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.