Junior Soleil Smith first encountered democratic socialism during the 2016 election. Smith’s realization that many of the senators she and her parents supported did not vote for democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, even though the majority of Coloradans did, was a turning point for her.
“I just felt like, yeah, the system is working against us and that’s the point. That’s why it’s the way that it is and I want that to change,” [Soleil] Smith said. “[Democratic socialism] seemed like the best avenue for that change to be enacted.”
Smith describes democratic socialism as a way of enacting social justice through economic means like ensuring all people have access to health care and education. Smith, her sister senior Katana Smith, and junior George Jensen are now the interim co-presidents of the Knox College chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA).
The co-presidents first established contact with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a national political organization with official youth chapters on almost 70 college campuses, through Jensen’s high school friend Jack Bouman. Bouman is one of the Regional co-chairs of the six official DSA chapters in the Midwest.
“He messaged all of us over the summer and was like, ‘Are you thinking about socialism? Because you guys should be and you guys should be starting this organization on campus,’” [Soleil] Smith said. “He sent me all these emails [the DSA] had been sending him about the Fall Drive they’re having, which is what we’re participating in right now.”
The DSA’s annual Fall Drive gives college students the resources to start their own chapters. In establishing political organizations beyond the binary of Democrats and Republicans on college campuses, the DSA hopes to not only harness the frustration many young people feel toward existing systems but give them the tools to create lasting change. [Katana] Smith said that the Knox YDSA will focus on nonpartisan, civic engagement. She hopes the organization will give students the resources to turn anger over certain issues into productive, sustained protest.
“There’s a lot of political energy on campus – a lot of people have opinions on social justice especially – but there isn’t as much awareness about economic issues, how those things actually improve,” [Katana] Smith said.
The YDSA aims to give students a means of changing systemic issues on campus. For example, ensuring that campus jobs pay workers a living wage. One of their current goals is increasing financial transparency between the administration and students. The recent renovations to CFA and SMC, which have received mixed responses from students, illustrate the current lack of transparency about how the administration spends students’ tuition. The YDSA believes students deserve access to and input in the school’s financial decisions.
“Nobody really understands how alumni are being asked to donate to the school, why is more of that money not being directed toward teachers’ salaries and scholarships for students, things we see as being generally more important than art galleries,” [Katana] Smith said.
On Oct. 29, the Knox YDSA will hold an educational seminar about the midterm elections. [Soleil] Smith wants to inform students about different candidates on the ballot and their platforms. The event will also include lesser known practical information about voting procedures, like the fact that they do not need to vote for a candidate running unopposed. The goal is to educate all students on their rights as voters and the electoral process, regardless of party affiliation.
This nonpartisanship is attractive to young people who feel Democrats and Republicans are more committed to staying in office than listening to the people they represent. The results of the 2016 election led [Soleil] Smith to conclude that winning has become more important to Republicans and Democrats than morals or representing voters’ views.
“I have family members that work minimum wage jobs where their employers will often do things that are either against the law or should be against the law to prevent them from making a living wage,” [Soleil] Smith said. “As a person of color, this country is not very kind to me or my friends and I think that in the wake of all that happened it became clear to me that neither one of the parties was really out here to support what I need.”
Jensen believes the YDSA can walk the line between political, service and identity-based organizations on campus to attack issues from all angles. By incorporating all of these approaches under a single platform, democratic socialism strives to put people and ideals before politics. The Knox YDSA seeks to apply these principles to relations between students and the administration.
“I think it would be great if by the end of the year we felt we’d left an impact on the way students at Knox engage with politics and how they engage with the college’s administration as well,” [Katana] Smith said.