Skip to content Skip to footer

Lessons Learned From Student Organizing with Akin Olla and Sean Estelle

Hosted by
Article published:
Hegemonicon - An Investigation Into the Workings of Power
Hegemonicon - An Investigation Into the Workings of Power
Lessons Learned From Student Organizing with Akin Olla and Sean Estelle

The pre-Bernie era of the 2010s carried pros and cons for young Millennial activists building left movements. There was less organization and directed skill than these efforts carry now—but there was an exciting energy of hope and possibility some compare to the student movements of the 1960s. In this episode, William is joined by two veterans of that era’s student organizing movements to discuss the importance and opportunity of progressive organizing power in the fertile, energetic landscape of campus politics. He talks with Akin Olla, national press secretary for Dream Defenders and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian and The Forge, and Sean Estelle, a longtime organizer and former elected member of the National Political Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America. They dig deep into those years, talking about—among other things—how unorthodox tactics like moving your mattress in to occupy a campus library or unlikely alliances between stoners and sororities might still build power from the bottom up.

Sean Estelle  00:07

You never know how the work that you’re doing in the context of building organization is gonna, like multiply and bear fruit later years down the line. And even if it’s not the same organizational home, that’s okay. You want to build a strong foundation, a strong organization, but you also have to be okay with the flow of history and the flow of movement. And sometimes things don’t pan out the way that you want them to. But that’s okay, because you’re still doing the work and it’s still gonna like show up in ways you won’t even expect.

William Lawrence  00:40

Hello, and welcome to the hegemonic con, a podcast from convergence magazine. This is a show about social movements and politics, strategy and ideology, the immediate present and the rapidly onrushing future. I’m your host, William Lawrence. I spent my 20s as a member of grassroots social movements, most prominently as a co founder and national leader of sunrise movement, the youth organization that put the green New Deal on the political map. Now I’m in my early 30s, trying to make sense of what we’ve collectively learned in this last decade plus of social movements and heightening social crises. I talk with activists and researchers on the left, exploring the guiding theme of power, what it is, how it’s exercised, and how its distributed. What has living through these last several decades of increasing political and economic turmoil taught us about the relations of power here in the United States and worldwide. And in what directions do these lessons take us as we design strategies to build power from below to win basic rights, securities and justice? In this episode, I’m joined by Sean Estelle, an organizer of over a dozen years who has recently held leadership roles in both national and Chicago, DSA and akinola, who is a longtime organizer, national press secretary for the Dream Defenders, and a freelance writer for The Guardian and The Forge. I had so much fun in this conversation focusing on our shared experiences in the millennial student left, during the era before Bernie, the time of the Obama presidency, you’ll hear how a Keene built a coalition of unlikely allies to win $100 million in funding for public education, and how Shawn contributed to an international incident at their university. And a lot else besides that, my favorite thing about this interview was recalling the spirit of that era. This was a time when the left was objectively smaller, less organized, and I think skilled than it is now. But there was a huge feeling of possibility thanks to the explosion of protest movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter and a radical wing of the climate movement. At the time, lots of people were describing this as the biggest social movement wave since the 1960s. And many of us participants thought that we could actually fulfill the unfinished tasks of these prior movements. And maybe we still can, but it’s clear that it’s going to take a little bit longer than we thought back then. This conversation opens up some important themes, including the importance of student organizing, and campus politics as an effective laboratory for learning how to organize, dealing with urgency in our organizing, especially amidst the climate crisis. And the pendulum movement of different organizing techniques, from slow and steady structure based organizing to a move towards decentralized and networked mass protest movements into electoral organizing, and now apparently back again. So let’s get into it. Then this episode, we’ve got three middle age millennials, we’re calling days gone by our days and the youth and student movement of the 2010s. And so why don’t you begin by telling me your personal story about your kind of entry and then journey through the student and youth student Power Movement? Akina in New Jersey, Sean first in California, but then both of you working with students and young people all over the country. So let’s start again with Sean and then I can you can follow up.

Sean Estelle  04:19

Awesome. Yeah. So I grew up in California mostly was a student at the University of California, San Diego, and got politicized by the Occupy movement in 2011. When I was a junior, there had been a sort of crest of student organizing two years prior at the University of California when there was a big 32% tuition hike my freshman year, and then again, my junior year, the Board of Regents was putting forward an 81% tuition hike, and the Occupy movement was happening all over the country. And we had a lot of folks who had have already been absorbed into organization into long term struggles. You know, there’s a very long tradition of campus based organizing at UC San Diego going all the way back to Angela Davis. And so my first campaign and organization was basically working to do an extended direct action campaign to take over a library that had been shut down due to budget cuts. And so in the course of about seven months, I was exposed to long term direct action organizing, passing student based student government based resolutions on BDS running a campaign to stop a division one sports referendum, that would have raised student fees, shutting down a State Capitol, a bunch of other things, that all was in a whirlwind, maelstrom of student organizing work. And that was my first exposure, and from there spent many years building statewide student unions and student power networks. And then once I moved to Chicago in 2014, doing the same with folks in the Midwest, and then later helping build the Youth Climate movement, alongside will and many others, too. So that was sort of my entry point. And it’s been a whirlwind ever since

Akin Olla  06:18

I started organizing, technically, at Rutgers University, around 2008. I wasn’t really organizing I was kind of volunteering for protests are happening, particularly for attend State University, which was a week long, kind of like festival slash outdoor occupation at Rutgers. So I eventually got kicked out of Rutgers, like many good students do for throwing a lot of parties. And one of my friends was basically like you should do 10 stayed at row. And so after I got kicked out one to run, but I ended up getting involved with drug policy on campus, which started with a coalition It was basically an alliance between a bunch of stoners and drug dealers, and like this one sorority on campus. And that’s

William Lawrence  07:09

the basis for a power Coalition.

