Magazine Article

Today’s CSU students are taking on new, difficult challenges to preserve public higher education for all

They continue a long history of student activism with new awareness of ‘intersectionality’ across the range of people’s expanding identities and social justice issues.

By Juliana Nascimento
CFA Southern California Student Intern Coordinator

Students and young people have been on the front lines of some of the
largest and most important struggles and movements in modern history.

In the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was integral to the Civil Rights movement, organizing Freedom Rides through the South, nonviolent sit-ins, registering black voters and so much more.

Third World Liberation Fronts in the late 1960s organized the longest running student strikes in the country to establish Ethnic Studies departments on San Francisco State and UC Berkeley campuses. Black students at CSU Northridge (previously San Fernando Valley State College) lead a militant campus campaign to diversify the faculty and staff and, along with Chicano students, established Black and Chicano Studies programs in 1968 and 1969.  

East L.A. high school students led walk outs in order to change school policies and receive a better education. Today students continue to fight for education and social justice throughout the world.

The struggle against tuition in universities has been a common one across borders. The small red fabric squares students from Quebec pinned to themselves during their 2005 and 2012 campaigns have spread as a symbol of solidarity in every student-led fight.

#FeesMustFall has become a worldwide rallying cry from South Africa, and the artivism (art plus activism) from Chile has inspired humor and creativity in the kinds of actions young people are willing to do and been used to push the envelope with messages of inclusivity and intersectionality in their struggles.

Through the work of Students for Quality Education (SQE), CSU students continue the tradition of the Third World Libera-tion Front and other student organizing that aims to achieve educational and social justice on all CSU campuses. SQE has led fights and been part of coalitions to defend Ethnic Studies, to oppose tuition increases, and to demand protection from discrimina-tion for the most vulnerable students, which include the LGBTQ+, Black, Muslim, undocumented and homeless communities.

Moreover, SQE has mobilized around other actions such as campaigning for alternative transportation, opening food banks on campuses, demanding gender neutral restrooms, and promoting divestment campaigns.

SQE does all this work with the understanding that it all intersects in their message of “Quality, Accessible and Free Public Education.”

In fact, intersectionality is at the core of SQE’s mission.

There is no quality education for people of color if their histories and cultures are not included. There is no access if students have to run across campus to use a restroom they feel safe in. There is no access if they can’t afford to pay tuition or living expenses while in school.

There is no quality education if they have to worry about paying bills or whether they are safe on campus, in the classroom or halls, due to what they are wearing or how they walk or how they talk or what they believe in.
SQE also recognizes the larger neoliberal policy of starving the beast, that is, defunding education in order to justify privatizing and, in turn, profiting from it.

Students are facing a concerted effort to defund schools in ways that would make them so dysfunctional that the only solution is to then privatize them, piece by piece. This is most prevalent on campuses right now via their food courts, vending machines, bookstores and other services.

The corporatization of higher education is further revealed by outrageous salaries for executives and administrative bloat in campus budgets while creating a disposable and vulnerable faculty body by diminishing tenure density and growing the ranks of contingent faculty.

The intersectionality of this phenomenon is all the more clear when one realizes this divestment in people’s education coincides with the demographic change from mostly white students to students of color who are from working families. This was verified by data in the Equity Interrupted paper put out by the California Faculty Association and in that paper’s famous quote, “As the student body of the CSU became darker, funding became lighter.”

Last year, SQE’s #FreeTheCSU campaign exemplified the intersectionality of the group’s message. #FreeTheCSU meant not only free tuition, but a CSU free from discrimination, deportation and debt.

SQE fought for sanctuary campuses in order to protect undocumented students. Given the political climate, it is also important that students feel safe in their learning environment and are free from harassment for their religion, gender, sexual orientation, skin color or legal status.

In this campaign, as in many others in the past, CFA’s support was crucial. The stu-dent internship program sponsored by the union enables students to have the time to organize themselves. The mentorship and knowledge imparted to interns are invaluable and serve as guidance for their own movement.

That the solidarity between labor organizing and student organizing is mutually beneficial was demonstrated in the ‘Fight for 5%’ campaign. After all, “faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”

Student and faculty struggles are connected, part of the intersectionality.
The make-up of CSU faculty should reflect the student body demographically. Students need quality, high-caliber faculty who are present and free from worry of bills, as should be students themselves.

More significantly, learning about labor organizing broadens students’ understanding of where they stand in the bigger fight for justice, as well as the connections among different identities and needs, to see beyond them-selves and to learn from the experience of those before them.

In turn, today’s student activism strives to push faculty to recognize new frontiers in the larger struggle for justice.

To these new struggles of a new generation, students bring energy and an acceptance of emerging identities in order to open up space for what will come in the next struggle. This more philosophical tradeoff is really what defines the relationship between the labor and student movements and what makes it invaluable.

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Intersectionality is the concept that everyone holds multiple identities and they all intersect in the individual. To address the various systems of oppression and discrimination, attention must be paid to how they all meet differently upon each person.

From the academics who coined the term:

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw: “If we aren’t intersectional, some of us, the most vulnerable, are going to fall through the cracks.”

Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”