Chilean youth leader Camila Vallejo. Courtesy Flickr user Eneas De Troya
The Student Uprisings panel at the CUNY Graduate Center on October 15 represented a continuation of cross-cultural exchanges of knowledge of social movement building in the spirit of the World Social Forum. To the excitement of New York City activists, students and educators, the event focused on how students can shape, lead and participate in social movements that advocate for democratic and accessible education for all.
From #YoSoy132 in Mexico City to the anti-austerity movement in Chile to the student strike in Quebec, student uprisings have been ubiquitous in 2012. Now eyes are on the United States as the missing piece of the student movement in the Americas. While we may be far from the kind of mass mobilizations of our neighbors, young people across the country are experimenting with different kinds of organizational structures and tactical approaches to achieve structural change, not just single issue organizing campaigns.
This event brought together some of the best and brightest that the continental student movement has to offer as mentors to budding activists: Conor Tomas Reed, coordinator of the CUNY Adjunct Project and a PhD student at the Graduate Center and Denise Romero Franco, organizer with Students United for a Free CUNY, New York Students Rising and a student at Baruch College; Jamie Bernett, a McGill University strike organizer and Irmak Bahar, a Concordia University strike organizer in Quebec; and finally, Noam Titelman, president of Confederation of Students of Chile and Camila Vallejo, Vice President of the Universidad de Chile Student Federation from the Chilean student movement.
Speaking first, Romero Franco began the event with the history of student activism in New York City, which included frequent and numerous protests and occupations largely un=noted in the media. Romero employed this narrative to discuss what a contemporary mass movement in the United States must include. “Our student movement must be anti-oppressive in its means and in its masses,” said Romero Franco, analyzing how oppression and privilege are inextricably tied, are experienced simultaneously, and are often reproduced in movements. She linked struggles of undocumented youth and students of color who are frequently targeted by police, and emphasized that a mass CUNY student movement must be inclusive by addressing all the issues of all CUNY students, both on campus and in their communities.
Conor Tomas Reed buttressed Romero Franco’s analysis by speaking to the internal tensions he has witnessed in New York student activism since 2006. He located the origin of these ruptures in the uncompromising ideological attitudes that are commonplace in activist communities. He observed how the heavy weight often put on ideology can imbalance practical goals, such as “consensus decision-making,” which he argued can lead to overplayed lip-service to process, and “autonomy,” which may result in a kind of combative individualism.