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In Struggle for Education Rights, Tearing Down the Ivory Tower

Interview with organizers for Nov. 10 Education Rights Day of Action
Interview by staff |
October 31, 2009
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Carlos Montes speaks to a group of students at the October 3 conference.
Carlos Montes, a veteran Chicano activist, speaks at the October 3 conference about the need to defend public education from privatization. Stephanie Taylor, far right, led the workshop that launched the call for the November 10 day of action for education rights. (Fight Back! News/Jacob Flom)
Sallie Lin, a student activist in the Bay Area in California, speaking at the Oc
Josh Sykes addresses students and youth at the workshop.
Sallie Lin, a student activist in the Bay Area in California, speaking at the October 3 "We Say Fight Back!" conference. (Fight Back! News/Jacob Flom)
Josh Sykes, organizer with Students for a Democratic Society at UNC-Asheville, addresses students and youth at the Education Rights workshop at the October 3 conference. (Fight Back! News/Chapin Gray)

As students and youth across the country prepare for the November 10 day of action for education rights, Fight Back! sat down with Josh Sykes of UNC-Asheville Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Sallie Lin from the Bay Area in California and Stephanie Taylor from University of Minnesota SDS to discuss the day of action, organizing the student movement and the movement to demand education as a fundamental right, not a privilege. All three organizers have been deeply involved in building for the day of action, and led the workshop at the Oct. 3 “We Say Fight Back!” conference in Chicago that launched the initiative for the Nov. 10 day of action for education rights.

Fight Back!: Josh, could you start by giving us some background on the Oct. 3 conference and what came out of it?

Josh Sykes: The “We Say Fight Back” conference was a grassroots conference that was put together by trade unionists, housing activists, urban poor organizers, leaders from the immigrant rights movement and student organizers. The conference brought hundreds of activists and organizers from these struggles together to share experiences, draw some general lessons from those experiences, and make common plans.

The most significant thing to come out of the conference was the formation of the Network to Fight for Economic Justice (, linking these struggles together in a very important way. Additionally, one of the workshops was on building the fight for education rights. In that workshop we passed a resolution to call for a national day of student action for education rights on Nov. 10.

Fight Back!: Can you talk about why you all chose to frame the student and youth workshop in terms of education rights?

Josh Sykes: It is the next logical step for the student movement. Many of us in the student movement learned to organize in the anti-war movement and we fought tooth and nail against U.S. imperialism in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan.

Now we’re dealing with the effects of this same system as the crisis hits home. The same economic crisis that propels the U.S. to war around the world is now putting millions out of work and out of their homes. The crisis is now on the verge of throwing working, oppressed nationality and low-income students out school and barring the doors for a long time to come.

People across the country had already started fighting back and winning gains, but the walkouts in the University of California on Sept. 24 really showed the way very clearly and we have to carry this momentum forward. We have to get organized and fight to ensure that education is recognized as a human right, just as we have to fight for the right to housing, healthcare and living-wage jobs.

If the rich have their way, higher education will be consolidated as a bastion of the elite. We can’t accept education for the privileged any longer. It has to be for everyone. We have to tear down the 'ivory tower' and lead a struggle that can make education free for everyone.

Fight Back!: Sallie, at the conference you spoke about how education access is denied to many oppressed nationality youth. How do you see the struggle of oppressed nationalities for full equality linking up with the Nov. 10 education rights actions?

Sallie Lin: Firstly, for the Day of Action for Education Rights on Nov. 10, I hope to see all student forces unite, whether these are students of oppressed nationalities or students who come from relatively more privileged backgrounds but are equally concerned about the ever-shrinking access to higher education. We are all in this together and solidarity will help us win this fight.

Second, as students of oppressed nationalities, our demands would be for the University System to recognize our unique circumstances and how their continuous, unreasonable cutbacks push students from low-income families, many of whom are from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, out of the educational system.

We want an end to the slashing of programs that attract students of color and women, programs that help contribute to campus diversity, and which the University takes pride in. We want a public acknowledgement from the University that our needs as students of oppressed nationalities and our needs as students in general, are more important than the paychecks of the top executives of the University. If we cannot pursue higher education anymore due to the 250% tuition increase, then their positions shouldn’t exist.

Personally I believe that, we, as students of oppressed nationalities, as people who have been historically marginalized, as well as our families and the workers of the University, deserve an apology.

Fight Back!: There have recently been huge demonstrations in California around the cuts to higher education, part of a movement that has been unfolding across the country over the past year. How do you see the education rights movement developing, and what do you think are the key demands to put forward?

Sallie Lin: I believe that as long as the public education system is being unjust, the power of the students will keep making our voices heard. The education rights movement will continue its momentum because we have invested trust in the system, and it has failed us. Our key demands would be: One, Affordable tuition; two, oversight on University spending and executive salaries; three, increase financial aid and four, an end to the slashing of programs that are crucial to campus diversity.

Fight Back!: Stephanie, you have been involved in getting the word out for the Nov. 10 day of action. Can you give us an idea of what actions will happen on that day?

Stephanie Taylor: Specifically on our campus, the University of Minnesota, the Campaign to Save Our School, a campaign initiated by SDS which has united diverse student groups throughout campus, will be calling on students to bombard the bursars office with tuition and loan bills/statements. This would essentially bring tangible attention to the fact that students can't afford their bills anymore.

From the bursar's office we will then have a disruptive rally/dance party/flash mob outside the administrative building, administrator-esque piñata in tow, to demonstrate having a sort of ‘going away’ party for accessible education. We'll be delivering our tuition bills and demanding the president take a pay cut to ameliorate our debt.

Students throughout the nation will and have been engaging in a diversity of tactics which are appropriate to the situation on their campus. Students need to ‘get out of their desks and into the streets’ to affect change on their campuses. Now is the time to fight, before education in our country is degraded even more.

Fight Back!: What is the response you have seen locally, or nationally, in response to the call for a day of action around education rights?

Stephanie Taylor: Students are really latching onto the call to action, more than I have ever seen in the years I have been organizing on campus. I think this is indicative of the fact that students really get it, that we are actually realizing how tough it is going to be for us after our college careers. When you say “cut tuition hikes” you have ten people stop to hear a little bit more.

Locally, our campus paper on a daily basis has editorials speaking to the contradictions we see on campus (layoffs and tuition increases while spending billions on construction projects). Our campus is becoming rejuvenated with more criticism of university politics than I've seen in a while.

Nationally, students seem to be extraordinarily motivated by the NYU occupation that happened last winter, along with the UC fight backs that are happening daily as we speak.

We need to pay attention to the national actions so we can learn from each other as we struggle for change. This is why the national day of action is incredibly important to rally students unite our struggles separated by cities and states into one movement for education rights.

Fight Back!: Where do you see the movement for education rights heading after Nov. 10? What is next?

Stephanie Taylor: Nov. 10 will hopefully be the first critical move to uniting students at a national level. Staying connected post-Nov. 10 would be the most critical thing here. Ensuring that campuses continue to pursue not only radical actions on their campus in the name of education rights, but also the research and insight it takes to fight against the bureaucracy of our administration will make our campaigns winnable.

It is incredibly important to build this movement according to the particular situations on our campuses, while at the same time uniting as a national movement demanding that education be accessible to all, because education is a right!