Moving Forward on University Campuses (Occupy Philly)

by Jack Emm of Occupy Philadelphia on January 27, 2012

Last Saturday, I was fortunate enough to participate in the Occupy Philadelphia Regional Student Conference, held in Center City’s Friends’ Center (the birthplace of Occupy Philly). About 20 students from Haverford College, Drexel University, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania attended.

In addition to planning for the March 1 National Day of Action for Education, the conference drafted a “statement of grievances” which would be sent to each respective school’s administration and used as a recruitment/mobilization tactic for students, faculty, and staff. Several themes were listed in bullet points (finance, diversity/anti-oppression, labor, budget, student debt & tuition, and others)  and all in attendance were encouraged to suggest specific issues that would fit into each category.  For example, under “labor,” it was suggested that we call for fairer treatment of adjunct professors. Under “diversity/anti-oppression,” some suggested that we raise the issue of adding gender-neutral restrooms and housing to better serve transgender students.

In general, the draft statement was productive in that it highlighted many noteworthy problems facing university students and workers today. Additionally, that the need for Occupy to connect with students and workers on college campuses was addressed was also quite positive. However, as the discussion went on, I began to question the tactic of drawing up a grand list of grievances to the point where, now, I believe that we need to put our original plans in perspective and alter our approach accordingly.

For one, how can a group of 20 or so students claim to speak for thousands of students, faculty, and staff from at least four Universities in the area? Can we, a small group of young activists, really say that our statement of grievances–no matter how comprehensive–adequately and genuinely addresses all the concerns and issues on college campuses in this era of capitalist crisis?

Furthermore, as the list of grievances grew all the more lengthy, it started to become clear that we needed to widdle down our statement (lest we have to distribute five-page pamphlets.) This issue caused quite a bit of controversy. Several in the room suggested making a shorter, broader statement along with a longer one distributed as a letter to administrators and other key people. Some suggested a website where one can see the full statement. A small number of people however didn’t want to “dumb it down for the general public.” Those who wanted a more summarized version of the statement seemed to have won the argument, however.

Despite the elitist connotations of not wanting to “dumb down” the statement for the ignorant masses, it really doesn’t matter if  we’re handing out leaflets, pamphlets, or eight-volume tomes. The fact remains that an attempt to list the countless problems facing university students and workers fails to A) truly address these problems in an effective manner and B) does little, if anything, to mobilize anyone in support of Occupy’s cause.

Which brings me to my final point. The most meaningful thing we can do to address grievances is to mobilize students and workers. The strength of Occupy is not that it started with lists of concrete problems with the system. Its strength was to be a “gathering of the troops,” so to speak. It allowed many people with many perspectives and many different grievances to come together and mount a challenge to the current order.

In light of all this, we can draw several conclusions:

  1. An overarching statement of grievances written by a few self-appointed student activists (no matter how honest our intentions) will fail to resolve these grievances. A better way to address what’s wrong on college campuses is to hold events that empower students and workers to speak out against cutbacks, tuition hikes, oppression, etc. We can learn from how OWS drafted its Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. This document, which rightly admits that its “grievances are not all-inclusive,” was written by protesters (galvanized and mobilized by the burgeoning movement)  through a directly democratic process. Perhaps we could do something similar at our colleges.
  2. Let students and workers speak for themselves. Students and workers already have problems with the system. Our task is to provide a venue for them to air their grievances.
  3. Mobilization is our most important task. Right now, the movement is at a definite lull. We can be the ones to breath new life into it.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Binh January 27, 2012 at 7:29 pm

“The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first, then you'll get action.” ― Malcolm X

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