Kansas Socialism Is In the House, Again

Kansas may count as a “red state,” one that’s backed national Democrats only on the rarest of occasions, but it has a proud radical tradition, too. A strong abolitionist center, it produced a fiery populist uprising and hosted a strong socialist presence in Lawrence. It also spawned a first-rate socialist newspaper, The Appeal to Reason, which at its height in the first decade of the 20th century had a circulation of some 200,000, counting among its regular contributors Eugene Debs and Upton Sinclair.

Now it’s produced Jackie Sewell, the new Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) organizer. The 23 year-old Sewell grew up in a conservative Catholic family in Andover, Kan., a suburb of Wichita that was nearly leveled by a tornado in 1991. She also remembers her own “coming out as an agnostic in high school” and the storms that followed; these only reinforced her tendency toward thinking critically.

As an activist, she gravitated toward backing immigrant workers’ struggles, as she worked with Wichita State YDS supporting the fight of Florida agricultural workers in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and joint actions with leaders from Wichita’s large Spanish-speaking immigrant community.

She graduated from the University of Kansas, majoring in Spanish (no surprise there, given her interest in immigrant issues) with a specialization in women, gender and sexuality studies.

As the YDS organizer since the summer, housed in New York City where she had never lived before coming on board, she’s already hit the road several times. She’s visited colleges and universities including Wesleyan, Penn State, Brandeis, the College of Wooster and Ohio University in Athens, to deliver her Grassroots Economics Training for Understanding and Power (GET UP) presentation on student debt and the crisis in higher education.

Sewell says she’s “excited to work on our YDS campaign for affordable and accessible higher education.” The campaign encompasses the fight-back against the drop in state and federal funding for schools, resisting

By Michael Hirsch

the efforts of boards of trustees to privatize universities and the stifling explosion in student debt, which now outstrips even credit card obligations.

“Since the start of the great
recession, 43 of the 50 states have
decreased funding for higher
education on all levels,” Sewell
points out. “Spending per student
reached a 25-year low this year. We know education is a right, and it’s a right that needs protecting. We need to mobilize students especially around tuition freezes as a first step and way more transparency in how universities spend tuition and their budgets.”

Sewell, as with every once-and-future YDS staffer, has a job chockablock with work. In line with YDS priorities, she is busy generating basic educational materials ranging from introductions to socialist and feminist theory to the congressional Student Loan Forgiveness Act. “We want to make the YDS website resource-rich,” she says, “so chapters doing tabling and holding meetings can easily get the information they need off our site.”

She’s also working with DSA National Director Maria Svart to initiate a series of educational presentations via SKYPE or Google+. Her portfolio includes leading activist training sessions, looking to develop today’s YDS recruits into tomorrow’s leaders, and facilitating a smooth transition for graduates from the mostly campus-based YDS to the generally older and off-campus DSA.

It’s not all big-picture work for the new organizer. An average day has her staying in touch with chapters through emails, Facebook exchanges and conference calls with chapter leaders. “We need to know what chapters want and how the national organization can help them, especially with speakers and campaign planning.” She also stays in close touch with at-large members wanting to be involved but having no local chapters in their areas.

So what do the folks back home think about her move to what many rural conservatives think of as Babylon on the Hudson? And what do they think of her organizing the day-to-day work of the largest socialist youth group in the United States?

“My mom, with her working-class background, is proud of me,” she said. “My dad [a small businessman] not so much.”

Or not just yet, we think.

Michael Hirsch is a New York City-based labor writer and an editor of Democratic Left. 

Film Discussion: The Price We Pay

January 30, 2017
· 44 rsvps
The Price We Pay blows the lid off the dirty world of corporate malfeasance — the dark history and dire present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance, tax havens - and what we need to do to stop this.  DSA member Bill Barclay, who has a cameo role in the film, will facilitate the discussion. Watch the film prior to the discussion.

Full film available on Vimeo.

How to Plug in New Members

February 01, 2017
· 12 rsvps

Is your DSA chapter growing quickly and you're trying desperately to find ways to plug new members into your chapter's work? Never fear! On this conference call an experienced DSA organizer will go over the basics of new member outreach and developing a plan for plugging new members into your chapter's work. Most of the call will be devoted to troubleshooting specific issues you're facing, so please brainstorm some issues beforehand that you want to bring up on the call.  8 PM ET; 7 PM CT; 7 PM MT; 7 PM PT.

Film Discussion: Salt of the Earth

February 05, 2017
· 9 rsvps

Join DSA members Shelby Murphy and Deborah Rosenfelt in discussing Salt of the Earth, a captivating film made in 1954 by blacklisted writers and actors about a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine. Well before the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, these filmmakers were exploring gender inequality and solidarity. Available on Netflix.

Shelby Murphy is a Latina from Texas and former Young Democratic Socialists co-chair. Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Deborah Rosenfelt researched the making of the film and its aftermath for the reissued screenplay. Here is her blogpost about the film.

 

Film Discussion: Documentaries of People's History in Texas

April 02, 2017
· 3 rsvps

Join DSA members Glenn Scott and Richard Croxdale to discuss videos produced by People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a project that brings to life the stories of ordinary people in significant socio-political movements in Texas. They will discuss The Rag, their newest documentary, which tells the story of an influential underground paper based in Austin, Texas, from 1966-77. Click here to view Part I (the early years as an all-volunteer paper covering the student, anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights movements), Part II (the impact of Women’s Liberation on the paper) and Part III (building community: covering local politics, nukes, co-ops, feminist institutions). But check out their short the video on the Stand-Ins about a group of university students who led a movement to desegregate Austin’s movie theaters in 1961.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
· 2 rsvps

Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion.