SDS Organizing Lessons From Freedom Festival
Nick Kreitman Elmhurst College SDS
Freedom Festival was one of the events this year that marked a beginning of a dialogue between campus groups at Elmhurst College. It was an idea inspired by the Tent State and Revolutionary Democracy strategy of creating and participating in social spaces and institutions and using them to mobilize for political change. Originally conceived as a Tent State event with students pitching tents on the quad (mall), it eventually turned a three day series of concerts, events and an action. Freedom Festival was one of the most successful political events held on campus in recent years and its success will be a stepping stone if some of the lessons learned from organizing it can be applied to future efforts.
Rocking the Boat at Elmhurst College
Stories of glory from the expanding national Tent State movement originally inspired me to build a similar event on Elmhurst College campus in January (2008), to be held at the end of the school year in May. Tent State’s model was largely communicated through a number of organizers involved with Rutgers Tent State and those working on RD (Revolutionary Democracy). Motivating the organizers of the Tent State movement has been the RD strategy of creating social spaces within student communities to build the relationships necessary for social power.
Revolutionary Democracy understands “power” essentially as the breadth, intimacy, and material resources behind social networks that compose institutions and organizations. Such an understanding of power informs organizing efforts around engaging structures of power and the creation of alternative structures. Both efforts involve gathering information about relationships between people and organizational identities. The Tent State model is a synthesis of efforts to engage current student groups on campus, while organizing an entirely new space for student expression, socializing, and organization. Tent State University (TSU) is a student occupation of the public space on campus, usually on the open quad area, with events organized by SDS and other events organized by students groups within the TSU coalition. The TSU strategy motivates SDS chapters to become proactive in outreaching to other groups to open up dialogues and get their participation in the event.
Maximizing the mobilization of social networks is the goal, since these networks form the basis of our counter power against the social order. Artists, actors, jocks, Muslims, Christians; everyone is invited to participate in TSU. At other campuses TSU has focused on spending cuts by the state to education, abuse of disciplinary actions towards students, exploitation of workers on campus, abuse of overseas workers making university apparel and creating a space to talk about the Iraq war.
To say the least, Elmhurst College has little in common with the schools where TSU has been successful. Whereas TSU has been the product of organizing larger state and private universities usually having 10,000 or more students staying on campus, Elmhurst College is a private commuter school with about 1,500 students staying on campus. The sticker price of our tuition is around 30,000, with the College quietly working with most students to make the outrageous price workable. Quiet is an appropriate adjective for Elmhurst College, it is in the heart of the quiet suburb of Chicago named Chicago. While it’s on the border of Cook County and a short 30 minutes from Lake Michigan, along with its neighboring suburbs, Elmhurst has been an exclusive refuge for the white flight from Chicago.
If “Rich Liberal” could be materialized as an entire campus, Elmhurst College would be a good candidate. Everything superficial about the 90’s “Multiculturalism” fetish is at Elmhurst College in spades. This is not to insult the sincerity of many in the faculty or administration who want to see a positive social change, but this biting critique is necessary if we are ever going to move forward. Our administration loves anything “multicultural;” music, events, speakers, and even has endorsed a move to expand the general curriculum to include some subversive classes. We loved and interned for Obama when he was only a small fry US and state senator. We are affiliated with UCC, Obama’s [former] church. Elmhurst College is Obamanation.
While our college makes sure every promotional photograph is exploding in diversity, it has stalled on reacting to key issues on campus, for example circulating the hate crime email response to last year’s hate crime on campus, for the hate crimes happening again this year. It has also done away with our minority based scholarship fund; instead, folding its money into “less controversial” scholarships that we have been told will not affect any current students receiving money, but the future is uncertain for prospective students.
Holding fast to the “white flight” mindset that helped populate suburbs like Elmhurst, Lombard, Glen Ellyn etc., our institution has largely maintained this arm’s length separation from the problems of “the city,” even though the problems of the city can also be found in the suburbs as well. Our Theology department and other programs at EC mandate student service as part of the course work in different charities but outside of these limited commitments that usually are tangent to a student’s future work at the university, there is little connection to outside community organizations and few relationships to broader social justice movements.
