The following article originally appeared on Wiretap.
On July 13, a large auditorium at the Washington Convention Center lit by 19th-century chandeliers wasn’t hosting the usual crowd of elderly men in gray suits. For the first time in 30 years of liberal organizing, Campus Progress brought together over 600 progressive twenty-something activists to the capital of political establishment.
Recovering from the steady stream of recent defeats, liberals argue over the future of the Democratic Party. And as with the recent AFL-CIO split, there is no agreement on winning strategy in sight. Progressives blame the centrist ’90s and want to move away from corporate sponsors to pulling together a new, lower- and middle-class majority of Americans. But beltway moderates can’t seem to abandon conservative-leaning elites.
Political differences aside, progressive grassroots organizers seem to agree on one point. While the left has been more effective in local activism, including college campuses, when it comes to national politics the right dominates the agenda more than ever.
Over the past 30 years, right-wing groups poured over $35 million annually to college campuses. Even though a vast majority of students identify themselves as being closer to the left, for every progressive publication on college campus, there are two conservative ones. When it comes to affecting the national agenda, conservative groups have been more effective at organizing students, in large part, through campus publications.
But it looks like this trend could be changing. Campus Progress—a division of the Center for American Progress—is the only group in the U.S. today that financially supports progressive publications on college campuses. It currently sponsors 14 progressive publications, with plans to hit 50 next year, helps students bring progressive speakers to their schools and organizes national editorial conference calls. Student publishers receive money for printing, training and mentorship, says Elana Berkowitz, editor of the Campus Progress online magazine.
Their first annual conference was an attempt to gather hundreds of small student groups to kick off a national debate about progressive agenda.
In a day-long, free conference, students heard from Democratic moderates like President Bill Clinton and the first female White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers. There were also more-progressive writers and organizers, such as author Thomas Frank, Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation and Stephanie Nyombayire—a young activist from Rwanda working to bring more visibility to the ongoing atrocities in Darfur, Sudan. Morning panels attempted to define progressive values while afternoon workshops focused on strategic training shared by veteran organizers.
A young woman in her early twenties in a flamboyant dress and pink high heels confidently introduces herself to everyone at the table. She is an intern from Americans for Peace Now. Her head shook violently as she laid out her carefully crafted talking points with a confident, at times deafening voice. I put a finger on my ear to hear my soft-spoken neighbor. Rob Cobbs is a full-time student at Amherst College and a board chair for Massachussets Student PIRG (Public Interest Research Group). He spends more than 30 hours a week on political organizing. Jamia Wilson, a veteran pro-choice activist with maturity well beyond her 24 years, has thoughtful insight on any topic that comes up. This group of students is every college professor’s dream&@8212;motivated, smart and articulate.
With 4.7 million more 18 to 24 year-old votes cast in 2004 than 2000, these young leaders are also becoming every progressive politician’s dream—from Democrats to Greens.
Tom Friedman vs. Naomi Klein?
The week after the conference, Campus Progress heard a few loud boo’s on its blog inspired by Sam Graham-Felsen’s article in The Nation. Critiquing the conference for its lack of more radical viewpoints from the progressive circles, he pointed out that no one challenged President Bill Clinton on the war in Iraq or his welfare policies.
Most Campus Progress bloggers debated the merits of a national conference that brings together more centrist students, who typically vote for the Democrats, and more radical participants, who vote for the Greens or even start their own parties. Do they have enough in common, or is this a waste of time, a project doomed to failure once they get down to policy?
Activist Jamia Wilson thinks the conference was a good idea and was impressed by the diversity of students, but she doesn’t see much future in compromising with the more centrist views. “I’m sick of the appeasement sentiment. Even though I truly appreciate Campus Progress, there is definitely this lean toward moderate, centrist propaganda. The Republican Party is winning and they never appeased us, ever,” she argued. For Wilson, the issues discussed were too safe—poverty, social security, sex education—compared to tougher turf like gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, or affirmative action.
Gilowen Jenkins, 21, a senior at the University of Massachusetts, recently changed his more radical stance and moved to the center for strategic purposes. “I feel that to get some positive progressive change we need to get the seats of power back. It’s okay to dream—we need visionaries—but you have to be realistic about the nature of power in this country and how to get it,” he explained.
Berkowitz, editor of Campus Progress, views these disagreements as an asset of the progressive movement, “At the core, Campus Progress students share a number of values—a commitment to economic opportunity and justice, maintaining civil liberties and reproductive freedoms, pursuing a thoughtful, effective and humane foreign policy.” She views finding common ground as key to effective progressive activism. “Students who don’t always see eye to eye on every political issue will have to work together to create a movement and to make change on their campuses and in their communities.”
Don’t Just Organize, Mobilize
Most students spoke with conviction and clarity about their values and goals. There were savvy strategists, organizers, and promoters. But as with the rest of progressive community, student organizers often fail to mobilize larger groups of people beyond their immediate activist circles.
This is where Campus Progress comes in. The group helps some of the most effective progressive student activists go beyond short-term mobilization on one issue—voting once a year, getting their schools to divest from Wal-Mart, or stopping a polluting plant—to becoming long-term, strategic organizers who stay in touch with non-activists in their communities on a day-to-day basis.
Through campus publications, these organizers can connect big political issues—like global warming—to the personal lives of people who are working too many jobs, taking too many classes or watching too much TV. The success of long-term organizing that can shape national agenda requires engagement of our less politically active neighbors.
John Wilson of the Independent Press Association, which that also supports college publications, comments, “If you look at any category of activism—the number of student organizations, the number of campus protests and events, the number of students actively organizing—progressives far outnumber conservatives. But the current model of progressive activism on campuses is a huge number of disparate organizations focusing on their own issues.”
Campus Progress can be that missing tool for all progressive students—radical or centrist—to effectively communicate with their base, build broader coalitions and win bigger battles. David Halperin, director of Campus Progress adds, “Trying to force conformity is doomed to failure. But we can get smarter about presenting our case and figuring out when it’s best to come together.”
For one day, for the first time in 30 years of progressive organizing, there were students from Ivy League schools and community colleges, students from Tennessee and Florida—all seeing each other as part of a cohesive whole. Public service seemed like a hip thing to do. And most participants were challenged to focus on what the progressive movement agrees on and stands for, rather than what it is that divides the various factions. For a movement that prides itself for its inclusion and diversity, I say it’s a good thing.
Kristina Rizga edits WireTap, AlterNet’s youth-oriented section.
College newspapers may be the key to getting the myriad of progressive organizations on campus to come together.