“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

Written 45 years ago, the anxious urgency expressed in the opening line of the Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) retained an elemental allure for a small group of students who met last Wednesday on the front steps of Olin.

If one judges the quality of a group based solely upon its size, the four individuals gathered at Olin would seemingly give the impression of a lack of passion or interest. However, when listening to the multitude of opinions and strategies put forth by these students, what comes forth is a wave of emotions unaffected by the organization’s present size.

Beginning as the youth branch of the League for Industrial Democracy, a socialist educational organization, the SDS skyrocketed in national prominence and membership size throughout the 1960s. With its emphasis on local organization and direct action, the SDS organized protests, marches, and sit-ins on campuses nationwide.

By the early 1970s, however, divisions within the organization began to overshadow accomplishments. SDS splintered into separate factions and was all but finished by the end of 1972.

In 2006, SDS was resurrected, mainly by high school and college students. Chapters have been appearing in high schools and college campuses over the last year and a half, with many members participating in demonstration against the War in Iraq.

The idea of a Wesleyan SDS chapter originated with Morgan Hamill ’11, a Watertown, CT native who joined SDS in high school through a friend familiar with action-oriented politics from the past.

“He’s the kind of kid who would be walking around and be like, ‘Hey, what’s up’ and then pull a Black Power book out of his bag,” Hamill recalled.

Hamill, a self-avowed anarchist, says he wanted to start an SDS chapter at the University because the group reflects the essential core ideals he believes any activist group espouses, including a rejection of hierarchy and an emphasis on radical democracy that gives all individuals a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.

“SDS, among all these organizations, represents most the kind of world I personally think is not only desirable but required for humans to not go extinct in the next 1,000 years. SDS exemplifies the principles of what would govern such a society,” Hamill said.

This lack of rigid structure appealed to Nic Manfredi ’09. After coming to Wesleyan as a sophomore, Manfredi had taken a year off, eventually moving to Alaska for a time. Among other jobs, she worked for an Anchorage-based bread factory. She wanted to become involved with an activist group that had a vision that included but also went beyond the Wesleyan campus, and was structured in a way that gave equality to all members.

Through a friend, she traded e-mails with Chamill and agreed to help bring SDS to the campus. In an interview Thursday, Manfredi talked of her vision for SDS as an energizing force on campus.

“I want to do things that get people active and not just preaching to the choir,” Manfredi said.

Though he brought the idea to campus, Hamill stresses that he does not want to be considered the leader of SDS, as this goes against the entire structure of the organization. Individual SDS chapters have only members, not leaders, Hamill explained. If a member wishes to lead other members on a project or issue, they are given leadership power for a set amount of time, and must abdicate it at an agreed upon time.

“This isn’t me starting an SDS chapter and everybody join,” Hamill said. “It’s not my property, it’s not my ownership, it’s not me.”

The decision to bring SDS to the Wesleyan campus would seem to carry with it the mythos of Wesleyan in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a time when campus activism reached a fabled level both in terms of amount and effectiveness. Talking to members, however, the vision of the 1960’s as a golden age of activism seems far from their minds. Hamill tends to appreciate the era but not dwell on it.

“The Vietnam War doesn’t occupy my mind very much. I think [the protests] were effective,” Hamill said.

Ellen Dinsmore ’08, a SDS member, points out that while the era can be seen as a repository of positive ideas and energy, it must ultimately be placed within its specific historical context as a reaction to the largely repressive decade that came before it.

“The reason the 60’s came about was because of the 50’s,” Dinsmore said in an interview Wednesday.

Dinsmore comes to SDS after a year abroad in Paris. As a sophomore, she was involved in a multitude of on-campus activist groups, including Students for Ending the War in Iraq (SEWI) and spring break service trips to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Returning to campus this year, however, she found that the progress made over a year ago had not always been built upon.

“I felt like I put in a lot of time and effort and it didn’t really go anywhere,” Dinsmore said.

Dinsmore says she admires the rich history and open structure of SDS, particularly given that she admits she is trying to discover what issues she wants to fully commit herself to.

“[SDS] is willing to take those people who are exploring and work with that energy,” Dinsmore said.

So what happens next? Members tend to agree that the War in Iraq remains a crucial vocal point. Awareness of issues both on the Wesleyan campus and beyond remain central as well. More specific goals will develop, they say, as more meetings occur.

Strategies, however, can differ depending on who you talk to. Hamill says he is interested in the education aspect of the process, leading discussions and getting speakers to campus.

Manfredi says large-scale, direct action intrigues her – for example, having students boycott classes in order to display the amount of power every student has at the University.

Regardless of the group’s specific plans, Dinsmore stressed the need to simply make people aware of SDS and get more students involved.

“We need to mobilize. There are a couple of us and we need to show people what we’re about,” Dinsmore said. “Individual action is great, but collective action is 100 times better.”

This emphasis on action and the need to put shared ideals into practice stands at the heart of Hamill’s ultimate vision for the group.

“I don’t think I’m necessarily right. What I do know is that what’s going on now is necessarily wrong. The important thing is to act upon that. Make action together in so far as we agree on the principles that human society should be created upon,” Hamill said.

Comments are closed