Meet the Students Who Will Achieve What Occupy Wall Street Couldn't

With talks of sequestration on the horizon, Washington has once again shown its political obstinacy by succumbing to a last-resort deal that would cut $1.2 trillion in military and domestic spending. Nearly $2.3 billion would be hacked from educational programs (as outlined in the White House’s report to Congress), which only fuels fire for an emerging global student movement that has made significant strides against education austerity.

Using social media as their digital headquarters, the International Student Movement (ISM) already has a momentous track record of imparting change to policies that inhibit accessibility to education. With the goal of bolstering student voices in the fight to "free and emancipatory education as a human right," ISM’s repertoire includes slowing tuition hikes in Quebec and petitioning to free Swazi student demonstrator Maxwell Dlamini after he was arrested and charged with possessing explosives before a pro-Democracy rally.

Through their website and tech-roots campaigning, these tech-roots activists have successfully maintained solidarity and direction, unlike their Occupy Wall Street counterparts who, on the surface, appeared to have galvanized over similar visions of equality and emancipation. But even in researching this piece, I had a hard time recalling and summarizing OWS's true aim.

Therein lay the dead movement’s largest impediment. OWS’s elusive identity and dogma of equality by forceful redistribution, are what left a legacy of disorganization and misguidance that the ISM has dodged.

At the fulcrum of the international movement are leaders like founder Mo Schmidt, whose vision for ISM’s momentum lies in “direct participation” and “nonhierarchical organization through collective discussion and action.” The group’s manifesto, written for and by the global repository of tech-roots activists, came into fruition through a Wikipedia-like crowd-sourcing approach; the “International Joint Statement” circulated for 10 months for review before it was accepted unanimously by 100 groups in 40 different countries, according to Waging Nonviolence

Consensus building and connectivity are important to Schmidt, a German graduate student in 2008 who launched International Day of Action for education in November of that year. Schmidt’s understanding of effective protest lies in securing a collective identity with a clear agenda: to make education a human right. In 2009, amid the escalating global recession, Schmidt told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, that investment needed to be reallocated back into schools instead of towards bank bailouts.

“We need independent, publicly funded education,” Schmidt said. “Because that’s essential for democracy.”

A clear mission is also apparent in an online chat meeting Schmidt wages with other protest organizers from around the world. Journalist Zachary Bell notes that Schmidt summarizes ISM’s agenda to a tee — a characteristic absent from the Occupy movement:

<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

Schmidt’s resolve for “nonhierarchical organization” also reflects the effectiveness of tech-roots activism as a way to establish horizontal policy change. Instead of attacking governments or specific groups like the Occupy movement vilified all “one-percenters” (sorry, Bill and Melinda Gates), ISM encourages international demonstration en masse as a more effective means of making injustices more apparent and urgent.

“There are no mechanisms on the ISM that would justify one person having a different status than another person,” Schmidt told Bell.“People focus a lot on governments as the root of the problem: parties and individual politicians. But by connecting and creating an identity … 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.”

The global soundboard has also been an incubator for other social media and digital engagement-based movements including #1world1struggle, a movement that began in Croatia as students occupied 20 universities in eight cities, and Mexico’s #YoSoy132, which protested against censorship of human rights injustices. The tech-roots nature of ISM also accounts for its effectiveness over Occupy endeavors: these movements mobilized where it counted — during the marches, protests, and demonstrations — and deceased strategically without overstaying any public space’s welcome.

David Dietz observes here, “Given the immense support attention paid to the Kony 2012 campaign, imagine the impact of Occupy Wall Street if it were to focus on a very narrow and targeted agenda.” 

The International Student Movement might just have achieved the impact that Occupy Wall Street never did.