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Liberal Lessons in Taking Back America

Michael Blake, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, lectures on tactics.
Marshall Ganz, shirt sleeves rolled up, spread his arms wide with a “join me.” Hands came together, slowly at first, then in a flurry of rapid, synchronized thwacks. A member of the old left — he dropped out of Harvard in 1964 to fight for civil rights in Mississippi and for California farmworkers with Cesar Chavez — Dr. Ganz was teaching the unity clap, the audible calling card of the United Farmworkers of America 50 years earlier.
“It’s not a trivial thing at all,” said Dr. Ganz, who had returned to his studies and is now a Harvard professor. Clapping is a collective action that builds cohesion and gets attention, and chanting is “a way of celebrating and honoring the values that are being enacted through this work.”
This was the fun stuff. Political organizing is tedious. It involves gathering people, setting group norms, defining roles and goals. And dogged on-the-ground labor.
These also happen to be the core aims of Dr. Ganz’s audience, members of an unsanctioned “school” created last spring by Harvard graduate students cold-cocked by the Trump victory. For those on the left, the election yanked away the scrim of sweet reason.
“For a long time we have been able to think that things have been pretty O.K.,” said Yasmin Radjy, one of 11 founders of the Resistance School, four sessions on political advocacy and action held in a lecture hall at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Opposing forces now look more threatening. It is what spurred the students to invite professors and political veterans to lecture on the tools necessary to drive sustainable political change. Semester two is in the works.
The Resistance School focuses on “practical skills for taking back America” at a moment when front-porch politicking seems lost to likes and shares, online memes and long lists of diversity demands.
A 50-person army, many in their navy blue Resistance School T-shirts, operated in teams with elflike efficiency at the Kennedy School, working at odd hours to produce video highlights, lecture notes, syllabus materials and homework assignments. During lectures, students gathered in the “war room,” its conference table dotted with room-temperature pizza slices, to live tweet and select questions for the speaker from Facebook submissions.
In a wave of interest that surprised the founders, the videos have had more than 175,000 views; Yale and Grinnell students held “watch parties.”
To the audience, the Resistance School offered fresh information. “I think we sort of lost the idea that there was a need for organizing,” said Nina Vyedin, Vassar class of 2011. Co-founder of Indivisible Somerville, a chapter of the Indivisible project directing communities in opposing the Trump agenda, she and her under-30 group had been “passively active,” donating to a campaign or posting a Facebook status. “We have lost community,” said Ms. Vyedin, who works at Microsoft. “We need to rebuild it.”
                           
Students work in the Resistance School “war room.”

The point of the Resistance School is to support groups like Ms. Vyedin’s in promoting progressive values, including in city councils and state legislatures. “We feel it is a mistake to make it all about the presidency,” said Ms. Radjy, who graduated in May. Yet the election made clear that, “as a generation, we are not as politically trained as we should be.”

“Politics requires in-person, face-to-face interactions,” she said, which is why homework assignments call for live conversations and group gatherings. “If you are not used to negotiating and listening to the other side, it’s easy to caricature the other side,” she said. Many students are not listening; anger has been elevated to a philosophy.
In the first session, Timothy Patrick McCarthy, who teaches politics and social movements at Harvard, cued up the tensions that brought them all there. He spoke about the prickly subject of values. “Some of us need to go into what they are calling Trump Country and understand the white working class,” he said. “Some of them need to come to our bubbles.”
“This particular moment,” he said, “feels like a crisis point, an inflection point, where we are called to action in bigger and bolder ways than before.”

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