By Halsey H
This past weekend, NYC YDSA sent 25 members to California’s East Bay for the 2019 YDSA National Convention. The students — 13 from City College, eight from NYU and one from Hunter College — spent the weekend attending, and in some cases facilitating, workshops and plenaries on issues of urgent importance to the left today.
The conference organizers could not have had better timing. As YDSA’ers prepared for plenaries about building a socialist movement through strikes, revolutionary reforms, and class struggle elections, Oakland teachers were preparing to strike, and Bernie Sanders, as we found out on Monday, was preparing to launch his presidential campaign.
It’s hardly an overstatement to say that this conference felt historic. In fact, the event is part of a long and sometimes fraught history of student socialist organizing.
In the first of several speeches by members of the YDSA National Coordinating Committee, Co-Chair Eliott Geary (University of Tennessee-Chattanooga) cited the historic unwillingness of the Students for a Democratic Society to commit to the rank and file strategy (which YDSA adopted as a priority at its convention last summer, and which NYC passed at its citywide convention last year) as a key reason for its failure. But times have changed, and it seems that today’s young socialists are seriously reckoning with the failures of the past as they look toward the future. Co-chair Ajmal Alami (Virginia Tech) told the assembled YDSA’ers that “each and everyone of you are the party builders of the future to get us to a mass party and finally win socialism.”
This revolutionary spirit lingered well into the next day, as the conference kicked off with “Socialists in Office: What Would Bernie 2020 mean for YDSA,” a panel featuring David Duhalde (Our Revolution), Tascha Van Auken (NYC-DSA), Meagan Day (Jacobin), and Jack McShane (EBDSA). It was moderated by NYU YDSA member Nina Svirsky, who pointed out “how exciting it is to have this many high school and college students talking about socialism at nine in the morning on a Saturday.”
Exciting, yes, but perhaps not surprising, given the tremendous surge of interest in socialism among young people since the 2016 Sanders campaign. The panelists discussed what a Sanders presidency might look like, the role that class-struggle elections play in raising expectations for the working class, and how Bernie 2020 can act as a “gateway drug” to democratic socialism and help build a mass socialist movement.
If the workshops were any indication, the movement is in great hands. In a series of breakout groups, attendees shared their experiences with organizers from campuses around the country and learned valuable organizing skills.
NYU YDSA member Halsey Hazzard helped lead a workshop on Winning Medicare for All, and City College YDSA member Esperanza Rosenbaum helped teach attendees about Organizing a College for All Campaign. The lessons continued with the second plenary, “Class Struggle in Session,” where NCC members Ajmal Alami and Sebastian Uchida-Chavez (City College YDSA) were joined by international student leaders Camile Godbout of Québec Solidaire and Matt Meyers of the UK Labour Party in a discussion of the relationship of student and worker movements, and how socialists can respond to the current crisis in education.
A high point of Saturday was when news broke that the Oakland Education Association had announced that it would strike on Thursday. The attendees erupted in cheers and chants of “Bread for Ed!” and “Strike!,” generating an energy that built throughout the day leading up to the keynote, “Electrifying the Electorate.” Jovanka Beckles, Richmond City Council Member and former candidate for California Assembly District 15, electrified the audience, declaring, “I am prouder than ever to be a democratic socialist.” Beckles may have narrowly lost her campaign, but, as she told the audience, it was a win for working class power. Beckles closed her speech with cheers of “When we fight, we what? We win!” and “That beautiful union clap” — just in time for Cecily Myart-Cruz, Vice President of United Teachers Los Angeles, to take the stage.
Myart-Cruz’s speech was a thunderous endorsement of militant social movement unionism, underscoring the need for anti-capitalist, anti-racist militancy in the labor movement. She also highlighted the centrality of student organizing against racist random search policies to the recent successful UTLA strike. Near the end of her speech, Myart-Cruz addressed attendees directly: “You all are not the future — you are the present. Because you are the present, we need you to lead — we need you to lead boldly like you have never led before.” And when the third and final plenary began on Sunday, it was clear just how right she was.
The “Fire from the Rank and File” panel featured seven Oakland high school students alongside art teacher and EBDSA member Hannah Kline, OEA teacher Tim Marshall, and EBDSA Labor Committee co-chair Ashley Payne. In the weeks leading up to the OEA strike, these high schoolers have been planning teach-ins, dance parties and walkouts in solidarity with their teachers, and in general putting us college-aged socialists to shame with their on-the-nose analyses of what’s happening on the ground. Also in attendance were Denver high schoolers Alessandra Chavira and Jhoni Palmer, two incredible young organic working-class leaders at the forefront of the most militant part of the labor movement. Thanks to growing up in a strike wave, coming to political consciousness during the first Bernie campaign, and witnessing the decay of the public high school system up close, these young people understand clearly where the hole in the ceiling comes from — not just a few bad policies, but capitalism as a system — and they’re already organizing to change it.
It’s an incredibly exciting time to be young and in the struggle, with the ongoing teachers’ strike wave, Bernie Sander’s just-launched presidential campaign, and socialism growing increasingly popular, especially among young people. NYC YDSA members have returned from the conference armed with new skills, new friends, and a renewed dedication to the work ahead. The kids aren’t just alright — they might literally save the world.