Conceiving Freedom Festival and Reflecting on the Need to Engage Social Spaces at Elmhurst College
“Activism” at Elmhurst College has largely been a few faculty, administration employees, and students working individually on different movement issues. Such individual work was usually constrained to academic investigations of problems, with little engagement with the student body at large or with those directly involved in struggles studied. Many “Activists,” including myself, spent the past few years narrowly viewing movement organizing as an individual effort, asking how could I contribute, what could I do to stop my participation in this corrupt system.
What these questions obscured was a problematic motivation for movement organizing, namely, the fact that many of us “Activists” were working for social justice because we felt guilty about our community and what it was doing to other communities. This led to a negative motivation for organizing that emphasized individual catharsis over social organizing; the mindset of, “I need to speak out to clear my conscience,” not “How I can mobilize the most people towards collective liberation.”
Hegemonic culture, or the collection of “accepted” norms of how people should act, what are “acceptable” expectations and responsibilities towards society etc., created this stigma about social justice organizing in an attempt to protect the dominant social order. Those questioning the social order are ostracized and their identity and self imaged stripped from them. You aren’t an athlete, hip-hop fan, a construction worker, a frat brother or anything other than an “Activist” to the hegemonic culture when you start talking about how to change society.
While many embrace the title of “Activist,” hegemonic culture has successfully exiled political discussion to the small and socially insignificant “Activist” subculture. “Activist” subculture has both non-violent, and violent tendencies, but both suffer from the same contradiction. Both tendencies elevate tactics and “action” over strategic mobilization because of the motivation to release guilt instead of identifying as part of the oppressed and a desire to attain liberation from the social order.
At Elmhurst College the contradictions of the “Activist” subculture has been the creation of a socially segregated community of students and faculty pursuing social justice. Student and faculty efforts have often been diverted into career and academic advancing projects that do not work to organize others into a counter power. Sparsely attended lectures, video screenings, and small demonstrations organized largely by word of mouth within the “activist community” for social justice causes are frequent on campus, which have helped to maintain a clear distinction between “activism” and the social life on campus.
Collectively as EC organizers we need to address our motivations of why we are involved in movement work in the first place. We don’t need to feel guilty about ourselves, most of us are in precarious economic situations as it is, and even those who aren’t are still victims of the social order. Even though we aren’t dying of preventable diseases or living in squalor, the price we have to pay for material security is our dignity and autonomy to work for some corporation or government office. Our personhood is too important to sacrifice on America’s alter; the only option is to resist and recognize our situation is the same, though not identical, to those who are fighting for their right to survive. This Revolutionary Democracy philosophy demands the solidarity given to equals instead of the charity given to our inferiors.
Part of the resolution of “Activism’s” contradictions is the reassertion of our sociability as organizers. No more can we accept the imposed division between the social and the political, we have to recognize that our political effort is a social effort. Our movement is more than a subculture and we have to be ready to engage others outside of it to build the relationships necessary to restructure society. In addition to being political organizers, we have to adopt the role of social organizers, creating and engaging in social spaces that we can mobilize towards building our own social order.
It was towards this recognition that Freedom Festival was created. Freedom Festival was to be an effort to outreach to a number of campus groups and create a social space where we could introduce our movement politics. Each group was asked to host their own event, and we lined up a night of music that was planned to be a three day outdoor festival.
Challenges Faced Building the First Annual Freedom Festival
EC Students for a Democratic Society, and EC Amnesty International have always been loose organizations and during this past school year met separately even though there was a significant overlap of members. Freedom Festival emerged first as a Tent State type event after winter break. After the break none of the groups were meeting and I threw up flyers with pictures of Rutgers Tent State, a mission statement and a gmail/blog for the event. Not only did these flyers not get any response to the gmail account, they alarmed the campus administration who ordered them taken down.
The failure of the first few weeks of Freedom Festival outreach was symbolic of some of the greater problems with Elmhurst College’s organizing. It took a series of events on campus to help SDS realize that however cool a flyer, however interesting a blog, these impersonal forms of outreach did not accomplish the level of mobilization we were looking for, even though such tasks could be rather labor intensive. Unfortunately we never effectively overhauled our organizing efforts during the spring semester but the relative success of the Freedom Festival was largely a result of these realizations.
Later in the semester EC SDS and AI began meeting, and Freedom Festival was introduced to the larger group, who thought it would be a good event to build towards and end the year with. It took a number of meetings to hash out exactly what Freedom Festival would be, which expanded the planning time to nearly a month and a half before others outside of the group were contacted about Freedom Festival. In retrospect, the planning period for Freedom Festival could have been compressed to a few weeks if those most interested in it could have met outside the weekly meetings.
