience at major military recruitment centres in New York and New England, and shutting down ports in the Northwest and Southwest to stop the shipment of war supplies and the redeployment of soldiers. We held a handful of fast-moving, highly visible free speech campaigns at Pace University, the University of Central Florida, and Ohio University. The organization publicized college administration crackdowns on SDS organizing, which included arrests, threats of expulsion of student activists, prohibiting SDS chapters from forming as school clubs, and barring them from flyering, tabling, or holding events on campuses. All of this was happening in the context of aggressive Republican rule and a crackdown on civil liberties under the imperial Bush presidency.

The result was a stampede, of sorts. Thousands of small white SDS buttons found their way onto the jackets of young people across the country. SDS organizers networked at conferences, held city-wide meetings across the Northeast, and built an online presence to recruit members. But the vision for SDS was so broad that it could include almost anybody, and thousands rushed to join an organization that didn’t have the capacity to keep up. Those who joined in the beginning struggled to push this capacity forward in what often felt like a vacuum of experience, structure, and goals. We all made a lot of mistakes.

SDS members in big cities like New York, where a myriad of activist groups already existed, had some support (legal, emotional, and physical) for actions that occasionally resulted in arrests. Most of the time, actions, even those leading to arrest, didn’t put members at long-term risk. The arrests helped us push boundaries that had constrained youth groups for some time, and the resulting media attention helped build SDS by getting people excited about building popular resistance to the war. But we also faced challenges. In New York, flashy actions put SDS on the defensive. Chapters often got stuck in crisis mode and were forced into anti-repression campaigns and legal battles that distracted them from the main goal of organizing. More problematically, methods used successfully in big cities were replicated elsewhere, often in areas where they were not useful or effective.

In a joint action, Pace University SDS and New School SDS – joined by the Pace Muslim Student Association, New School Women of Color Organization, and Sustainability Committee – successfully shut down a military recruiting station in downtown Manhattan. The action drew over a hundred young activists, many new to activism, and culminated in a 30-person sit-in inside the station. Twenty people were arrested. The action increased our commitment, excitement, and numbers. Several days later, a small group of students tried a similar action in Ohio in a context that lacked the support infrastructure available in New York. Two students were arrested. Were it not for emergency fundraising through informal networks (SDS has no official structure to accommodate fundraising), one of our activists would have spent up to 30 days in jail. While done with enthusiasm and the best of intentions, the action in Ohio did not mobilize a base of students, or deepen people’s connection and commitment. It was an example of a common dynamic in SDS: a formulaic approach to activism in which certain tactics are applied universally, arrest is romanticized, and expressive, symbolic tactics are preferred to planned strategy and clarity of goals.

Since then, the most exciting and compelling factors in SDS’s initial success have often gone on to produce contradictory results. These factors prevented SDS from consolidating and making meaningful contributions to the movement, and threatened its vitality and sustainability. Many dynamics that led to the organization’s membership growth have also left it volatile, vulnerable, and unable to sustain the true growth it needs to “stampede” on the order of magnitude our times require. While viral promotion inspired thousands to sign up, SDS did not have the capacity to handle the intensity of interest it generated, nor did it have a plan for building that capacity. We didn’t even have a legitimate space to discuss creating a plan. National support work was often invisible, unsupported, or outright attacked,5 and many SDSers felt isolated on their campuses.

Still, the process of building local coalitions, waging campaigns, engaging in street actions, organizing training camps, coordinating conventions, and debating ideas, have been opportunities for young organizers across the country to grow and learn. Transformational experiences like these have helped turn energetic young people into long-haul organizers with a holistic analysis of how society works and a vision of how it could work differently. The role of those doing national work has been to create a context for these transformational experiences, in an effort to deepen the analysis, commitment, and connection of SDSers across the country.

Birth Stories and Growing Pains

Almost immediately, SDS attracted media attention for which it was unprepared. Without a coherent, unified message about who we were or what we wanted, media attention was handled in a haphazard way. Without conscious control over our own narrative, two basic SDS stories emerged. One was generated in the media, and one developed internally, but neither fully captured the birth story of the new SDS.

