Young voters within higher education institutions are forming new chapters a part of the national Young Democratic Socialists of America to collaborate with peers on how to impact their communities and campuses.
I believe the formation of groups with varying backgrounds and beliefs allows campuses to learn from each other and move forward. Higher education institutions are at their best when ideas are challenged and re-evaluation takes place. Fresh ideas and perspectives allow universities like ACU and others to flourish rather than sticking with the same systems and processes. YDSA and other student organizations across ACU and the country offer students opportunities to have their voices heard.
One of the founding members of ACU’s chapter is Hansen Penya, senior sociology major from Abilene, who helped to create the group in the spring of the 2022 school year. YDSA and other organizations like it believe in equality of voices with YDSA specifically working to improve the lives of working people. Penya, alongside Ben Mercer, junior social work major from Harker Heights, collaborated to found the first-ever democratic socialist organization at ACU.
ACU’s chapter is actively working to be a part of the national organization comprised of 104 chapters. The national organization started slow with 25 chapters in 2016 up to 84 in 2019 and now 104 in 2023. Universities around the country have been discussing how to adequately represent more radical ideas and allow students freedom of speech and expression within the limitations of the First Amendment. Penya and others like him believe in the power of free thought on higher education campuses to better the minds and ideals of others and to create new spaces for people to express themselves.
Through this Q&A with Penya, you will hear more of why it is important for diverse voices to be heard across campuses, like ACU, and how YDSA will continue to operate.
Mullins: How did the ACU YDSA chapter come to life? What’s your role and who is the faculty sponsor?
Penya: In my sophomore year, I was approached by Ben Mercer and he had the intent to start a chapter of YDSA, so when he came to me asking if I wanted to help start that chapter at ACU, I immediately said yes. We quickly started facing some negative backlash from higher-ups on campus mainly because they thought we were an activist organization. They thought “activism” had a negative connotation and that any organizations that call for activism aren’t permitted. So there was a discussion and, eventually, the organization was approved by Student Life and then by Dr. Schubert. We are the only organization that has gone to the Office of the President and signed off and permitted to be on campus because of his approval.
Mullins: What’s the biggest difference between democratic socialism and a social democracy?
Penya: Democratic socialism is one of the ways by which socialism can come about. There are people who would classify themselves as libertarian socialists or who believe in a form of communism also rooted in anarchism, which is a really interesting concept. The difference between socialism, democratic socialism, and something like a social democracy is there are no countries in the world right now operating under a socialist economy. Rather, there are social democracies. So countries like Sweden, Finland, and any of the European states that have a robust social safety net would be considered social democracies that are still rooted in capitalism and are rooted in a capitalist organization of the economy but have a pretty robust state of support for social needs like health care and education. No countries operate under a socialist organization of the economy and, again, social democracy is rooted in a capitalist organization economy which is the primary difference. Socialism calls for the ending of capitalism as an economic organization and calls for the workers to be the ones who own the capital and the means of production rather than having it be separated into a hierarchical structure as we have in capitalism.
Mullins: What’s the biggest misconception of YDSA?
Penya: I believe the biggest misconception people have of democratic socialism is that everyone who subscribes to this way of thought is an extremely politically left social justice warrior. We’re seen as people who are crying in every comment section of conservative thought and making ourselves out to be a victim and that we’re evil and not Christians. That’s just not true and is probably the biggest misconception I would say is faced by people who fall into this political group.
Mullins: How would you respond to other political groups on campus?
Penya: I’m glad that ACU allows for different opinions to be voiced. We should be respectful of other people and recognize, as humans, we have rights, and there are some forms of dignity that are essential to living a way of life, especially in a Christian institution that seeks to follow Jesus’ messages.
Mullins: What do you want people to know about YDSA?
Penya: Our primary concern is with making our community, city and country as fair and just as it can be to the most amount of people possible. The end goal is for everyone to be able to have their basic needs met and for them to live comfortably. Our message and our values genuinely align with what we hear from Jesus in the New Testament.
Post Q+A analysis: After this interview, I believe it is immensely valuable to have different perspectives and voices across higher education institutions, especially private institutions. Within institutions, like ACU and other private Christian universities, it is important to hold conversations with others of differing beliefs and do our best to meet them where they are and come to a common ground. Despite facing backlash for its initial chapter development, Dr. Schubert signed off on the group once conversations took place to rename the wording of the group. Because of these facts, YDSA worked and fought to be formed and took the appropriate steps to be formed.
YDSA is doing its best to form communities of ACU students to have conversations about political and non-political topics they face each and every day. Penya even acknowledges in his responses there are those on campus who have different beliefs, yet he feels compelled to do his best to understand and meet them where they are. As a student on a private Christian campus, I believe it is imperative we do our best to listen to those who differ from us in opinion rather than being closed minded. We are all better for listening to those with varying opinions. That’s how we make each other better.