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Christine Chau

March 8, 2017

UWP 001


Conventions Within Activist Groups at UC Davis


Student activism is defined as the actions of students to cause political, environmental,

economic, or social change. Student activism on university campuses is nearly as old as the

university itself. Acts of student resistance and rebellion were a response to the oppression by

various systems of power from educational, social, and government institutions. This form of

youth rebellion has had profound impacts to spark change against societal conventions, and

created momentum for political reform (Guide to Social Change Led by and With Young

People). Student activists face duality in their role in society as both being outside these

institutions as well as within them as part of the university. They face a paradox of facing

institutional restrictions and societal limitations, while being empowered to take ownership of

their beliefs by an educational administration that may be the very source of their oppression

(Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject, Pg. 7). This unique identity and conflict

student activists face have created a discourse community of individuals that stand for

egalitarianism and creation their own means of communication.

I will examine the discourse community of left-wing or liberal student activist groups at

University of California, Davis and the context behind their goals and habits. I will delve into

actions and communications of two groups: the New Left organization Students for a

Democratic Society (SDS) and the grassroots organization CalPIRG (California Public Interest

Research Group). Although these groups hold the same fundamental goals of social and

environmental justice, there are distinctions in their position on the political spectrum and their

definition of grassroots activism. SDS prides themselves as a purely grassroots, radical left

organization without outside funding while CalPIRG defines their activism as student

involvement without a blatantly defined political stance, and collaboration with professional

researchers and public service workers. Due to their positions, there are nuances in their means

of communication and values which makes these groups distinguishable from one another.

History of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

Students for a Democratic society was a student activist movement developed in the mid-

1960s and was the core of the New Left movement in the United States. The organizations

ideals were based with liberal, radical, and Marxist political movements which resulted in the

organizations anti-war and anti-establishment views. SDSs most notable act was its resistance

against the Vietnam War, which attracted 25,000 anti-war protesters. Despite the groups leftist

political stance, the SDS consisted of mostly white college men and excluded women from the

frontlines of the movement (Rhoads). This exclusion of led to the disbandment of many SDS

chapters due to the chaos of the 1969 SDS Convention with other activist groups falling into

chaos over differing views. Shortly after, many SDS chapters disbanded and the organization

eventually disintegrated (SDS).

Although the original group split, the new incarnation of SDS was reformed in 2006

which hold the same fundamental sentiments of participatory democracy and nonviolent civil

disobedience and criticism of racial discrimination, economic inequality, and big business (Our

Campaigns). However, this new generation of SDS is more inclusive by promoting diversity

and tackles current issues of war and injustice. Its initial subject of opposition was the US

government led wars in the Middle East, and eventually vaguer advocacy of students rights,

intersectionality, and environmental justice to give freedom to chapters to promote causes that

affect them locally. Some of the groups notable actions were its class walk out to oppose the

2006 immigration reforms and sit-ins against the Iraq War in 2007 (SDS Victories). The

current organization upholds the same system of operation as in the 1960s as a chapter-based

organization with yearly national conventions.

Observational Study of the UC Davis SDS Chapter

For my primary research, one of the SDS organizers allowed me to observe an SDS

general meeting at UC Davis on February 24, 2017. Although I contacted the group one day prior

to the meeting, the organizer did not give me permission to conduct my research until the day of

so all members attending the meeting could vote on my attendance. This practice is inclusive to

all the SDS members by giving each person a voice, but felt exclusive to outsiders like myself

that are interested in their group. Also, I noticed that SDS did not have specific location to the

meeting on their public Facebook page and they did not disclose the exact room until they gave

me permission to come. Their meeting was loosely structured, with the meeting being led by two

members to go over the agenda with other members freely commenting on the plans. The

meeting did not have the entire club in attendance, there was only eight members present during
my observation. The topics of discussion were promoting the boycott of Wells Fargo due to its

role as a lender to the Dakota Access Pipeline, planning their tuition hike protest on campus,

pushing UC Davis to openly claim sanctuary campus status to protect DREAMers, and forming a

network coalition with other activists and interest groups on campus. At the core of their

discussion were the objectives of fighting oppression of minority groups and promoting student

rights. One member referred to their organization as a nebulous as they are a multi-issue group

with loosely defined objectives that shift based on the current political climate. Despite their

plans to endorse minority students on campus, these students appear to not be part of the

demographics they aim to fight for. I found that while their ideals are rooted in intersectionality

and inclusiveness, they appear to be more exclusive in practice to outsiders that do not hold the

same views. They aim to reach out to other groups on campus to form a coalition, yet during the

meeting they make clear to define themselves as leftist while the other groups are liberal.