The media story has been a version of the “great leader” myth: a high school student named Pat (sometimes a student named Jessica is included in the story) linked up with original SDS founder Al Haber (sometimes other older allies are included), and together they built the organization through charismatic leadership. Aside from being a misleading portrayal, this story hurt SDS organizationally. The founders came under fire for “trying to take credit” for the group’s growth and seeking personal fame, something neither Pat Korte nor Jessica Rapchick wanted to do. It’s no surprise that the “great leader” story is repeated in the mainstream media: it resonates deeply with a dominant narrative in society that sees social change arising from the acts of exceptional individuals rather than from the collective work of many.

The second story emerged internally within SDS, and had some truth to it. It was more grassroots, and rejected focusing on individuals. Instead, it highlighted the diversity and plurality of the perspectives and experiences of SDS chapters across the country. While this story comes from a healthy place of not wanting to chart our history though the biographies of a few individual leaders, it has also complicated SDS’s understanding of itself as an organization. This story reinforces a problematic conception of change as basically spontaneous: random collections of people come together, take action, and this somehow adds up to a coherent movement. It reinforces a myth that “we have no leaders” instead of developing an anti-authoritarian analysis around leadership that is collective, bottom-up, and democratic.

What both stories leave out is the fact that there were organizers who helped build SDS nationally and actively sought to move the whole group forward. This is the third, untold “organizer story” of SDS. There were, from the beginning, organizers who tried to create a space for many people to talk about their perspectives, creating (and exposing SDSers to) transformative experiences, making alliances, building strategic organizational connections and allies, organizing in the field, intentionally crafting memes that spread across the nation, and developing organizers who can take initiative. By leaving this work out of the story, important organizing lessons – indeed, important understandings of what organizing is – are lost.

Since our formation, SDSers interested in national coordination provided the organization with an internet hub (including a national website, chapter websites, and too many listservs), which helped develop communication and relationships among members and disseminate information on activities. Doing national work meant answering constant phone calls and emails, welcoming and providing resources to new chapters, linking those chapters up with opportunities other organizations were making available, dealing with the media overload when no means of national media coordination existed (by putting reporters in touch with SDSers across the country, helping SDSers prep for interviews, and diversifying the pool of people speaking to the media), forming working groups, proposing and fundraising for national and regional gatherings such as conventions and training camps, and linking up chapters with trainers and local organizers who could share experience and teach organizing skills.

Nurturing organizational growth has required the slow work of organizing, outreach, recruitment, and mentorship. It has been an effort to harness quantitative growth in a qualitative direction in order to build the organization for the long-term, develop its leaders and grassroots organizers, increase their commitment and numbers, and create a collective identity and politics. This is no small task. Starting a stampede is much easier than shaping it and providing the focus that can help it develop.

There was no clearly-defined group of people doing this work. Most members who took part fell in and out of those roles, often unintentionally. While some members feared the development of a “national elite” – a clique of insiders conspiring to make the organization in their own image – those doing this work wished and argued for democratic structures to share the workload. Without legitimized roles, there was no way to know who was doing what (or what needed to be done). It sometimes felt like an uphill battle making the case that legitimized roles did not equal “hierarchy.”

It quickly became apparent that without clear goals, we could have no clear strategic orientation. This lack of strategic direction played itself out in myriad of ways, from our (lack of) structure, to our (mis)understanding of participatory democracy, to problems in addressing dynamics of power and oppression inside and outside the organization.

Liberatory Politics

The “old” SDS was an organization viewed as firmly situated in the white left. When the call was put out to re-form SDS, news travelled in certain networks, most of which were predominantly white. The legacy of SDS relates to some folks and not others, and the makeup of the new SDS often reflects that.

Despite SDS often boasting that it’s initial base was in community colleges and public schools, this did not translate into work relevant to campus workers6 or internal dynamics that accommodated the needs of working class participation and leadership.7 Early on, class was talked about almost exclusively in the context of ‘solidarity’ with workers, and not in terms of building our power to make campuses more accessible through open admissions, tuition freezes, or defending affirmative action policies even though these fights were often being waged locally by SDSers.

