At 7 a.m. on Friday, October 18th, I decided to follow a whim and meet up with my comrade Jose Cordova, from another socialist organization, and three other activist students in Los Angeles. I had never met the other three people that I spent the entire morning getting super cozy in a car with, but by the second day of the City College of San Francisco’s Fall 2013 California Student Union Conference, we all knew quite a bit about one another.
I had previously been unaware that a student union even existed, so I learned a lot at this conference. One of the things I learned was that Vanessa Lopez has been a huge part of organizing students and fighting the privatization of our schools.
I went to a few workshops and put together a contact list for an education and outreach committee. As a part of that, I thought it’d be a good idea to interview Vanessa to get some background information about what’s going on, not only for me but also for students across California.
JM: Who are you?
VL: I feel like you’re the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. I’m a recent Labor Studies graduate from CSU Dominguez Hills.
JM: Yes! Or the machinist (Christian Bale). Have you seen it?
VL: I haven’t, but I shall put it on my To Watch list
JM: Who is CASU?
VL: CASU is the acronym for the California Student Union. As of now, we are a loose coalition of students from various campuses across the state that advocate and organize around education issues, mainly those dealing with the privatization of education. We are inspired by international student movements that use the concept of participatory democracy in order to mobilize mass amounts of students. The ultimate aim is to take power within the universities by democratizing decision-making processes.
JM: Beautiful! What is your quest? Personally?
VL: My own personal quest? I would like to train students to think of themselves as organizers instead of activists. Activists to me are passive and just kinda go with the flow, attending rallies and marches but not really being involved in the direction of social justice movements. I want students to see themselves as agents of change with the confidence and skills to create organizing campaigns based on what THEY feel needs to be done in order to change the world, starting with the education system.
JM: Yes! I remember you saying as much at the Student Union conference in San Francisco on Friday. I believe we were cheering. What is on the agenda for CASU in the upcoming months?
VL: I wasn’t there for the second day of the conference, but from what I heard and from what was said during the first day of the conference, it feels like in the short-term CASU members would like to focus on building their local bases and developing power on their campuses. For me personally, I would like to start developing a project I’ve had in mind for a while now: regional student power resource centers. I want to outreach to existing community organizations that will take us under their mentorship and also provide an organizing space where students can connect, grow, and train each other regionally and locally.
JM: When did all this start for you?
VL: I began organizing actively in April of 2011. I attended a Teach-In facilitated by the faculty union on my campus, the California Faculty Association, around unfair contract negotiations that were happening at the time. I had gone back to school (after an 8-year dropout hiatus, haha) in hopes of attaining my B.A. and getting a better job once I graduated. I always tell people that I had always either felt exploited at my jobs or like I was expected to exploit others; because of that, I had always just quit and kept moving from job to job. I figured going back to school was the answer. But when I attended that Teach-In and realized that not even faculty get respect, I was like “There is something wrong with the system we live in, not with me/us. I can’t keep running away thinking things will get better. I need to stop and fight NOW.” So I began volunteering with the CFA and from there I got some organizing internships and have been fully involved in the educational justice movement since.
JM: Oh, nice! I had a dropout hiatus, too. Mine was only six years though. I think many of us have similar stories as far as jobs and returning to school. Those of us attempting to stand up for ourselves are finding, as you’ve said, we have starkly little say in our own educational institutions, despite them being public. It is very good that you and others are realizing that if expectations for a better educational future are to come about, each one of us must do our part to bring it to reality!
JM: When can we expect to see some action from CASU?
VL: I would give it at least another year — maybe Fall 2014 — before we see a statewide action come from CASU. That is my opinion on it though. The beautiful thing about participatory democracy is that outcomes are not based on the will of just one person. So who knows, maybe by this coming Spring students will start coordinating for an action. There is A LOT to coordinate around, that’s for sure!
JM: Indeed! I know, from Saturday’s outcomes, that Southern California will be meeting in November to plan a conference aimed at organizing and rallying some more students. So for those who could not make it to San Francisco, look to January, that is when we aim to have some gathering and educating happening! The time is NOW to get plugged in and find the place to fit in and help in whatever way best suits our various majors and goals in life as well as in school. Where is education being attacked the hardest at the moment, would you say?
VL: Sounds like y’all had an awesome discussion on Saturday. I like it! The Community Colleges for sure. First, there is the accreditation battle that City College of San Francisco has been going through for over a year now. The Save CCSF coalition has been doing a pretty good job of fighting the closure (they have even gotten the U.S. Dept of Education to place sanctions against the ACCJC, the accrediting commission that is threatening CCSF with closure), but keeping CCSF open does not guarantee that the attacks won’t keep coming. This is especially true since Compton City College went through the same battle a few years back and lost. That campus is now under the stewardship of El Camino College. Apart from that, there is AB 955, which was just passed into law by Governor Brown. This piece of legislation is an extension of the two-tier pay system that Santa Monica College administrators were trying to pass last year, but that students were able to stop at the campus level with the help of the state Attorney General, Kamila Harris. But now that Brown has signed AB 955 into law, six pilot campuses will have their Summer and Winter unit fees raised from $46 per unit to over $200 per unit on some campuses (like Long Beach City College).
JM: Hmmm … yeah. Justin Simons (Chair of the Socialist Party Ventura Local) and I met with a Professor of History, Renee Fraser (from Moorpark Community College) yesterday for coffee and discussed this. She said something about LBCC and how this bill didn’t come from faculty, but as you’ve said, from administration. Interesting.
VL: Yeah, the bill is a total privatization scheme from admin.
JM: Why, when there are so many good television shows on, so many entertaining places to go in California, so much homework to get done, so many hours to dedicate to a paycheck, and so few hours in a day, would anyone in their right mind want to participate in such a difficult struggle?
VL: Hahaha! That is the ultimate question organizers need to ask themselves in order to get others to make this kind of time commitment. For me, I always just go back to my vision of the kind of world I want to live in. Do I want to live in a world where education is treated as a privilege or as a right? Do I want to live in a world where it’s ok to exploit and incarcerate people because of their documentation status or one there we are all treated with respect and dignity? I’ve had enough experiences in life that tell me that things won’t change just by wishing they would, or by just improving conditions for myself but not for others. To me, education is the primary vehicle by which we not only prepare ourselves for future employment, but by which we learn about the world. If all we are learning is that we have to go with the flow and keep sustaining an unsustainable system, what’s the point of any of it? We have to change our education system so that what we are learning is how to empower ourselves in order to change the things in our society we see just aren’t working. That is what this fight truly means to me, and what I hope to be able to instill in others as well.
JM: Well said!
VL: Thank you!
JM: How does one get involved with CASU?
VL: The best way is to go to http://castudentunion.wordpress.com and see if there is a local chapter on their campus. If there is, then hit them up. If not, then send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your contact info and someone will get back to you regarding other ways of plugging in or of starting your own local chapter on campus.
JM: Easy peasy lemon squeezy!
VL: Haha, yep yep!
JM: A thousand thanks, Vanessa!
VL: No prob, my pleasure!