Students on the Front Line

BY:Political Affairs| September 21, 2001

Political Affairs Magazine – May, 2001

What is the United States Student Association (USSA)?

USSA is a coalition of college and university student associations from around the country dedicated to ensuring access to higher education for everyone. We define access to education very broadly. Our slogan is ‘Education is a Right.’

We see it as being a concrete tool for achieving larger social justice aims and altering the relations of power in this country. We think the purpose of education is not just so people can get out of school and join the economic wheel that’s turning and run like hamsters to keep the whole system going.

We think as education is democratized and made available to more people, the results of education will change. People will get the tools to see how the system works and how they can go about changing, reforming, or revolutionizing it. But first they have to have access.

How do these goals translate more specifically into the different areas and issues USSA focuses on?

We argue that education is a right regardless of income, so we work a lot on federal financial aid programs and try to expand them. We realize it’s not perfect right now, but we have to get more people into college little by little while we work toward the larger-scale change. We work to expand things like the Pell Grant, campus-based grants, campus child care, early intervention and mentorship for students who are historically under-represented, students who don’t have parents who went to college, etc. – all these are barriers based on income.

Education should be a right regardless of race or ethnicity, so we work on programs to expand affirmative action, end hate crimes on campus and support student-run recruitment and retention centers.

Education is a right regardless of gender, so we work on the Violence Against Women Act, campus safety, and, informally, on empowering lots of women – as evidenced by our officers and national board.

Regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of veteran status, regardless of ability, traditional status, children, etc., we should be able to go to college, get a good education and have some say over our education and what’s happening with it.

That’s, very broadly, how we define our positions on everything from Pell Grants to an independent Palestinian state. All these tie back to education being a right and expanding access to it.

Has USSA always been like this? At this conference you see USSA, with its caucuses and coalitions, struggling on a broad range of issues, and yet access to education is the key element unifying it all. How has the organization evolved?

We started in an international context, after U.S. students returned from the very first World Festival of Youth [in 1947]. For a while the group did a lot of international work. From what I understand, that work started with very good intentions – with the anti-fascist movement – but then we were infiltrated by the CIA. Now, when you say CIA, students think COINTELPRO, but we were infiltrated way before that to bring back information on other international youth and Communist youth organizing. That was a very dark part of our history.

In the early ’60s when all of that became public, it really cut our international ties for a while, and rightly so. The organization went through a purge and a radical shift. NSA [National Student Association], which is what USSA was called back then, became a lot more involved in the civil rights movement, encouraging folks to go on the freedom rides, etc. Al Lowenstein and others helped provide start-up funding and office space for SNCC through our southern project. The ’70s continued the anti-war work, etc.

What about the ’80s?

In the ’80s there were so many attacks on students and education and social programs in general from the Reagan cuts, that it was a hugely defensive time for the organization. It really hurt a lot of the forward motion. I mean everybody, not just students in this country, but all folks who were for expanding resources, were under such virulent attacks from the Reagan and Bush administration.

Of course, the Clinton administration left a lot to be desired, but in comparison we were actually able to gain a lot of ground back. Now, as we face what everyone is saying are very similar cuts to the ’81 Reagan revolution, we are trying to maintain consciousness of what happened before and say it’s not okay to lose ground on these very basic things we’ve just started to get back.

USSA chose three areas of work at its last Congress: the Action Agenda items. Can you talk a bit about those?

The first thing that we chose was to do a really comprehensive voter education and mobilization campaign. We were really concerned with the whole idea that students are apathetic and don’t care. We came out with a statement that said: Students aren’t voting because candidates aren’t speaking to what matters to students. Yes, we need to register more students; yes, we need to make sure people get out and vote. But you ‘gentlemen’ need to start talking about issues that matter to us. That’s how we are going to turn out the vote. And that it is a conscious decision to disenfranchise young people, because you’re scared of what they will demand of you if they vote for you.