Early patterns of patriarchy emerged in our first year, as young organizers fell into traditional socialized roles. It was common in some chapters (and nationally) for men to dominate meetings and informal leadership positions. The contributions of women were often less visible. In different areas of the country, women were left out of some circles of information and political development.

Over the past two years, SDS has begun to challenge these patterns and share power among members. In the wake of the stampede, many SDS organizers took very seriously the challenge of integrating liberatory practices8 into every level of the organization. Issues of race and gender in particular (and to a lesser degree, class and sexuality) came to the forefront at our conferences. The struggle to ensure that the group’s work is accountable to people most affected by the issues we address is complex in an organization with goals as vague as SDS’s.

Some chapters formed alliances with student organizations of colour (Brandeis SDS, for example, joined Latino and Black student groups on campus in coordinating a student strike on May Day 2006). The push to do more liberatory organizing has produced efforts ranging from a new northeast Katrina and Rita survivor support working group, to local organizing with immigrant organizations mobilizing against gentrification. A new northeast campaign addressing student debt is also quite promising.

Unfortunately, for a period, SDS’s approach to issues of accountability and oppression made members look exclusively inward and lose sight of our actual work combatting oppression in society. Some chapters simply stopped organizing and became paralyzed by internal process, while others seemed more concerned with enforcing the “correct” use of language than working together.

When there were too many male voices representing SDS in the media, the response was to attack those speaking rather than to create systems of support for others to publish and be represented. Rather than looking at media exposure as a chance to articulate a youth perspective or promote our organization and work, the focus was exclusively on internal fairness – “did this person give a quote to a media source before? Why are they doing it again?”9 The important impulse to ensure the representation of people from different experiences, communities, and identities in the media and on the frontlines of actions was often taken to the point of ignoring the actual content of media work and actions. When so much energy is focused on having on-point personal politics, it is easy to prioritize image over everything else.

The response to men in the media illustrates a larger pattern in SDS of viewing organizing as a zero-sum game. The zero-sum competitive angle that people took on issues of empowerment – relying on and reinforcing a simplistic dichotomy between ‘privileged’ and ‘oppressed’ – often focused exclusively on who was “messing up” rather than on how to actively support and create space for more people to develop and to support the leadership of people from oppressed communities and backgrounds.

This is a crucial lesson for those interested in this kind of organizing work. When the focus is on moving the whole group forward, we are challenged to actively create more space for people to grow and develop by organizing panels, speaking tours, campaigns, training camps, news bulletins, and other organizational publications. This doesn’t mean ignoring problematic behaviour in individuals, or not developing good personal politics, but these things should be done with a view to our collective goals.

The zero-sum habit also reinforced SDS’s inability to assess its own capacity. Time spent engaging with these issues meant ignoring the work that was not being done. An example of this was a tendency towards “caucusing-as-a-formula.” SDS would caucus by constituency/identity at every gathering.10 Caucusing was not seen as a tool that makes sense in certain contexts (for example as a mechanism to ensure decision-making empowers marginalized SDSers). Instead, it was seen as the entirety of our work against oppression. Students would make long pilgrimages to weekend conventions where entire days were spent caucusing, with little agenda or direction. Often little else was accomplished.

This may have been a necessary process given the stage of growth of the organization; while dealing with complex issues of power as a group for the first time, SDS needed to spend time consciousness-raising, naming dynamics, and talking about them. Because SDS went through that process, members now stand on firmer ground from which to engage these issues and spend less time at regional conventions caucusing for that purpose. It is a hopeful departure from a tendency in SDS to search for strict formulas.

Although frustrating, many of these painful bumps have been important experiences. The level of analysis around these issues within national organizing is far deeper now. It will be an ongoing challenge to make sure that this is true for the membership and base. SDS still must grapple with the content of its work, and how to develop meaningful relationships with local communities when so often students are transplanted for a short period of time to campuses isolated from the lives of people in surrounding areas. In its struggle around its own whiteness, SDS must ask questions about the role of students in societal transformation, considering our institutional and social locations.

