There are 165 young people, ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-two sitting in a large convention hall. Chilled-out guys in Abercrombie jeans and pin-striped shirts tap their feet to music thumping out of a stereo. Young women in pencil skirts and cable-knit sweaters sit in groups and chat amicably. There are a few kids who would be labeled "hippies" by cliquish high schoolers, and a decent quantity of kids who could be called "punk." There are white kids, black kids, Latino/a kids, Asian kids, Middle Eastern kids, and... okay, pretty much every other ethnicity out there sitting in this room. There are kids who appear as though they are of elevated socioeconomic status, and there are kids who probably aren't. Some are from Yale, some are from Penn State, others are from California community colleges.
What do they all have in common?
These people are the 2006 fellows of Young People For, the branch of People for the American Way created especially for young progressives. This past January, the group of college students met en-masse in Washington, D.C. for a summit on young progressivism, where the students received the initial training on democracy, activism, and the overall sexiness of liberalism for their fellowship with Young People For.
Three years ago, Iara Peng, then twenty seven years old, had just finished her graduate degree in non-profit management and was working to conceptualize a revolutionary non-profit progressive organization with People for the American Way founder Norman Lear. Peng grew increasingly frustrated by the huge disparity between the funding devoted to generating young conservatives, in comparison to young progressives. "The right-wing currently pours fifteen million dollars a year into cultivating a new generation of conservatives," she explains. "And I realized that we needed that dedication on the left."
And there YP4 was born. Today, Young People For has educated over three hundred fellows, facilitated progressive events at campuses in all four corners of the country, and has made progressive connections with innumerable other organizations. Sarah Alvarez, the deputy director of the program sees young people as very promising agents of change: "Young people are unburdened by the politics of progressivism and that makes them more effective... so we educate them on the basics they need to organize. However, our larger organizational mission is to build a stronger progressive movement...."
It's clear why the organization appeals to young people; its website is smart and urbane-looking, its promotional materials are written in a youthful tone, and its hip approach to politics attracts both political gurus, and energetic activists who prefer the Colbert Report to CNN. It's clear why over one thousand college students were nominated for the one hundred eighty spots in the fellowship Class of 2007, in only the third year of the program's livelihood.
Rachel Burrows, Senior Program Associate and National Campaigns Coordinator for YP4, explains the components of being a YP4 fellow: "Attendance at the YP4 summit in January is the first step... Students learn the organizing methodology, how to fundraise, how to work in a collation... the technical stuff that is necessary for sustainable work in the community." Students have the opportunity to pick issues to learn more about in workshops, ranging from voter mobilization to reproductive rights to civil liberties to media advocacy.
Informally, a major topic was kicking some Young Republican @$$ on campus. Some students traded conservative horror stories about "Coming Out Week" on campus for College Republicans to show their elephant-loving colors and mock the LGBTQ community; students bonded over the overall awkward and unpopular nature of their Bush-loving counterparts.
Not to mention, the 2006 YP4 retreat was pretty star-studded: on Friday night, students whispered "Omigod, it's really him" as The Daily Kos progressive power-blogger Markos Moulitsas Zúniga addressed the group as the keynote speaker. The students also discussed their favorite progressives; Maureen Dowd, Barack Obama, and Eliot Spitzer came up as consistent favorites.
Says Jayna Punturerio, a senior at the State University of New York at Binghampton, "There was more passion in the room every day than I have encountered in the other 21 years of my life, and it was incredibly motivating."
"After the summit," explains Burrows, "students participate in the next step of YP4, which is the year-long fellowship where they are paired with a program associate to help them organize on their campuses." These students are given a grant, from five hundred to two thousand dollars, to implement change on their campuses.
Sonny Pascal, a YP4 fellow from the University of Pennsylvania credits YP4 for helping her with great progress on her campus. "My main project is [forming] a Sexual Harassment Task Force at the University of Pennsylvania. Penn, like many elite institutions, has a rather sordid past in regards to harassment issues... YP4 has been instrumental in helping me conceptualize the Task Force, as well as in more concrete areas, like creating a website and print materials."
After that year of assisted activism is over, the fellowship still continues, with the "Advanced Leadership Training" component. Staffers help these senior fellows develop the career skills to work in the progressive workforce, help them find internships, and pay them a stipend for their internships--even if it is with another organization! Explains Burrows, "People constantly say that they want to hire young progressives... and we want our fellows to get the jobs..."
Another major facet of the organization is the YP4 blog, written (and widely read) by both fellows and other student progressives; posts written by the YP4 bloggers have been cross-linked to Wonkette, the Daily Kos, and the wonderful Huffington Post.
The organization's blog guru, Shawn Dixon, explains the importance of utilizing the internet in appealing to Generation Y-ers: "I think our generation connects to one another through the web, and I think that is evident by Myspace--an unbelievable percentage of young people use that web-site. We realized that if we're going to reach students we need to be with it on the web."
YP4 is still not your average interest group. Despite possessing a different demographic and constituency, its approach and means of activism is entirely different from most interest groups. What's especially unusual about YP4 is that as many interest groups require that their activists donate their time and shoulder all costs associated with their activism... YP4 takes care of virtually all costs associated with the progressive events that the fellows sponsor in their communities and on their campuses... and has care packages of brownies, Emergen-C, and progressive reading material delivered to their fellows' dorm rooms.
Part of the organization's exuberance and ability to connect with young people is owed to its young staff; the nine employees of YP4 are all under age thirty. "Because we're all so close in age," explains Burrows, "we can kind of anticipate the needs of fellows and help them through it all because we were just there."
Another empowering aspect of the organization is that ageism and malice against Generation Y-ers is not a factor. Peng has rather passionate feelings on the topic: "I wholeheartedly disagree that young people today are apathetic; they're just disconnected from the political process and it's our job to give them avenues to reconnect." Adds Dixon, "There's also no hierarchy here. Everywhere else young people have to climb through the hierarchy and start at the bottom. Age is not a factor... it's what you have it say."
Peng sees the energy of this group with a little more fire: "I see hope and I see a healthy rage in this generation of progressives. You see people being absolutely outraged, not to despair... but to the point that they do something about what's affecting them. It's that healthy intensity that will make change."
In terms of the characteristics of this era of young people, activism should go hand-in-hand with Generation Y. Plain and simple, activism is about getting what you want. And Generation Y is a generation of real-life Apprentice contestants. If we want to go to Harvard, we study and we do it. If we want an iPod, we scoop ice cream after school and save up to buy one. Gen Y is about achieving goals... as is activism.
Hence, all Gen Y needs is a push in the right direction... which is exactly what YP4 serves up, along with a holding hand and some brownies, too.