Blueprints for Change
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.
Some of the most successful campus initiatives led by last year's YP4 fellows included the instating of a sexual harassment task force at the University of Pennsylvania , massive voter mobilization at Penn State, and a sweeping campaign to "green" the Ohio State campus. Fellows are paired with a staffer at the YP4 office who encourages them to articulate a clear goal, find allies, and figure out how to get from point A to point B.
Building an LGBTQ Alliance
Dela Cruz already has a clear goal; he is working with another YP4 fellow and Columbia junior Peter Gallotta, to create an LBGTQ center on campus.
"My blueprint is important to me as a queer student attending Columbia University," says Dela Cruz. "Having been involved with the Columbia Queer Alliance, I can tell you that LGBTQ students are left behind in terms of resources on this campus, despite the image of Columbia as a liberal institution."
In a YP4 press release, Gallotta explains, "Columbia University was at the forefront of LGBTQ activism when Stephen J. Donaldson (CC '70) founded the Student Homophile League in 1967, making it the first gay college organization in the world. Now, Columbia is falling behind its peer institutions in providing the kind of specific institutional support critical to the needs of LGBTQ students. In fact, this year we were excluded from the Advocate magazine's list of top 100 gay-friendly campuses?LGBTQ students are still lacking a resource center, advisors, and an easily accessible meeting space to meet their growing demands and needs."
Dela Cruz believes it's crucial to address these needs. He adds, "LGBTQ students are more likely to be targets of harassment on all college campuses, and in fact, more than a third have experienced this within the last year. The National Campus Climate Survey found that half of all students they surveyed concealed their sexual orientation or gender identity because they feared for their physical safety."
Encouraging Women's Leadership
Meanwhile, Alexandra Suich, a junior at Yale University and also a 2007 fellow, chose to focus her blueprint to a growing need that she feels needs to be addressed: women's leadership. Suich says that, for her, becoming an activist was an organic extension of her life and interests. She adds that it happened more "through informal conversation" than any single life-changing experience.
"I took over the National Organization for Women chapter at my high school not with the intent of it being an activist group, but to raise awareness. I became really interested in women's issues ... in high school and from the national and global perspective."
After serving several terms on the National Organization for Women's Young Feminist Task Force and traveling to South Africa with the United Nations Development Program's Regional Gender Coordinator, Suich decided that activism was for her.
For her blueprint, Suich will be working to promote women's leadership in a way that she hopes will help mend the rift between the left and the right. She explains, "I came to Yale really interested in women's rights and women's empowerment, but I had this sense that there was work needed in encouraging women to work together."
While there were women leaders in the student body at Yale, Suich says there weren't many. She believes that issues like abortion have kept many potential female leaders from getting involved in the larger women's movement. "Women would be feminists and attending pro-choice meetings, or be adamantly anti-choice and afraid of feminism, so they couldn't help each other or encourage each other to seek leadership positions because they were too busy fighting," she recalls.
Suich's goal is to bring young women leaders from numerous campuses--regardless of their political affiliations--together for a conference at Yale. She plans to bring in women leaders to speak at the event, but her main goal is to get students speaking to one other. And Suich is aiming high--she hopes to have over a hundred students attend!
"[the need for] Women in leadership positions is an issue few Americans would argue with, regardless of their political beliefs," she says. "It's my personal hope that by coming together and seeing women's issues as a non-partisan, holistic concept, we'll see that feminism is not so much about being a Democrat or being pro-choice, but the bond that connects you to other women."
Iara Peng sees this kind of blueprint activism as the manifestation of one of YP4's main goals: "making democracy what it should be." She elaborates: "It's involving the voices that often get excluded from the conversation and recognizing power dynamics, to make sure that not just the loudest or most fluent voice is heard."
In 2005, YP4, the League of Young Voters Education Fund and Movement Strategy Center came together to form the "Generational Alliance." The Generational Alliance is a collaborative that focuses on youth progressive power, particularly in campus organizing, community-based organizing, and civic engagement. Young People For continues to work with the members of the Generational Alliance, which has grown to include the Center for Progressive Leadership and United States Student Association. At this year's YP4 summit, for instance the Movement Strategy Center helped with trainings. Peng says that this may have to do with the increased diversity present in this year's summit; this year boasted the most racially, religiously, and ethnically diverse summit yet.
"Every year the fellowship class is about 50 percent people of color and 55 percent women. This year, but we had 67 percent people of color."
Young People For also increased the number of students from community colleges, which meant an increase in diversity along lines of race and class. This was also the first year the summit saw a strong tribal college network in the fellowship. In 2006, the summit had it's first Native American fellow, Kevin Killer, from Oglala Lakota College; this year Killer helped YP4 expand to six additional campuses, meaning almost a dozen fellows from tribal colleges.
Peng says she was also excited about the intergenerational networking that occurred this year. "A lot of 2006 fellows expressed interest in mentoring 2007 fellows," she says, "so I know that they are going to have more support in their organizing and movement building. It's that catalytic effect."
For more information about Young People For, visit their web-site at YoungPeopleFor.org. WireTap will be running updates on Aries Dela Cruz and Alexandra Suich's progress in the coming months.
Liz Funk, 18, is a Manhattan-based writer and a frequent contributor to WireTap.