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Chilean Students Inspire US Activism

Chilean student activists visited D.C. last week, to accept the Letelier-Moffit human rights award. Kathryn Seidewitz reports on their visit, and the important advice they had for the US students’ movement.

Chilean students Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman, and CAUS representative Caiden Elmer speaking on a student organizing panel at American University. (Photo by Sophia Miyoshi)

“We feel the pain of humanity,” Camila Vallejo told the audience as she accepted the Letelier-Moffit Human Rights Award, on behalf of the Chileno students movement. “We are taking back the reigns of history.”

Camila was speaking of her compatriots’ struggle for education. In the past year, over a million protesters streamed into the streets of Chile, rallying against the state’s education and economic system, one of the most unequal in the world. Unrest like this had not been seen in Chile since the early days of the Pinochet era.

The movement’s creativity and successes were honored on October 17, at the 36th annual Letelier-Moffit Human Rights awards, hosted by the Institute for Policy Studies.


When Camila spoke, she could have been expressing the sentiments of any student activist in the world. And, in many ways, she was speaking for an international generation.

The night before the awards ceremony, Camila and Noam Titelman, the president of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad Católica, the Catholic University of Chile’s student union, spoke at American University. They shared their stories and gave advice to a much smaller gathering of student activists from across D.C. The US student movement has been stagnant since the end of the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1970s. Despite rising student loan rates – Consumer Finance recently reported that student loan debt has hit $1 trillion – US college students have been strikingly apathetic.

“A number of US students feel like we are so stuck in this complacent culture,” said Janna Powell, an organizer with the New York student activist group All in the Red, at the Letelier-Moffit awards reception.

D.C. students protesting the Department of Education on March 1, 2012. (Photo by Coutler Loeb)

The tide, however, appears to be turning. Last year, as people began camping out in Liberty Plaza with Occupy Wall Street and later in parks across the United States, thousands of students were drawn to these urban encampments.They returned to their campuses and started their own Occupy chapters. Groups like Occupy Harvard and Occupy AU, though small in numbers, created waves on their campuses.

As these little bubbles of unrest crop up on U.S. campuses, the rest of the Western hemisphere is erupting in student protest. In Montréal, students carried out the largest student protest in North American history and their historic strike stopped tuition hikes. In Mexico, #YoSoy132, a protest movement grounded in student activism, has brought hundreds of thousands into the streets. In Santiago, students like Camila and Noam are two of millions.

International action inspired solidarity marches with the Quebecois students in New York, known as NYC Infinite Strike marches. Out of these marches came a group of dedicated student activists, which united under the banner of All in the Red. In Ohio, students formed the Ohio Students Association to “give youth in Ohio the tools and infrastructure necessary to be advocates for their own collective social, environmental and economic well-being.” In DC, American University students have started their own student union in response to tuition hikes.

These pockets of student resistance in the US are small, but they all have certain characteristics in common. First, they are all attempting to set up infrastructures similar to those now entrenched in Montréal and Chile, to facilitate long-term organizing. Second, they draw their roots from both their foreign counterparts and the Occupy movement.

“It is really inspiring and kind of dreamy to see hundreds of thousands of students in both Québec and Chile in the streets, mobilized, and actually having a place at the table with the administrations that are working against us,” Janna said. “There are a number of us studying different structures of student unionism that have been successful around the world, as well as looking at the current US education and where it is at, and trying to implement a structure in New York City that would be appropriate for the city and where we are currently at. I acknowledge that our cultures are very different, our situations are very different, [but] there is stuff to learn from one another.”

These outbursts have created a pan-American dialogue. Chileno and Québecois student activists like Camila and Noam are talking to US students across the country, providing advice and context for the blossoming new brand of student unionism.

Camila Vallejo speaks to AU students after the panel. (Photo by Sophia Miyoshi)

“There is no magical recipe for anything to work and most of the time success of this movement depends much more on structural and historical context than creativity of a few,” Noam Titelman advised US students. Noam urged US students to find that precedent in things like the famous Berkeley occupation of the 1960s. “Perhaps one of the problems is how to politicize discussion by giving it a historical context,” he said.

The key for success in the US seems to lie in finding a blend of the spontaneity of the Occupy Wall Street movements and the organization of the other, larger movements. “You must make sure that it is not only beautiful and noble but also efficient,” Noam said.

“[I'm interested in] forming not only a global student movement, but a global youth resistance movement,” Janna said. “From environmental issues, to lack of accessibility to education, [the next step is] seeing how we tackle all of these things, what the relationships between these issues are, and bringing up proposals for a change.”

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