Friday, February 19, 2010

Is “Working with Student Government” a Dead End?

By Katy Rose

“…when you try to change the system from within, it's not you who changes the system; it's the system that will eventually change you.”
–Immortal Technique, “The Poverty of Philosophy”

When a group of students went to a budget-committee meeting at Cañada College to speak out about budget cuts, the administrators told us we should “go to Sacramento,” and that we should “work with student government.” We had to wonder why they insisted on trying to control our political development on campus, and why our autonomy worried them so much.

The administrators of our campuses are uncomfortable with the idea of a growing, restless, and independent campus movement that will hold them accountable for “managing” the cuts rather than fighting them effectively. The administration’s line is “our hands are tied,” which is their way of saying that they are not going to actively fight anyone higher up in the system to get the funds we need to have a thriving public education system.

Their best response to us is to urge us to leave them alone and go sit through student government meetings and try to get that body to fight the budget cuts for us.

But our question is, why should we waste our time in student government meetings when we are building our own power now from the bottom up? Why not cut out the “middle-man”?

Most of us know some amazing people with good intentions in student government and in our campus administration. That makes it difficult at times to critique these institutions. Our impulse is to believe in the people we know to do the right thing and stand up for school funding; after all, they’re against the cuts, too. But we need to be able to separate individual people from the roles they play within institutions.

We need to examine the function of student government as an institution, rather than rely on the intentions of friends within it, or even on the anti-budget-cut position of the student government as a whole.

The agendas for student government meetings are often posted online, and they’re worth taking a look at. They brim with good intentions, but reading them is a little like watching Nero fiddle while Rome burns. The official “voice and link between administration and students” isn’t planning strikes, occupations or walk-outs to fight for EOPS (Extended Opportunity Programs and Services) funding and keeping childcare centers open. The bravest thing they do is support a “lobby day” in Sacramento where students interested in developing “leadership skills”—and connections—can go rub shoulders with legislators.

The fact is that student government has to play within the legalistic, non-confrontational rules set by college administrations. That means that any “advocacy” for students has to be in the form of lobbying (begging) for favors from higher-ups, rather than building grassroots power to get what we need to thrive.

Our task as independent, unaffiliated students resisting cuts is to build sufficient power to get what we need and desire for our community and our campuses. We can’t allow our creativity and imagination about how to build that power to be co-opted by the process and procedures of student government. Our dreams don’t fit into their ballot boxes; our needs don’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order.

As the great Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas famously said in 1857,

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions…have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.… This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Across California, independent student groups are building for walk-outs, strikes, occupations, and system-wide shut-downs for March 4. It will be this kind “moral and physical” struggle from the grassroots that demonstrates our power as students and working people to halt injustice and create a better world. Student government will not, and cannot, do this for us.

Katy Rose is a former UC Berkeley student now finishing her BA at Cañada College in Redwood City.

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