Students and Dual Power in Chicago

Students have a unique role to play in building dual power. Contemporary social movements have overlooked the capacity of the university and especially students to participate in building alternative institutions. Student organizing has chiefly taken place in a vacuum, outside of a coherent strategy of building power. This lack of a larger strategy has been highly problematic and has been responsible for the stagnation of our movement. Building power and creating alternative institutions such as legal and medical clinics, cooperatives, education programs etc. are impossible tasks without the professional and occupational expertise learned through higher education. To say the least our movement has not taken an appropriate inventory of our strengths and capacity to transform society. Law students, pre-med students and engineering students have only been as potential sign holders; or if they are truly committed to the struggle, punching bags for the police. These limited opportunities for long term participation and the extremely limited career options offered through existing movement institutions have significantly bounded our demographics. This has favored those who can make a career dealing with social justice, lopsidedly fine arts and liberal arts majors.

Students do not need to wait until graduation to engage in building community power. Universally acknowledged is the fact that universities can do more to benefit their surrounding communities. Offering positions in the cafeteria, even with a union contract, is a sorry excuse for community engagement. Students within the university have a special leverage on the direction of their institution, as well as the direction of individual departments. Changing how the university interacts with the surrounding community takes organization. One example of such student faculty collaboration in Chicago is the New Life Volunteer Society at University of Illinois at Chicago (NLVS). NLVS is now a national student organization of students in the medical field emphasizing service to the community. UIC’s chapter worked with the university and the faculty to open a registered community health clinic on Chicago’s northside that is largely staffed by UIC students for internship credit.

Similarly most law schools in the Chicago offer students the ability to obtain course credit for staffing the school’s affiliated legal clinics. While such opportunities are valuable to low income Chicagoans, their reach is limited, as most law students do not want to sacrifice an opportunity to intern at a high paying law firm internship to work at the schools’ clinics. This represents the clinics’ problem with orientation. As most clinic work is done within the context of a permanent welfare state and not as part of an effort to fundamentally change the dynamics of society, the majority of students are not interested in sacrificing their careers. Few people have the wherewithal to make a career out of being the proverbial thumb in the dam. The story is the same for almost every skilled profession. Our movement desperately needs the skills and talents of students enrolled in universities, but students as struggling individuals almost universally prefer a well paid, secure position at a firm over a lifetime of toil, frustration and projected failure being a “social worker.”

If our movement is to overcome the psychological barriers separating our communities from those qualified to operate the necessary institutions in our communities we need a political strategy. Revolutionary Democracy is a political strategy of building a dual power. We aren’t interested in drawing ourselves and our colleagues into being the footsoldiers of the welfare state; we want an equitable, participatory society, one that ends the exploitation of contemporary capitalist society. As organizers we need to be relevant through orienting ourselves and our neighborhoods around the dynamics of the society we envision. Revolution will only be materialized once enough people have transformed their daily lives around the values of cooperation. This transformation is only possible through participation in alternative institutions. Progress towards a revolutionary transformation can be benchmarked by the public adoption of the dynamics championed by our alternative institutions.

Student organizing has to take another direction, one that is parallel to organizing and building alternative institutions. Not only should organizing be done through at-large chapters at universities but also by professional and occupational interests. Such a tactical orientation recognizes the greater potential of students in the same department cooperating together on the same project. Organizing on campuses should be related to organizing in the larger communities in which the universities are embedded.

In Chicago one immediate goal of SDS could be to organize students in the medical field to reopen one of the cook county satellite clinics closed because of the county’s fiscal mismanagement. Federal subsidies are available for such efforts, as well as loan and tuition reimbursement for those students who guarantee they will staff such community health clinics after graduation. Knowledge of how to run such clinics efficiently can be shared between SDS and student organizations like professional student unions that already coordinate internships, and groups like NLVS at UIC.

Another idea would be to recruit students with plans for small scale green enterprises. With the help of the revolutionary ward organization, they could approach local banks and credit unions for lines of financing to start operations in the neighborhood, with the affiliated campus organization pressuring the university to lend its support to the new enterprises. Leveraging support from specific departments at Chicago’s major universities for local green entrepreneurship would be a great initial goal for such a community development effort. Most likely however, qualified local entrepreneurs will be found in the Chicago City College system, or at less high profile institutions like the Illinois Institute for Technology. Making inroads at such locally focused institutions would also be a great objective for our student movement which has virtually ignored organizing on such campuses.

Focusing on connecting students with entrepreneurship opportunities would be a winning tactic for a dual power strategy. In Chicago such a dual power strategy would probably take the shape of ward organizations. Such organizations would work with affiliated student groups to bring investment into their wards, and would reap the collateral benefits of successful endeavors. Each successful community entrepreneur would bring the ward organization closer to its goal of being a substantive political alternative to the incumbent alderman. Eventually enough people in the community would be connected to the ward organization through social and economic cooperatives and institutions that they would be willing to participate in a political cooperative. Such a cooperative embodied in the ward organization, would make decisions in a directly democratic manner and communicate decisions to a delegated alderman that would run to replace the incumbent alderman who acts on the alderman as representative model.

Coordinating the expansion of the ward organizations is another opportunity for student involvement in building dual power. Although the ward organizations were conceived as efforts initiating in student neighborhoods, they should also work to attract students interested in local politics from around the region. The Summer in the City project out of New Brunswick New Jersey, is a model for Chicago’s revolutionary democratic ward effort. Students from across the country are participating, canvassing neighborhoods, organizing events like bbq’s and concerts and bringing people out to Empower Our Neighborhoods meetings. Something similar in Chicago could involve the ward organizations putting up students on semester breaks to work building ward organization.

Students have a crucial role to play in building dual power in Chicago. They will be the lifeblood of the ward organizations since they are at the heart of the new institutions being built. Students have the ability to leverage the university to support the efforts of the ward organizations. Realizing this powerful capacity will take a shift in strategy in the contemporary student movement. We have to move away from the strictly reactionary politics of protest and move towards a strategy of building power in our neighborhoods. Initially such power building efforts should take place in wards where students live, taking full advantage of the position and resources of the existing student movement. A successful dual power strategy will coordinate the parallel efforts on campuses in neighborhoods, and would effectively harness the potential for the university to transform our neighborhoods.


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