The Campus is Confused

Community Organizing DC Politics Organizing

10384036_10205264970650764_7352525560274881170_nNew Paltz     The State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz asked me to speak with them about organizing, and so away I went. The topic hashed out over emails was a bit clunky, “Is Grassroots Organizing Dead or Just Dying – There Won’t be a Facebook Revolution,” but I was game. My charge from the Student Association organizers seemed to be to stir up some stuff and get the students to come out ready to do something and step forward, and so I did.

My remarks pushed at standing up to the right and the efforts to chill community organizing domestically and internationally, to fill the gap left by the loss of ACORN, to become more politically active, to commit to transformational rather than transactional organizing, and most of all to “do something!” I promised it would not be easy, but would be possible with work, but unfortunately there were no shortcuts. All good, and you can catch it on YouTube sometime soon on a computer near you.

But, when it got to the interesting part for me, the question and answers section, and then later staying at the crash pad with some of the student organizers, including Jesse Ginsburg, son of a longtime veteran ACORN and union organizer, Larry Ginsburg, the real mission impossible became clearer. Needless to say, the best and most receptive time to talk to 40 or 50 student activists is not necessarily the day after the midterm elections when hope seems to be bleached out of the voting electorate like a bad stain on a good pair of jeans. Even in deep blue New York State, there were questions pro and con about the Working Families Party, which I was proud to defend, but several in the crowd were disheartened by Governor Cuomo, and I only learned later that there had been a small demonstration when he appeared on campus some time recently to announce a grant that many students felt should have been used differently. Others had done some registration work with NY PIRG of a couple of hundred students or canvassed for state senate candidates or Congressional candidates and were surprised to have lost. I guess I should count myself lucky I was speaking in New York and not in Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, or North Carolina.

The questions after the lecture and then later around a kitchen table surrounded by the iconic sink piled with dirty dishes claimed to be about the apathy of students, but seemed to speak from a source of increasing alienation and hopelessness that if they responded to the kind of call I was making, that it would make any difference, that any kind of change was even possible. The mid-term election post-mortem holds contradictory information about the problem of low turnout, but on some points there is clarity. The failure of young voters in hotbeds of youth like Durham, North Carolina home of Duke University, capsized Senator Kaye Hagan’s bid. The increased Republican voting strength among Latinos frustrated at the inaction on immigration and unsure how to register their protest can’t be overlooked either. These are frightening signs of an alienation and disenchantment with the political process that troubled these students and scared the heck out of me.

The dust is still settling, but if the students and activists of New Paltz are any indication, one of the tragic legacies of the Obama legacy could be that the hope for change that he inspired and that now seems deeply soured may be lost for a very, very long time and replaced not only by the cynicism of the right, but the disillusionment in the collective, democratic promise of many.

In my remarks, I told them honestly that organizing on the road to change was long and hard, but it may have just gotten immeasurably longer and harder, and they seem to see this even more clearly than I do now.