On Jan. 18th, 2021, Yale’s chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) introduced an equity initiative titled the Just COVID Plan. The YDSA is the youth division of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in the United States, which was founded in 1982 as a result of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) and the New American Movement (NAM) merging. The group believes in equitably distributing wealth and terminating exploitation. Today, it has over 85,000 members and chapters in all 50 states.
The three demands outlined in the Yale YDSA’s plan highlight the need for adjusted financial aid packages, expanded healthcare coverage, and more accessible mental health care. The petition reminds Yale of its heightened responsibility to its marginalized students, such as those who identify as first-generation, low-income, and/or undocumented, to name a few.
The first demand urges the 2021-22 financial aid application process to account for financial burdens related to COVID-19. Because the pandemic continues to disproportionately affect lower- and middle-class families, forms from 2019 do not accurately reflect current financial situations; the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) only asks for household income and tax information of the prior-prior year—in this case, 2019. Caroline Reed, SC ’24, co-chair of Yale YDSA’s Campaign Committee, underscored, “So many students’ situations are not the same as they were two years ago.” Given this reality, YDSA believes that the application should leave space for students to submit additional documents in order to paint an up-to-date picture for financial aid officers.
The second demand pressures Yale to offer healthcare coverage to all students, regardless of enrollment status or learning location. Oren Schweitzer MC ‘23, co-chair of Yale YDSA, remarked that many Yale students lack healthcare because the University hasn’t extended its coverage to unenrolled and remote students. The Just COVID plan asks the university to implement both short- and long-term solutions: allow students who are remote and/or on leaves of absence to purchase the domestic Approved Academic Travel Rider plan, and going forward, provide students with a Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) option, which would would allow them to obtain nationwide healthcare coverage. These plans should be subsidized depending on individuals’ financial need, which can only be accurately accounted for if the first demand is met.
The final demand requires that students be able to both answer mental health intake questionnaires and schedule appointments with Yale Mental Health and Counseling through MyChart. Schweitzer hopes that this will make the scheduling process “less stressful” and more accessible. “People’s time would not be wasted if everything was done on one system,” Reed added. The current process of scheduling intake appointments is particularly time consuming; it requires calling Yale Mental Health & Counseling (MHC) to schedule this mental health screening. Then, students must wait several weeks to meet with a provider.
Schweitzer explained how the group developed the Just COVID Plan: “Over the summer, the national YDSA passed a student and worker relief campaign, which called on chapters of YDSA at various college campuses to run local pressure campaigns.” Following a general meeting, Yale YDSA formed a campaign committee to interview students on various issues they deemed important.
Reed also elaborated on the data collection process used for the campaign. “We had a survey with multiple choice questions, where people could choose from 0-10 how important certain issues were to them, like the YPD, environmentalism, healthcare, mental health, workload, internet access, and free response questions,” Reed said. The group, for the most part, gathered answers through one-on-one conversations over Zoom and by phone, although Yale YDSA also published the survey on social media in search of other perspectives. “Once we had gotten a good number of answers, I think we had about 130, we analyzed the results and found out that the most important things to people were healthcare, mental health, and financial aid, so we developed our demands accordingly,” Reed continued. The interview process began in late September and took about a month to complete.
For the rest of the fall semester, Schweitzer said, Yale YDSA created graphics, teamed up with coalition partners, and finalized the petition. “Our theory of change is that only masses of people organizing together can win the demands that we want. Winnability is a very important thing, and as a newer organization, we wanted to tackle something we thought would be achievable.”
YDSA itself is disproportionately composed of many members of the communities they hope their demands will benefit. Reed noted, “Class-wise, there’s not a lot of wealthy students in YDSA because the principles of democratic socialism abhor large amounts of wealth. A lot of students are working class.” Schweitzer compared the national DSA’s membership with that of Yale YDSA. “In terms of race, DSA at large is a predominantly white organization, and I think that’s a huge problem. At Yale, I feel that our YDSA group is doing better than the national YDSA movement in terms of diversity.”
As for next steps, Yale YDSA’s official campaign launch is scheduled for this Friday, February 19th. The group will release their plans to the public and conduct outreach. “We have several partner organizations, so we’re reaching out to their membership as well,” Reed explained. “Once we have a good number of signatures on [the Just COVID Plan], the next step is to take it to administration, if they haven’t already caught on.”
