by Sarah El Neweihi
When I first heard about the Campus Organizing Conference, I must admit I was a bit skeptical. I have attended numerous conferences related to working for peace and justice in Palestine/Israel, and, while enjoyable, I never felt that I learned anything from the conferences that could be applied in a practical manner. Happily, this was not the case at the Campus Organizing Conference held by the American Friends Service Committee on March 5th in Washington, DC.
I believe that one reason the Conference was so successful was that it focused specifically on student organizing on campus rather than on organizing generally. There are difficulties that student leaders encounter that are unique to a campus environment, and it is important for students to learn how to best deal with these issues as they arise. This appealed to me not only because I was on the executive board of Students for Justice in Palestine during my undergraduate years at DePaul University, but also because I am planning on being an active organizer around similar issues when I attend graduate school next year in London. The school I will be attending has a reputation for having a very active student body, and I know it will be important to learn effective tools for organizing in order to be as involved as possible.
While all of the speakers at the Conference were extraordinary, what stood out to me and what I appreciated the most was the participation of young people and students on the panels. All too often at conferences young people are dismissed because of their supposed lack of experience, but this conference proved how important it is to hear from students who have encountered the various issues that this conference was designed to address. They provided a very powerful voice and shared so many valuable ideas and experiences. Hearing from students like Shirien Damra and Brian Van Slyke made it easier to relate to their experiences and to learn from their powerful examples. The panels were brilliantly organized, opening with success stories, then on to organizing setbacks, then questions. I was able to hear about actual situations that may very well arise for me in my future organizing endeavors and how others have successfully dealt with them. I learned things that I could actually use and put into practice, and I had proof that they worked.
The workshops, too, were incredibly helpful. My only complaint was that I was unable to attend all of them! Covering a variety of relevant topics, from messaging and media to building alliances and coalitions, the workshop topics were all issues that I had either faced myself as an activist on campus or issues that I knew I would eventually have to deal with. The first workshop I attended was, “How to have a conversation in a sensitive environment,” led by Miryam Rashid and Anna Baltzer. I have had the honor of working with Miryam at AFSC, and Anna Baltzer was the reason I had become involved with SJP in the first place, after seeing one of her presentations at DePaul University. The ability to tell her that in person was a real treat for me, and one of my favorite moments of the Conference. The workshop was incredibly useful and practical. There was no time wasted on theories or rhetoric, and we got straight into participants’ experiences and questions. I learned so many tools I could use to properly respond to people who disagree with me, and how to deal with administrations on campuses who are so intent on remaining “neutral” when it comes to any type of political issue. These are skills and tools that I will definitely put into practice next year on my campus.
I went into the Conference a skeptic and was grateful to find that I was participating in such a unique and useful experience. The people I met at the Conference and the incredible speakers I heard inspired me to be as involved as possible on my campus next year and afterwards. The tools I learned for campus organizing can be applied to general organizing situations as well, and as I plan to do this work for the rest of my life, those tools will be invaluable and instrumental to me. The Conference’s location in Washington DC, a mecca for policy organizations and activism provided the perfect setting to learn and be inspired. The subtitle of the Conference was “Educate, Motivate, Advocate for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine” and I can honestly say that I left the conference educated, motivated, and ready to advocate for a just peace in Israel and Palestine.