Akin Olla  07:16

We were definitely like well connected across campus as an organization. But we did not win much or win most of our, like anything that we were fighting for. So we tried to reform the organization. And the most we could come up with at that time was to create like some sort of shadow organization to threaten the administration from like, secret. And eventually, we’re like, Okay, this doesn’t actually make sense. We were gonna basically just create like a secret communist, called cadre thing to terrify people. And then we realized it was actually much better to just be openly left wing. So we created what was called what we call the seat of union barring a little bit from Rutgers. And just United different organizations on campus. It’s around shared frustrations, everything from not wanting to do services, or like community service for campus, which seems a little goofy, but people just didn’t want to do them. Two things like tuition freezes and creating, like, multicultural centers on campus. So basically, that student union formation allowed us to create a coalition that also allowed us to build bases of students around what within some random organizations basically kind of like doing a structure based organizing, instead of churches, we were organizing clubs, basically, getting their members involved to that process. And this was all connected to what was happening across the country at the time, which was basically just the question of what a student government look like, if it was actually for students. And it actually functioned as like a fighting organization, instead of something that was like a rubber stamp for administrators. So ours was just an attempt to look at our local structure, a student government that was made up of different clubs, and trying to essentially create our own student government outside of the house, and that we even created like our own declaration of independence from the administration, from the student government, and got all these different student organizations to sign it.

William Lawrence  09:17

And I’ve heard you reflect that the common denominator because the common denominator was power, and should students have it to define the conditions of their own education and the decisions of the university that helped for being able to unite a large array of different student groups that you’re naming?

Akin Olla  09:34

Yeah, definitely. Yeah, focusing on not I mean, we definitely focused on issues too, but really hammering in for students through one on ones, and also through like pitching entire organizations at once on this idea that if they had the power to actually run the campus themselves, they wouldn’t have to constantly position the administration, they can actually, you know, do it themselves. And that was fundamental to all of our organizing and how we were set up as an organization. seeking power and trying to build it. And that’s why we built like a statewide Student Association, because anyone that’s at a public university knows likely that the actual power lies with some higher body than your president, most likely a board of trustees or a Board of Governors. And thus, you need some sort of ability to organize students on multiple campuses at once to actually access that. And then so on and so forth with joining the United States in association with having the ability to actually organize students on a national level. And then wage campaigns there that can actually win things that you couldn’t possibly win on one campus at once.

Sean Estelle  10:35

Can I ask you a question that came in? I don’t know if I ever asked you this. But did you all run people for student government? Like while you were also building on the outside? Do you run people on the inside too?

Akin Olla  10:47

Yeah, we ran people pretty much on every campus, it was in New Jersey for student government at some point, with the aim of taking over the Student Government’s or at worse, having one or two people who are able to like, yeah, just make things. Yeah, pass legislation also make shady things happen behind the scenes. Yeah, totally. Typically, tributes to the organization.

William Lawrence  11:11

What are some would say yes. So I was also involved in this era coming from the climate angle, and I was involved in the student divestment campaigning. And then we started to come to conferences and things and meet, to have you met a lot of other people along the way. But if I remember one thing from this era, it’s like sleeping on the floor. We spent a lot of time sleeping on the floor in church basements, or dorm rooms or on the concrete at Occupy Wall Street. And so I wanted to ask, Was this true for you as well? And I’m curious if any certain accommodations stand out from various events, or demonstrations or conferences during this era?

Sean Estelle  11:54

Yeah, well, I’ll just jump in and say the story that I told as my introduction in terms of the extended library, direct action campaign, it would it took place, the closed down library was in the theater building where I was spending a lot of time because I was a theater major in school. And so when we did our initial week on occupation, I literally brought my mattress from my home and just like, put it in the library, because I brought it also for like a prop for a theater final. And then I just like, moved it over to the library. And then we were there for like six months. So like that was one. And the other one that comes to mind when you say that is the first year that I was in Chicago, and that I was building a student power network in Iowa. I worked electoral the fall electoral cycle. And I spent like eight weeks living for free in the attic of a Catholic Worker house in Des Moines, drying to do electoral mobilization, and then having the anarchists make fun of me every morning, but also like passing out stickers and feeding me every day. That’s what comes to mind.

Akin Olla  13:01

Okay, yeah, the benefit of being in student government is that we got hotel rooms, or institution, but I mean, we, it was like, 10 people per hotel room.

William Lawrence  13:15

I guess that’s okay. Yeah. Pretty funny. I wonder about a few specific instances where you were deepening in your political analysis. And maybe you started and you already had it all figured out. But for me, I definitely entered as like, you know, I youthful and angry, but like also sort of like liberal environmentalists who was kind of worried about climate change. And then I met people who were really concerned with poverty, economic justice, worker rights, racial justice, and all of the interconnections sort of became revealed through through meeting people, and also sort of meeting other students who are struggling on those other issues. But I’m curious if you have any memories about that aspect of your own development?