So what we did was put out questionnaires on everything from federal financial aid to living wage issues, to hate crimes policies and racial profiling. And we asked all the candidates to answer them. And then we put out 60,000 copies of the results, and that’s not even counting the copies the students made [on their own].

Students went door to door, and what we saw in the places where we worked was incredible student turnout. In Madison, Wisconsin, their turnout went up by 54 percent or something. And so that was our fall campaign.

What that did was put us in a position now where we are actually saying ‘things were great in some of these places like Madison, but here’s also the reasons things weren’t so great in other places.’

Florida was very highly publicized, but [students were disenfranchised] at campuses all over the place. For many of these students it’s their first time voting, so it’s very easy to tell them they are not on the rolls or confuse them about where they’re supposed to vote. That has a huge amount to do with the disenfranchisement of young people.

The second Action Agenda item was of course federal aid funding – the Pell Grant, two campus-based aid programs. Also, we added a childcare grant program. And also Title X, which is National [Family Planning Program], because again, [educational access] is seen as a broad umbrella, but obviously access to health care for low income women and access to contraceptive information is a big factor [in people’s ability to choose whether or not to go to school]. We know that having a child is a big barrier to getting a degree when you’re young – or whenever – it’s harder. We’re not saying people shouldn’t have children, but it should be a real choice.

The third campaign we did was against the criminalization of young people. Students know their campuses are not safe because the police have identified them [students] as being unsafe. And that is absolutely insidious and it’s as bad today as segregation policies and Klan intimidation was. We’re doing a lot of education on how racial profiling ends up feeding the prison system, how companies are motivated to put more people into private prisons.

Are there coalition partners in these campaigns?

Yes, on the voting campaign we had a lot of support. People for the American Way printed our vote manuals. Neighbor to Neighbor trained our organizers. AFSCME printed our voter guide. CWA gave us money to hire folks. It was great!

With the financial aid campaign there were all the traditional student aid folks, but on the criminalization campaign there were a lot of new coalition partners for us. We are a member of the Public Safety and Justice Campaign, which is a really interesting coalition. There are the traditional sentencing reform folks, like Families Against Mandatory Minimums, but it also includes the unions who represent corrections officers and the Police Benevolent Association. Because everyone recognizes that these private prisons are sort of the pinnacle of compromising justice and perverting the process.

We all have different long-term goals. But on this one we really got together. It’s brought up really interesting class issues. Most people wouldn’t be prison guards if there were other viable job options for them, if they had opportunities to have training to do other things. I mean, most human beings don’t want to spend their lives removing freedom from other human beings.

As a USSA Action Agenda item, that seems a bit of a new development, an even broader perspective of USSA’s mission.

Not connected to education?

Some may see it that way.

Yes, and we’ve taken a lot of flack for it. It’s really important that all of our students can articulate that it has a hell of a lot to do with education. The chair of our national Student of Color Coalition is getting harassed by police at least once a month at his student union because he looks to them like someone who doesn’t belong at the University of Wisconsin, Madison because he’s six-feet tall and African American. That has a lot to do with how comfortable our students feel on campus.

If students have been pulled over or arrested three or four times before they even get to college, that doesn’t look very good on a college application. So it’s a direct tie in to access to education.

Is this a different direction for USSA?

Yes and no. I think that right now racial profiling is our desegregation movement. De-funding private prisons is our [generation’s] divestment from South Africa. These are very similar themes, they just have new and different details. It’s definitely more external. You know, people are saying, ‘why is a student organization working on ‘non-student’ issues?’ That usually comes from folks who don’t think of students as being all these other identities.

How is USSA organized and has that changed or evolved?

I think as far as us talking more about multi-identity organizing, talking more about class as a unifying agent across race and gender and sexuality and all these things, it has really changed since I’ve been a part of the organization. I came to my first conference in ’97, and I think maybe coming back from the 14th World Festival, a lot of folks started talking about how it’s great that we have these caucuses. It’s great that we identify that students of color need to meet with students of color, women with women, but if we allow ourselves to stop there and just be 22 groups who all meet at the same conference, then we aren’t ever going to come back. We aren’t ever going to achieve. We have to talk about how we are going to start working together.

