College Park Students for a Democratic Society
College Park Students for a Democratic Society was affiliated to New Students for a Democratic Society.
Maryland and PA comrades
YORK, Pa. -- At York College's student center, seven students sit in a large room, quietly planning ways to challenge school policies. They have all the trappings of modern-day hippies: shaggy hair and piercings, new cell phones and old clothes. Ignoring loud music from a rock concert in the room next door, they focus on their to-do list, which includes changing the college's investment strategies and expanding its employment policy to protect gay workers.
But what these students - the campus chapter of New Students for a Democratic Society - really want is to spark a political awakening.
The turbulent '60s are long gone, but SDS, an activist movement with thousands of members at its peak, is making a comeback. And though some goals remain the same, the organization has changed signficantly since it was last heard from.
Today, opposition to the Iraq war is little more than a rallying cry for the SDS. Members do participate in protests; to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion, the Washington chapter organized events including "Funk the War 3," a mobile dance party staged in front of government buildings. But they are disillusioned with how little power they have to affect national policy, so ending the war is not a top priority.
"A lot of the stuff in D.C. doesn't really do anything; it builds momentum," said Kathryn Hollender-Kidder, a York freshman and SDS member. "But those little victories [like marches and protests] really do help build community and morale ... and it helps people want to stay involved."
Students are more focused on having a say in school policies - on issues such as employment practices, investment strategy and fair trade.
"One of the big tenets of New Students for a Democratic Society is that we have participatory democracy, so we're all in this together," said Bob Hayes, a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park. "We're all trying to make decisions about how our lives are going to be run and how decisions are made."
SDS members still talk about nationwide change, but the group, revived over the past few years, has no national leadership, no headquarters and no dues. All a chapter needs to start is a single name on the organization's online listserv. According to Legba Carrefour, an SDS leader in Washington, the group has about 2,000 members nationally.
The SDS Web site lists more than 70 active chapters, including those at College Park, York College and Tuscarora High School in Frederick. Forty-nine other chapters are listed as inactive, and 30 are just starting, including one at Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda.
The College Park chapter has about a dozen members. York's has eight members.
"We may not be the largest activist organization on campus, but everyone is really involved," says Malcolm Harris, 19, a freshman at College Park.
With no central leadership and few organization-wide policies, SDS chapters can focus on issues important to them. Getting students involved is the first battle.
SDS chapters collaborate with other campus groups to raise awareness about issues. As in the '60s and '70s, SDS members spend lots of time talking about civil rights, especially women's and gay rights.
Students at York recently fought a college plan to build a brick and iron fence around the campus. Believing it would alienate the college from the community, they held open forums, distributed information and got 300 signatures on a petition. They were defeated.
Though disappointed, they have not lost heart.
"Part of what we were pushing and part of what we'll continue to push is a more expansive vision of the word 'democracy' and what it means because that's something that the school doesn't really have a grasp on, from my perspective at least," says Michael Mangels, a York senior who is from Baltimore and is a founder of the school's SDS chapter.
That violent history is not one of the organization's attractions, students say. "We're not the Weathermen - underline that three times," Hayes said. "We're not going to blow anything up, we promise."
Still, current SDS members are not afraid of the SDS' history.
"There's a general feeling, at least for me and the people I've spoken to, of owning and recognizing the history of SDS and using that very strongly as something to learn from," said Jenna Brager, 19, a sophomore at College Park. "We have this whole amazing model to build on and to improve upon, which is what I love about SDS. We're not starting from scratch."
Jon Berger, a College Park freshman, said, "A big part of this is education, it's hosting speakers and showing movies and having discussions. ... Because we don't have all the answers and we don't pretend to have all the answers."The answers - good answers - will only come about through a whole lot of people thinking about it and talking about it and trying stuff. And that's what participatory democracy is about."