Akin Olla  14:06

Yeah, I mean, I’m going to talk a lot about student government, which might frustrate people, I just think it’s so important and has been lost in the last decade in terms of the power of student government and its potential. And as an anecdote, I ran into Steve Max a couple of years ago, who was one of, I think, the first organizer ever hired by students for democratic society in the 1960s. And he he made some comment how like, it’s weird now that they’re Student Government, kids and student activists like the in the student left, while in his day, there was no difference. The Student Government kids and the student organizers were the same people often. But yeah, so one of the moments I this all clicked was when we send a student to Germany to receive weapon special weapons training using student government money. Unfortunately, it was like a it was a right wing student who wanted to increase their likelihood of But gaining rank in the military, as an OTC student, but it was the moment where I’m like, Oh, we can just kind of do anything with this money can’t wait. In a way that I think, yeah, I haven’t had, like those kinds of bounds are about, you know, the nonprofit industrial complex doesn’t really give you as much freedom, as I would argue having a radical Student Government could

William Lawrence  15:22

swimming regret to inform you that we’ve they didn’t approve the special weapons training in the at the board. Now, but keep keep keep going. I joke, but but the point is well taken. I mean, I’m curious about if there’s any examples you have of how you put that to use, kind of more for for progressive cause?

Akin Olla  15:45

Yeah, I mean, the entire existence, New Jersey, United students, comes out of the Rutgers student union taking over their student government, I believe around like 2010. And they did that by building a large coalition with multicultural organizations on campus to take over a relatively, you know, powerless Student Government given those that row into Montclair that are fully independent from the universities and have over a million dollar annual budget. But it was enough money and enough, also credibility, where they’re able to bring together student radicals and Student Government kids from across the state and hammer together a student union that was then able to, I mean, at the I mean, by the end of it raise, I believe, over $100 million for public education in New Jersey, passing New Jersey dream mag,

William Lawrence  16:33

did you say $100? million? Yeah,

Akin Olla  16:35

I mean, it was through a bond referendum.

William Lawrence  16:37

That’s hugely significant. Yeah, totally.

Akin Olla  16:42

There are substantial victories that were, you know, won through that, but also just the reality that we’re able to suddenly organize students at nine different campuses simultaneously in a way that we just weren’t able to, before we have those resources. But yeah, so definitely, I think those are the best examples in terms of being able to like, multiply what otherwise would be disparate, separate organizing.

Sean Estelle  17:08

Yeah, the the example that I will give, because I totally agree with the king in terms of like, the financial power that’s possible there and why people should not lose sight of like that as as a potential place of struggle, like, you know, thinking about the conference in Quebec, that we organized with the Montreal, student Unionists. And we got a bunch of students to like pay for scholarships, to go to this militant thing in Quebec, with a student union who like can help bring down their government. Like, that was sort of one of the peaks for me. But the other example that I think, to get back to the I think part of the other other part of your question will around like my own political development and the political development of people around me, in the context of student organizing. So, you know, I was very involved with Students for Justice in Palestine, and the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement. And we were able to pass a resolution calling for divestment from the Israeli apartheid state, my senior year when I was in student government, and that was like the fourth year of the campaign. And that was just a huge influence on my political development. And the issues that I like, spent a lot of time on. And it just became so clear to me in the context of waging that campaign, what the stakes were, because, you know, I ended up going on a trip to Israel, that was like an American Jewish Committee funded trip that was paying for student leaders to go. And we had had people from SJP, like three or four years in a row at our campus, basically do handpicked recommendations, to essentially like, smuggle like left wingers on to these trips, so that we would be able to inoculate people against like, you know, folks who would stand up and say, Well, you’ve never been there so you don’t know what’s going on. So me and a friend went to recommendation, we were able to like visit with Palestinians who were former UCSD students, while we were there, you know, years later this trip. This specifically the student government trip got called out by BDS based organizations and because there were like, right wing Student Government, people that were going on it but we all went on this trip, it was life changing, whatever. And then we got back and we started waging this campaign for a resolution. And somebody showed a video about harassment of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. And the next week, the ambassador to Israel from Ethiopia was flown out to speak in front of hours. Student Government like that is what the stakes of the power struggle were. And it showed because when we won that resolution, there were immediate shockwaves. Like it was one of the bigger resolutions that got passed, because there were three or four resolutions at the University of California that came very quickly after that. And it was sort of a high point for BDS organizing in 2320 13 2014. And so yeah, it was hugely influential in terms of seeing like, the stakes of what we were actually doing.

William Lawrence  20:31

That was always really something about student organizing that is, was impressive, even at the time is like it’s such a university is so small, and student organizing, in some ways is so simple and so straightforward compared to organizing out in the wide world. But if you build power and make ambitious demands of a university, you really can become a platform to come into solidarity with all kinds of other struggles that might be happening off campus. And just the position of universities in our society and the ability to drive education around an issue with these with student led campaigns. Like, it’s just undeniable, I want to ask a little bit about what lessons about organizing, were you learning in this era, when it comes to the sort of mechanics of how you get people motivated and build teams, and you recruit volunteers, and just all of the nuts and bolts I mean, I was totally new to all of this when I was a student, and and the two of you were to So what were some of the core lessons about organizing, you’re still taking with you?