Freedom Festival began to take shape as two days of events on the college mall sponsored by different campus groups, with a concert on the first night and with the third day being Mayday and a focus on freedom of movement. At this point we called for a larger meeting where we divvied up the other campus groups to contact and invite to this planning meeting. We were able to expand our coalition to new groups such as the Black Student Union, Progressive Organization of Women, HABLAMOS (Hispanic culture group), Spiritual Life Council and the Music Business Student Union.
Our planning meeting had a good turnout of around 15 people from different groups on campus, but was changed mid meeting to being dedicated to planning the Hate Crimes rally that was happening the next week. After about an hour the person planning the Hate Crimes rally had to leave, and most other people couldn’t stay much longer, leaving us with only enough people for a framing session for Freedom Festival. We had a few roles given out that were not well defined for people and most of the tasks were put off until after out spring break which was the week after the Hate Crimes rally, leaving us with a little more than a month to put together Freedom Festival.
Throughout the end of March, where we diverted some of our attention to anti-war organizing, and April, we gave presentations to different groups on campus about Freedom Festival and obtained their support, forming a large coalition on paper similar to our Jena 6 rally. Our approach was to get endorsements from different groups, try to help them brainstorm different events they could host on the campus mall during Freedom Festival, but leave the commitment on them to actually follow through on hosting the events.
Unfortunately, most campus groups that were not purely social clubs like fraternities or Union Board (the event hosting arm of student government), suffered from the same problems we encountered when holding political events because there was no social understanding of power. Similar to SDS, many groups were embodied by a small number of people who were in leadership roles, with a somewhat larger periphery membership. While identity based groups like BSU and HABLAMOS held well attended social events like dances or family celebrations that were well funded by the student government; when they engaged in political events like other groups on campus such as SDS, Coalition for Multicultural Empowerment, Progressive Organization of Women, and Amnesty International the attendance and energy plummeted.
The problem with having a small group of people in leadership positions is that the larger social networks that must be mobilized for a successful social movement are out of touch unless those in leadership positions happen to be extraordinarily social. At Elmhurst College, when these leadership positions were combined with organizational work, and in many cases academic work related to the organization, the leadership often became too busy to seriously engage these social networks even if they did recognize those networks’ importance. This doomed their groups to irrelevancy since those members on the periphery were not invested enough in the organization to seriously outreach to their social networks.
After spring break EC SDS and AI continued to organize for Freedom Festival, reserving the bands for the night of music, reserving the space, equipment and maintaining contact with a groups committed to the event. A number of members made flyers for the event and most buildings had a number of different flyer styles for the event, which may have helped raise Freedom Festival’s profile. We did not get an advertisement in the student paper due to the lack of time, but we did get announcements in the low readership campus email listserve.
I was the only member to my knowledge who handbilled for the event, handing out around 150 humorous flyers for Freedom Festival with Barack Obama proudly endorsing the “Audacity of Freedom Festival” on the flyer, along with a skeleton schedule of events. While more handbilling would have further built the profile of the event and the handbilling that was done was much more successful than flyers on walls alone, I found that it was not the silver bullet to mobilizing students.
Far and away the most effective way to turn people out to our events was the personal ask, which happened both during “official” meetings and also during social interactions outside of meetings. Talking to individuals at length about Freedom Festival and trying to obtain a commitment to show up was the most effective mobilization technique. While it was labor intensive and forced the organizer to expand their social network, it was much more worthwhile investment than fuddling around with flyers, websites, etc. We did not recognize the importance of personal interactions, and our turnout reflected the mixed success of our flyering, handbilling, bannering etc.
Arrival of Freedom Festival
Eventually Freedom Festival rolled around, and we were caught relatively unprepared for its arrival. The last two weeks we focused on different avenues for advertising, as well as scrambling for confirming events. Luckily our AI chapter secured the participation of the American Friends Service Committee with their empty boot cost of war display that we were able to set up on the first day of the festival. The bands and the catering was also taken care ahead of time, as well as the space for the events the second day.
Freedom Festival was held April 29th-May 1st, during what could be considered one of the coldest springs in recent memory. Our “outdoor” festival had snowflakes, making the few brave organizers manning tables for various groups and serving the food pretty miserable. The turnout for the daytime of the first day was limited to members of participating organizations, with most of the events promised by groups other than SDS and AI falling through. We were able to secure our basement student union area for the night time concert and moved downstairs during the afternoon.