As the campaign gains traction, Yale YDSA will transition into escalating their push for Yale to adopt their demands. Although the group has not yet discussed possible tactics, Schweitzer mentioned a few ideas he felt would be effective, such as email templates addressing administrators and faculty that are widely circulated among students. “What matters is that in each stage along the way, we’re increasing the amount of people participating,” Schweitzer said. “Even though right now we have around 140 signatures, we know that 140 people demanding something isn’t going to make the administration give us [what] we want.”
YDSA arrived at the final version of their demands through a process of deliberation. According to Schweitzer, the group narrowed their ideas down to three different campaign proposals prior to arriving at the final Just COVID Plan. “There was lots of debating,” Reed added. The three potential campaign proposals were a combined COVID-19 and financial aid plan, healthcare for students off campus, and a mental health plan. The published Just COVID Plan was a mixture of these initial ideas. “But we collectively decided in the end that the demands that we settled on for our COVID plan were the most widely and deeply felt by the student body.”
YDSA consistently worked to represent a diverse coalition of students in their plan, but Schweitzer noted that this wasn’t always easy. In particular, the survey process had to be extended because not enough people responded. “Unfortunately, due to COVID, it was probably more self-selecting in terms of the respondents than we would’ve wanted because we were reaching out in our own social networks. Rather than in an ideal, non-COVID situation, we would’ve been tabling on campus and talking to people in dining halls and stuff, so that we would’ve broken out of our social networks.”
Despite the restrictions to campaigning caused by COVID-19, Yale YDSA’s mission continues to resonate deeply with both Schweitzer and Reed’s personal values, motivating them to do all they can to make its goals come to fruition.
“I was part of DSA before I got to Yale, so I’ve been a leftist and democratic socialist, or farther left from that, for a while,” Reed explained. “The reason I joined was that I was so disillusioned with the promises of liberalism. The kind of homogeneity of electoral politics really got to me, especially when Bernie started to run for president. We saw that this person who had good ideas for the working class and could be helping people out was totally swept aside because his opponents had these moneyed interests behind them.” She felt that joining the Yale YDSA chapter when she arrived on campus was the natural course of action based on her personal convictions. When joining Yale YDSA at the beginning of this school year, Reed noticed (and especially appreciated) that Yale’s chapter was more motivated to take action than the YDSA group in her hometown.
Schweitzer shared a similar story. In the summer before his senior year of high school, he served as a volunteer organizer for Julia Salazar’s campaign for the New York State Senate. “Salazar was a socialist running an insurgent campaign against an established democratic incumbent. So I got involved with DSA through that campaign.” As a high school senior, Schweitzer became involved with New York University’s YDSA, attending their meetings for a year. When he arrived at Yale, he learned that there had previously been a YDSA on campus, but it was largely dissolved. As a first year, he worked with a few other students to help revive the chapter. Furthermore, Yale YDSA and Students for Bernie teamed up last year; after the Bernie campaign concluded, the two groups combined, increasing YDSA’s membership significantly.
YDSA continues to channel its energy into action on the national stage. In addition to the Just COVID Plan, the group is currently working on the DSA campaign to push President Biden to cancel student debt. Much of Yale YDSA’s membership has signed the petition, and members regularly participate in national phone banks.
The nature of Yale YDSA’s future initiatives is still uncertain. “It’s definitely gonna depend a lot on how this campaign is received by the administration and the rest of the student body, and then also what next year looks like—what the problems are that working-class students deal with,” Reed noted.
Belonging to YDSA has been a valuable educational experience for both Reed and Schweitzer. Said Reed, “I’ve realized a lot about, in an abstract sense, what can be won by leveraging the power of the multitudes, and the classic example is a workers’ strike or labor union.” Schweitzer echoed a similar sentiment. “Change doesn’t happen if someone has a good idea. If that’s how change occurred, then we’d live in a socialist utopia by now. We can only win these demands if we can leverage mass labor strikes, if we’re able to independently organize electoral campaigns independent from the capitalist powers in charge of the Democratic and Republican parties. So, combining those along with community organizing to win the change we need. Not just good ideas. I wish it was that easy.”
Those who are interested in joining the Just COVID plan movement can sign Yale YDSA’s petition and learn more here. Yale YDSA—along with Yale Health Equity Initiative (YHEI), Disability Empowerment for Yale (DEFY), Yale Endowment Justice Coalition (EJC), Asian American Students Alliance (AASA), and Students Unite Now (SUN)—will host the official COVID Response Campaign Launch at 6:30 p.m. ET on Feb. 19th, 2020. Register here to attend.