Akin Olla  21:44

Yeah, I think everything I learned about power I learned about during student organizing. And then I’ve done a good job at forgetting in different ways. Partially, because it’s embarrassing to even say that out loud, like I learned something from student organizing. I think it’s something that’s often it’s the smartest and most student organizers I’ve, as I’ve tried to like, read the books of people like Jay Mac lady, like, I’m like, they don’t talk about their student organizing that much, despite it playing what I imagine is an outsize role in their development. But yeah, I feel like I learned a lot about power that and connecting it to an institution. So again, student government, but like, there’s just such a difference between organized like building a community organization, you know, having protests for weeks, months, years, and having, you know, members die, leave whatever. And then having all that work just disappear, essentially, like either a lot of organizing, it’s like either elected somebody at the end, or you didn’t, and that’s, you know, the end all be all have a lot of you’re organizing. And I feel like with labor and with student organizing, you do have this opportunity to actually build up an institution that is more of a permanent fixture, that allows you to constantly wield power, real resources to constantly activate a fixed group of people who are somewhat, you know, you know, trapped at their job or in their, at their campus or whatever. And I as I’ve been thinking about that a lot, especially as more people move towards base building, because pretty much every organization I’ve seen, and every foundation that was a fund organizations is talking about, we need to build bases. And I’m just like, damn, they don’t know how hard that is, do they? And like having an institution that is clear, and as discreet as a student government gives you the ability to, like actually wield, like a much more like a fixed form of power over and

William Lawrence  23:33

this is really interesting, because I think people would say that the transience of student organizing is one of its downsides, because the students always grew up and graduate out of the organization. But you’re saying, Even so, the you can you can build stable organizations through multiple generations of students, it is possible and we ought to be doing it more than more than we are,

Sean Estelle  23:57

I think, I think you’d be like the synthesis of that, because that’s a maybe like the thesis and the antithesis of that. And the synthesis, I think, in some ways, is like, for me, I agree that we want to be building sustainable long term organizations, and that it is possible to do that with students. And I’ve seen it happen. And at the same time, it is easy for that to like, fall away, I would argue it’s easier for it to fall away in the context of the university than in the context of like, broad based mass working class organizations or labor unions or whatever for the reasons that you’re talking about, well, in terms of the transience of students, but that to me is one of the lessons that actually I have been coming back to over the last few months in the last year is I feel kind of at peace with turmoil in my political home and in seeing some of the turmoil of the political organizations that people have spent a long time building B because I’ve been through the process of organizational turmoil, and like seeing things fall away, but not necessarily seeing the fruits of all of that work fall away, you’re still doing leadership development, you’re still teaching people campaign skills, you never know how the work that you’re doing in the context of building organization is gonna, like multiply and bear fruit later years down the line. And even if it’s not the same organizational home, that’s okay. You want to build a strong foundation, a strong organization, but you also have to be okay with the flow of history and the flow of movement. And sometimes things don’t pan out the way that you want them to. But that’s okay. Because you’re still doing the work. And it’s still gonna, like, show up in ways you won’t even expect.

William Lawrence  25:46

I can, would you add anything to that?

Akin Olla  25:48

Yeah, in terms of student organizing, being temporary. I feel like I it’s been true historically. And it’s totally still true. But I think what’s happened is society has changed around this where I feel like most people, and this some of this is anecdotal. But most people I know, just aren’t remaining in the same neighborhoods. In the for as long as that like their parents did. People are being pushed out of the neighborhoods through gentrification, other people are just, I mean, yeah, we’re just like leaving for different reasons. Let alone workplace. I feel like I know, people who stay at the workplace for like, three years as a miracle for most people. And not I’m not saying that in a bad way. But yeah, I feel like being on campus, I was there for five years, because I’m a slow student. I’m like, five years at one place is such a long time now, for anybody and definitely, for me, historically, that five years was a much bigger chunk of my life and more stable than I, you know, thought my life was going to be for the rest of my life or whatever.

Sean Estelle  26:46

But we’re, that’s yeah, that’s a

William Lawrence  26:47

totally fair point. For sure. And while those organizations exist, like there is a real strong push towards leadership development that exists by necessity in student organizations, because you do have to pass it off to the next class down the next year. You know, sometimes it’s because like, all the juniors are going to study abroad. And so it’s really the sophomores who are the real leaders, or it’s like, sophomores and seniors sometimes and you know, there’s different at each, each college but there’s these sort of really reliable rhythms to the academic year. And if you want to perpetuate the organization, you know, what you have to do is you have to recruit freshmen and you have to like then train them up and then you have to get them prepared to to hold real leadership roles and that was always front and center in our student organizing in a way that maybe you can get away with avoiding if you don’t have the the inevitable turn that is understood by everybody to be part of the work. So in this era, all three of us ended up being a part of trainings and events put on by an organization called momentum, which was established in 2014. And it was a training organization for organizers attracted a lot of millennials, who had had experience in Occupy Black Lives Matter, and the climate and student power movements. All three of us had our own version of the journey with momentum as participants. Akina and I have been staff at various points and we’ve also been critics at various points both within and without the momentum community so if you could just share for the listeners what was momentum in its early days like back in 2014 2015 And what was really attractive about it at that time starting with the king

Akin Olla  29:32

Yeah, if Occupy Wall Street was a fire that like gave me a sense of evolution than momentum was a torch that kept that burning for years afterwards. Definitely had moments in which I was you know, burns out from organizing from base building from also watching, you know, mass movement work from Occupy collapse, or torn apart by the state depending on how you want to see it, or both. Its momentum was a place where I could continue the question of like, why I didn’t this work from like Occupy, why didn’t this work from campus organizing? And like, what does it actually look like? How do we actually answer the question of what is revolution in the United States? So that was, for me, game changing, and just kept me actually committed, stable, and able to really do this work with the knowledge that was actually going somewhere meaningfully?

