Where is the student movement? Ohio wants to know

Students at the Columbus Student Power Summit take part in an introduction session where they answer questions about themselves to a small group. (WNV/Molly Shack)

Ohio student activists talk a lot about power. “Our status quo means they’re operating in a way that they have power over us,” Lainie Rini, a second-year student at Ohio State University (OSU) studying social work, said. “Unless we can change our power relationship with them we will continue to not win.” The 40 people who attended the Columbus Student Power Summit on November 18 were coming to this conclusion as well. For four hours, student organizers with the Ohio Students Association (OSA) talked out their visions for the future. They want to make their universities more accessible, affordable and equitable. And, to do this, they are trying to take back — you guessed it — power.

Power, Rini explained, is relational. To gain power within the university, students must change how they relate with the administration and those who already have power. The OSA is trying to build new relationships with not only each other, through events like the summit, but with those who hold the power to make decisions about their university. Power for the OSA means having a meaningful place in their schools’ decision- and budget-making process.

Everyone knows that higher education is too expensive. Student loan debt in the United States hit $1 trillion in March. As wealthy alumni and corporations pour money into universities and governments withdraw their support, higher education has become a commodity less affordable to those who need it most. Today, the United States boasts some of the most expensive universities in the world. Why, then, is this country not seeing massive student protests like the ones in Chile and Québec? There seem to be three main reasons. First, higher education in the United States is vast and decentralized, and there is a larger ratio of private universities to public ones; students from Chile and Québec, in contrast, largely attend public universities with institutional ties to one another. Second, the United States is physically much larger and a great deal more diverse; students from Chile and Québec have not only more centralized university systems, but also more unified societies. Finally, U.S. students have lacked a strong culture of resistance for decades, while in both Chile and Québec students have a history of fighting — and winning — major political campaigns. Compared to them, student organizers here are starting practically from scratch.

In Chile, students faced one of the most stratified higher-education systems in the world, with rising tuition costs and a high bar for entry. Their response has been to take to the streets by the hundreds of thousands. Though there was some degree of spontaneity to their protests, the sustained numbers was the result of strong political and cultural backing. They have well-established student federations with high participation rates and ties to major political parties. All they needed was a spark — a 10 percent approval rating for their current government — and their structures allowed them to create sustainable mobilizations.

Québec, in turn, has a half-century legacy of student strikes and a radical student union, Association Pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ), which has been in existence for over a decade. There, the most recent spark was the announcement of a $1,625 tuition increase over five years. ASSÉ immediately began to organize around it. The massive protests in 2012 were the result of that long buildup. Ultimately, the tuition fees were reversed, and the prime minister who introduced the hikes, Jean Charest, was booted out of office.

A “unity circle” at the end of the Columbus Student Power Summit, used to debrief and wind down. Participants went around and said the name of one person they wouldn’t be in that room without. (WNV/Molly Shack)

Students in Ohio have been watching both struggles abroad. OSU saw its first recent wave of political activity in the spring of 2011 with the fight against Senate Bill 5, Issue 2, a piece of anti-collective bargaining legislation. Students and workers fought the bill together and won. Then, in fall 2011, political activity on campus resurged with the birth of the Occupy movement. Occupy fostered a sudden escalation of political mobilizations. In its early days, it was much easier than usual to get people into the streets; a Facebook event and a few tweets could bring out hundreds of people. But OSU students found that even this momentum was not sustainable. After the events of May Day this year, Occupy’s influence began to wane, and OSU students set to work organizing in the summer lull. They had already held  the Ohio Youth Congress in January, a gathering in Columbus of 150 student leaders from across Ohio, which was where they voted to form the OSA. Then, in August, they organized the Student Power Convergence, a nationwide gathering of student activists centered on the conviction that the key to taking back education is to take back power.

The Ohio Students Association is still, quite evidently, in its early stages. Many of the structures it will need to be effective have yet to be created. Currently, it has about 10 to 20 core organizers and two full-time paid staff, thanks to funding from the Ohio Organizing Collaborative. The biggest part of the OSA’s work right now is to bring in new organizers and develop new campaigns — the first of which is likely to be focused on the state budget and how it funds education. The group is organizing at the state level because, according to OSA organizer Stuart McIntyre, that is “the level [on which] power operates.” The state legislatures control budgets, which in turn control how much tuition costs and how much money the university must seek from outside sources, such as wealthy donors and corporations. Organizers have yet to settle on an association-wide decision-making structure, but they are hoping to formalize that in the coming months.

“We’re young,” said Molly Shack, a 2012 graduate of OSU and an organizer with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative and the OSA. “We’re working to start up student action councils across the state. We want to start the process of having a student-run democratic structure to decide on the direction.” The Student Action Councils they want to implement will serve as vehicles for students to craft their own decision-making processes unique to the cultures and needs of their respective universities.

“Right now we operate on a loose consensus model,” Shack said. “We’re really trying to work towards something that is more sustainable that is not as dependent on the goodwill and good relationships we have right now.”

The OSA remains small, especially in comparison to the population of Ohio universities like OSU, Ohio University, and Kent State University, where they are attempting to organize. Even at its height, Occupy OSU saw numbers only in the hundreds, a drop in the bucket in of OSU’s population of over 60,000. That isn’t to say most people don’t care about tuition fee increases or the slashing of the university’s budget; more likely, they just haven’t been presented with a meaningful way to engage. Occupy functioned as an all-or-nothing sort of protest environment, and the OSA hopes to provide a more welcoming alternative. Its organizers envision an association where dedicated students serve in committees like the Student Action Council, which in turn can engage more passive supporters.

The March 1 National Students Day of Action staged by Occupy OSU. (WNV/Molly Shack)

“[I want the] OSA to serve as a shift in the spectrum of allies,” Shack said. “[I want] the people that are passive supporters to start to work with us more. For many of us, we’ll be in the fight for education forever, that is not going away. Other people, invariably, will go get jobs and have a family, that’s fine. I think having people in all sorts of level of our society that identify with OSA, our values, and what we are fighting for [is important].”

Shack has confidence the organization will grow. “What we are fighting for is actually good for most folks,” she said. “It is not that it is something great for a selective few. It is good for all Ohioans.”

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