Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why I’m Fighting for a Free and Open Web

This is my introductory blog post for the Student Net Alliance, where I work as the Director of Student Outreach. In this post, I articulate my thoughts on the Internet, its potential and its implications, and why it's time to advocate for sensible Web policies.

Like countless other digital natives, I grew up with the Web and now care deeply about the future of the Internet. A few months ago, I joined the Student Net Alliance, a blooming network of students working to protect their rights and interests online. I’m really excited to advocate for a free and open Web, not only because it allows people to communicate instantly, globally, and virtually costlessly, but also because its fate is ultimately bound to that of liberal democracy.  

Enhancing Global Communication

As its name suggests, the World Wide Web enables people to communicate across borders. In great part due to its decentralized ethos, the Web allows for correspondence and conversation to transcend geography and national boundaries. This has always been important to me because I’m a lifelong foreigner: born in Europe, raised in Africa, studying in America. Each of my immediate family members lives in a different country, which makes keeping in touch more difficult, and often more expensive. Without the Internet, there’s a good chance I couldn’t afford talking to my loved ones on a regular basis.

The Internet’s global reach empowers people to build meaningful relationships with others across the world. This allows us to build a more diverse network of contacts and collaborators, which promotes the values of inclusivity and accessibility. Thanks to the Web, people can not only stay up to date with what is happening elsewhere in the world, but can also get involved and make a difference, regardless of geographical distance.

It’s important to note that while the Web has in many ways enhanced people’s opportunities for free speech, it has also set the stage for an unsettling erosion of the right to privacy. Through their sweeping mass surveillance programs, countries such as the United States and France collect data and records of people communicating through the Internet, which undeniably violates reasonable expectations of privacy and confidentiality. This is a serious and unprecedented threat to one of the most fundamental rights of liberal democracies. In fact, the right to privacy isn’t unique to democracies, it’s straight-up a human right:
“Article 15: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948)

Empowerment through Education

Through this enhanced communication, what we now know as the Internet has emerged as an invaluable resource for education at every level: general knowledge, academic works, how-to tutorials, current issues, personal advice. The list goes on.

Wikipedia has changed the world of education by providing a thorough and mostly reliable resource for research of all kinds. The Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit in charge of operating Wikipedia and its sister sites, makes the content of its spaces available under Creative Commons, and the software running their sites is open-source, meaning anyone is free to build and host their own wikis (such as this Pokémon-specific wiki or this site on US elections). This not only helps people access the information they need, but empowers them to use the information as they wish, and build on the shoulders of giants.

The Internet is the printing press of our generation. For the first time in human history, something of value — media — can be copied and pasted at virtually no cost. Where transcribing media used to be quite the hassle (e.g. printing CD’s, shipping books across the world, going to the store to pay for a DVD), the Internet allows the free, voluntary, and decentralized sharing of media, from YouTube videos to your college textbooks. The Internet makes consuming media more free: it cuts costs by bypassing now-obsolete gatekeepers. For better or for worse, the Web has launched us into an era of media abundance, where both consuming and producing speech is free.

Naturally, the gatekeepers who prospered off of pre-Web media industry are noticeably less excited about this development. In fact, the Internet has been under siege by media corporations (Hollywood film studios, record labels, book publishers) who not only lobby aggressively for liberticidal Net policies like SOPA, PIPA, and CISPA, but also routinely engage in active censorship through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). I believe the benefits to society created by this Web Renaissance far outweigh the loss of profits by outdated media conglomerates: companies should adapt to their environments, not vice-versa.

For more on the ongoing death of the copyright-industrial complex, I highly recommend Rick Falkvinge.

Democracy, Deliberation, and Social Action

In empowering people to communicate and learn more freely, the Web provides significant support for individual liberties, such as free speech and self-education. The Internet’s freedom-friendly nature has promising implications for the democratic process, particularly when it is combined with the medium’s ethos of decentralization.

During the early decades of the United States’ history, newspapers and pamphlets were crucial to the development of American democracy. Newspapers not only allowed people to keep up with recent current events, but also created a space on which people could to discuss them. For instance, by sending letters to the editor, one could participate in societal discussions and play a more active role in the process of democratic deliberation.