Sean Estelle  30:25

Yeah, I think for me, as somebody who is always much further outside the core of momentum, and winter, like a couple of trainings, and then was in conversation with a lot of people who are creating organizations, and leading a lot of the work, I think that I saw momentum as a place where people were starting to accumulate and learn some of the skills, the long term like hard and soft skills of being an organizer, especially folks who were less aware of some of the other infrastructure that existed that had much harder on ramps to get into because it had been around for a long time. And there was not good, like social media or other things, momentum was like a really easy place for people to jump in and meet folks like mentors meet people who knew about all this other infrastructure. So it was sort of like an introduction to the playbook as what I saw it as, and was then a place where people could like, explore further based on whether they liked, you know, mass protests and wanted to go to a Greenpeace direct action camp or like structure based organizing, and wanted to go to more towards, like, you know, movement, society, stuff or whatever. So,

William Lawrence  31:44

all right, well, let’s, let’s move forward just a little bit. Let’s just ask one more question. You mentioned, quote back, Shawn. And you also said that it was sort of a maelstrom, of organizing activity in 2011 2012 2013, around a whole host of issues, stuff you were doing in California, as well as nationwide. And I guess I just wonder, how you how you would communicate to somebody who’s a little younger, and wasn’t yet kind of politically of age in these years, how it felt in those immediately post occupy years, and just the kind of real kind of revolutionary energy that felt like it was in the air, even if things were also just like a total mess all the time.

Sean Estelle  32:38

So I think that, like, when I got politicized on campus at UCSD, it was by people who like some were involved in the local grad students union, and were also international socialist organization, cadre. Some were part of organizations that had been around like the Black Student Union and Metro since like Angela Davis, and founded the student Affirmative Action Coalition, 40 years prior, whatever, there was a real sense of being grounded in history. And, you know, I was like, handed books on like, you know, what, there was like, Lenin, but then there was also like, Okay, this is we’re gonna read the Port Huron statement, and talk about like SDS. And so there was a real sense of that. Like, we’re part of a historical tradition. And then hearing people talk about the Arab Spring, talking about the things that had made occupied kick off, like the Madison uprising, and then yeah, the maple spring in Quebec, where this revolutionary student movement had worked with labor unions and brought down a government. And so when I moved to Chicago in 2014, you know, I had come out the previous summer to Madison for National Student power convergence, and seen the occupation happening from the Dream Defenders, like in the Florida State Capitol, they weren’t there in Madison, because they were too busy. They had to like zoom in, because they were occupying the State Capitol. And so when I moved to Chicago, I was willing to make huge sacrifices and like, go on these crazy adventures where like, I would have a greyhound ticket and be hitchhiking at one in the morning to like, get to the next campus or whatever. And I look back at that now. And I just think about like it. Yeah, it is a feeling of sort of revolutionary fervor where you’re like, what was I doing? What were the situations I was putting myself in for the cause of like organization for something bigger than myself? And then yeah, going to Montreal, sleeping on a gym floor with hundreds of trade unionists and student Unionists. And then going straight down to Jackson for the 50th anniversary of the snick conference, that Freedom Summer Conference that happened. So that’s how I would communicate it to people that are younger is like trying to think about very specific moments. And that’s usually what I will try and do with people when I’m like, talking to them and doing leadership development now in the context of organization. And you know, if I’m talking to Like why DSA comrades about like their student organizing and connecting it to DSA, or to labor unions, or whatever it’s about, like having very specific moments, and then asking them what it feels like for them now and trying to get really specific about what they’re doing now, too, and then drawing those things together. And then using that as a springboard for being a part of this historical tradition of student organizing, and of like building power to change the world.

Akin Olla  35:29

Yeah, it really did feel like a revolution might happen. More at least, that we were beginning to put the pieces of a revolution together. And so I feel like a lot of yeah, just hearing Shawn talk about their experience of like, yep, that makes sense. And like, that’s, that’s why we were a so tired and be That’s why, like, we were able to push through so much all the time. Because if it just felt so urgent, and so like, relatively close, in some way, yeah, it’s kind of weird to think that it did feel closer than than it does now. Even though I feel like the conditions are probably more ripe for big things to happen in this exact moment than they were then. And yeah, highs, I think we saw, at least in New Jersey, like, a sense that the university could be a place that we could actually control and run within like, three to five years, not only as students but like working with labor to do it, we were talking like, you know, plans on, you know, what it would look like to help run the state of New Jersey to like, merge all the campuses into like, one super public university. So he’s Yeah, things just felt very possible. Both in like this, like big, like, we, yeah, we could overthrow the government any day now. Or about to lease. So hold and take reins of a lot of powerful institutions, or our organizations are gonna become like, these new powerful vehicles, for like, you know, for a revolution that happened in like, a couple of years or something like that.

