On August 1, students from across the country—Dream Defenders, Moral Monday arrestees, high schoolers resisting school closings and police brutality, statewide organizers from Ohio, New York, California and beyond—will descend on Madison, Wisconsin, for the second annual National Student Power Convergence. Last year, Columbus, Ohio, hosted the first. The charge: trading tactics and experiences, elevating disenfranchised voices, linking struggles from different regions to build something bigger. Prior to this week’s convergence, The Nation spoke with Stephanie Rivera, a founder of Students United for Public Education; Alyssia Osorio, the Northeast regional organizer for Movement Summer, a program working in conjunction with the convergence; and Kirin Kanakkanatt, the convergence’s project director.
James Cersonsky: Last year was the first convergence. What kind of movement-building have you seen come out of it?
Alyssia Osorio: Out of last year’s convergence, a lot of statewide student organizations have formed, like the Colorado Student Power Alliance and the North Carolina Student Power Union. When I came to the convergence, I was a New York student, and I knew absolutely no one. Right after, I joined up with New York Students Rising. I was a part of actions regarding twenty-four-hour library accessibility at my school, then a campaign around a multicultural gender resource center on campus. Statewide, we launched a student debt campaign with Jobs with Justice.
Stephanie Rivera: Coming from the convergence, I helped start Student United for Public Education. Before then, we didn’t really see a student organization at the higher ed level that was focused on K-12 education or defending public education. Since we launched in November, we now have about eleven chapters. We’ve been going to public meetings, challenging charter schools, fighting against parent trigger laws. We had one of our chapters, in Chicago, provide a space for high school students to organize and reflect on the movement that they want to build in their own community.
Kirin Kanakkanatt: A lot of the success that we’ve seen in this past year—especially in the wake of this radical conservatism, especially as a woman of color—I think draws from coming together and seeing each other. We’re always acknowledging that every conversation that we have is contributing to the movement. Especially with groups like SUPE or Dream Defenders—it’s not something that’s happening in Egypt, or Chile, or [just] on Twitter.
As organizers, what will it take to continue growing the movement?
KK: For me, I think that we need to start looking at intersectionality and recognizing that it’s not just some magical vocabulary word that progressives throw around. You have to start internalizing that narrative, and internalizing what that really means. Identity is a process. Once we start really thinking and living through what it is, that’s where we think about where we want to go. If we want to think about “another world is possible,” we need to see each other as humans, working face-to-face.
SR: In order to get there, it’s so important for us to step back and remember why we’re in the student movement. Often when we’re in organizing, it’s getting the work done, physical tasks. We become robotic.
AO: When I think of the American student movement, I think we have to think of it as part of an international student movement, because young people all over the world are experiencing a lot of oppression, and students have been leading voices in fighting back. That’s how I see things like immigration, and LGBTQ rights, and racism and colorlism—beyond the political binaries of Republican and Democrat.
Kirin, you hit on the idea of putting “intersectionality” into practice and building an inclusive movement. As organizers, what does this look like?
KK: In general, making sure that people feel seen without just having quotas. For me, it’s not assuming experiences. I’m 23 years old and dropped out of college—just being aware of what I don’t know and leading from that. I had this opportunity to meet Harry Belafonte. I was feeling really stressed about the amount of work that it would take to make the convergence possible. He told me, at the end of the day, you need to always know where you, yourself, are going.
SR: From what I see, students don’t have a voice in what’s happening in their schools—especially historically marginalized populations. We are working to make sure that voices of the high school kids are leading the chapters. They’re the ones who know their schools best. How can we work with our college chapter leaders to make sure that they aren’t telling high school and middle schoolers what to do, but empowering them?
AO: A lot of the time stop-and-frisk is seen as a racial justice issue; it’s also an LGBTQ issue. Student debt is not just a middle-class problem but a lower-class problem. Looking at all the different scopes of the issue is what it means to be inclusive.
What hopes do you have for this year’s convergence?
SR: Last year, it kind of taught me what organizing was, what on-the-ground activism was. I got to see behind the scenes what it takes to do that—and that it’s possible to do that. Also, learning how all our struggles connect—especially, in K-12 education, getting to learn how that connects to environmental issues, student debt, immigration.
AO: I see the convergence as an opportunity for people to gain skills and tools as well as the support and motivation of—this time—400 people with you. I see the convergence as a launching point into the new semester, a place that sets the tone of organizing. I remember last year, a lot of people made their own caucuses, and talked about their oppression. Going back into the school year, a lot of people were more aware of anti-oppressive politics and how to treat people. I would love to see that again this year.
KK: You can see in the outreach structure—everything is building beyond August 5. Being able to sit in the room and acknowledge one another and genuinely see each other is something that’s really powerful. The convergence seeks to provide the national table under which folks can come and find our similarities—versus “Hey, this is our new national political party.” This is a launching point.