Much like those newspapers, the Internet creates a space in which humans can work together to share information and deliberate on community decisions, including political ones. This global brain-space makes it possible for people to free up their mind from brute memorization; for instance, many of us are outsourcing the task of remembering friends’ birthdays to Facebook. Similarly, the Internet frees us from various aspects of political organizing that once were considered necessary.

For example: teleconferencing makes face-to-face meetings easier than ever, forums and e-mail lists open the door to unlimited mobile correspondence, and platforms such as Google Drive make it possible for multiple team members to work on the same document at the same time. And to think that, only a few decades ago, none of those things could be done without exceptional supply of both wealth and free time; today, these processes are being outsourced to free calendars and mobile apps which allow us to collaborate like never before. By connecting with each other, Internet users can instantly start or join projects and coordinate group activities, be it to promote student advocacy groups or to organize flash mobs.

These improvements in human communications can strengthen the agency of most organizations, but have a particularly strong impact on communities suffering from censorship, such as opposition movements and advocacy groups. Due to its decentralized nature, the Web allows for information to flow around the world while easily evading attempts at censorship. By breaking down these walls of censorship, which have too often hindered grassroots social movements, the Internet makes it possible for social action to persist and resist state-sanctioned censorship efforts. Thanks to the Web, social movements can more effectively rival the influence of governments on their people, and thus contribute to the democratic process.

In his 1996 book Modernity at Large, Arjun Appadurai writes about the intricate web of public spheres made possible by electronic communication and the implications of those possibilities. He claims that the patterns of difference, dissent, and diversity enabled by the Web now rival with governments’ influence over people and culture. According to Appadurai, governing institutions such as nation-states are still negotiating their place vis-à-vis the public spheres made possible through the Internet. Appadurai predicts these public spheres bring about a dramatic change in the way the nation-state operates, and that they “are the crucibles of a postnational political order” (p. 22). He concludes that “in the longer run, free of the constraints of the nation form, we may find that cultural freedom and sustainable justice in the world do not presuppose the uniform and general existence of the nation-state. This unsettling possibility could be the most exciting dividend of living in modernity at large” (p. 23).

The Web’s user-generated democratic platform opens new avenues to counterbalance acts of authoritarian governance, and this certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by governments and world leaders. By immunizing courageous journalism to censorship, the Internet serves as a hivemind-powered watchdog. For instance, in Mexico and the United States, where drug cartels suppress unsympathetic journalism via violence and intimidation, citizen journalists are resisting oppression using anonymous Internet access. This leveling of the playing field between between dissenting citizens and their governments is the precise reason why some nation-states (and similar structures) are so eager to restrict online speech. In other words, the Web brings power to the people and threatens autocratic leadership, which begs the question: Why would liberal democracies want to neutralize the Web in the first place?

Unfortunately, governments are involved not only in efforts to neutralize the emancipatory potential of the Internet, but also in complex and well-funded secret operations aimed to use the Internet as a weapon against people. As the Snowden revelations continue to unfold, we learn more about the National Security Agency (NSA) and its Orwellian crusade to document and monitor our lives online, including manipulation efforts on social media platforms and secretly using the Heartbleed bug for years to spy on Internet users (which actually reduced national security, and it’s kind of the NSA’s one job). In the United States, law enforcement agencies like the DEA are known to use information collected by mass surveillance programs; this violates not only the human right of privacy but the constitutionally protected right to a fair trial.

Countries who engage in such violations of human rights, including the United States and France, cannot both promote the ideals of liberal democracies and continue engaging in mass surveillance of online communications. For the first time in recent history, world leaders are faced with a technology that threatens to fundamentally undermine their legitimacy, power, and authority. I believe the way in which nation-states respond to the growing challenges of governing a freely deliberative populace will determine the future of liberal democracies in the 21st century. Specifically, I predict government actions aiming to suppress Web-enhanced social action are bound to fail, as was the case during the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, democracies that embrace and adapt to today’s changing media environment (rather than react against it) should reveal themselves more competent at meeting the challenges of tomorrow.

If liberal democracies want to persist in the digital age, they must support the Free Web. Anything short of this not only undermines these nation-states’ credibility when it comes to supporting human rights, but also leads them one step closer to obsolescence.

Conclusion

I’ve grown very concerned about American intelligence agencies, along with their European and Australasian counterparts, working to use the Internet to violate people’s rights in pursuit of their agendas, which they have done behind closed doors, without public review.