William Lawrence  37:08

And it’s so interesting, because then in some ways, it was like, what we actually got was both more successful than we kind of imagined in that era. Like, I think, if someone had told you, you were gonna get like, an honest to goodness, Democratic Socialist presidential candidate who is going to, like, seriously be competing for the presidency, by the end of the decade. And there’s going to be like, an honest to goodness, like socialist leaning bloc in Congress, that’s going to be raising our demands and movement organizations that we’re a part of are going to be like working directly with those people and writing their policy platforms and stuff. We would have been like, Oh, my God, great. Like, yes. Okay, it’s working. And it’s building towards something. And, but also, wow, I didn’t even imagine that, that that is maybe bigger than our dreams. But then it was like, as that actually plays out, it felt that way. And then now having seen all that come, and then now to a certain extent, recede, at least in the momentum, or the excitement factor of some of the electoral breakthroughs. It feels like, Well, are we closer or farther away? Like you said, I’m just restating some of what you’ve you’ve both just said, but I wonder how you make sense of that? Is it that we were just like, politically naive about how difficult things are? And how long things take? Is it that we lost some things in the course of thinking we were gaining things? Or is it is it something else entirely, I struggled to make sense of this own feeling within myself.

Sean Estelle  38:50

I feel like a lot of the discourse shortly after occupy but before Bernie Sanders ran for president in 2016, you know, there were like social movements that were happening in the early 2000s. The there were some organizations that were carrying the flame during the financial crisis in 2008 2009. But then occupy, people talked about it as sort of like rebooting history, and like, that was a phrase that was going around a bunch, because it was this like, shattering of the neoliberal consensus. And so, yeah, I mean, I think that I am totally, will admit to being like, hyped up on revolutionary fervor too much, and being like, yeah, the revolution is just around the corner, holy shit, because it was the first time that I had like, experienced that sort of thing. And also, at the same time, I think that it was like, it did politicize like a generation of people basically, in many ways, for better or worse, and like, that’s my own bias perspective on how much it did that because there Are many other things shortly before or shortly after. But I see that as sort of like a break. And then yeah, there’s all of the electoral breakthroughs, everything else, you know, we’re about to have the largest strike of the 21st century in like two weeks, with like, hundreds of 1000s of potentially hundreds of 1000s of writers and actors who want light, who are going to be experts in social media, being on the picket line with Teamster thugs in a good way, that are gonna like shut down the basic flow of the economy. That’s fantastic. You know, I work in an upscale retail store, where are we had our managers coming in and freaking out being like, Oh, my God, there might be a UPS strike Holy shit. And so it’s like, in the air. And it’s like, it’s much deeper than that. I don’t know, we’re cadre that the excitement doesn’t go away. It just sometimes takes longer deeper to get at because we have a better sense of the actual material conditions.

Akin Olla  40:59

Yeah, it feels like we made a misstep. In the last decade or so. I feel like we’re kind of correcting for that. But coming from someone who was a trainer at momentum, and like, we talk a lot about hybrid organizing and momentum. I used to like we used to do it, and we didn’t really get people to do it, or push people to do it. Like we were just creating what felt like a better version of like mass protest, or, or like a specific version of mass protest, I was able to more quickly, like extract wins from the system, or at least was built to better do that. But yeah, and same thing for black lives matter. I feel like it just, there’s just, I feel like there was some interventions around structure and strategy that if certain people had been listened to more, or like, we’d read certain people at the right time, I feel like we could have made some different decisions in the grand scheme that would have us like, better at the helm of powerful organizations at this exact moment. That didn’t happen. And maybe I’m wrong. The past is such a

William Lawrence  42:06

weakness instead that the organizations that were built were a little bit more brittle or ephemeral in nature, and therefore, we’re not now at the command of them. Yeah.

Akin Olla  42:19

Yeah, I feel like a lot of the, I think getting called out by Jay McKelvey view, is was useful. When I if I heard correctly, it was around like momentum, not really teaching structure as like, there are structures in which people exist within that we must organize like churches, schools, and things like that. And it’s kind of like an amorphous, like structure based organizing,

William Lawrence  42:46

as a culture is when you have an org chart was

Akin Olla  42:50

like you have a structure. And it never quite made sense. And it feels like a lot of organizations learn from that a lot of leaders went on to like to do work based off of that. And it feels like that, like structure based organizing is such a fundamental basic part of organizing. And it’s so essential to evil. I mean, so like the question of revolution, and mass protests, looking at like, the Sudanese professional association, playing a key role in the revolution, is just like it just throughout time, just like having these basic organizational structures, embedded in institutions is so simple and so important. And it feels like our generation kind of just like, leapfrog that didn’t do that. And now we’re kind of going back to do it. While a lot of the people, we’re helping to leadership develop our building, we’re gonna say, like our, you know, like, I have friends who got like a taste of organizing in college, like they saw it once. And now they’re building in their workplace, like without the support of like, the larger left. And that’s dope, that we’ve done that. But yeah, it feels like we have a lot of work to do in terms of actually building within institutions, on so many levels, let alone getting some point where the Republicans are at where they’re able to, like, reshape institutions like school boards, from the top down, while also having their people in the actual school boards themselves and winning elections.