Our concert was much more successful than the daytime events, even though the visual representation of the cost of the Iraq War was powerful, with a class of grade school children taking a field trip to visit our Freedom Festival. Around 100 people filtered through the five hour concert, with some great music and organic stir fry provided reluctantly from Chartwells, our (non-union) cafeteria service. We also had an SDS/AI member deliver a powerful spoken word performance.
The second day of Freedom Festival was planned to be intentionally light, but ended up being even lighter than the schedule intended. Only one of the participating groups actually held their planned events. We found out later that one of the groups that had endorsed Freedom Festival did have an event that day but was not a part of Freedom Festival, which was snub or a really bad breakdown of communication. Our reforming public education financing event had five people from local political circles come talk about resolving the huge financing disparities in Illinois but turnout was limited to a few organizers.
Mayday was a pleasant surprise for organizers, with a dozen students skipping class to take the train to Chicago and demonstrate for freedom of movement and amnesty for immigrants. The weather improved for the Mayday rally, and the energy was high throughout the rally. Tens of thousands came out to the rally in downtown Chicago, with SDS Chicago finally participating as a bloc. While we did walk close to the SDS bloc, and we were one of the best represented schools marching, most of the time we spent marching together as a school and getting to know each other better and reflecting on the events of the past two days. Our contingent had an awesome FREEDOM FESTIVAL two part banner made as a favor by a talented art student that got our pictures taken throughout the day.
Moving Forward to the Second Annual Freedom Festival
Freedom Festival next year already has an entire week reserved on the campus, and now has a reputation as one of the most successful events held on campus. If we are going to build on the success this year however, we need to adapt our organizing efforts around the lessons learned. We need to press much harder to create social spaces leading up to Freedom Festival where we can make the “personal asks” necessary to get people seriously involved in organizing. Instead of having a number of disconnected events held as reactions to tragedies like the Morton West sit-in expulsions, the Jena 6 indictments, or our hate crimes on campus, we need to build a sustainable movement that can harness the momentum around each of these events to build a counter power on campus.
Specifically we need to have our organizers embedded in the larger social life of the college. Instead of regarding partying or socializing as something separate from political activity, we need to integrate it into our political organizing, we need to be at the parties talking about how we can change the world, and we need to be throwing our own parties, barbeques, bowling nights etc. to build a well-connected community and expand our subcultural past and overcome the challenges thrown at us by our hegemonic culture.
Many organizers, including myself, failed to accomplish the responsibilities taken on in a complete or timely manner, including compiling essential contact lists, and establishing formal means of communication with campus groups. As a first priority our SDS chapter needs to build an expansive contact list, with people’s names, numbers, emails, organizational affiliations and interests so we can maintain contact and encourage people to fulfill their responsibilities in a timely and complete fashion. Learning how to keep meetings productive with low attendance would help maintain the energy in organizing even when circumstances prevent some organizers from attending. Being punctual and thorough with following up with people will help us build commitments from individuals to SDS and AI and will encourage those in the periphery to join us in the leadership and expand the social networks we can mobilize for events.
In addition we need to change our engagement with different groups on campus. While talking to organizational leaders was a good first step in building a coalition on campus, it did not yield any results for Freedom Festival as the participating groups near universally failed to live up to their commitments. SDS should take the same approach to building coalitions as it should towards building its own social power. Interacting with a small number of organizational leaders in overly formal contexts did not build the necessary relationships to have them fulfill their commitments, or get such leaders to mobilize their social networks towards Freedom Festival’s goals. We need to identify the social networks that these organizations exist in, and then attempt to interact in social contexts with these organizations’ members and build relationships so we can make the all important “personal asks.”
While this organizing strategy may seem overly labor intensive, and may ring inauthentic at forcing oneself into other’s social networks, it is neither. Not only is this strategy less labor intensive then people working themselves to death making organizational material that is less effective at mobilizing people, it is much more authentic to outreach to people using the most effective means possible rather than treating “activism” as a hobby to release guilt where actual results are irrelevant. Only through an understanding of power as a factor of social relationships can we effectively deconstruct the power of the social order and build our own counter power. Towards this effort, building social spaces like Freedom Festival will continue to be essential, and hopefully analyses such as this one will continue to help improve the success of our organizing.