State Student Activist Networks - Do They Work?

Years ago for several months, I tried to serve as the regional coordinator for the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) for Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. I contacted a bunch of people and groups, but the regional network never amounted to that much. Since then, I've seen SEAC (up until several years ago) spend a large amount of time trying to recruit regional coordinators for the entire US and build regional (or state) networks. We used to have a big map of the United States in our office with our 17 regions outlined and stick pins in it for groups and coordinators. SEAC has produced the only regional coordinator's guide I've ever seen (unfortunately it is not on I wonder if this is a productive strategy?

SEAC experienced several difficulties in setting up regional/state networks. The largest was the lack of organizational resources (money/time). SEAC was looking for unpaid regional organizers who would put in a lot of work, it would be an entirely different matter if SEAC would have been able to pay full-time (or even half-time) organizers.

Perhaps the other major difficulty is that there are normally several very strong activist groups in a region, and a lot of weak ones. The strong ones can provide you with several leaders who are capable of trying to organize a state/region - however the weak ones will soak up a lot of your energy. And often the strongest groups want/need to focus on their own campus if they want to succeed at a campaign. Perhaps feeding off the energy of strong groups, ideally ones that have won campaigns, is better than helping new groups form at schools where they frankly won't last past the graduation of the founder(s).

Another difficulty is the distance between groups. I think it makes more sense to build a city-wide network where people can easily meet than to organize across a distance of 50+ miles. So this means networks are more likely to survive in cities and possibly if build coalitions across issues (increasing the number of possible member groups).

It will be interesting to see if the Energy Action Coalition (aka youth/student climate justice movement) can create strong state networks. It had the advantages of having money, being a large coalition, and being a large movement. I think the Energy Action Coalition is setting up state level networks for all or almost all of the states. It's just a tidbit, but even so, it might be telling that their main national event (Power Shift) has (if I'm not mistaken) drawn more people to the national conference than to the sum of all the regional conferences. The coalition organizes a national conference every two years, and regional conferences on the other every two years.

I don't know of a student activist group that has successfully built state/regional networks (Sierra Student Coalition and the Public Interest Research Groups are two leading candidates). I'm guessing the groups that typically have these networks are often reliant upon one or two strong schools in the state, and the rest of the network is not so useful. I might be wrong.

There is a strong indication that students find national events more appealing. Maybe young people like going on long road trips to places they haven't been. Maybe it is the larger crowds or maybe it is the big-name speakers. I don't know. But whether it is a national conference in DC (which gets its disproportionate share) or protesting the School of Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia - students will travel far and in numbers which are many times the size of most state or regional conferences. It isn't just national events with big organizations behind them that succeed - the anarchist National Conference on Organized Resistance had (around) ten annual conferences (in DC of course) and grew to attract over 1000 people, and it was just organized by a group of people, probably all volunteers.

Maybe for some cases there is a sense of belonging that comes from national events that isn't provided by many regional events. For instance, in the case of the School of Americas vigil it attracts a predominantly Christian and particularly Catholic crowd. The two schools I attended, Goshen College (Mennonite - pacifist) and Notre Dame (Catholic - with some Catholic pacifists) both had student bodies that were very interested in this protest.

Side note: the number one protest for Notre Dame students was the annual Right to Life March in DC. Typically Notre Dame sends 100 students to it (whereas for the School of Americas protest we'd get 20).

I don't think students are evaluating the effectiveness of events as national marches in DC do very little, and regional conferences can be effective at training (though maybe less inspiring?) as national ones. Even if regional events are less effective, they are often far easier to travel to (cheaper and less time). I've driven from Indiana to PA/DC/GA and it takes 10-17 hours (one-way). Not the easiest thing to schedule.

One of the things Campus Activism strives to do is to promote state and regional conferences. Often times these events are overlooked, but they shouldn't be. Or if you want a national conference - consider going to one that is on a slightly different issue/focus than your's. If you do this, you might find national conferences all over your area. You won't need to drive 10 hours or fly (flying produces insane amounts of greenhouse gas).

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe you should go on that long car trip! I know I had a great time at regional conferences in PA (which were better than the regional conferences in Indiana), bonding with Notre Dame students on our way to protest the School of Americas, and notably blockading the streets and expecting to get teargassed but fortunately not having anything of the sort happen (well to me at least) at the A16 (April 16, 2001 shut down IMF/World Bank protest) in DC. Heck, you should get on the bus/car right now and go shut-down Wall Street =)