Our caucuses started back in the early ’70s. We started with our People of Color Caucus I believe in ’72. And then we’ve institutionalized parity on our Board, first for people of color and then very quickly after for women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender folks. [Other] caucuses have come on down the line. We have caucuses because they connect to specific barriers to access to education – barriers based on race or ethnicity, barriers based on gender, on sexual orientation. So that’s how we developed what we have.

In addition to the discussion spaces, the real purpose of the caucuses is to have representation on the board of directors so that every decision that we make has a student with disability perspective, and a veteran’s perspective, and a non-traditional student perspective.

Are there things that are happening differently with the caucuses now in the way that they are used or the way that they play out in a meeting like the Legislative Conference?

I think things go in a pendulum, so is what were doing now different from what we were doing ten years ago, who knows? It’s different from what was happening five years ago and I think that’s maybe how things swing.

I think we got dangerously theoretical a year or two ago. Right now folks are trying to make things very concrete. We’re saying it’s all well and good to come talk about socialization and fighting paradigms, but it’s a hell of a lot more important to say, ‘On our campus, we got this resource center because we got these different groups of students to work together and here’s how we did it and here’s how you can do it.’

And so I think that there’s something different happening. People are really trying to tie back to concrete campaigns and issues. They are really trying to tie back to the three issues that we chose to work on at [last year’s USSA] Congress. I think it’s also stronger because through those issues, you get the theoretical, whereas through the theoretical I don’t think you necessarily got the concrete.

Which way do you think USSA will go next as an organization? You alluded earlier to the more defensive posture that USSA took on during the Reagan years. USSA adopted this broad, struggle-oriented agenda. Now we have Bush as president, the right-wing controls Congress, the Senate and the Supreme Court. How do you see things taking shape?

Obviously, we’d like to not go back, we’d like to go forward and keep pushing for more. I think what we need, rather than defensiveness, is flexibility. For example, I guarantee you almost nobody at this conference knew or cared about tax cuts a month ago, and now we are talking about it at this conference as much, if not more, than any other issue that we’re working on. Our job now is to point out to students that what this means is less money for our programs, more money for rich people.

You know, I was 4 years old in 1981, so I can’t really speak to what USSA did around those cuts. I think for that generation – it wasn’t that they were unprepared – but I don’t think they knew how bad it could get. But, I think the history is there that we can internalize and learn from to keep that from happening again.

And the important thing is, although we have a Bush president (and the Democrats are not much better), 53 percent of the electorate voted center or left. So the majority of the country is at least slightly to the left. And we can’t let people forget that.

This whole bi-partisan sentiment out there seems to me to be ridiculously foolish. You don’t make compromises on things that are wrong, and yet that seems to be what is going on out there. I think students and young people have the ability to say, ‘Hey! we are on the right track, we are getting the right message across – this is a four year president.’

Now, USSA is non-partisan of course, let’s be clear. But George Bush’s policies are using progressive rhetoric to go back to the same old Reagan policies. He’s talking about working families, but he means Gates and Rockefeller. The fact that they are using that rhetoric means that’s what people want to hear. And if that’s what people are looking for, then we just have to deal with the substance of what’s behind that so we can see some real change.

What issues do you see coming to the fore in the next year or so in this new situation?

Well, of course everything here is democratic so it’s all up to our students. I think welfare reauthorization is going to be a huge legislative priority because it’s a very concrete manifestation of the effects of globalization, the effects of privatization, this myth of economic prosperity for everyone. This huge tax cut we were talking about and cutting money already, all this is going to come down on the folks who are most vulnerable. A lot of our students come from these families. The criminalization issue is not going to go away anytime soon. If I had to put money on our agenda next year, that’s what I’d say.

Political Affairs Magazine – May, 2001



    Political Affairs is an online magazine of ideas, politics and culture. Our mission is to go beyond simply giving an account of events to providing analysis and investigating what is new and changing in our world – from a working-class point of view.

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