Before we knew it, what started as a beautiful tool for human communication had been coopted into yet another weapon of political domination. While this has led some to declare the end of the Internet, something tells me that this moment is merely the beginning of it all, that the Free Web will overcome, and that you and I have a role to play in making it happen.

This is why I’m fighting for a free and open Web. Find out how you can do the same at www.StudentNetAlliance.org.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

May 2014 Recap, Part 2: PSU Student Elections

A few weeks ago, I wrote a quick post explaining how I was running as a candidate for ASPSU, Portland State University’s student government. Now that the elections are over, I feel it’s a good time for an update on my part. In the spirit of keeping this post drama-free, I will keep certain details out of this update. If appropriate, I’ll cover those details in an upcoming post.

For a good part of Spring term, I have been reaching out to PSU students as a candidate for student government. Specifically, I’ve been running for a seat on the Student Fee Committee (SFC), which makes decisions on how the student fee is spent by the University. I did so under the banner of Students for a Better Tomorrow Today, a slate of 21 candidates running on a common platform of inclusivity and public safety.

Our campaign was a huge success: in every category, the student body elected all candidates running with Students for a Better Tomorrow Today. Thanks to the support of PSU students, I am now a freshly-elected member of the SFC, and I am both humbled and excited to represent them within the University’s student government. I’m beyond thankful for the feedback and support I received from the PSU community, and I look forward to serving the student body in the months to come.

In reflecting over these past few weeks, I’ll focus on three facets of the election: (1) the campaign platform promoted by Students for a Better Tomorrow Today, (2) our candidates’ performance at the debates, and (3) my role as the slate’s field director.

Students for a Better Tomorrow Today 

Early in the campaign process, Students for a Better Tomorrow Today released its official platform to inform the public of what its candidates planned to do should they be elected to their position. Our candidates took bold stances on many issues that affect PSU students and most of these can be divided among two broad themes: improving campus public safety and including the voice of Portland State’s underrepresented communities.


Campus Public Safety

Improving campus safety was one of the main themes of the campaign. Our slate advocated for some common-sense reforms such as increasing lighting at the PSU campus and expanding the staff of the Campus Public Safety Office (CPSO). Our platform also included specific positions on public safety issues.

One of these was implementing comprehensive 911 Good Samaritan Policies at Portland State, which would encourage students to contact authorities in emergencies involving drugs or alcohol. Good Samaritan Policies improve public safety not only by helping prevent overdose deaths, but also by supporting students who report cases of sexual violence on-campus.

Another part of our public safety platform was to oppose the proposed plan for an armed police force at Portland State University, which is something I wrote about before. Last November, the Presidential Task Force on Public Safety released its final report which makes the case for replacing CPSO by a Campus Police Department whose officers would be deputized and would have the same privileges as police officers. This includes the use of deadly force.


Representing the overwhelming majority of students who oppose this, our candidates spoke out publicly against the proposed reforms and pointed to other strategies through which PSU could improve public safety, such as installing more emergency phones around campus and clarifying CPSO’s relationship with Portland Police Bureau.

Underrepresented Students

Another key theme of our platform was to give a voice to students, particularly those who do not benefit from adequate representation at the University or require additional support in their education. Students for a Better Tomorrow Today expressed their dedication to the University’s resource centers, including the Women Resource Center, the Queer Resource Center, and the Disability Resource Center. Throughout the campaign, we have had the opportunity to publicly address issues pertaining to the many overlapping communities which could use additional support and representation at PSU, such as international students, non-traditional students, and students living in poverty or debt.

International students are a huge part of campus life and were very engaged in this year’s student election. In fact, the make-up of our slate is a good example of this: in addition to the United States, our candidates represented at least seven countries, including India, Ukraine, Kuwait, and — you guessed it — France. Among the issues we advocated for was setting up an emergency fund for international students which could allow them to continue their studies when exceptional circumstances jeopardize their enrollment at PSU or their immigration status. To address the issue of language gaps, we have been calling for student government materials to be made available in other languages, including multilingual ballots for next year’s election.

So-called “non-traditional” students were also a focus of discussion. Candidates running with Students for a Better Tomorrow Today pointed out the value of on-campus resources such as the Childcare Center, which provides crucial support to students with children. Additionally, it was pointed out that student government could do more to include non-traditional students, particularly older students who have skills and experience that could be put towards advocating for students’ interests.


