"Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible" Conference Review

On the heels of an excellent Young Democratic Socialists (YDS) turn out at the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) 2007 convention in Atlanta, YDS’s winter outreach conference’s success seems to be another stepping stone for a fantastic new YDS. In Georgia, YDS sent a diverse delegation of fifteen young activists from across the country (Texas and Kansas to Miami and southwestern Virginia) to the gathering. At the meeting, a point was made for young cadre to caucus in order to prepare for the coming annual national outreach conference.Collectively, it was decided to name the event “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible: Reviving Democratic, Socialist, and Youth Activism.” The title was chosen to pay homage to the spirit of young radicals in 1968–as a reflection of the hopes and dreams of the past 40 years and the tasks that still remain for left-wing youth and student activists. We all left Atlanta set on bringing not only ourselves to New York City on President’s Weekend but many more comrades and friends as well.

On Friday February 15th, we opened the event with a panel discussion called “2013 Isn’t Soon Enough: The Anti-War Movement Post-Bush.” The plenary served both as a conference opener and an Iraq Moratorium event. YDS has participated in Iraq Moratorium events (monthly actions to raise awareness against the war in Iraq) since September. The panel served as an excellent way to showcase our grassroots work on a national stage. DSA members Bill Fletcher Jr., Stephen Eric Bronner, and Frances Fox Piven answered individual and group questions. Each had a chance to personally reflect on other panelist’s thoughts and opinions. The excellent discourse covered a range of pertinent topics such as U.S. policy towards Iran, changing political conditions for the anti-war movement due to the presidential race, the role of young socialists in ending the war, and much more. The plenary set a positive and proactive tone that held throughout the conference.

The following Saturday morning YDS members, chapter activists, progressive young people, and friends from across the country began to trickle in. Even before the program began, it was clear that a new YDS had arrived both physically and organizationally. One visible element to the new YDS was diversity. This was one of the widest ranges of people, places, and ideas ever to appear at a YDS conference. The representation came not only from those who came to learn about YDS but also from the chapter activists. The conference saw delegations of eight people (respectively) from campuses ranging from the elite Brown University, small liberal arts Wooster College of Ohio, to the working-class and commuter campuses of University of Central Arkansas and Wichita StateUniversity. In all, over 125 students and youth came to the event. The variety of activists symbolized what a strong social justice movement could look like; the positive mixture of different people showed the growing potential for YDS as a force on the student left.

Weekend plenaries featured an excellent range of speakers, ideas, and topics on issues ranging from racial justice, immigrant rights, the relevance of democratic socialism, and the future of the youth and student movement. Saturday’s opening plenary, The Struggle for Racial Justice Under Capitalism, was moderated by YDS Anti-Racism coordinator Emahunn Campbell and featured Manning Marable, Monami Maulik, and DSA National Political Committee member Corey D.B. Walker. The speakers touched upon the need to connect the struggle for socialism to the fight against racism. The closing plenary on Saturday saw DSA veterans Joseph Schwartz, Nancy Fraser, and Jose LaLuz discuss the continued importance and relevance of democratic socialist values. LaLuz concluded the panel with a standing chant of “Si, Se Puede.” The energy revived the crowd which we carried with us afterwards into a fun and bonding get together in Brooklyn.

The conference workshops touched upon a range of subjects of great importance to the democratic left. The discussion on Latin America featured a well-received presentation by the Bolivian United Nations ambassador Hugo Siles Alvarado. DSA Honorary Chairs Maxine Philips and Steve Max each held discussions, the prior on faith and the left and the later on healthcare. All workshops presented a democratic socialist viewpoint on the issue and explained how students can incorporate socialist politics into their activism.

A late night did not stop these new young Jimmy and Jannie Higgins from starting the conference on time Sunday.The Sunday crowd took full advantage of the day, asking great questions and bonding over lunch sponsored by AFSCME. The afternoon plenary featured voices from the immigrant rights movement, including DSA member Rabbi Michael Feinberg. Rabbi Feinberg made the critical connection for students that they should understand how capitalist globalization has created such conditions that desperate people are forced to make risky migrations without documentation. The role of socialists is therefore to fight for the rights of all to insure economic security for both domestic and immigrant labor.

Sunday concluded with a group dialogue called “Have We Reached a Revival in Democratic and Anti-Capitalist Youth Activism?” The resounding conclusion was “yes, but we have a great deal of work ahead of us.” Professor Christine Kelly of William Paterson University, who led the discussion with myself, expressed the importance of learning from past youth movements and making your own identity. I emphasized the importance of YDS relating to other left-wing young people, especially those dedicated to working on the upcoming presidential election. Our relevance depends greatly on how well we connect to such movements on the ground.

I have high hopes and aspirations for the new YDS. This conference was the best in terms of quality of the participants, organizers, panels, and speakers in many years – certainly since I first joined in 2003. Paul Collins, who has served with me on the YDS elected leadership and is currently an 1199 SEIU organizer, reflected on how impressed he was with the ownership young cadre had in YDS. No longer, he contended, was YDS merely the youth organizer’s show. On Monday, Beth Garton of Wichita State YDS expressed to my family the feeling that encapsulated some of the most important successes of the conference. She told me and my parents how nice YDSers were, how the workshops had helped her understand anti-capitalism better against the conservative arguments she heard growing up, and that she looked forward to the summer conference. The first comment was especially touching for me as it was the reason I stayed with YDS and DSA. I felt that this was an organization that focused on fighting for social justice, not upon holding moral “superiority” over others; a home where comrades wanted to share in the struggle with you, not judge the quality of your participation in it.

I remain as optimistic as ever about the future of the progressive movement, here and abroad, and YDS’s contributions to making the world a more democratic and humane place. New YDS leaders will continue to reshape and build this socialist youth group as a positive force. I feel comfortable knowing that while I would trade almost anything to be a young chapter activist again, I and other graduating YDS veterans can happily look forward to dedicating our energy to DSA. We have a solid group of younger YDS cadre who will carry on the tradition of building the left-wing of the possible through out the United States.

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