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What does it mean to be politically involved and how do we make progress?

By: Colin O’Neill, Opinion Writer

Since becoming a student at Canisius, I have become involved in political organizing on campus and I currently serve as the elected chair of the Canisius chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA). Despite being involved in, even leading, political organizing on campus, I often feel like I don’t have time to be truly politically involved. For example, I have attempted to be tangibly politically involved by participating in the India Walton campaign for Buffalo Mayor through YDSA. However, opportunities to text bank, phone bank and canvass have gone by without my participation as I complete a seemingly endless stream of assignments, exams and discussion boards throughout the semester.

Now, this is not me stating that completing assignments is unimportant, as I am here to gain knowledge and earn a degree to assist me in my future. But it does raise the question for me of what it means to be politically involved. I have no doubt that I am not the only student, politically minded or not, who is trying to balance all the aspects of their life — all the things they want to do with the demands of being a college student. So what does it mean to be politically involved in the context of the demands of college? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean changing the world as politicians often tell young climate activists they will do. Again, I have a discussion board due at midnight and an exam tomorrow, while the politicians have the power to write laws and declare wars (that we fight to pay for college).

What being politically involved as a college student seems to mean is being an active part of the political discussion on campus. Colleges and universities are important to American political culture as places where ideas are formulated and policy is discussed and developed. Being an active part of that discussion is a critical job for young people, regardless of where they land on the political spectrum. For young socialists like myself, this means working hard to change people’s misconceptions about socialism though political education — like what YDSA is currently engaged in — and to broaden political debate and overcome many students’ lack of interest in engaging in politics.

However, if your personality is anything like mine, you’re probably not content with this definition of political involvement — of simply being part of the discussion. You want to make actual material change like the politicians constantly claim you will in their attempts to pander to young people. So then what does it mean to make actual material change? What does it mean to make progress on your political goals?

First off, we need to look at organizing capacity. This may seem obvious, but a group or individual should not take on goals that are beyond their ability to complete. There is always a finite amount of volunteers, volunteer hours and organizational funds. Second are political priorities. For groups like YDSA that are part of a larger national organization, it makes sense to engage in the priorities of the organization, such as their current student debt cancellation campaign since it is an issue that is more achievable due to institutional support. However, it is most important to engage in the activities that are of highest priority to the members of your local student organization in order to keep an active and excited membership. Lastly is political strategy.

Now, of course, political strategy will differ based on the ideological orientation of the group, but a few things stand out to me as universal. It is important to build a broad movement as there is literally strength in numbers; don’t dismiss someone because they support your more moderate immediate demands and not your more radical, long-term demands. It is through debate, political education and good faith conversation that we evolve on these issues. As stated above, it is important to prioritize goals — your group should not bite off more than it can chew. It is also important to have consensus on priorities so as to be unified, organized and to best utilize the group’s finite resources. Most importantly, any political or ideological organization should be rooted in their ideology’s historical base of support (for socialists, that means the labor movement and the broader working class). Without being rooted in your ideology’s traditional base, your organization will have to divine from afar the demands of the base by attempting to graft historical examples onto modern scenarios, rather than organically living and knowing the demands of your base.

Whatever your political persuasion, even if that is apolitical, I hope this piece has helped you to better understand how to be substantively involved in politics and how to bring about worthwhile political change while juggling all the commitments and stress that life as young people and college students has to throw at us.

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