Many students at PSU also suffer from a lack of financial security. Considering the pace at which tuition has increased in the past few years, students are increasingly at risk of going broke, and I personally know of several students who struggle with homelessness while still attending classes at PSU. With these students in mind, Students for a Better Tomorrow Today organized a food drive for the Food Pantry and highlighted the importance of including non-food necessities in its inventory.

Campaign Highlights

Portland State hosted three debates as a part of this election: one for Senate candidates, one for SFC candidates, and another for the presidential tickets. These events were great opportunities for public discussion about the issues that affect students and allowed everyone to hear directly from candidates.

Senate Debate: Greta Gibbens

The Senate debate was my favorite of the three events. We got to hear from over a dozen candidates, all of which showed strong qualifications and dedication. One candidate in particular, Greta Gibbens, demonstrated exceptional leadership in this debate by fearlessly answering tough questions and openly voicing students’ concerns with PSU policies.

I met Greta at the beginning of the academic year and she quickly got involved with Portland State SSDP. Greta is awesome to work with and she played an instrumental role in organizing our activities these past three terms, including our Just Say Know: MDMA event and the Good Samaritan Coalition campaign. On top of serving as chapter director for SSDP, she is now one of PSU’s brand new Senators. In fact, of all candidates, she received the second-highest number of votes, gathering 61% of the student vote.

Below is a 3-minute video compiling Greta’s answers during the Senate debate, followed by her quotes in the PSU Vanguard:

video

Greta’s awesomeness at the Senate debate did not go unnoticed. She was the first candidate quoted in the Vanguard’s coverage of the event and her statements undoubtedly set the tone for the way in which others have addressed related issues: 
SFC candidate Romain Bonilla asked candidates to address campus safety and the proposed arming of Campus Public Safety officers. All of the candidates who spoke on this issue openly opposed the deputization of CPSO officers.

“Every day here I talk to so many students who are concerned about their safety on campus,” said Students for a Better Tomorrow, Today candidate Greta Gibbens. “My first week [at PSU], my freshman inquiry mentor told me the buildings I shouldn’t go into, so I wouldn’t get raped,” she said. “This is an issue. I don’t think having more armed people on campus is a solution—especially when CPSO is still something so many people on campus here fear.”
The deputization of CPSO is one of the most cared-about issue on-campus, but too few students are willing to go public about how they feel about it. In answering this question head-on, Greta courageously raised students’ concerns and challenged the administrative consensus on the issue. This fearless leadership is one of many reasons why Greta was one of the most successful candidates in this election, and I am very proud to serve alongside her in the University’s student government!

SFC Debate: Romain Bonilla

Since I was running for a seat on the Student Fee Committee, I had a chance to speak at the SFC debate. I prepared a short introductory spiel but mostly improvised my answers to the questions since they were not known ahead of time. A video of one of my responses made it to the interwebs, so I figured I’d include it here with a homemade transcript.

video

[Transcript] I think when you're paying $10,000 a term for education, you're not just paying for academics. You could get that online. At PSU, we get a lot more than just classes. This very room couldn't be paid for if we just focused on academics. So as we're sitting here, the student fee and the rest of it goes towards us. What I want to say specifically is that... Why is [the student fee] essential beyond academics? The student fee could be spent on (and is currently spent on) providing support for students who need it. So, as it was mentioned, child care is totally essential since a lot of students here have children, and how are you supposed to go to class and actually learn things when you have your mind thinking about where your child is and if it's safe.
Having child care is definitely important, but [so is] every other resource we can provide to other students who are struggling. [Sonya Friedman] touched very clearly about people who are struggling with homelessness. I mean, this is no secret, this is Portland, Oregon. I'm not even from here, but I found out pretty early. So yeah, necessities like food, health services and counseling, and a food pantry where people can come and get what they need. And tampons in the food pantry, because women shouldn't have to pay for tampons when they have don't have money. So yeah, I'll leave you with this.

Campaign Field Director

On top of being a candidate with Students for a Better Tomorrow Today, I was designated by slate members as the campaign’s field director, which involved coordinating candidates and volunteers across campus to be a part of our grassroots campaign.