Yet an approach is emerging that is less inclined toward insularity and picking people apart, and more oriented toward thinking through building an empowering and inclusive organization to fight for social justice. Other organizations have become stuck in the insular phase, and have been torn apart as a result. Recent SDS conventions have included roundtable discussions about approaches to this work that can help make SDS a welcoming environment for new people, make our work relevant and meaningful to lots of different folks, and avoid unintentionally alienating prospective members. Chapters increasingly have experiences to share with one another, taking concepts like solidarity out of the conceptual realm and grounding them in practice.

To continue on this trajectory, SDSers need to be collectively invested in relevant campaigns around which to build unity – political work that is distinct from the work of building the organization. Without concrete campaigns to focus our energies, many members feel no reason to work together towards something greater despite differences in perspective, and relatively small disagreements can become magnified to epic proportions and distract us from the importance of our work.

Participatory Democracy

When SDS began, the organization didn’t have a shared definition of what we meant by “Participatory Democracy.” It was a catch-all term aimed at loosely defining our vision for society as well as our internal structure. Most organizations are built by a relatively small number of people getting together and laying out vision, then goals, then structure, and then inviting people to join. SDS was launched in reverse: a concept spread throughout the country and then we were left with the tremendous task of getting hundreds of young people to come to some agreement about what we were about and what the organization should look like.

Defining terms like “participatory democracy” and agreeing on what types of processes and decision-making models make sense takes time and discussion – lots of it. Without a mechanism for having those discussions – we still do not have any meaningful forum for organization-wide discussion – members across the country have continued to define things very differently. The result has been chaotic. The only mandate and obligation emerging from our first national convention in 2006 was that the 2007 national convention would be a constitutional convention to determine the organization’s structure. The task was to bring together hundreds of people, many of whom did not know or trust one another, had never made decisions in large groups, and did not share common political and organizational assumptions about what SDS is or could be, and somehow decide what the organization should look like. Proposals ranged from detailed systems of councils, all the way to arguments against any kind of structure at all. Some members came demanding strict consensus decision-making for all 300 participants while others wanted a supermajority for votes.

Almost all the structure proposals had one thing in common: they were ideologically driven.11 As an organization, we had no process for developing a sense of what we wanted to do and then coming up with an appropriate organizing model. Instead, people proposed structures that were rarely designed to meet concrete needs. The debate was often framed by concepts like “decentralization” versus “centralization” – an abstract theoretical simplification, and ultimately a distracting framework that kept us from talking about organizational needs.

In the absence of any level of agreement, the default assumption was often that participatory democracy meant “we all get an equal say in every decision.” That meant a free for all: it engendered a sense of entitlement and pandered to the loudest and most extreme positions.12 For example, those who wanted strict consensus decision-making for the whole convention attempted to kick out the facilitators when a vote did not go their way. Instead of engaging one another with humility and openness, SDSers engaged one another with arrogance and combativeness. There was little recognition that learning how to organize and developing politically were processes that we were all going through, or that many of us had different levels of experience to contribute. SDS was unable to share or learn from the experience of its own members. The atmosphere further alienated many new members from engaging with a collaborative process.

The planning for the 2007 convention involved weekly open conference calls. Notes were sent out to national listservs, and open working groups were formed with great care taken to ensure regional representation. Countless calls and invitations to join the planning committee were sent to members. A convention bulletin went out regularly.13 It was the most participatory planning process either of us have ever seen in an all-volunteer, all-youth organization. And still, the 30+ convention organizers did not feel legitimized to make basic decisions about how the convention would be run.

