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Fellow Travelers | The Nation

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Fellow Travelers

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Scott Thill

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All the action from this year’s conference

January 18, 2008

(Editor's note: Young People For are holding their national convention this week in Washington, D.C., January 17-21.)

Founded at the dawn of the Reagan '80s by TV legend Norman Lear, the mind behind the opinionated meatheads of All in the Family, People for the American Way (PFAW) has a history of working with idealistic youth, as well as charting the ascendancy of right-wing power structures. Lear originally formed the organization to counteract the evangelical blather of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, back when they were considered fringe radicals. Now, thanks to the evangelical-backed rise of the Bush administration, PFAW's enemies can no longer be considered radicals. They are now called The Establishment.

But, as Isaac Newton correctly noticed, for every action there is an equal yet opposite reaction, and PFAW is no exception. Their organization has only diversified as right-wing politics took firm root in the global landscape, especially in America, where things have gone from bad to worse in a hurry. PFAW has been at the ready with solutions, from a foundation dedicated to voter education and outreach to the Latino-specific civic engagement group Democracia USA to the progressive youth initiative Young People For (YP4), which launched in 2004 after one term of Bush rule made it exceedingly clear that, if anything, change was only going to come when the kids in America took charge of their country.

Here Come the Youth

Since then, youth participation in midterm and national elections has skyrocketed, and slowly but surely change has come to the nation. And the timing couldn't be better, as the 2008 election draws near and everything from an economic recession to a climate crisis looms. After decades of being told what to do by their elders and getting little for it in return, the kids may end up saving all of our hides.

"The energy, creativity, intelligence and passion of this generation can solve any issue we face," promised Iara Peng (pictured right), director of YP4 and deputy director of PFAW's national programs and outreach. "YP4 is in this movement because we believe that engaging young people is the best, and in some cases, only solution that will bring about lasting results."

But progressive are not the only ones engaged in long-term youth movement development: On the other side of PFAW's political spectrum, right-wing organizations have dropped millions into like-minded groups' coffers, training tomorrow's next neoconservative generation to trumpet the party line on taxation, immigration and other hot-button issues. According to YP4, those organizations have gone so far as to target specific individuals in academia and elsewhere as "anti-American," a tactic that generally backfires on Conservatives. But the Right's efforts at youth investment have been rewarded with resounding success: Bush administration mastermind Karl Rove himself was the executive director of the College Republican National Committee, although he ironically dropped out of college to take the job.

YP4 Fellows, as they are named, harbor no such contradictions. They are students from across the country and the academic spectrum--from the Ivy League to the California State University network--and they are committed to stopping right-wing dogma in its tracks. More importantly, they don't take orders from on high.

"Our organization, like the movement, is bottom up," Peng explained. "We don't set priorities for young leaders; we assist them to more effectively achieve the priorities they choose for themselves. We search out young people who are active in their communities and give them support to accomplish the change they want to see."

The Long Haul

And it's not a short-term relationship, either; YP4 is in it for the endgame. "Unlike other programs that provide short-term opportunities for young people within the progressive movement, they're dedicated to guiding student leaders for the long term," added Vincente Garcia, a 2007 Fellow and a student at San Francisco State University. "It isn't one of those internships where you are expected to offer minor administrative support; real work is expected of you. They don't let up. And there are opportunities that can help students transition to jobs within the progressive public, private, and nonprofit sector."

It is a crucial transition, especially for those who look upon their college careers as actual career training, rather than a place to finally escape their families and previous responsibilities. College is all about self-discovery, of course, but YP4 gives its youth contingent room to envision how that self-discovery can translate into professional accomplishment, at a time when there are more issues than solutions at hand.

"Fellows work on everything from protecting the environment to fighting for gay rights to promoting disability awareness," said Peng "We provide them with training, skills and strategies, as well as a nationwide intergenerational network, project funding and People For the American Way Foundation's legal, legislative, and communications expertise."

Not a bad arsenal, if you're going to war against ignorance, apathy and greed. Garcia, for his part, plans to use all of them. He understands, as progressives should, that the problems are so endemic and extensive that they will take everything youth culture has got, and then some.

"I think that solving our issues within the progressive movement," he explains, "will involve thinking about the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. And that will require recognition of the root causes of our social problems: structural poverty, institutionalized racism, colonialism and imperialism, globalization, sexism, resource shortages and more."

Diverse Tactics

That's a mouthful and a mind-full of entrenched issues, which is why YP4 has enlisted youth from across the social and racial divide to tackle them. It is, after all, the lovechild of Lear, who charted the inflammatory terrain of race, class and culture in TV shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford and Son and others. Rainbow coalitions are par for the course.

"Quite frankly," Garcia added, "if YP4 wasn't fully committed to addressing racial and socioeconomic representation, I wouldn't be a Fellow. They actively seek out diversity, rather than waiting for it to come to them."

And not just diversity of its membership, but also its approach. Young People For isn't content with simply setting up tables on campus, although they do that too: They're interested in leading by example. And that means mixing it up in as many ways as possible.

"Leadership comes in many forms," said Peng. "It's up to them to decide how best to do that. A Fellow led protests in Florida that demanded, and received, an official inquiry of the death of a young man at a state-run boot camp. Another led the fight to defeat an anti-gay marriage amendment in South Dakota. Another founded an organization raising money to send medical supplies to sub-Saharan Africa. And while some of the most successful activities have been in partnership with other organizations, many of them were conceived and led by Fellows from beginning to end."

Lead On

Whatever the form its activism takes, Generation Xbox has seen enough of what happens when their elders are allowed to take over the game. It may be too early to say that some slackers of yesteryear are being put to sleep in favor of a new breed of internetworked and hard-wired change agents. But as the statistics rise in line with the hype, no one can ignore the fact that the kids in America are turning out in stronger numbers by the year, demanding a change in course.

"Youth participation in the recent caucus and primaries has revealed just the tip of the iceberg," Peng concluded. "Young voters are engaging in record numbers, and that it is no accident. They are affecting change, and the politicians and pundits are taking notice. As a result, candidates are speaking directly to young people, and those young people are responding with votes."

More info: People For The American Way YPF Fellowships

Young People For 2006 National Summit video

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon.com, in XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.

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