Is the International Student Movement the future of global organizing?
On Nov. 14, 2012, tens of thousands of students flooded the streets of Montreal to express opposition to the proposed tuition hikes. Iain Brannigan, one of approximately 65,000 participants, often took part in the city’s frequent, massive student protests — but this day was uniquely exciting for him. As the University of Ottawa international-development student marched to the tune of “À qui la rue?” (Whose streets? ) “À nous la rue!” (Our streets!), he knew that the words were being chanted simultaneously — in a dozen different languages — by students around the globe.
It was the first day of the week-long Global Education Strike, during which thousands of students refused to attend school in Quebec, France and Belgium, while thousands more participated in solidarity demonstrations in Thailand, England, Indonesia, Italy and California. Only some of Brannigan’s comrades knew about the synchronicity, but he was well aware of it. For four years he had been a user of the little-known, unglamorous website where the global demonstration had been coordinated: ism-global.net, better known as the International Student Movement.
For all students, everywhere
The website has served as a communication platform since 2008, where activists have coordinated eight international actions. The International Student Movement has active members in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Balkans, and functions as a rich reservoir of multimedia news on the ever-expanding global student movement. Although the International Student Movement is explicitly a platform for autonomous coordination and not an organization itself, most of its users have united around a joint statement that lays out the community’s shared values.
“[We] have been protesting against the increasing commercialization and privatization of public education, and fighting for free and emancipatory education,” it explains. “We strive for structures based on direct participation and nonhierarchical organization through collective discussion and action.”
If the International Student Movement as a collective has an agenda of its own, it is to help students in many different places realize that they are part of the same struggle. It’s an idea that is already in the minds of many student leaders: that their protest is not only to reclaim their own education from profit-seeking institutions, but also to reshape the community of students that they are fighting for — all students, everywhere.
A history of tech-roots organizing
The International Student Movement is riding a wave of global education protests. In 2010, British students struck back against austerity measures. In 2011, Chilean students frightened university administrators around the world by sparring with security forces in protest of neoliberal education policies. In 2012, Quebec universities organized the largest student strike in the country’s history: a successful six-month protest, including a 300,000-person demonstration, which halted proposed tuition hikes. Over the last few years, less-recognized student movements in Russia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Croatia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Italy and Swaziland have helped fill in a now finely-pixelated picture of an emerging anti-austerity global student movement. And while the website wasn’t central in the organization of all of these actions, its developers hope that the site will increasingly help connect these national efforts, allowing more people to see how social ills from New York City to Athens share conspicuously similar symptoms.
The International Student Movement is also part of a technological shift in the way protest movements are organized and quantified. Since the late 2000s, tech-savvy activists have recognized that such methods of coordination like convergences could be updated to keep decision-making local but make the impact global: pairing technology and grassroots organizing to construct a (rather buggy) global tech-roots machine. For example, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance is fusing the local-global connection, while groups like Take the Square and the trending #GlobalNoisemovement are flexing global power — the latter turning local pot-banging protests into an international symphony. Of course, part of the impetus for this shift comes from the increasing globalization of the corporate-political world itself and the growing recognition that, to disable this global machine, activists are going to have to update their toolkits.
One architect of the tech-roots machine was Mo Schmidt, the International Student Movement’s founder and one of its administrators. He was a graduate student in Sociology and Economics at the University of Marburg in Germany in 2008 before so-called global grassroots activism really entered public consciousness. (This happened around 2009 when Bill McKibben’s 350.org orchestrated the “world’s most widespread day of political action” in the lead up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.)
Schmidt was fed up with what he described as the “commercialization of education.” So he put out a call, focusing exclusively on “groups that work on an autonomous level, not attached to any political parties or labor unions.” With the help of a large, global, education-related mailing list that he gained access to, Schmidt found other students and educators who wanted an independent voice, including a web-savvy Irish elementary school teacher. The energy snowballed, and the dispersed group held its first action on Nov. 5, 2008, with participation around Europe and the United States, as well as in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
A site for and by activists
For such a potentially powerful tool, ism-global.net is not as dazzling as one might expect. In mid-September, when I logged onto one of the International Student Movement’s weekly “global chats,” I was underwhelmed. The site was designed with a rudimentary dichromatic frame populated by links to organizations (the many “friends of ISM”) on one side and a Twitter feed on the other, followed by a long list of multimedia blog posts by someone named Mo. It struck me as a typical site for and by activists: functional and requiring some patience. But after a while, I did learn to navigate (and appreciate) this sprawling resource.
In the chat room, “moMarburg” (who I later learned was Mo Schmidt), laid out the agenda:
<moMarburg> so far we have the following agenda proposal: TOP1: round of introduction TOP2: local/regional news and updates TOP3: Q&As on the Global Education Strike TOP4: video project TOP5: communication TOP6 : global noise (Oct.13) TOP7: open space
Next, the international introductions began:
<snowhat-qc> Elias from quebec, student at laval university
<uecse[MOR]> we’re nabil belkabir, basma bakri, kenza benmoussa and anas hmam, Rabat (Morocco)
<Mexico> Teacher and student, Mexican global link
<Peter_Vienna> Hi, i’m Peter, studying in Vienna, soon Berlin.