The role of conference organizers was to create a space for people to voice their ideas and for some decisions to be made. Early on, it was proposed that we form a group that would be responsible for seeing the actual event through from start to finish.14 This proposal was shot down as an “authoritarian centralization of power.” The work still needed to be done, but no one was officially empowered to do it. Informal networks based on experience and personal relationships emerged, and a small group of people felt tremendous pressure to hold the convention together. This work could easily have been shared by a larger group of people delegated to play that role. Instead, whispers and groaning about informal leadership permeated the convention floor. Ironically, those performing organizing functions were so busy trying to create space for the convention that they could not even participate in the debates about the future of their own organization. In an attempt to model transparency, these members took the chance to get on stage to describe the convention dynamic and plant the idea that without formalized roles, informal leadership will inevitably fill the vacuum.15 While this was perhaps a step forward in SDS’s thinking, it was still one step away from understanding that there are different levels of leadership (both formal and informal) in all organizations. This is a positive thing as long as it is intentional, transparent, and democratic.

Based on the idea that organization is inherently limiting and that social change is spontaneous, some SDS members focused on “protecting themselves” from bad individuals they thought were seeking to control the organization and lock them out. Rather than asking “what can we build together?” the approach was “how can I defend myself and my autonomy from whatever you want to do?” “Autonomy” was defined in terms of wanting to be autonomous from one another, not as about being responsible to each other in order to collectively win autonomy from oppressive institutions. This prevented us from creating a meaningful national structure that could meet our need to support members and chapters, and organize for a new world.

The effect of this structurelessness on high school students serves as an important example. SDS has a growing number of high school members who are organizing, trying to organize, or who have expressed interest in organizing an SDS chapter. Many live in areas where no communities of activists exist, and where it is tremendously difficult to develop analysis and skills. Although some SDS members at well-resourced universities and colleges (or in cities where activist communities exist) might not see the concrete need for national infrastructure, that lack of infrastructure has severely affected our ability to provide often-isolated high school (and less-resourced college) members with support, resources, and organizing ideas that fit their context.

In contrast to the “structure” debate, many of the organization’s vision proposals were soundly grounded in organizing needs. They centered on SDS being relevant to society rather than cultivating a marginalizing subcultural identity; on being accountable to the communities we work in as well as to one another; on student solidarity with workers; on grounding ourselves in long-haul struggle and long-term strategic thinking; on taking seriously our desire to win a new society; on grounding ourselves in organizing rather than just activism; on a commitment to mentorship and leadership development; on learning from the past and reinventing our movements for the future; on practicing participatory democracy; on engaging in liberatory politics; on having a holistic approach to our analysis; and on being bold in our vision for the future. These vision documents were an example of SDS organizers reframing our work around an internal culture that prefigures the participatory democracy we want to achieve while always staying focused on building our power and growing our base.

While there is often a disconnect between affirming these values in principle and confronting the organizational challenges involved in making them a practical reality, the overwhelming enthusiasm for vision documents addressing these issues signals their importance, even as it highlights the contradictory assumptions and political positions held by many SDS members.

The Future

Though SDS now has between 120 and 150 chapters, we have received more than 400 chapter applications, and many thousands of membership applications. What would have happened if a national organization had been there to answer all those applications and to connect members with each other, and with resources, ideas, mentors, and allies? What if our high school members were taken seriously? What if SDS was a space where they could develop their leadership and skills, empowering them with the tools they need to educate themselves and their peers?

What would SDS’s relationship to its racial demographics be if it had an organizing model that could nurture public high school organizing and not have its default focus be on the universities that are so often bastions of whiteness and privilege? What kinds of organizing insights would SDS have if it could learn from battles that high school students of colour across the country are currently waging? In what ways could we take leadership from different sectors of youth and truly embody our name?

SDS chapters across the country have been engaging in 
anti-war organizing but have not built a national campaign to serve as a focus for this work. What kind of contributions to the anti-war movement could SDS make if this organizing was done more coherently? What will happen if the US declares war on Iran? Will SDS be able to effectively mobilize that very day, issue press releases, clearly express youth outrage and influence the national debate? Or will organizers have their hands tied because “no one can speak for SDS”? Will we have the space needed to make organizational decisions at all? What kind of capacity would the organization have if it had been able to tap the natural base of older, original SDSers for major fundraising in order to put full-time field organizers on the ground across the country? What if SDS was able to empower people to represent the organization and to actually participate in coalitions? Can SDS hope to be relevant in the absence of the capacity to relate to other forces within our broader movements?