Throughout the three weeks of campaigning, I met with hundreds of community members to hear about the issues that matter to them. Most of them cared little about the election, but had some meaningful things to say about what was important to them as PSU students. To my surprise, many students had never heard of ASPSU and were excited to learn that PSU even had a student government to represent them. For better or for worse, a lot of the campaigning involved educating students on the election itself and how ASPSU could help promote their interests inside and outside the University.

SFC candidates Devon Backstrom and Gayathri Babu tabling in the Park Blocks.
That being said, we received a lot of useful feedback from students on how we could accomplish this. This input was key to helping our platform stay true to the interests of actual students, as opposed to those of an imagined “student body” which may be out-of-touch with reality. To do this, we circulated petitions to gauge students’ support for specific policies (e.g. Good Samaritan Policy); these received more signatures than we ever anticipated, and we found that our platform was overall well-received by students at PSU.

Since public safety is one of the main concerns at Portland State, I designed surveys to find out how students felt about different aspects of public safety, including their feelings towards the Campus Public Safety Office (CPSO) and their opinions about various ideas for campus safety reform (e.g. increasing number of officers, deputizing officers).

Fearlessly volunteering for Portland Parks and Recreations
Most importantly, the field director is tasked with making sure the campaign is visible. I collaborated daily with candidates and volunteers to coordinate everything from tabling and postering to food drives and lawn signs. On top of that, our slate went the extra mile by organizing a food drive for the University’s food pantry and volunteering with Portland Parks and Recreations. For these missions, I had the chance to work closely with competent and dedicated individuals, and it was their hard work and inspiration that led our campaign to success.

Michael Green and Marcus Sis help out at the Food Drive

On a more personal note, being a field director implied I coordinated fully-offline efforts, which was interesting seeing as a lot of my organizing experience is web-based. I learned a lot about in-person outreach through this campaign and it was heartwarming to see that our field efforts were noticed by the student body, who turned out in record numbers to support our candidates. It’s good to know that organizing skills acquired on the Internet can translate to an offline context, and I’m looking forward to putting those to good use in future campaign efforts.

Drama-Free? 

As I mentioned at the top of this post, I’ve kept the drama out of this update. As it turned out, running with ASPSU is not as simple as advertised, and serving within ASPSU appears even more complicated. If time allows, I’ll start cracking on a blog post covering some of the ASPSU-related issues encountered during the past two months [spoiler: it’s not pretty], but in the mean time, I’ll be catching up on sleep and long-overdue e-mails. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

May 2014 Recap, Part 1: SSDP Fun Times

These past few weeks have been quite the ride!

A lot of cool things have been going on in my life this month: hosting events with Portland State SSDP, working on political campaigns with several organizations, and running as a candidate for student government. (And let’s not forget, you know, attending university and stuff.)

I don’t even know if it’s possible to write a comprehensive update at this point, so I’ll just focus on three SSDP-related things: (1) our Earth Week event, Going Green , (2) speaking at this year’s Global Cannabis March, and (3) our Public Forum for the Good Samaritan Coalition. Enjoy!

Going Green: Hemp & Marijuana Law Reform

Roughly a month ago, Portland State SSDP planned Going Green: How Hemp Policies Affect the Earth & Its People, an Earth Week speaker series focusing on marijuana policies and environmental sustainability. We had the chance to hear from several expert speakers, including journalists, activists, and the leaders behind the seemingly innumerable Oregon marijuana legalization initiatives aiming to make the 2014 ballot.

Two of these experts (our keynote speakers) were Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian, who are the authors of the new book A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition. After a short reading of their chapter on industrial hemp, the authors shared what they had found out during their research and allowed us to pick their brains a bit.

We then got to hear from Oregon activists working on legalizing cannabis in 2014. Leo Townsell and Jersey Deutsch spoke on behalf of the Campaign for the Regulation and Restoration of Hemp alongside Anthony Johnson, who represented New Approach Oregon. The atmosphere between the speakers was friendly, and each got to update us on their campaign's strategies and opportunities for involvement, particularly when it comes to students.

Global Cannabis March: Legalization in Oregon and Beyond

On May 3, I was invited by Oregon NORML to speak at the Global Cannabis March, a reform-oriented event organized every year in 250+ cities across the globe.

