Occupying the 21st Century: The Rise of Leftism in American Youth Organizing

In 2010, the Pew Research Poll did a survey measuring people’s reactions to different political philosophies. They found that even though all age groups in America were opposed to socialism, the highest proportion of support, 43 percent, came in the 18-29-year old bracket. When they repeated the survey 18 months later, they found that young people now favored socialism more than they did capitalism in addition to giving socialism a plus-six favorability margin.

That finding made national news. After all, it had been 87 years since a leftist candidate carried a state in a presidential election (Robert M. LaFollette carried his home of Wisconsin in 1924) and 72 years since the last socialist governor in America stepped down (Gov. Elmer Austin Benson from Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, who left office in 1939). Sewer socialism had long since gone out of style, with Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler serving as the last socialist mayor of a major city until he left office in 1960. In that period, we have experienced: an embargo against Cuba, the ramping up (and eventual defeat) of American forces in Vietnam, the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the 1972 humiliation of George McGovern, Reaganism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2010, we watched as Republicans successfully painted President Obama, who is a DLC-style centrist at best, as a socialist on their way to a 63-seat gain in the House.

But some things have happened since that dark day in November of 2010 that has given rise to a leftist tendency in America’s youth.

With the recession lifting the slowest for young people across the world and normally sympathetic governments introducing punishing austerity measures, young people started taking to the streets across the world in 2010. The most well known of these were the Indignados movements that gripped both Spain and Greece. The sometimes deadly protests against government’s acquiescence to unrestrained capital unleashed realignments in both countries politics: Spain’s center-left Socialists suffered a historic defeat while the United Left and Podemos have risen on the scene, and Greece’s long-dominant party of the center-left, PASOK, suffered a similar humiliation at the same time the left-wing SYRIZA party sextupled their vote between 2009 and 2012.

Much like that critically-acclaimed Japanese horror movie that finally makes its way to America, so too did these movements come from abroad in the form of Occupy Wall Street and its governing body, the New York City General Assembly. Their occupation of Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park became a lightning rod in a nation where mass protests of rapacious capitalism had not been en vogue since the Johnson administration. The rallying cry of “We Are The 99%” rung out from Lower Manhattan and touched disaffected youth across America, and the Occupy movement itself would eventually extend its reach just as much. Cities as diverse as Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta; Biloxi, Mississippi; and Columbia, Missouri. Hell, there was even an Occupy Tuscaloosa group that organized out of the University Presbyterian Church not far from campus. Many, if not all, of these Occupy groups were led by young people.

But as many have pointed out, Occupy Wall Street did not lead to a concrete gain in support for one political agenda or another. You did not see new political parties sweep out of nowhere on a national scale, and the electoral successes that leftists have had are on a very local scale. President Obama was re-elected, in part, by co-opting the message of the “99 percent” during the 2012 campaign; of course, many of his moves since then have been in the service of, well, anyone but the working class. But you did see folks like Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren, who famously referred to herself as laying the “intellectual foundation” for Occupy Wall Street, sweep to the United States Senate that same year. And were it not for Occupy Wall Street’s message of reducing inequalities, would we be talking about a self-described democratic socialist from Vermont as a legitimate threat to the Democrats’ chances of winning a third consecutive presidential election? And while the victory of Kshama Sawant in Seattle might have been functionally been a drop in the bucket, the fact that she won in a city that young people have flocked to (and stayed put) during the recession should give naysayers a bit of pause.

One organization that came out of the Occupy movement was the Ohio Student Association (OSA). This youth-led organization began in the winter of 2012 when Will Klatt, Stuart McIntyre, and other youth from across Ohio came together in Columbus to form a group that would advocate for Ohio’s youth on the issue of student debt, which is higher today than it has ever been. They got to work in fairly short order, helping to put together a national organizing conference for student leftists in Columbus that summer. The National Student Power Convergence featured seminars, breakout sessions, keynotes from people like Naomi Klein and organizers of the Quebec student protests ongoing at the time, and a march to the Obama for America office near Ohio State University to protest all the ways in which the Obama administration has left young people behind.

After the 2012 elections, they faced the challenge that all youth-based organizations face at some point: How do we keep youth interested and involved? The “moments of intensity” that power student organizations, as McIntyre described them to me, were self-evident in 2012 with a presidential election dumping millions into the Buckeye State and a hotly-contested U.S. Senate race, both won by Democrats. But moving into 2013, how were they going to continue the momentum that they had built up? The answer was to shift the focus from college campuses and the issues those students face to a broader focus on community-building and organizing around issues that affect all youth. According to McIntyre, “Many of us went to urban public schools in Ohio, and so we built a base that looks like the schools we went to. And while many of the students involved were still college students, many of their friends and families chose not to attend college due to financial concerns. We have never wavered in our commitment to educational justice.” As a part of that shift, the OSA organized around issues that affect a broader cross-section of young people like Stand Your Ground and the school-to-prison pipeline. They also participated in the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer, where racial justice activists from all over the country gathered in Mississippi to register Black voters in 1964; it was also a movement that paralleled today’s progressive organizing in the large numbers of youth that were involved.

With all of their successes, it was natural that I would ask Klatt and McIntyre what they would suggest to leftist youth in places like Alabama who seek to form their groups committed to social justice and educational equality. Their answer was clear: long-term planning.