The issue at hand is not just what kind of structure SDS develops. It’s about our priorities and organizing – our internal structure and process must complement these things. SDS has yet to develop a democratic, participatory organizing model to meet the needs of a national organization with the capacity to mobilize a mass base. If we had taken this seriously, our little stampede in the beginning might have become the true stampede we need: hundreds of thousands of young radicals getting organized.

The work of an organizer means taking political risks and constantly engaging new ideas. It means highlighting our own mistakes in order to illustrate a point and model accountability. The work of pushing SDS forward has been largely invisible within SDS, which has prevented more members from taking it on. This threatens the sustainability of that work, if not of the organization itself. SDS is beginning to articulate its own story. We hope it breaks through both the media-driven “great leader” story and the internal “spontaneous birth” story in favour of one that includes the important role of organizing aimed at pushing the whole group forward. This will help to demystify organizing, experience, leadership, and other concepts SDS has struggled with. It will also help to clarify the tasks involved in building a relevant mass movement of young people aimed at revolutionizing our country.

In its mission statement, the original Students for a Democratic Society posited that revolutionaries should seek

relevance through the continual focus on realities and on programs necessary to affect change at the most basic levels of economic, political and social organization. [They] feel… the urgency to put forth a radical, democratic program whose methods embody the democratic vision.

In two sentences, the old SDS outlined some of the central ways in which political organizers must relate to those around them. What are our political realities? What is our political moment?

A staggering 80% of people in the United States are currently unhappy with the direction of our country.16 This year presents us with an opportunity to engage millions of young people excited by the prospect of real change in our country. Hope for change, which is embodied for many in Barack Obama’s campaign for the White House, is causing thousands of young people to talk about politics for the first time. Primary voter turnout in some states has doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled in this election cycle.17 Like never before in our short lifetimes, the streets, cafés, bars, dorms, and subway cars are filled with the hopeful chatter of young people talking about politics, society, and events around the world. Without diving into the dramatic identity crisis the US left seems to develop during election years, and without fostering illusions about Obama’s policies, it is undeniable that there is a political and ideological sea change underway in our country. The Obama campaign represents merely a surface wave on an ocean of possibilities for tilting the political landscape in our favour. Obama is simply saying the right things and using the right language at the right time. Radicals building grassroots power, armed with a vision of the future and a program to get there, can talk about our politics using that same inspirational language. We can captivate and inspire the US public rather than alienate it.

Meanwhile, the impending climate crisis is radicalizing progressives who are quickly realizing that massive, comprehensive action is required in order to avert the worst kind of environmental catastrophe. Even many of those in power understand that we need to overhaul our very way of life if humanity is to survive. The struggle will be over how that overhaul will happen, who will benefit, and what the outcome will be. Current student and youth groups tackling climate change like Energy Action Coalition have a base of tens of thousands of young people, and that number is growing exponentially. There is a public narrative emerging connecting climate change to racism in the wake of hurricane Katrina, to war in the wake of an oil and blood-soaked invasion of Iraq, and to the very heart of the way the Empire operates. We may be headed toward an opportunity to make quite a lot of change in a short amount of time. Will we seize that opportunity, or will we keep our heads buried in the sand?

As a movement, we have the task of building the political infrastructure needed to politicize and radicalize millions of young people – building their commitment, leadership, analysis, confidence, and ability to affect fundamental change. The degree to which we take this task seriously will influence how well we can use future political opportunities to our advantage. Conversations about the current political moment and its implications for our organizing should be elevated to the level of the highest importance. Will there be space for them in SDS?

SDS has a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of the creativity, innovation, and passion of its young organizers by making itself a place where we can have these conversations, and get to work on building a mass revolutionary movement that can help change the course of history.18 We have described some of the patterns and assumptions that have held SDS back, but these didn’t originate with us. Indeed, this is where much of the US left is stuck. We should be committed to movement building more than we are committed to strict, ideologically rooted, process. And we should want to win more than we want to be content knowing we’re right. We need to move beyond being marginalized, self-identified radicals, content to bicker with each other on the fringes. Instead, we need to move toward an organizing model that seeks to help move millions of people toward liberation. This is the central lesson we have learned from our first two years of organizing in the new Students for a Democratic Society.