During this meeting, I found their ways of communication unlike the many student

organizations I have been a part of. SDS appears to lack the student-oriented nature of other

clubs and groups on campus, and focuses more on outside political issues and opposition of the

university administration. The organization does not seem to have much of a connection with

average UC Davis student life, possibly due to being a small group on campus with relatively

extreme political views. The SDSers value their right to privacy greatly as they do not disclose

the specific location of their meeting on social media. Also, they communicate with each other

through Signal, an encrypted group messaging app, to prevent any leaking of information

regarding their plans. One of the leading members explained that using UC Davis emails and

social media chat such as Facebook allow for authorities to see what you post which could

result in termination of their plans. This level of security for their communication indicates a
paranoia or distrust in government or NSA action or that they believe their organizing warrants


Their language during the meeting was mostly conversational, but with politically

charged terms such as environmental justice, sanctuary cities, and cishet (cisgender and

heterosexual) oppressors incorporated in their discussion. These terms are not commonly

understood terms, which indicates a level of understanding terms used in social justice spaces to

understand the content of their meetings. Also, an interesting conversation during the meeting

was the definition between liberal and leftist groups. Members of SDS consider themselves to

be a leftist organization, meaning that they possess more radical views leaning on the side of

socialism as opposed to liberals that have more moderate views and want to smooth the edges of

capitalism through government programs. The topic of discussion was less restricted compared

to most university spaces. When discussing ways to make more creative messaging one member

casually suggested a visual protest representing white genocide to criticize the university for

defending white supremacy by permitting the schools College Republicans group to host Alt-

Right media personality Milo Yiannopoulos in January. This group has created a space for

individuals with more radical left-wing views to freely express their views and advocate for their

causes. Although their language appears to be less restrictive on one sense, their conversations

excludes those that do not share their more extreme values and tactics. In a sense, SDS does not

accept those on the side of establishments into their group while giving voice to those that

oppose them.

History of U.S. Public Research Interest Group (PIRG) and CALPIRG

Public Research Interest Groups (PIRG) emerged in the 1970s on college campuses based

on the PIRG model in the book Action for a Change by American activist Ralph Nader and

public interest lawyer Donald Ross. Ross led students across the country to set up chapters,

resulting in 13 state chapters nationwide. The U.S. PIRG is a non-profit organization with the

goal of effecting liberal political change (Mayer 390-391). The national organization has

campaigned for same-sex marriage, an increase in the minimum wage, environmental protection,

expansion of resources on college campuses, and regulations to protect public health.

CalPIRG Students is a branch within the federation of Public Research Interest Groups with the

mission of researching issues Californian citizens face, educating the public about these issues,

and promoting grassroots organizing. The organization runs by collecting donations from

students to hire a full-time professional staff to promote the groups interests and campaigns.

CALPIRG lobbies issues such as healthcare reform, environmental protection, and affordable

tuition. CALPIRG Students is has a more than 40-year history of advocacy with branches in

nearly all University of California Campuses and University of Southern California. Students

benefit from this organization through its volunteer opportunities, internships, and training

political organizing (About Us). While CALPIRG promotes reclaiming democracy, its

campaigns vary by chapter based on local issues. For Winter Quarter 2017, CALPIRG at UC

Davis campaigns focus on banning fracking in California, promoting a 100% renewable

campus, fighting hunger and homelessness, and saving the bees (CALPIRG at UC Davis).

Observational Study of CALPIRG at Davis

I attended the UC Davis chapter CALPIRG general meeting on March 7, 2017 for my

second object of research. Their meeting was structured with a student leader as the head of the
meeting with professional campus organizer to assist as well. To get to know members, each

meeting begins with introductions and replies to a proposed question. At this meeting, the leader

asked of each member to name a historical or political figure theyd want to put on a postage

stamp. This introduction differed greatly from my meeting at SDS, since this activity aims to

include new members in each of the meetings while SDS relies on the existing members to

determine inclusion. Overall, meeting was free-flowing with members sharing their experiences

at recent events and input on future, despite the defined roles in the group. One of the focuses of

the meeting was recapping Lobby Day in Sacramento, where they met with state legislators to

discuss their campaigns. They also made plans to attend an upcoming UC Regents Meeting ad

UCSF to promote their 100% renewable campus campaign to the regents. One of the student

leaders commented about the regents meeting location at UCSF claiming that they dont want

us undergrads to ask them questions, but were going anyways. Their approach to advocacy is

more rooted in government involvement instead of strong opposition.

Another one of their objectives was to bring their cause of making UC Davis a Bee

Campus into action by discussing establishment of a bee committee to protect pollinators. The

overall goal of their meeting was to promote their campaigns in a manner that will engage

students; one way they are increasing visibility is a Fracking Friday in which they will

advocate their goal to ban fracking by having an anti-fracking themed water pong game with

prizes at the Memorial Union. Social media is also a critical component of their goal of increased

visibility, part of their business was searching other CALPIRG chapters to get inspiration to be

more active and attention grabbing on their pages. Their tactic to spread their message focuses on

student involvement to widen the scope of their audience and integrate themselves with the

general student body. Besides advocacy, CALPIRG offers opportunities for members to gain
experience in political organizing skills. At the end of the meeting, there was a representative

from the clean air and anti-smoking non-profit Breathe California offering internship for

members. The internship offers training in environmental and clean air education for students to

lead lessons at local schools or summer camps.

