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Organizing the Campus Left

July 13, 2006

Campus activism is stronger and more sophisticated than ever. That message came from Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org, the progressive political action group.

Matzzie pointed to the widespread Darfur divestment campaigns waged by college students and a Princeton University student protest last year over a Princeton alumnus, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and his threat to change U.S. Senate filibuster rules.

In an interview at the second annual Campus Progress National Student Conference on Wednesday, Matzzie alluded to changes in the way students conduct their campus walkouts, protests and political organizing. "You don't have to chain yourself to a fence anymore to get attention," he said. "There are plenty of ways to get your message out and get into the media."

Matzzie had a similar message for the roughly 1,000 students who attended the conference, sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Quinn Wilhelmi, a Stanford University junior, also drew distinctions between modern-day student activism and the demonstration methods of his parents' generation. "We're still into protest and advocacy, but we're working within the system rather than trying to take a rake to it," said Wilhelmi, the executive director of a student think tank called the Roosevelt Institution.

But there was some disagreement on how best to show political interest. Adrienne Maree Brown, executive director of the Ruckus Society, a group that trains and supports young activists, called on the audience to "turn your campuses into hotbeds of revolutionary, sexy action." (Brown stopped short of describing what makes an event "sexy" or "revolutionary.")

"How many of you are ready to be bad-asses?" she asked the group, which gave her a lukewarm response.

John Podesta, president and CEO of Center for American Progress, repeated an earlier speaker's remarks that "we need more of you hanging from trees."

But then, Podesta got out of the way, because he understands that at this event, adults are largely irrelevant -- unless you are Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the keynote speaker, who was greeted with a standing ovation and hundreds of simultaneous flashing cameras.

The three-day conference is a breeding ground for future Democratic Party leaders and a reunion of sorts for current Campus Democrats. It's an event where the dress code is more flip flops and political slogan T-shirts than suits or business casual. It is one component of Campus Progress, an effort by the Center for American Progress to strengthen progressive voices on college campuses. “College students don’t always have the money to run campaigns,” said David Halperin, director of Campus Progress and senior vice president of the center. “What they need is connections to other campuses and to each other.”

Fellows from Young People For, a network of liberal student activists, said they came to the conference to network. “This all centers around civic engagement,” said Alex Flores, a junior at Macalester College. His friend, fellow Elizabeth Camuti, a junior at Indiana University who has organized concerts to sign up young voters, said engagement is largely lacking on her campus.

But Wilhelmi said plenty of students are interested in what he calls the big four areas: access to education; environmentalism, international development, and international security.

A number of students mentioned their own mounting debt from college and the high cost of gas as major concerns. That is consistent with recent polling of the age group, said Adam J. Jentleson, policy and advocacy manager for Campus Progress. "Our generation is very pragmatic," he said. "We are concerned about things that affect our everyday lives."

Following on that theme, Campus Progress announced a "Debt Hits Hard" video campaign. One spot introduces a scenario in which two recent graduates have to delay their wedding because of unpaid student loans.

Given the nature of the convention, Republicans were not visible -- although an event organizer said one student who registered as a conservative had planned to attend to provide opposing points of view.

 

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