Notes

1 Unless otherwise specified, “SDS” refers to the “new” organization, not the historical one.

2 Thanks to all of the SDSers who have looked at this piece and given us feedback, including Harjit Singh Gill, Beth Slutsky, Jasper Connor, Daniel Tasripin, Meaghan Linick, Madeline Gardner, as well as friends and allies Max Elbaum, Clare Bayard, Mark Rudd, Chris Crass, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Michael Albert, and Dan Berger.

3 These range from the looming climate chaos to perpetual war.

4 A meme is a contagious, fast-spreading, self-replicating idea.

5 Some people in the organization believe that support work on a national scale is inherently “top-down,” and as a result assume that anyone attempting to work in this way must be trying to “control” them. This is an example of the wide gulf in assumptions about SDS’s basic purpose, or even about the definition of an organization. Reconciling such disparate assumptions in lieu of a way for people to even connect to meaningfully discuss them has been a tremendous challenge.

6 Some campuses, like Harvard SDS, ran campaigns supporting security guards and custodial workers on campus. Pace SDS ran campaigns supporting transportation workers and adjunct professors. Some groups helped with Coalition of Imokalee Worker campaigns and with United Students Against Sweatshops. This, however, was the exception, and not the norm.

7 Often conference calls were inaccessible to those without free cell phone minutes. The lack of organized fundraising or a dues structure meant that SDS had no capacity to fund travel scholarships to national and regional events. Class was talked about in an abstract theoretical way, divorced from addressing class divisions on campuses and in communities.

8 Some SDSers use the term “liberatory politics” to refer to what is often called “anti-oppression.”

9 SDS members who spoke publicly or published more than once were seen as hogging space, even though, among progressive media, there was virtually unlimited “space” – when SDSers write well, there is an audience. In the name of “organizer development,” it was seen as their responsibility to step back so that we could develop leadership in more people. This hurt our ability to do genuine leadership development, as SDSers were prevented from practicing and refining their skills. After one turn at bat, they had to go back to the bench. “Step up, Step back” is often a useful mantra in limited space (like a meeting with a time limit), but it is confusing and sometimes problematic when it is the only guideline with which to navigate these issues.

10 Caucusing for SDS meant that we would set time aside (usually about an hour and a half) for members of a particular constituency or identity group to get together and discuss issues that come up in an event as they affect them through that lense. In SDS we would often caucus by gender, race, sexuality, class, and sometimes by age (high school versus college).

11 Though great care was made by most proposal authors to not appear explicitly ideological. There were no mentions of anarchism, Marxism, etc.

12 Ironically, when this model is extended beyond a small homogenous group (like a chapter that has a high degree of political unity), “direct democracy” can look more like a capitalist marketplace than a cooperative social relation.

13 The precursor to our current SDS News Bulletin – a great example of effective national coordination.

14 Tasks included making all the evolving schedule changes, adjusting space to compensate for late sessions or lost rooms, ensuring that facilitation adapted to convention needs to make it through dozens of complex proposals, dealing with emergencies and mistakes, and generally picking up the pieces that inevitably fall through the cracks. It meant organizing a conference that would be a transformative experience.

15 This had the consequence of turning “informal leadership” into a negatively charged buzz word. Informal leadership, when done well is an important and even necessary thing.

16 Gallup Poll, taken from March 6-9 2008. For data from multiple years of polling sources on whether or not people in the United States think we are on the “right track” or “wrong track” see http://www.pollingreport.com/right.htm

17 See the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (civicyouth.org) for more amazing statistics.

18 The plethora of listservs points to an overload of internal conversation that often distracts from assessing political questions such as these. Other spaces will be required – such as study groups which exist in some chapters, strategic and political discussions rather than the focus on internal process and topical workshops at gatherings, the writing and circulating of position papers on the direction of our organization, and organizational mechanisms for SDS to make a stand based on them.