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Penn YDSA hopes to engage members of the Penn community in activism surrounding Democratic Socialist thought and activism. (Artwork by Connor Hsu)

After Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) suspended his presidential campaign in April, Penn for Bernie transformed into a progressive political on-campus group known as Penn Justice Democrats. One month later, some former Penn for Bernie members are beginning their own campus chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America. 

The newly-formed YDSA chapter aims to engage members of the Penn community in activism for Democratic Socialist policies, such as providing universal single-payer healthcare, canceling nationwide student debt, and providing tuition-free undergraduate public education, which Sanders championed during his campaign. 

Instead of remaining in Penn Justice Democrats, the former Penn for Bernie members decided to form a separate group for people who specifically identify with the Democratic Socialist philosophy, rather than only with progressive candidates within the Democratic Party. 

Even though the former Penn for Bernie coalition has divided into two separate groups, rising College sophomore and Penn YDSA executive board member Thomas Fanelli said Penn YDSA is in full support of Penn Justice Democrats, and looks forward to collaborating with them. 

Penn Justice Democrats board member and rising College junior Tara Yazdan Panah said Penn Justice Democrats has members that are planning to remain in the group, but also be active in Penn YDSA. She added that Penn YDSA will be part of a coalition of leftist campus organizations Penn Justice Democrats is creating.

After Sanders dropped out of the race, Penn for Bernie members voted on turning their organization into Penn Justice Democrats, Penn YDSA, or an Our Revolution chapter, which is a national progressive group founded in 2016 after Sanders' first presidential campaign ended. The proposed option of transitioning into Penn Justice Democrats won 64% of the vote, with Penn YDSA winning two-thirds of the remaining 36% of the vote. 

Shortly after Penn for Bernie's transition to Penn Justice Democrats in late April, four undergraduate students organized the Penn YDSA group in early May. 

Penn YDSA is part of the national YDSA organization ⁠— a section of the Democratic Socialists of America ⁠organization — which has chapters on over 100 college campuses across the nation. 

Rising College junior and Penn YDSA executive board member Brendan Lui said that while the organization is informed by the agenda of the national YDSA organization, the campus group intends to support progressive socialist policies both in West Philadelphia and at the state level. 

Leaders host bi-weekly meetings and connect with members and interested students through the organization’s growing social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. 

Currently, Penn YDSA is focused on extending its full support to the Black Lives Matter movement and combating police brutality in America. After joining Facebook on June 6, Penn YDSA posted resources on "anti-racist, safe, and effective protesting and social media practices" the following day. The group also shared a resource guide on defunding the Philadelphia Police Department, which is largely understood to mean reallocating police funding to other community resources.

Although much about the upcoming fall semester remains uncertain, Fanelli said the board is currently planning a number of politically-focused educational initiatives. One initiative the group is considering is providing members with reading lists and creating reading groups of foundational socialist thinkers from the 18th and 19th centuries. 

These reading groups are intended to familiarize members with socialist philosophy beyond knowledge about current Democratic socialist candidates, Fanelli said.

While students are familiar with local and national Democratic Socialist candidates, many don’t understand the policies and proposals within the larger political movement, Lui said.

"We feel it necessary to have a discussion within our club about what exactly and why we need to enact structural change in our economic and social system that has, for so long, failed so many people in our country, especially minority groups," Lui said.

Rising College junior and Penn YDSA Co-director Sarah Shaiman said the group hopes to expand upon many of the ideas that Sanders championed during his presidential campaign, such as the Green New Deal. 

“We saw how so many members rallied around Bernie Sanders and his policies, like free College for All and Medicare for All, but the movement doesn’t end with Bernie," Shaiman said. “We can’t always be looking to some political idol. We can be the change, we can be the movement.” 

Neither Penn Justice Democrats nor Penn YDSA are affiliated with the national Democratic Party.

Fanelli said he hopes students will get involved with Penn YDSA despite pre-existing political stigma surrounding socialism.

A 2019 poll conducted by Monmouth University found that 57% of voters believe socialism is incompatible with American values, and 42% of voters have a negative view of socialism.

“I think a lot of people hear the Socialist label and get scared or turned off by it, but I’m motivated by fighting for a better future, like fighting for a Green New Deal to make sure we have a safe planet to live on, or restructuring campaign election finance, because it has become so corrupt these days,” Fanelli said. “This gives us a chance to fight for things that the people want. The movement can be for everyone’s benefit.” 

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