On April 8, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dropped out of the presidential race. Now, Penn for Bernie will not disband, but become a new, progressive political group on campus known as Penn Justice Democrats.
The group hopes to diversify what it feels is a dominant pre-professional atmosphere on campus by fostering electoral engagement and progressive activism.
“We're going to be an independent, progressive group with the mission of electing populist, left-wing candidates at the local, state, and national levels, while also promoting progressive causes on campus,” Penn for Bernie Co-director and College sophomore Amira Chowdhury said.
Although its vision aligns with that of the political action committee Justice Democrats, Penn Justice Democrats is neither affiliated with the group as an official chapter organization, nor directly affiliated with the national Democratic party.
Chowdhury said Penn Justice Democrats hopes to be "divorced" from centrist and pre-professional pursuits she believes many Penn political and policy-oriented student groups encourage. She classified these pursuits as being involved with resume-boosting activities to solely prepare for related professions that do not have a vested interest in the cause of working people and marginalized communities.
Penn for Bernie Outreach Director and College junior Emily Liu said the club will not have lengthy elections or selective application interviews that many on-campus clubs host.
"This is a club where, if you really believe in the causes, and you want to help make some progressive change in the world, we're happy to have you," she said.
The group said it will champion working-class issues through activism and movement politics that may not always align with Democratic policies.
"We're not going to necessarily support candidates just because they have a 'D' next to their name," Penn for Bernie Co-director and College sophomore Jack Cahill said. "They actually have to be willing to fight for socioeconomic justice, which includes populist left-wing progressive policies, so we do have a higher standard in terms of who we support."
After Sanders ended his presidential campaign, Penn for Bernie board members chose three possible ways to establish a new, on-campus space for the progressive movement. The group held a virtual election on April 24 to gauge their members’ interests in becoming a “Penn Justice Democrats” group, a Penn Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, or an Our Revolution chapter, a national progressive group founded in 2016 after Sanders' first presidential campaign ended.
The group’s board members virtually spoke with a Youth DSA national representative and researched Our Revolution before conducting the club-wide vote.
Sixty-four percent of Penn for Bernie members, including incoming students in the Class of 2024 who recently joined, ultimately voted for Penn Justice Democrats. Two-thirds of the remaining 36% were cast in favor of a Penn Youth DSA chapter, with the rest choosing an on-campus Our Revolution chapter. Nearly two dozen of the group's approximately 160-person base voted, some in a virtual election via Zoom and others through absentee forms.
“If we transitioned into a Youth DSA, we would have had to follow some sort of a national framework that they have created for students,” Chowdhury said. “We created our framework and created our constitution. We have our own agenda, and we are not dictated in any sort of fashion.”
Chowdhury believes many of the group members also chose Penn Justice Democrats because the name encompasses those who supported progressive Democratic candidates like Warren, but do not label themselves as "socialist." Members were also afraid that a "Democratic Socialist" label would be less appealing to many students at Penn, a university they regard as "neoliberal," with a "more professional, corporate focus," Cahill added.
Penn Justice Democrats also hopes to add to Penn’s political and ideological diversity.
“While I consider a lot of Penn Dems people to be friends and very admirable, I don't think that Penn currently has a core, active, comprehensive left-wing organization that really couples both electoral and non-electoral organizing for individuals who might feel alienated by the sort of pre-professional, neoliberal sphere,” Cahill said.
The new group will support the progressive policies aligned with Sanders’ 2020 campaign platform and with the national Justice Democrats organization, such as Medicare for All and Green New Deal initiatives.
Cahill emphasized, however, that the group will not endorse a candidate whose campaign takes "corporate money" and does "fundraisers with Wall Street," instead of being primarily grassroots-driven.
The group will broaden its coalition with other initiatives at Penn it believes are left-leaning and advocate for labor rights of the working class, such as Fossil Free Penn and the Student Labor Action Project.
Penn Justice Democrats' membership will carry over from Penn for Bernie, whose current board leadership is largely expected to remain. Structural changes in future leadership and elections are still being discussed.
Many former Penn for Bernie student groups across the nation have converted into Youth DSA and Our Revolution on-campus chapters. Northeastern University and Vanderbilt University's Bernie groups have converted into Youth DSA chapters, while the University of Virginia's group became ‘Our Revolution UVA’.
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