Klatt’s assertion that 90 percent of organizing groups like the OSA is dependent on ground conditions is an important one; the desire for instant gratification is strong for organizers of all ages in areas where progressivism and leftism feels relegated to a kind of permanent minority status. We often look for the perfect leader, candidate, or philosophy that will lead us to organizational or policy gains, and we are disappointed just as frequently. The forces aligned against the young, poor, and workers were not assembled in a day or an election cycle, and so it will go for the entities that organize to defeat such reactionary forces. This is why groups like The Dream Defenders are so important to the future of youth activism: they are able to clearly define the issues that affect our communities and execute actions that will highlight just how destructive our political system can be towards them.

The future is bright for those who wish for a more inclusive and just vision for American society.

School Is In Session: How one history professor is modeling the future of labor education

Sometimes, the greatest ideas and innovations begin unintentionally. So it was with #SaturdaySchool, the weekly Twitter social justice teach-in hosted by Rhonda Ragsdale, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice and Associate Professor of history at Lone Star College:

“On Saturday mornings, my children would be asleep and I decided to make that space a time for myself. But I didn’t want to really get out of bed or do any work, and seeing as I always had a technological device in my hand, I would always do these teaching rants on some article I had read. And some of my followers started calling this ‘Saturday School’, and tweeting ‘Hey look, @profragsdale is doing Saturday School again.’”

#SaturdaySchool has become a weekly get-together for progressive and leftist activists on Twitter to share information and gain a greater understanding of the issues that affect our communities. It is a fun way to engage those who work both in and out of various progressive causes. But as Ragsdale pointed out in my interview with her, she is simply following a long-held tradition in American social movement activism.

Teach-ins are large forums where people can gain understanding about sociopolitical issues. They are mixtures of education and activism where the participants are expected to take the information they learn and use it to engage in direct action. Though teach-ins on topics like lynching had been occurring since the early 20th century, this social movement tactic first entered the public consciousness this week in 1965. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a majority of the faculty had agreed to go on a one-day strike against the war, which earned them the opposition of the Governor (George Romney, not ironically), the Chancellor, and their fellow faculty, who threatened to censure those who refused to teach their classes. At a meeting designed to come up with alternative actions that professors could still use to show their disapproval with the war, a professor in the Anthropology department came up with an idea: the faculty would teach their classes. But instead of letting students out at the normal time, they would continue teaching. All night. And so it was: the teach-ins of March 24-25 drew over 200 faculty and 3,000 students. The teach-in swept through college campuses in 1965, with a teach-in at the University of California at Berkeley being the largest. That one attracted 30,000 students from May 21-23.

Teach-ins, Ragsdale says, are effective because “they have a high potential to mobilize, and you create group solidarity and consciousness through hashtags and linking community groups to one another.” As any organizer can tell you, this is important: so often we see organizations seeking to reinvent the wheel, especially when it is a national progressive organization that is entering a battle that local activists have already been fighting in for a while. When a forum like #SaturdaySchool addresses a topic that gets people discussing the struggles that they have faced in organizing around a particular issue in a particular place, it can act as a signpost to make folks aware of ongoing activism in a particular community. This small bit of information makes movements stronger and builds the sort of intramovemental trust that we see precious little of nowadays. Ragsdale has connected with folks through #SaturdaySchool who have engaged in offline research projects with her; not only is this great for movement-building, it is also beneficial for the research that undergirds progressive activism.

The power of social media as a teaching tool is not limited to hashtags on Twitter, according to Ragsdale. She also singles out Pinterest (yes, that Pinterest) as a medium that social justice-minded folks can use to inform and teach people, discussing how one of the participants in Saturday School has a great social justice collection on the medium. “It’s another digital archive that could be used in classrooms….Sociological Images is another one that has just great collections on Pinterest.”

The effectiveness of digital teach-ins like #SaturdaySchool are so apparent, it is a wonder why the labor movement has not sought to engage in a similar kind of activity. Outside of the AFL-CIO Digital Training Series that took place last summer, I have not seen many efforts to engage the labor community on Twitter in labor education. That is a mistake: Twitter users are likely to be younger and highly educated on the whole, and they are also more mobile. And given that those demographics are more likely to support the labor movement, engaging in accessible labor education with Twitter denizens seems like a no-brainer.

The great thing about utilizing the progressive and social justice networks on Twitter to do digital teach-ins is that there are a lot of people out there with all kinds of specializations in research and praxis. It is no different within the labor community: we have amazing journalists, academics, organizers, strategists, and engaged leadership that are one click away. Ragsdale advises labor to utilize those assets, stating that “…most are willing to participate in online teach-ins for free or little more than a thank you tweet.” Social media gives us unprecedented access to the folks who shape the way the labor movement; we must use that proximity to educate the public about the challenges and struggles workers face on the workplace, as well as what individuals can do about it

Growing up in the South, moving to the Midwest, and then moving back South again has given me a lot of perspective on the ways in which the labor movement is simply invisible down here. That invisibility has consequences. There are people who are genuinely opposed to the labor movement on ideological or personal grounds in places like Alabama; that much is obvious. You will never reach those folks no matter how good your organizing plan or labor education apparatus is.

But there are also a lot of folks who are simply following the prevailing opinion in their community, and have little information on the impact of a labor union. There are also folks who are aware that unions are needed, but not necessarily up on the why or how. It is these groups of people that are most affected when the battle between labor and management is constantly framed from the latter’s point of view, and they can make the difference between a unionized workplace and a company victory.

For them, teach-ins on labor are needed, both offline and on Twitter. Rhonda Ragsdale is modeling the future of labor education for us all to see; we would do well to heed her example.