Throughout modern history, young people have kindled the flames of social movements across the world. In the last century, students initiated successful fights against Jim Crow and the Vietnam war, and the more recent struggles against neoliberal austerity in Greece, Quebec, and Wall Street have had an undeniably youthful energy. In 2014, the leftward trajectory of youth in the United States is visible in the increasing membership and participation of students in the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS).
This President’s Day weekend, over 100 young activists from across the country converged in New York for the annual YDS winter conference: Beyond Capitalism: Activism and Ideas for the Next Left. The conference offered plenaries, presentations and workshops to strengthen both the analytical and strategic acumen of YDS members, while also providing a welcoming environment to facilitate social networking among activists on a national scale.
The kick-off plenary, ”New Directions in Feminism,” drew over 140 conference attendees and New York community members to a discussion on the challenges and prospects of contemporary feminist thought and practice. The plenary featured the acclaimed and controversial writer Mikki Kendall, who emphasized the importance of the intersectionality of race and class with gender. Kendall was followed by Dangerous Minds writer and DSA National Committee member (NPC) Amber Frost, who discussed the role of social media in modern feminism. Peg Strobel, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a DSA (NPC) member presented on the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union of the 1970’s, providing a historical context to current debates in feminism.
In Saturday morning’s plenary, “Introduction to Socialism and Strategy,” DSA honorary Chair Frances Fox Piven and NPC member and DSA vice chair Joe Schwartz introduced attendees to the political tradition of democratic socialism and the need to develop strategies to transform social relationships within capitalism.
The final plenary, “Socialist Self Education,” brought socialist intellectuals Emahunn Campbell and Nichole Shippen together with Jacobin Magazine founder Bhaskar Sunkara and Dissent Magazine associate editor Sarah Leonard to discuss their respective autodidactic processes. This new feature for the winter conference was well received by conference attendees, with speakers discussing the influence of authors ranging from Karl Marx to bell hooks on their intellectual development.
The majority of the conference was composed of workshops, both activist trainings and political education. Activist trainings focused on the nuts and bolts of organizing, with workshops offering practical guides to starting YDS chapters, transitioning leadership, tabling, and running campaigns. Political education workshops featured speakers who discussed a variety of political, social, and economic issues facing activists around the world, including racism in American politics, trans* inclusivity, the neoliberalization of the university, immigration, and precarious worker organizing. Introductory and advanced workshops on democratic socialism were also provided by YDS veterans. Between workshops, caucuses for women and gender minority, people of color, LGBTQ, and working class members along with caucuses for allies provided safe spaces for discussions on how to confront oppressive dynamics within the organization and at the conference.
In contrast with previous conferences, the majority of the workshop and plenary speakers were either current or former YDS members. This creates space for future engagement for newer members, presenting the organization as a nucleus for the leadership and intellectual development of young activists. Additionally, the presence of activists from Germany’s Social Democratic Party and Mexico’s Party of the Democratic Revolution at the conference gave attendees an added appreciation for the contemporary context of the international left.
This year’s conference was assuredly the strongest in recent years in terms of participation and content, and sets a standard for future conferences to live up to. More importantly, conference participants will go back to their chapters with a firmer grasp on theory and practice to inform their campaigns against student debt and school privatization in the coming year.
David Roddy currently serves on the National Political Committee of DSA and is active in the Sacramento local.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.