YOUNG AMERICANS BAND TOGETHER TO ORGANIZE FOR JUSTICE
By Mark Naison | With thanks to NewBlackMan
Wednesday, August 10, 2011.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many Americans, though brought up on “rags to riches” stories of individual mobility, began to cautiously embrace the concept of “Solidarity”—the idea that working people could only survive, and ultimately prosper, if they helped one another when they were in need and organized together to demand that government and business provide them with economic security. Such an ideal fueled the growth of the industrial labor movement, which called on workers to sacrifice for once another, rather than compete for the favors of employers. But it was also visible in the emergence of an ethic of mutual aid that honored those who helped people in trouble, whether it was feeding a hungry person who came to the door asking for food, or taking in a family who just lost their farm or got evicted from their apartment.
The music of Woodie Guthrie and the novels of John Steinbeck, especially the Grapes of Wrath, captured the moral grandeur of solidarity both as a personal credo and a political ideal, but it was also institutionalized, through an alliance of the New Deal and the emerging labor movement, in unemployment insurance, old age pensions, and the legal protection of collective bargaining rights in basic industry.
For the last three years, I have been looking for signs that young college educated Americans, along with their working class counterparts, are beginning to rediscover the concept of Solidarity. Young people have been hammered especially hard in the current economic crisis. As of the Spring of 2011, youth unemployment in the US had topped 20 percent, with sections of that labor force (minority youth, high school graduates) having rates double that total. Even graduates of elite universities were having trouble finding work they were trained for, as many returned home to live with parents rather than striking out on their own.
For a while, I saw little evidence that young Americans were reading the handwriting on the wall and concluding that acquisitive individualism and consumerism just weren’t going to work all that well for their generation. I watched in astonishment as young Americans failed to mobilize for the 2010 Congressional elections as they had in 2008, paving the way for Republican—and Tea Party-dominance of the House of Representatives.
But in the last six months, I have seen numerous signs that Solidarity is making a comeback among young people who are starting to realize that this economic crisis is not going away and that they had better reach out to one another and fight for economic justice, lest their dignity, as well as their power to make a living, be permanently compromised.
The first sign of this was in Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of high school students and college students mobilized in support of union workers whose collective bargaining rights were being taken away through the actions of a Republican Governor and State Legislature. At the Save Our Schools Rally in Washington, I had the privilege of introducing Kas Schwerdtfeger, a Students for a Democratic Society organizer from Milwaukee who led walkouts of thousands of high school and college students in support of the occupation of the state legislature by union workers, as well as semester long occupation of the student center at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Such actions equaled, and in many ways, exceeded those launched by the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, the last major student movement in the US to mobilize around the concept of ”Solidarity.” But Wisconsin was not an isolated incident.
In New York City, the concept of ”Solidarity” has been embraced by many young teachers enraged by the testing and assessment protocols imposed by the Bloomberg Dictatorship in the NYC Department of Education as well as the huge propaganda campaign launched by wealthy philanthropists in behalf of charter schools and privatization of public education. In the last six months, a multifaceted resistance movement, jointly led by young teachers and veteran education activists, has resulted in the organization of “Fight Back Fridays,” citywide protests by protests by teachers, students and parents and parents against excessive testing; the production of “The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting For Superman,” a devastating critique of dominant Education Reform ideology, and the organization of an amazing group called “The New Teacher Underground” which brings together teachers in alternative certification programs like Teach for America with long time graduates of teacher education programs to fight for democracy and a fair distribution of resources in the city’s schools and the communities they are located in.
As someone who has been directly or indirectly involved with these initiatives—I have marched on a picket line with young teacher activists at Lehman High School, written an article on charters schools with the help of the creators of “The Inconvenient Truth about Waiting For Superman,” and spoken at a meeting of the “New Teacher Underground”—I have seen, first hand, a level of energy and commitment on the part of young teacher activists in New York that reminds me of my own experience in justice movements in the Sixties and early Seventies
And this is only the beginning.
As the government of the United States has set upon a course of action, affirmed by both major parties, that will intensify the hardship of America’s poor and drive millions of middle class people into the edge of poverty, the young people of this nation, I now am confident, will organize, will resist, and ultimately, over time, will change the course of American history so that sacrifice and hardship is no longer concentrated on our society’s most vulnerable people.
Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of two books, Communists in Harlem During the Depression and White Boy: A Memoir. Naison is also co-director of the Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). Research from the BAAHP will be published in a forthcoming collection of oral histories Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life From the 1930s to the 1960s.