CALPIRGs modes of communication align with my typical experiences with campus

organizations. They alert members of events through their public Facebook page as well as

through the messaging app, GroupMe, for more detailed planning. The group communicates with

one another in a very casual and amiable conversation. This tone was due to a majority of the

group being close friends who understand each others humor and inside jokes of their group.

When talking about their Fracking Friday event, they joked that their work to attract students

made them CoolPIRG and that their Twitter account should not be run by one of the leaders

because she would use it to angrily tweet at Donald Trump. However, their casual tone shifted to

be more professional when the Breathe California representative discussed his internship

opportunity. Most of the members were very engaged in the conversation and showed interest by

asking logistical questions. Some members discussed their career goals aligning with the clean

air campaign of the organization. From these interactions, I concluded that this organization

operates in different discourses with peers than with officials. While the groups core goal is

grassroots organizing, the members have career building benefits through internships, training,

and connections with government and non-profit organization employees. This value of

professionalism had a strong presence in their meeting and differs greatly from SDS which does

not seek approval from professional organizations, and instead opposes them. CalPIRG is a

student-oriented organization that aims to build professional skills and career connections in

lobbying and government work.


Both SDS and CALPIRG have the same goal of bringing attention to left-leaning

political issues to government representatives and the public, but they differ greatly in their

execution. In their advocacy for social justice, environmental protection, and university student

interests, both groups approach outreach differently and possess. SDS is more focused on

establishment resistance and protest, while CALPIRG promotes their message by campaigning

and hiring representatives to lobby for their causes at the state capitol and Washington D.C. SDS

is a radical activist group that has roots in youth rebellion and counterculture, so their outreach is

more informal and based in outsider political action. CALPIRG is more established with

organized systems of leadership and funding, therefore their messaging is intended to be less

controversial and builds ethos amongst government representatives.

When reaching to the public, the organizations have differing degrees of media outreach.

From the SDS meeting I attended, the members do not disclose their exact location and message

each other plans through Signal. Their public outreach is limited to passing out flyers, carrying

signage around campus, and sharing news on their Facebook page. They are hesitant to use

media platforms to spread their chapters information on public media platforms, so their use of

their Facebook page is limited to sharing issues in the news cycle and articles from the national

SDS website. Their use of media shows a fear of surveillance and government power. Their level

of privacy results in members outside the group of make more effort to become a part of their

group. This approach is contradictory to many of their values of inclusion of marginalized

groups, but they enforce exclusion by keeping their group hidden and suspicion of fellow

students. This execution of advocacy may harm they cause and desire for revolutionary change
by limiting their membership by their lack of media usage. CALPIRG conducts their public

outreach much differently. They are much more upfront about using social media to increase

involvement. The group tables outside the Memorial Union regularly, updates their social media

with information for events and meetings, and have the emails of their campus organizers on

their website. They promote their cause clearly, but require members to pledge $10 each quarter

for funding, which is off-putting to some UC Davis students. The involvement of a pledge and

putting money into their activism may be distasteful for students as this monetary engagement

can lead to questioning of morality. SDS values their truly grassroots advocacy, while

CALPIRG aims to build credibility through teamwork of students and professional organizers.

Due to these differing approaches to advocacy, both groups promote their causes in vastly

differing manners which will appeal to different types of members of the public. They serve

these different audiences by excluding and including people by their standards. SDS includes by

being an entirely student run group without monetary requirements, but excludes through their

severe protection of security and radical views. CalPIRG increases public engagement by

promoting at more concentrated student locations, but exclude others by their standards of

professionalism and monetary pledge as a requirement of membership.


The difference in the values and execution of advocacy between SDS and CalPIRG show

the divisions within left-leaning activism on campus. From my findings, I concluded, that

although both groups possess similar ideals in theory, they appeal to differing audiences and

possess separate goals. SDSs anti-establishment views have led to their bold political protests

which aims to appeal to those with similar views as well as attempt to send a clear statement to
politicians and right-wing opposition groups. CalPIRG works with the goal to gain skills in

professional advocacy to build credibility to lobby for causes by direct communication with

representatives. This indicates the different goals of activism on campus such as desire for

revolutionary change or to build a platform for future careers. The execution of their advocacy

appears to be a result of from their positions on the ideological spectrum as well as their views

towards government and establishment. Both activist organizations generally promote similar

issues of social justice and environmental conservation, but their perspectives on how to enact

change oppose one another. SDS works against establishment and CALPIRG works with

establishment to bring attention to their goals. The goals behind these groups have created the

conventions that exist within their individual discourses which serve both organizations in their

efforts to promote their causes as well as their underlying goals whether it be rebellion or career

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