Portland’s march was held at Pioneer Courthouse Square and had some very eloquent speakers, including U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Oregon’s forward-thinking congressman who has championed marijuana law reform at the federal level.

The speakers also included “Radical” Russ Belville, who hosts The Russ Belville Show on 420Radio.com, as well as the family of “Brave” Mykayla, an adorable 8 year-old girl who uses cannabis-based medicines in her fight against leukemia.

Due to intensifying rain, I kept my remarks to-the-point. I chose to focus on some of the broader lessons I’ve learned through getting involved in ending the War on Drugs, some of which were recorded in the short video below.

video
Transcript: And we've dehumanized them [drug users]. You've probably seen that image from the 1930s, Marijuana leads to Insanity, Murder, and Death! How many people here actually believe that marijuana causes people to murder people? Exactly. But we see these things happening and we see marijuana users being thrown in jail despite the fact that no one beats their wife because of marijuana. You see that happen for alcohol, but then again the important point is that not all alcohol users beat their wives either. Alcohol does not always lead to this sort of stuff either. The key lesson I've gotten from this is not only that people deserve the medicine that works for them, but beyond that, that people shouldn't be judged for the substances they use, but for the content of their character.

Watching myself after the fact, I'm tempted to think of how I could have conveyed these thoughts differently. That being said, I had a blast and I can't help but agree with the words that came out of my mouth. What's really exciting is that I have since heard from several people who attended the march with whom I'm hoping to work on patient advocacy at the campus and city levels.

Good Samaritan Coalition: Increasing Safety on College Campuses

Since February, I have been working with student leaders on the Good Samaritan Coalition: an umbrella group of student organizations working to promote the implementation of comprehensive 911 Good Samaritan Policies at Portland State University. After earning the support of our student government, ASPSU, our next step as a coalition was to host a public forum on the life-saving, safety-promoting implications of Good Samaritan Policies.

This Good Samaritan Public Forum took place on May 14 and included several powerful testimonies from student leaders involved in the coalition’s campaign. The event, which aimed at creating an open space for students to discuss these policies, was moderated by officers within Portland State SSDP and ASPSU and featured a panel of four guest speakers, each representing a different student group.

Greta Gibbens, who spoke on behalf of the American Association of University Women, described how Good Samaritan Policies improve public safety not just for overdose victims, but also for survivors and witnesses of sexual violence as well. Echoing Greta’s points was the fearless leader of PSU SAFER (Students Active For Ending Rape), Melinda Joy, who highlighted the importance of Good Samaritan Policies in developing comprehensive strategies to prevent sexual assault on-campus.

Panelists, left-to-right: Melinda Joy (SAFER), Greta Gibbens (AAUW), Christian Britschgi (YAL), Marcus Sis (College Dems).

The two other speakers on the panel represented politically-oriented student groups, evidencing the multi-partisan support for Good Samaritan Policies. The libertarian arguments were addressed by Christian Britschgi, who is the current President of Portland State’s Young Americans for Liberty. Marcus Sis, who leads College Democrats, represented a more liberal ideology and spoke of his efforts to implement medical amnesty policies at PSU and within the Democratic Party of Oregon.

To introduce and moderate the event, I teamed up with Stephanie Piel, an ASPSU Senator and co-director of Portland State SSDP. After I introduced medical amnesty policies and the Good Samaritan Coalition, Stephanie gave us an informative overview of her year-long efforts to promote the policy within the University’s student government and moderated the panel discussion.

Beyond the introduction, the event remained true to its interactive ambitions: audience members were engaged and felt free to interject their questions and comments, which were acknowledged in real-time. Although many in attendance already knew about Good Samaritan Policies, several people were relatively new to the concept and expressed clear enthusiasm.

The space we booked for the public forum consisted of a public area in the Student Union building, which made it more nerve-racking to get started, as many people in the room were not there for our event. On the other hand, this venue choice proved effective, as we got unexpected attention from people who had not even heard of our event.

Overall, it was really exciting being at the epicenter of such motivated engagement, and I am really impressed with the work that has been accomplished by student leaders at Portland State. The Good Samaritan Coalition currently includes seven student organizations: Portland State SSDP, College Democrats, College Republicans, Young Americans for Liberty, ASPSU, American Association for University Women, and PSU SAFER (Students Active For Ending Rape).