<SM> I am from West Bengal (India) and I have been long connected with you vis gmail
<flort> Hi i am Flor and i am a student in Albania
<timus3> kk – Tim, UK student (Bristol). Anything else?
Although it was a small group using a relatively bare-bones structure, the content was powerful. I heard stories not reported elsewhere about the resurgent Moroccan education movement and Mexico’s #YoSoy132 — for which opposing censorship is central to the struggle — from students on the ground.
At one point, a user asked for further instructions on how to participate in the Global Education Strike, but Schmidt explained that there was no central authority for the action. This point — that the ISM has a decentralized and non-hierarchical structure — is paramount for him.
“A certain vision and political ideology are reflected in the structure itself,” he explained. “There are no mechanisms on the ISM that would justify one person having a different status than another person.”
The emphasis on decentralized control, autonomy and horizontality resembles the prefigurative anarchic ethos of movements like Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s 15M movement, and Schmidt noted similar challenges.
“To many activists, the concept of actually being a platform and not an organization is rather new,” he said. “They are used to having to work in organizations with hierarchical structures.”
So far, consensus-based decision-making over the platform has been tricky — yet ultimately effective. In 2009, for example, when users decided that a joint statement was useful, it was circulated for a full 10 months for feedback. Finally, it was accepted by 100 groups in 40 countries with no rejections. With the anonymity of the Internet, accountability is also complicated, and the International Student Movement has had some difficulty finding administrative volunteers to keep the site running. The open-access platform also leaves campaigns vulnerable to disruption, but, at least so far, divisive voices have been drowned out naturally when they are too one-sided.
Despite the need for troubleshooting, the International Student Movement has had some real wins.
In Croatia in 2009, assemblies and occupations that were coordinated locally as part of an International Student Movement week of action kicked off a student movement that included the occupation of 20 universities in eight cities. Activists in Croatia used the slogan “one world, one struggle,” which was christened over the International Student Movement site (and now student activists frequently send news and photos to #1world1struggle).
The International Student Movement has also made global student solidarity more feasible. In Swaziland in April of 2011, Maxwell Dlamini and others in the Swaziland National Union of Students were imprisoned and tortured because of their involvement in protests inspired by the Egyptian uprising. This prompted a solidarity campaign, which made international headlines, coordinated through the platform.
The International Student Movement has also provided a network, information and sometimes even an inspirational boost for individual users. Brannigan, the University of Ottawa activist, met students around Canada at an ISM-North America convergence in November of 2011 just before the first mass mobilization in Montreal for the Maple Spring.
“Thanks to these links,” he wrote in an email, “our student union was able to play a big role … in support and solidarity throughout the Maple Spring,” which included sending an Ottawa contingent to Quebec’s mass November 22 demonstration.
When Brannigan went to Germany as part of an international research program, he met with Mo Schmidt and other activists.
The platform provided a similar pathway into the student movement for Lindsay Curtis, a master’s student at Sacramento State University who is currently serving in the Peace Corps. She went from feeling apathetic to being an activist in 2010 while witnessing the attack on public education at UC Riverside during her undergraduate studies.
“I discovered ISM later that year,” she said. “That’s when I realized there were other people, worldwide, who cared about change just as much as I did. That’s when I swung into high gear and knew being an activist would always be my main job.”
Later, when Curtis visited Greece during the Syntagma Square occupation in 2011, she used ism-global.net to get minute-by-minute updates and to contact student activists in Greece to meet and discuss the occupation.
Questions for a new era
The International Student Movement may be rather basic and inaccessible to those who aren’t already active student leaders, but this four-year-old experiment is forcing users to think critically about the forthcoming era of tech-roots activism. It raises questions about the role of corporate-owned social media in grassroots activism, the challenges of horizontal structures and the strategies necessary for building power in the face of globalized, market-based educational institutions.
For active members of the International Student Movement, part of the answer to the question of building power lies in fostering local-global synchronicity. Over the course of November 23, Schmidt counted 150 University of Marburg students who were occupying the university senate’s monthly meeting and hosting a “strike-café” on the state of education in Germany. That same night, Schmidt scrolled through the 124 photos of Global Education Strike activities from around the globe that he had compiled into a Facebook album.
Which was the more important achievement? To Schmidt, it was the relationship between the two.
“People focus a lot on governments as the root of the problem: parties and individual politicians. But by connecting and creating an identity with a struggle on a global and not just a local level, you get away from that,” he explained. “You focus on the structures on a global level that are causing the problems on the local level. To me, it’s directly connected to the economic system, and by connecting globally we make those structures visible in some way.”
While it’s tempting to get excited about the potential of global connectivity — tech-enabled pan-studentism! Millennials of the world unite! — it’s important to remember the barriers to a universal identity. The Internet diminishes the importance of geographic proximity and increases the importance of affinity, but the global student identity still raises big questions about community; should students from Marburg identify first as Germans, students or something else?
This newfound freedom to choose one’s associations may both haunt and liberate millennials as the generation stumbles its way forward into the tech-roots era.