‘Angry, young and poor’: Student activism is more active than ever

Words by Mallory Pace


Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) is a national, student-led progressive activist organization founded in the 1960s. Back then, it was considered the largest and most influential U.S. radical student organization for its time and well-known for its activism against the Vietnam War. Since then, it has continued to grow, bringing together hundreds of students from over 40 different U.S. chapters with the same attitude: dare to struggle, dare to win. 


The foundation of what the group advocates for is simple human rights, along with other complex topics like labor rights, police brutality and LGBTQ+ rights, among others. Through protests, rallies, unity and courage, SDS encapsulates the best parts of youth angst — channeling energy into change. Our very own University of North Florida’s SDS has been nothing short of active, especially since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis became legislation-happy and introduced dozens of laws impacting education in Florida. 


Founded in 2016, UNF’s chapter of SDS has remained a strong voice on campus, and they won’t stop until their voices are heard. Current UNF SDS president Lissie Morales is a senior double majoring in public policy and sociology. They explained that on campus SDS serves to bring militant grassroots action for better change through various issues. 


In May, Gov. DeSantis signed a law preventing all 12 Florida public universities from using any state or federal funding to promote, support or maintain programs or campus activities that advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion. At UNF, this means that resources like the award-winning LGBTQ Center and an uncertain number of others would be defunded. Although the tangible consequences of the law have yet to be discovered, anxiety is high. Before its passing, UNF SDS hosted a rally on campus where dozens of students and faculty showed their support for protecting diversity in education by waving signs painted with “Educate, don’t discriminate” and “You can’t erase what we learn!” A month later, over 100 students from across Florida, including UNF SDS, marched to the Florida Board of Governors meeting in Tallahassee in pouring rain to protest the passage of the bill. Although the bill would soon be passed and implemented in July, one thing remains certain: This generation won’t go down without a fight. 


Joining that fight are also a wide range of professors who have been known to stand on the same side as students regarding the defunding of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and resources. UNF SDS has received an abundance of support from faculty who agree that diversity not only belongs in higher education but is also needed.


“You have a bunch of teachers and educators in higher education — people who teach all these things and they say these things are necessary. And then you have a couple of politicians who disagree,” said Austin Rolette, a recent UNF graduate and SDS member. “It’s just the fact that those clash, and the fact that a couple of politicians are winning is mind boggling.”


UNF SDS has also been working to stand with and defend the five University of South Florida students who were arrested in March as they stood in the university president’s office demanding her accountability and opposition to defunding DEI. Video footage shows a group of students holding signs and chanting when suddenly a police officer grabs a female student’s arm and chaos ensues. Five students were arrested and currently face felony charges of assault on a police officer and misdemeanor charges for resisting an officer without violence and disrupting an educational institution. County prosecutors have filed formal charges against the five students — dubbing them as the “Tampa Bay 5.” Since the incident, student groups and chapters of SDS across the state have stood in solidarity with the Tampa students, advocating for their innocence.


“We are trying to do as much as we can to show up and to support them through this whole situation because they’re in the same state as us,” said Icarus Olsen, a UNF sophomore and member of SDS. “They’re fighting the same fight that we’re fighting. And it’s also the fact that it could have been any of us.”


“F*ck around and find out”


There are obstacles and opportunities to being young, energized and angry. On one hand, SDS has the advantage of being able to extend their reach to more students and organizations just by being on campus. They also all embody a certain attitude of, as Morales put it, “f*ck around and find out,” meaning they’re often willing to go the distance more than other people. But they’re also old enough to know how to strategize their activism rather than simply making noise. 


“It feels nice to have that sort of volatile but not uncontrollable energy that allows us to really make our statements,” Rolette said.


There are also certain misconceptions around student activists — being often viewed as whiny, naive kids who just don’t understand the real world yet. But Olsen argues they’re the ones standing in 100-degree heat or the pouring rain trying to make their voices heard and creating change. 


“We’re going out there and defending, raising money and doing all these other things. We’re not just sitting there whining about something on social media,” he said. 


As students, they also have a lot to lose like facing expulsion or arrests for exercising their rights like the Tampa Bay 5. 


“We also have to watch our steps when it comes to planning and organizing stuff here on campus because, like with the Tampa Five, peaceful protests in office could turn into a horrible situation,” Olsen said. “So it’s having to watch every single step that you make and making sure that you don’t cross the line that the university sets, even if you want to.”


With great risk comes great reward, and SDS is willing to continue fighting for as long as it takes.


“We are trying to get not only this education so we can work in this world that isn’t for us yet,” said Alivia Kalin, a recent UNF graduate and member of SDS, “but we’re also trying to change the world so that everybody can benefit from it, including us.”


To SDS, activism means a number of things. Jaye Dodge, a UNF student and SDS member, said it means letting those in power know that this generation sees through their actions and they won’t accept the story they’ve written. To Calvin Pell, a UNF sophomore and SDS member, activism means going out on the ground and doing whatever’s necessary to get substantive, lasting change. 


Morales also clarifies that SDS’ purpose is not to be violent or reactionary. They focus on strategizing their efforts, not creating pointless disruption for the sake of chaos. They want change, not just attention. And they encourage anyone reading: join the movement.