The Coalition’s efforts will continue through the summer, with plans to publish a finalized version of its open letter and to launch a petition for PSU students. I hope to dedicate an upcoming blog post to discussing the coalition in more detail; if you can't wait till then, contact me and I'd love to catch you up!

Upcoming Updates 

I’m putting together several upcoming blog posts for everything unrelated to Portland State SSDP events, such as my candidacy in the ASPSU elections and university coursework. I’m hoping to have them up by the end of the term, so let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like to read about.

If you're still trying to figure out what other missions have kept me so busy, here's my tentative list of update posts I hope to pump out in the next few weeks:
  • May 2014 Recap, Part 2: Student Body Elections
  • May 2014 Recap, Part 3: Campaigns Everywhere
  • May 2014 Recap, Part 4: Romain in the News
  • Coursework Update: Read My Papers
  • Post-Finals Recap of the Academic Year
Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Students for a Better Tomorrow Today!

It's official: I'm running for student government!


 After three years of extensive involvement with student groups at Portland State, I’m excited to announce that I’ve decided to run for the university’s student body, ASPSU. Last week, I submitted my candidacy for a seat on the Student Fee Committee (SFC), through which I could represent students in deciding how our Student Fee is spent by the University. With the support of the PSU community, I’m hopeful that this position will allow me to serve their interests and fully evolve into my final form: the French version of Leslie Knope.

A Fresh Start Today for a Better Tomorrow

Naturally, I wouldn’t do this alone. To maximize impact, I’ve teamed up with an exceptional slate of candidates running under the banner of Students for a Better Tomorrow Today.

These candidates include some of the most effective student activists I have met at PSU, and all share a desire to represent students’ interests in meaningful, inclusive, and effective ways. The slate is rich in diversity and openness, with a great number of international students from over three continents and a shared vision of promoting these values in and beyond our University. It’s very humbling to get to run a campaign with such an impressive team and I look forward to seeing this vision come to life should the election work out in our favor.

I’m operating as the slate’s field director, so please get in touch with me if you’d like to support us in our efforts to get effective leadership to represent the PSU student body. More to come!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Preaching Good Samaritan Policies at the Oregon College Democrats Convention

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure to attend the Oregon College Democrats’ Spring Convention, where I was invited to speak about 911 Good Samaritan Policies. More specifically, I teamed up with ASPSU Senator and SSDP rockstar Stephanie Piel on a sensible training to empower Oregon College Democrats to promote and implement these life-saving measures at their colleges and universities. 

Photo Credit: Lekzi NesSmith
We were introduced by the staff of Rep. Margaret Doherty (D-Tigard) who was the chief sponsor for Oregon House Bill 4094, which provides limited protections from underage drinking citations to minors seeking emergency help. We described the nuances of Good Samaritan Policy legislation and the crucial need for comprehensive medical amnesty, encompassing not only cases of underage drinking, but also those in situations involving illicit drugs or the reporting of sexual assault.

Stephanie and I also described our ongoing efforts with Portland State SSDP to implement a comprehensive Good Samaritan Policy at Portland State, hoping to impart strategies and tips to Democratic student leaders on how to successfully reform drug policies on their campus. We discussed our current plans with the Good Samaritan Coalition and the ways in which we've been working on promoting the policy at PSU.

It was very motivating to talk to such a committed and thoughtful crowd, and I hope what we presented will be useful in spreading sensible drug policies in colleges and universities statewide. I’ve already heard back from a number of College Democrats, and I’m looking forward to assisting them in passing 911 Good Samaritan Policies in the future.

Thanks to the College Democrats of Oregon for inviting us, and kudos to the PSU College Democrats for putting together this awesome event!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Going Green: How Hemp Policies Affect The Earth & Its People

On Friday, April 25th, Portland State SSDP is hosting a special Earth Week speaker series on cannabis and sustainability. It's called Going Green: How Hemp Policies Affect the Earth & Its People, and it will go from 4PM to 8PM. The event is free, open to the public, and will feature three core sessions:

This free Earth Week event is brought to you by Portland State Students for Sensible Drug Policies, the student movement to end the War on Drugs. Feel free to get in touch via our Facebook page, Twitter feed, or by e-mailing us at ssdp@pdx.edu.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Romain Update: Birthday Times, Student Net Alliance, Marijuana Reform, and Good Samaritan Policies

Last Saturday, I turned 23, which served as a reason to celebrate and eat a lot of cake. Since then, I’ve heard from a lot of friends, and I feel this is a good time to write an update on what’s been happening lately. Here it goes, hope you like it!

