On Wednesday in Washington, I attended the second annual National Student Conference held by Campus Progress, an organization featured in "The New Face of the Campus Left."
Last year’s conference was quite disappointing. "Critical dialogue was in short supply," I wrote then, "and the promotion of strategic tactics–rather than strong principles–seemed to rule the day. Instead of identifying the values with which to forge a movement, the speakers at the conference seemed obsessed over the forging itself." I complained then that the majority of the students in attendance were well-heeled, DC-insider, College Dem types, and that grassroots activists were in noticeably missing. The first conference hardly reflected the diversity of those involved in progressive campus politics.
What a difference a year makes. The opening plenary included Adrienne Marie-Brown of the Ruckus Society, an organization that trains grassroots activists, who implored students to turn their campuses into "hotbeds of sexy, revolutionary action." She told students to steer away from the "corporate biz-casual world and break the fuckin’ rules." John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, even agreed with her ("We need more of you hanging from trees," he said, echoing Brown’s earlier call for direct action).
The highlight of the conference, without doubt, was Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s address. Eschewing the recycled stump-speech mode employed by Bill Clinton last year, Obama directly addressed the students, speaking mostly of his early days as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago. Obama’s speech was less of a crowd-pumping call to action, and more of a contemplative, moving reflection on his path into politics.
Obama’s first employer paid him $12,000, "plus an extra thousand to buy a car–an old, beat-up Honda Civic." He said his peers and elders thought he was crazy for taking such an unglamorous route, but he wanted to "build power from the bottom up, rather than the top down."
"It’s easy to just take that diploma, forget about all this progressive politics stuff, and go chasing after the big house and the large salary and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy," he said. "But I hope you don’t. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself, and it will leave you unfulfilled."
A lot of progressives, including one who recently wrote for this magazine, are nowhere near sold on Obama. But the most compelling thing about this man–and perhaps the main reason why my generation responds so strongly to him–is his background. Politicians who are more concerned with power than with people do not go to the South Side after college and take jobs paying jack squat to fight for people who hardly anyone else cares about. They take high-paying jobs so that some day they can buy their way into power, fill prestigious posts and clerk for famous judges, or seek the media spotlight any way they can.
Obama’s early commitment to grassroots organizing is something that simply cannot be overlooked. His past is an integral part of his character. This comes through in his speeches, and this is why young people refuse to dismiss him as an ordinary political opportunist.
In addition to providing great speakers and above-average food, Campus Progress also unveiled two exciting activism campaigns, one calling for an end to America’s oil addiction and another fighting against the cuts in student debt.
Campus Progress has truly shed much of its DC-centric feel and has made good on its commitment to be a big tent for young progressive activists, both pragmatic and radical. Students from a variety of races, classes, religious and ethnic backgrounds, across the ideological spectrum of the student left, came together to discuss, debate, and most importantly, organize.
There was a definite sense in the air that, come this fall, progressive student activism could reach heights not seen for decades on campuses.