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Not Your Grandfather's SDS

Students for a Democratic Society is reborn, working with veteran activists to build movements for today.

SDS members at the Northport High School in New York. Photos courtesy SDS and Tom Good
SDS members at the Northport High School in New York.
Photos courtesy SDS and Tom Good

On Martin Luther King Day 2006, a group of young students and veterans of 1960s movements made an announcement: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) is back.

Some onlookers reacted with bemused skepticism. Even those of us trying to get the project off the ground worried it would be a forum for nostalgic old-timers to relive their glory days or that the project would impose an outdated model to live up to. The last thing my generation needs is more '60s worship (or bashing!).

Growing up, I didn't have any activist mentors. My friends and I simply didn't know how to find organizers from “back in the day.” The ones we did meet were often unhelpful. Older folks would attend our events and tell a room full of young activists that there are no young activists anymore. Others would pretend to support us, “passing the torch” by telling us it was the new generation's responsibility to “clean up the mess left by the older one.” They seemed to have no interest in actually organizing with us.

Because of this disconnect with past organizing efforts, a lot of us had a warped understanding of how social change is made. We were constantly measuring our activism up to some mythical idea of “the '60s.” U.S. sound-bite culture chronicles the past as one big crescendo after another—as if our movements were just a series of isolated earth-shattering events. My generation was taught that one day out of nowhere, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and BOOM, ignited a movement. We're not taught that she was a well-trained, strategic organizer and that the action was part of a long-term struggle.

Learning about the '60s as a series of crescendos left my generation with a confused sense of what it means to organize. Much of our “organizing” seemed to be building one mass mobilization after another. Battle of Seattle! Boom! Genoa! Boom! Quebec! Boom! ... from the February 15 anti-war demos, to the Miami FTAA meetings, to the March for Women's Lives, to the Republican National Convention, we had a lot of “booms” without too much movement-building, strategy, or commitment to long-term struggle.

Placing contemporary youth activism in a broader and more accurate historical context helps today's SDSers change this confused sense of what it means to organize. With initial support from some old SDS vets and allies, we started to make connections with other movements for change and with movement veterans from across the Left spectrum.

Today, a small but vital group of older activists gives us advice, welcomes us into their homes, marches with us, raises money with us, gives jail support, helps coordinate conferences, gives Web and tech support, and is available to discuss their best thinking about the mistakes and successes of their activism.

Many older folks have treated SDS as a forum for bickering and hashing out old battles. Indeed, they have tested the patience of the young folks almost to the breaking point. Many SDSers assert the need to draw some lines to claim space as youth. But the patient advice and consistent support of our mentors, largely behind the scenes, has provided a hopeful example of intergenerational movement building. In the process we have learned that mentorship is a two-way street—we teach just as much as we learn. It's reciprocal. It's solidarity.

Pace University and New School SDS members at an Iraq War Moratorium walk out. Photos courtesy SDS and Tom Good
Pace University and New School SDS members at an Iraq War Moratorium walk out.
Photos courtesy SDS and Tom Good

The decision to rebuild an old, “famous” organization gave us the spark and attention we needed to launch a national organization as well as connect with insightful elders. Still, most new SDSers join, not because of our past, but because we offer democratic space to build community and organize. Students are hungry for meaningful action. In one year, SDS has grown into a network of thousands of students in more than 200 chapters across the country. Most of our members are new to organizing.

The principles and vision of a participatory society are what appeal to young people—not nostalgia for the '60s. SDS' history is valuable to learn from, but in many ways, it is disconnected from the realities of today. We are a new organization for a new era.

Young SDSers are not interested in settling 35-year-old dramas, but we take seriously the history of factionalism, authoritarianism, male-domination, whiteness, and deviation from democratic process that defined so many organizations in the late '60s, SDS included. The new SDS is committed to participatory democracy. As we collectively develop our national structure, we are committed to horizontal organizing and re-imagining relationships of power. We are grappling with issues of power around race, gender, and class, and learning what it means to be accountable to communities most impacted by the issues we take on. Our elders repeatedly tell us that we are confronting issues with a sophistication they never imagined when they were our age.

By organizing students as students, SDS is finding a point where we can relate to non-activists and be relevant. As we engage new people, we are activating them and winning campaigns. Nothing builds a movement like winning.

Some of our victories include free speech battles that contributed to the resignation of Pace University's president David Caputo, coordinating student strikes on May Day to support immigrants' rights, occupying recruiting centers in Manhattan, mounting hunger strikes to win a living wage for Harvard staff, helping coalitions of activists block weapons shipments from West Coast ports to Iraq, and helping shut down the entrance to Chevron's world headquarters in the Bay Area to highlight the connection between oil, climate change, and war. The mentorship of our elders has helped guide us—in these actions, in building our organization, and in resisting the sectarian squabbles of yesteryear.

When we win, we show students that they do have power and can make change. That shatters cynicism and alienation. It calls into question what we were taught about how change is made and about our own role in making history. We begin to realize that the slogan “another world is possible” is not a cliché but a serious call to action, grounded in a long history of people struggling for—and winning—a better world. We begin to take our organizing more seriously, and ourselves less seriously. Now, when some older folks ask where the youth are today, we have an answer.


Joshua Kahn Russell is an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society and Rainforest Action Network. He is a member of Bay Rising Affinity Group (BRAG!) and lives in Oakland, California.

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