Student Net Alliance

As some of you may already know, I recently got hired by the Student Net Alliance, a global network of students who promote sensible Internet policies and a free and open flow of information online. I am now member of the first Board of Directors of Student Net Alliance, where I serve as Director of Student Outreach. I’m really excited about making a difference in Internet policy and fighting for students’ interests on the web, and I’ll be blogging soon about what I’ve got in mind for the future of SNA.

Although the organization is still in its infant stage, I have already been hard at work to promote SNA and its mission, often with my long-time activism life-partner (and fellow SNA Board member) Dylan Budnick. For the past few weeks, we’ve been opping a newly created IRC channel (#studentnetalliance at irc.freenode.org), which serves as the closest thing to a 24-hour meeting space for the organization. This has been helpful as it allows us to connect with fellow Web activists (whack-tivists, if you will) on a real-time conversational platform. Another thing we’ve been working on is developing fundraising strategies specific to online communities, particularly those related to Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. Finally, since I am focusing on coordinating SNA Campus Coordinators, I am putting together a Student Action Guide for Portland State student organizations, which could provide a good basis for an upcoming SNA Student Organizing Guide.

My hopes with the Student Net Alliance are to empower people to actively protect their interests on the Internet and become active participants in the debate on Web policy. I aspire to help this movement thrive and prosper not only in the United States, but globally. While many of the policies regarding the Web are legislated in the Western world, people are affected everywhere, regardless of their geographical location. I hope to blog more in the future on my thoughts about the Internet and why I feel compelled to advocate for a free and open Web.

Drug Policy Reform

While my commitment to Student Net Alliance can be perceived as a switch to another political issue, I am still an ardent advocate for ending the War on Drugs and enacting sensible drug regulation in place of the current blanket prohibitions. Lately, I’ve been focusing specifically on marijuana law reform and medical amnesty policies (also known as 911 Good Samaritan Policies). Here’s a quick recap of what I’ve been up to regarding each issue.

In the context of possibly having marijuana legalization on the Oregon ballot in November 2014, I’ve been working on several marijuana policy events with Portland State SSDP. I don’t quite have a name for it yet, but we’re organizing a whole day’s worth of speaker events for Earth Week. This will include a workshop with the authors of A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition, a presentation by “Radical” Russ Belville on the results of the 2012 election, and a panel discussion with representatives of the Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp and New Approach Oregon, both of which are the two campaigns working to get legalization on the ballot in Oregon. I’ve also been invited by Oregon NORML to speak at the Global Cannabis March on May 3rd at Pioneer Square. I hope these efforts will contribute positively to the fight to end marijuana prohibition.

To help promote medical amnesty at Portland State, I’ve been working with several student groups to solidify support Good Samaritan Policies. This has led to the emergence of the Good Samaritan Coalition, which currently includes Portland State SSDP, College Democrats, College Republicans, Young Americans for Liberty, and more recently, our student government, ASPSU. The idea is to organize a public forum on Good Samaritan policies in early May, which should allow each political group to explain its perspective on the the issue and raise awareness of the impact of our current drug policies on reporting sexual violence and preventing overdose deaths. In addition to the Good Samaritan Coalition, I’ll be presenting a training on medical amnesty policies at the College Democrats of Oregon Spring Convention on April 19th. I hope this will help build on the momentum of HB 4094 to promote these life-saving policies in colleges and universities across Oregon.

Birthday Times

Activism aside, these birthday celebrations have been an opportunity to reflect on the people that influence me and give me the strength to keep going in my various projects. I’m very thankful for the people who surround me, and none of what I do could have been done without their help.

It’s always tempting to look for some form of special significance when it comes to dates. Though I don’t contend that April 5 is a mystical date, I do think it’s pretty cool that my 23rd birthday is also the fourth anniversary of the release of Collateral Murder, the video released by Wikileaks and largely attributed to US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning. I strongly recommend reading the recent post at ROAR Magazine titled “The Conscience and Courage of Chelsea Manning,” and if you haven’t already, I urge you to watch the video itself, which I embedded below. (Warning: Graphic violence.)