Sean Estelle  44:10

Yeah, I feel like the big thing. I mean, I agree with that critique of momentum overall, in terms of it being sort of like a better version of mass protest. I think that’s a really good encapsulation of a lot of their critiques that I had for a long time around momentum. And the other thing too, where I think I agreed at the time, with some of the stuff in the momentum theory, and then also a lot of the network theory that like, you know, I was learning from moving net lab from other folks and then spreading through powership network and through other institutions. And then also, you know, there were people like Adrian Marie Brown and others who were like really preaching, total decentralization as like a good thing, which you know, and like a thing to be strived towards, which I completely disagree with I think that there is some benefit towards decentralized network structures in certain instances. But there was I think people were deluding themselves and saying that they weren’t trying to attach a value to it. But then everybody was like pushing for that kind of organizational form. And then after spending years in DSA, and much more adjacent to the labor movement, where sometimes there’s a little bit too much centralization, but actually, I think that it’s good, and like, I’m much more of a, I mean, I would call myself basically a Leninist at this point, in terms of like centralized structure, because I do think that that’s what we need. And we need discipline. And we do need hierarchy. In my opinion, based on the contradictions of the struggle, that we are the period of struggle that we’re in right now, I think we actually do need a lot more discipline and hierarchy and centralization, for building our structures and our organizations. And we can’t be brutal about it. But at the same time, like, discipline is like the order of the day, in my opinion, for like, the next few years.

Akin Olla  46:11

You know, one final quick thing about student government, I swear to God, one, we had to learn how to govern, which I think like both, like resources and people, but also just like our own organization, democratically, which I think is something the left needs to like, develop and learn. And I think sort of government is a great place to do that. And to we had to learn how to be accountable to people, including people that we didn’t agree with, like having an actual base of people that like funded us, is so radically different than anything I’ve experienced since. And just having that constant real threat of what does the membership actually think because they determine whether or not we have money is just a really different place to be

William Lawrence  46:53

something I’m reflecting on and listening to the two of you talk is like coming from the climate movement, there was always such an urgency factor that felt like it was just looming over everything that I’ve let go of, at this point truthfully, in my own, like, in a healthy way, I think, where i I’m willing to accept that certain things are going to happen that we can’t prevent. And we have to build things on a timeline that actually works rather than the one on which we would like it to work. But that was a big factor, like it felt like we were building, you know, up through the divestment movement and building stronger solidarity across the sort of scope of EJ youth greens and labor. But even so it was like, we can’t afford to build it up brick by brick for the next 10 years, we need to figure out how to figure out how to how to get our hands on the reins of state power, like now, so that immediately so that we can try to just start this process of reducing carbon pollution as fast as possible. And so in that context, like the momentum, kind of idea that you can harness disruptive protests, and use kind of savvy media and comms interventions in combination with a, you know, large, but not overwhelmingly large activist base, like a tight and dedicated activist base, rather than a mass popular base of you know, all of the working class or what have you, that was all very appealing. And then Sanders was also like, very, very appealing, like maybe this is the opportunity that God has given us to be able to, like, somehow hit it fast forward on the transition process, because otherwise, we can’t see any fast forward button. So I just have always, for a long time, just like owned that. These are attempted shortcuts, as Jay Mac levy would say, and I think we were often aware of it at the time, but it’s like, Lord, we got to figure out how to how to ride this shortcut, otherwise, we’re gonna have to face a tougher future. And now like, we’re kind of entering that future. And we have to figure out what to do now.

Akin Olla  49:02

You know, yeah, I’m, I have a fear that people are going to overcorrect into base building and not in this do the same thing over again, where then we need to then overcorrect into mass movement work. I definitely think we need to continue to think about these big exciting movements that really polarized the public and give us new political openings allow us to spread our models very quickly. Yeah.

Sean Estelle  49:30

Yeah. No. 100% I mean, you know, I think this is a debate that the the Eco socialists in DSA have with other people very frequently. And we saw this like happen in public with some of the stuff around the electeds in New York and build a public renewables Act, which just passed were, you know, yeah, the DSA electeds in New York are not like total Tribune’s for only DSA, like their coalition candidates. They’re not like cadre party infrastructure like They’re not completely DSA people, but they have been able to pass very significant reforms. And I think, well, you and I talked about this in our one on one interview a little bit of like that tension between cadre candidates versus coalition candidates. And when we’re thinking about elections, not even necessarily as a shortcut, but as one of the legs of the stool in building long term power, and starting to build the bricks for like, independent working class party infrastructure. But yeah, we are still under under the gun, when it comes to climate change. And I think I also have, like, let go of that urgency in many ways. But I do find myself trying to balance letting go of that urgency and being in community with people who have been through that process. And then also being with people who are entering that process as well, where they are like, forced to let go of a vision of like, everything being better, and the climate crisis being like solved or whatever, within their lifetimes, like having to remind people that we are going to have to fight as hard as possible, and things are going to get worse, no matter what, no matter how hard we fight. And that’s a tension that we have to just come to terms with and learn how to live our lives, learn how to find beauty and joy, learn how to be able to like grieve, while also at the same time not completely giving up and not being totally nihilistic about it, too.

