January 23, 2007
So, you’re a young progressive. You have beliefs, you have values, and you have ideas. But sometimes it’s tough to know how to turn them into action. What would you do if there was an organization that would train you, support you, and provide the financial resources to turn your ideas into a reality?
Well, for the 180 fellows attending the 2007 Young People For summit, this question is not hypothetical. The three-year-old organization is dedicated to turning today’s liberal-minded college students into full-throttle activists. And their annual event is growing every year. Young People For (YP4) is the youth wing of People for the American Way, a Washington, D.C.-based organization founded by revered television producer Norman Lear. The organization held its first 125-fellow summit in 2005, led by its executive director, the then 27-yr-old nonprofit visionary, Iara Peng. This year’s fellowship class was the most diverse yet. Students attending represented 65 campuses in 18 states, from community and junior colleges to state universities, tribal colleges, liberal arts colleges, Ivy League schools, and historically black colleges and universities.
Although the focus is on college students, the goal is much broader than college, says Peng. “We try to make those intergenerational connections between people in the movement at different [phases], so fellows can see progressivism as a lifetime movement, not just a phase,” she adds.
The YP4 fellows spend an all-expense paid week in Washington, D.C. learning the basics of organizing and progressive thought from nonprofit gurus, media experts, politicians, and, most importantly, from each other. While the summit involved PowerPoint presentations, note-taking and some serious discussion, the students attending also really enjoyed themselves. In their down time, they were entertained and made friends and alliances to last a lifetime.
Many of the fellows, like Aries Dela Cruz, a junior at Columbia University, saw the summit as a step toward solidifying their place in the progressive movement. Dela Cruz, who come from what he describes as “a very conservative middle-class background,” started identifying with the progressive movement in high school, after participating in a walkout against police brutality. He then got involved with groups like International ANSWER, the New York City AIDS Housing Network.
“I saw an advertisement for the 2007 fellowship on the back of the progressive campus magazine on my campus, and it intrigued me” says Dela Cruz. “But it wasn’t until a few weeks later when I got an e-mail saying I had been nominated for the fellowship by another activist on campus.”
Young People For understands that while college students are generally a liberal demographic, their sentiments will be much more impactful if they are carried out in activism, or, to use YP4’s more specific term: “blueprints for change.” While at the summit, students work on their “blueprints,” or their plan for action on their campuses. They choose an issue that needs work on their campus and strategize about how to go about constructively taking it on. At this year’s conference, the most popular issues were peace activism, access to healthcare, reproductive rights, racial justice, clean air and water, and voter education, among others.