YDS Cochairs Alex and Matt with Javi and Zac, representatives from our sister socialist party in Mexico
Throughout history, young people have kindled the flames of social movements. In the US, students initiated successful fights against Jim Crow and the Vietnam War, and the more recent struggles against neoliberal austerity in Greece, Quebec, and on 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.
This President’s Day weekend, over 100 young activists from across the country braved a blizzard and bitter cold to converge on New York City for the annual YDS winter conference, “Beyond Capitalism: Activism and Ideas for the Next Left”. The conference included plenaries, presentations, and workshops to strengthen both the analytical and strategic acumen of YDS members, while also providing a welcoming environment to build a national community for young socialist activists.
The kick-off plenary, ”New Directions in Feminism,” drew over 140 conference attendees and New York City community members to a discussion on the challenges and prospects of contemporary feminist thought. Writer Mikki Kendall was the featured speaker, and she emphasized the importance of the intersection of race and class with gender. Kendall was followed by Dangerous Minds writer and DSA National Political Committee member Amber Frost, who discussed the role of social media in modern feminism. Peg Strobel, a professor emerita 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, “Democratic Socialism and Social Movements,” DSA Honorary Chair Frances Fox Piven and NPC member and DSA Vice Chair Joseph Schwartz introduced attendees to the political tradition of democratic socialism and the need to develop strategies to transform society 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 editor Sarah Leonard. This new addition to the winter conference was well received by conference attendees. Speakers discussed the influence of thinkers ranging from Karl Marx to bell hooks on their intellectual development.
The majority of the conference was composed of activist trainings and workshops on political education. Activist trainings focused on the nuts and bolts of organizing and offered practical advice for 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. Caucuses for women, 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.
One of the many highlights of the conference was a rousing rendition of Solidarity Forever led by Vassar YDS member and YDS Coordinating committee member Sarah Slichter
In contrast with previous conferences, the majority of the workshop and plenary speakers were either current or former YDS members. This set an important precedent. It’s our hope that by promoting the voices and ideas of YDSers and young DSAers, the national organization can play a stronger part in the intellectual development of socialist 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 appreciation of the international scale of the socialist movement.
This year’s conference was 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 that will shape their campaigns against student debt and school privatization and for better conditions for campus workers.
David Roddy currently serves on the National Political Committee of DSA and is active in the Sacramento local. This article was originally published in slightly different form on the Democratic Left blog.