William Lawrence  51:25

And that goes to something that we’re going to be really exploring a lot on this show, which is, how do we fight for a better future, while also having plans for if we don’t win, because we need to live in a future where we we don’t win on some of our more ambitious demands, and I still want to be able to survive. And so that’s one of those built in tensions. And I’m wondering about how we can have strategies specifically in thinking about the ecological crisis that create built in hedges, where we’re we’re fighting for a world that is really the world we imagine, and which, you know, dignifies our existence, and then we’re, we’re working to survive and still live well, in a world that doesn’t do all those things. Let’s move forward. And just move towards wrapping up. This has been really great. And you touched on so many of the questions I had actually without me even needing to ask them. So I just appreciate both of your insight. As always, as a closing question, let me ask, What’s one lesson you’re taking away from all of this, when you reflect on this era? And then one unanswered question that you have one lesson and one unanswered question. And either of you can begin when you’re when you’re ready.

Akin Olla  52:53

Yeah, I’m still thinking about power. Always. I think what I got from student organizing was a creativity around power. And how I saw it, were like, we had control over our campus TV station, for example, like, that’s not a path that I would come up with outside of soon organizing, I feel like I wouldn’t be like, we should take over the local TV station, and then be able to like, pump out our message to people locally, like pretty consistently. But I feel like having like a smaller playing field, let us think, potentially more creatively, or maybe there’s like less bounds by like a foundation board or any kind of accountability, really. So anyone who would be mad about stuff like that, but I just think the left is at a point where we need to, yeah, think about what kinds of power are we leaving on the table, whether it is like control over like large Facebook groups, or actually having independent sources of revenue and financing that isn’t tied to the current capitalists? But yeah, I think just really going back to the basics of like, we want this goal of this better country, like how do we actually get that goal by any means necessary? And not by any means that was predetermined by either our founders or a board of directors or whoever are really going into the Yeah, how do we win?

Sean Estelle  54:19

Yeah, for sure. I think that for me, the lesson that I’m thinking about at the moment, yeah. And reflecting on this era, and listening to you both and thinking about that revolutionary fervor, you know, I remember very clearly, I think it was in like 2014 or 2015, Philip Agnew, the founder of Dream Defenders. And, you know, he came back from a trip from Brazil and was talking about how we need to all be militants, and like was going on and on and on about like, what is a militant? And I think for me the lesson Is that like, we need to be unafraid to be militants. And that’s like a lesson that many of us learn during student organizing, that I think students kind of jump into because of like, youthful fire or passion or whatever. But then like, being able to stay a militant for your entire life. And that is the path that you choose is like a lesson that bears repeating. And the unanswered question for me, is, how do we, like I’m obsessed lately with the question of like, writing, and what forms can we use to put these reflections down? And how much? I mean, you joked about us being the like elder millennials, or middle aged millennials, but I do think that like, you know, we’ve been doing this for a minute. And we do have like things that need to be written down and passed on. And what is the balance between, like, having, you know, maybe like a healthy ego about it and being like, yeah, we’ve like been around the block, we’ve done some shit. And like, we should be sharing those lessons, while also always being learning from people who are doing it now, people who were doing it before us. I think that there’s a dearth and there’s not enough of like us all, sitting and reflecting and writing those things and putting them out into the world. And that’s what I plan on spending the next year or two doing while I take a break from like formal organizing leadership roles is like really digging into that question, because I think it’s an unanswered one for me right now.

William Lawrence  56:33

We’re gonna close it there. Thank you so much. Again, thank you, Shawn. It’s been a pleasure talking to both of you.

Sean Estelle  56:39

Thank you.

William Lawrence  56:45

That was Sean Estelle and akinola in conversation about the youth movements of the Obama presidency. I’m finding it interesting to reflect on the differences between the student movements I see now. And the ones that all three of us were involved in, around 10 years ago. Back then, it was most common to be involved in issue based organizations, as I think you heard, there were climate activists, the immigrant dreamers, the student power activists, black racial justice organizers. And within all of these spaces, the trend of political movement was leftward over time through this era. We started as liberals and we were radicalized by our experiences of confrontation with power, which became a basis for solidarity among our respective movements. Over time, more and more of us became involved in new formations that were multi issue and expressed the left wing like DSA or the Bernie movement, and various socialist cadre organizations. And I think it’s fair to say that today’s youth and student organizers have inherited much of the radicalization that we underwent. Today I see many of the most effective student organizers involved with explicitly left wing formations like the Y DSA. And in general, it seems to me that students are more developed ideologically today than we were back then. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily translate into being effective campaigners, but it doesn’t preclude it either. If today’s student organizers can apply themselves to the task of leading popular and winning campaigns for socialist ideas, I think within a few years, we could see a student movement far exceeding the level of organization and ferment that was present even a decade ago. And if the student movements of a decade ago helped to till the soil for the Bernie moment, I look forward to seeing what today’s students can make possible in the mid to late 2020s. There’s a lot more reflection that could be done from a comparative study of millennial and Gen Z youth movements. But we’ll have to save that for another episode. What I’m absolutely certain of from my own experience, is that youth movements are essential as a training ground for skilled organizers. youth movements deserve all of our support and investment, and that we should be continuously seeking to integrate them into our organizations, and our broader movement ecosystem. This podcast is written and hosted by me William Lawrence. Our producer is Josh house Joe, and it is published by convergence magazine for radical insights. You can help support this show and others like it by becoming a Patreon subscriber of convergence for as low as $2 per month at Mac. You can find the direct link in the show notes. This has been the hegemonic Khan. Let’s talk again soon

About the Host