When I left off my report on the 2011 National Student Congress of the United States Student Association, students were walking out of the plenary. I’ll pick back up there…
The Association had just passed an amendment to its constitution giving every member State Student Association a seat on the USSA board of directors. The idea behind the amendment was that it would encourage SSA’s to join (and stay), help strengthen the SSA movement throughout the country, and maybe even lead to the growth of new State Student Associations in states where they don’t exist. On the premise that strong SSAs mean strong student governments (and vice versa), it was expected that the change could even help USSA expand its campus membership.
Not everybody saw it that way.
Some folks from states without SSAs viewed the move as a way of consolidating organizational power in the hands of the states that are already well-represented in the Association. There were even a few SSA representatives who opposed it, on the grounds that their SSAs — lacking the funds to send students to board meetings — would themselves be closed out of the new structure.
A solid supermajority of delegates to the Congress supported the SSA amendment — it garnered the votes of about three quarters of the delegates on the floor — but passage rankled a significant minority, some of whom were already perturbed by other developments. And so, with the body in recess, a sizable handful of delegates walked out.
When the plenary came back from recess and the vote was formally announced, vice presidential candidate Tiffany Loftin moved to reconsider the amendment in order to allow for continued discussion. That motion passed easily, and the body then continued on with the agenda. The number of students who had walked out wasn’t large, nor was the number who had followed them to try to sort things out, so quorum wasn’t a problem.
Soon it was time for dinner, though, and so the students went into recess again. When they came back, the students who had walked out — some of whom were, uncomfortably, from the Congress’s host campus — were still discussing the situation among themselves. An informal decision was reached by USSA leadership to see if some accommodation could be reached.
Discussions continued, in various configurations. Some of those who walked out met with USSA officers. Others met with sponsors of the SSA proposal. Meetings were held, formal and informal. And the non-protesting majority of the plenary just hung out and waited.
It was really quite extraordinary. The walkout had been small, and the position of the Congress majority had been clear and decisive. There was very little information available about what was being discussed, or what was likely to result. And yet the students just hung out, trusting the process, more than willing to cool their heels in the hope that some sort of consensus would emerge that would allow everyone to go forward as friends and allies.
In the end, they waited for more than six hours.
They chatted. They read the upcoming resolutions. They worked on their presentations for their various already-submitted proposals, and drafted new ones. They taught each other games. They hooked up the arena’s sound system to YouTube and taught each other line dances. A LOT of line dances.
And then, shortly before midnight, the walkers-out returned. A few short speeches were made, and everyone got back to work. The SSA amendment was re-introduced, with a few proposed changes. Two were approved easily, but a third — which would have given every state with a member campus its own board seat — was rejected decisively.
At that, one of the campuses which had walked out before walked out again. A couple of people urged them to stay, but most of the delegates seemed willing to let them make their own decision. They weren’t happy to see them go, but they weren’t going to chase them, either. They’d made their case, the body had considered their proposals, and if the compromise that had been arrived at wasn’t a compromise they could live with, then so be it. After the walkout, the SSA amendment passed a second and final time.
The plenary kept going after that, until something like 3:30 in the morning. (They’d have likely kept at it for longer, but the university told USSA that they had to leave the building by four.) And then, as before, the most startling fact of the gathering was its lack of ill-feeling.
This was a group which had gathered at nine in the morning, ready to work. It had faced delay after delay — by the time the plenary shut down for the night, it had worked for a total of eight hours, and waited to work for a total of ten and a half. And yet there was almost no grumpiness during the waits, almost no snippiness during the debates. Folks were there to work, there to work together, and so that’s what they did.
Next up: Plenary, Day Two.