April 6, 2017
“Don’t mourn, organize.”
Peyton Veitch, National Treasurer
From March 31st-April 3rd, I had the opportunity to attend the United States Students’ Association (USSA) National Student Power Summit in Washington D.C. The Summit brought almost 200 students from across the United States under one roof to develop their capacities as grassroots organizers, engage in campaign planning, and lobby members of congress on the final day.
This gathering marked the first time since Donald Trump’s inauguration that the American student movement assembled together. Despite the monumental challenge this political moment presents for all progressive movements south of the border, the mood was not one of despair. What was repeated time and again throughout the meeting is that the way to beat Trump’s agenda and defend the communities he’s targeting is by organizing.
It was said by a former legislative affairs director of the USSA that the only two forces for change in the world are organized people and organized money. In the richest country on the face of the Earth, student activists are swimming upstream against a political, economic and post-secondary establishment with more money than they could ever hope to spend.
Incredibly, organized people are winning important victories against organized money. The student movement won in-state tuition, as opposed to the higher out-of-state rate, for undocumented students across America. Last year, students at the University of Massachusetts succeeded in winning fossil-fuel divestment. Books not Bombs chapters have pressed a number of campuses to establish scholarships for Syrian refugee youth to study in the United States.
These achievements are mutually reinforcing, because it’s victories that cause movements to grow and students to become aware of their own power. Wielding this power and mobilizing against Trump’s proposed multi-billion dollar cuts to needs-based Pell Grants and work-study programs is a key priority for the USSA, as these programs allow thousands of predominantly racialized and low-income students to pursue post-secondary education. A number of these students shared their own personal stories about how these programs enabled them to continue their studies after high school with members of congress.
On April 3rd, we attended a press conference where Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren joined several progressive representatives to introduce the “College for All Act”. If passed, the bill will make public colleges tuition-free for 80% of Americans. Its introduction is a testament to the USSA’s work in building support for free education, work that has contributed to New York State announcing a plan to eliminate tuition fees for its state colleges and universities.
The great American abolitionist Frederick Douglas once remarked that: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.” This attitude was reflected in the rich organizing culture that I experienced first hand at the Summit. Whether campaigning for living wages, divestment from fossil fuels, against tuition hikes, anti-black racism, or stopping deportations, American student activists are altering the relations of power on and off their campuses.
Their persistence, and their success should inspire us to redouble our efforts for social, economic, racial and environmental justice here in Canada. What I experienced over the course of a weekend was student organizing at its best: diverse communities supporting one another, a relentless emphasis on creating tangible change that improves people’s lives, a focus on issues rather than personalities, and an unquenchable belief that they will win. Let’s remember their example as we continue to build a movement with the power to transform our education system and our country.