IRVINE, Calif. - "Ultimately, we want to help students alter power relations on their campuses," Athena Matyear, training director for the United States Student Association (USSA), told the People's World here at the University of California-Irvine (UCI) during a break at their 67th Annual National Student Congress.
USSA, the nation's largest and oldest student organization, is committed to "helping students identify what their goals are and how to achieve them," Matyear added. "We want to use our resources and our people power - as students - to our full potential."
Nearly 200 students from 22 campuses across the country met August 7-12 to discuss administrative and action resolutions, plan work for the coming year, organize and attend workshops and elect their in-coming vice president and president.
Matyear, a University of Texas graduate, organizes and coordinates GROW (Grassroots Organizing Weekends) Trainings on USSA campuses across the country in-order to "focus students on direct action organizing that brings the community aspects of student issues to the forefront and challenges power."
John Delshadi, a UCI senior, told the World, "The USSA Congress sets the tone for student advocacy for the year to come."
On the top of Delshadi's action item list is USSA's "advocacy for affordable, accessible, quality higher education."
It's no secret that students are straddled with huge amounts of debt. In fact, it is estimated that student debt today equals about $1.2 trillion dollars.
"We're basically getting screwed as students," Matyear added, "which is why we've been fighting for - and winning - tuition freezes on campuses across the country. Our electoral action, voter registration campaigns and community-labor out-reach are all connected to building the fight-back against increasing student debt."
Beth Huang, the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) coordinator, said, "student debt is a workers' rights issue. Workers with large amounts of student debt are less likely to fight back against bad bosses and abusive employers. They get trapped."
Huang addressed the need to build student-worker alliances. As the SLAP coordinator, she works with students to help them identify and work with local unions around tangible, winnable workers' rights campaigns.
"We want to put workers' rights on the national agenda of the student movement," she said. "We fight for real change, for real workers. We fight to improve people's lives. We bring together the energy and passion of students with the organization and power of the labor movement."
The Congress included workshops on "Mass voter registration and get out the vote," "Going on offense: Building coalitions for higher education funding," "Debt free education is a right! - Having our voices heard in the blogosphere age," "Inspiring voices for change: Confronting the 1 percent, campus organizing and Speak Progress" and "Union 101: The basics of working with campus unions," among many others.
The Congress also included numerous "Ally" spaces for members who wanted to discuss how they can support LGBT, African American, women and other racially or nationally oppressed students. Threads of solidarity with marginalized groups was organically woven throughout the entire Congress, as students, facilitators, workshop leaders and USSA staff went out of their way to ensure that everybody felt welcomed and could participate in a comforting and comfortable environment.
In the "Queer Ally" workshop, John Aspray, USSA's national field director, reinforced and supported student's "right to not have permanent, fixed identities." "Identity is fluid," he said.
Students also talked about homelessness, mental illness and suicide - due to a lack of support - among LGBT and transgender youth, noting that many of these youth are discriminated against in a multiplicity of ways - including job discrimination "on a massive level."
While students were able to discuss specific issues - like job discrimination among LGBT youth - they also talked about how issues intersect.
"Race, class, gender, identity, the ability to get a living wage - these issues are all tied together," Delshadi added.
The USSA Congress wasn't just about discussing issues, though. As Matyear said, "we're building a dynamic organization capable of maximizing capacity willing and eager to collaborate with other organizations. We're trying to change power relations on our campuses."
Chauncey Robinson, from the Young Communist League, couldn't agree more.
Robinson, a student at San Francisco State University, said, "Students have a lot of power. We just have to realize our collective strength, build networks and work together to demand education as a right, not something we go 30, 40 even 50,000 into debt for."
While the student-run Congress was very professional and business-like, students also let-lose chanting, dancing and partying. They demonstrated in-life Emma Goldman's famous quote: "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution!"
If USSA's 67th National Student Congress is any indication, our future is in good hands.
Photo: College students protest student debt at Indiana University. AP