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Students for a Democratic Society: National Convention & Action Camp Reports

Nick Martin (Lancaster SDS), Madeline Gardner (University of Minnesota SDS), Daniel Tasripin (Hunter College SDS) and Beth Blum (Philadelphia SDS)
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

Following a year that witnessed a new generation of young organizers adopt the name and legacy of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), chapter members from around the country converged upon Detroit for our second national convention. The convention was to deliver upon the commitment made at last year’s inaugural convention in Chicago—the new SDS would become a real live organization. The modest task at hand: agree on a vision, officially endorse national actions and campaigns, and start instituting a viable national structure.

Since its inception in early 2006, SDS has grown to more than 100 active chapters and thousands of members at high school and college campuses all across the US. The organizations’ founding tenets of participatory democracy and multi-issue youth organizing has caught the imagination of activists from coast to coast.

Heading into Detroit, organizational structures have primarily been defined on the local chapter level, with varying degrees of communication between different regions. The second national convention would bring together over 50 SDS chapters, representing a multitude of political philosophies and ideas for the best ways of moving forward. We learned that at times decision making would be tedious and tense, but always lively. Principled compromise would be the order of the day.

Long-term vision

As a new, broad organization on the left, SDS seeks to root itself in a solid anti-oppression framework. We prioritized this at the convention by spending much of the first full day in five caucus sessions organized along race, sexuality, class, gender, and age lines. Each was paired with its corresponding privilege working group. Caucuses reported back to the larger assembly and outlined some specific cultural, and political changes needed within the structure of SDS to ensure its continued growth and effectiveness.

The initial vision documents adopted by the delegates affirmed the need for SDS to be relevant to a larger audience, learn from past social movements, and be accountable to the communities we organize in or are otherwise a part of.

At the heart of the organizational structure debate was how much power any national body should hold and how to keep that power accountable. We finally decided on a (provisional) federated structure with a national delegate system. This national body will have a mostly “soft” power, such as oversight of working groups, dealing with emergencies and vetting proposals for ratification to each individual chapter.

It is now up to the chapters to choose whether to ratify the decisions made at the convention. A foundation for our organization was put in place, and it was created entirely by us. We left the convention with a strong sense that we had accomplished something to be proud of—the creation of a national organization from the ground up.

Action camps

Two weeks later, from August 13-16, SDS held its first “Action Camp” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The four-day camp was designed to provide SDS chapter members with the skills needed to be effective organizers for the long haul.

The camp curriculum focused on grounding ourselves in organizing frameworks and an analysis of collective liberation. Workshops ranged from chapter development to media skills, meeting facilitation and movement strategy. A special emphasis was put on the role of SDS in doing anti-racist work. Trainers from organizations such as Movement for Justice in El Barrio, The Catalyst Project, Beyond the Choir, RANT, the War Resisters League, Rainforest Action Network, and of course SDS, led workshops. In shared tents, around campfires, and over late night snacks in the barn, bonding and networking among the 50 SDS participants created even stronger links as we prepare for the fall semester.

At the camp, there was lively debate regarding the process of designing the curriculum and level of participant input. In the absence of a national structure, national organizing has been initiated and carried out largely by individuals and chapters. Limited experience and capacity continue to be challenges. Informal leadership, accountability, and participation are always hot topics in SDS. The camp gave us an excellent jumping off point for an honest discussion about the wide variety of needs in SDS given the wide array of experience levels and opinions. Most of us are new to organizing—we are making mistakes, learning, and growing.

Attendees observed a need for more training on direct action skills. Local trainings with chapters will be continuing throughout the fall. In addition to student mobilization for national actions, chapter level campaigns will focus on anti-war, tuition freezes/accessibility of higher education, and labor solidarity to name a few.

Though both of our national summer projects were ambitious to say the least—SDS is nothing, if not ambitious. Changing the world is always an ambitious task and we wouldn’t be in this business if we didn’t intend to win. The time for action approaches as the semester begins. SDS is clearly emerging from the summer stronger, and poised for the months ahead.

For more information about SDS, see