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The New Face of the Campus Left | The Nation

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The New Face of the Campus Left

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For progressive student activists, attention-getting victories have also been scarce. There have been isolated triumphs in the past year: successful student-led living-wage campaigns for employees at Georgetown University and Washington University of St. Louis, and the multi-campus Taco Bell boycott, which helped secure a significant raise for the fast-food chain's tomato pickers.

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Sam Graham-Felsen
Sam Graham-Felsen was Barack Obama's chief blogger on the 2008 campaign. He writes and speaks on technology, politics,...

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The most widespread disappointment has been the failure to generate a sustainable movement opposing the war in Iraq. While student mobilization in the run-up to the war was massive in scope and energy, the typical problems plaguing the campus left--ideological splits and lack of organization--have caused the movement to fade considerably. "It was really a lost cause," says Yale University junior Jared Malsin, "because there was a great deal of infighting among different factions in the movement." Some student progressives wanted to focus on the fight to keep military recruiters off campus; others were divided over whether to call for immediate withdrawal of US troops. Plus, says Malsin, "there was waning interest in fighting it because it seemed like there was so little we could actually do as students."

Frustrations abound, but the emergence of national progressive organizations on campus has given many student activists renewed hope. In its first year Campus Progress has provided progressive students with tools they've never had before: money and a sense of unity. While its $1.25 million projected budget falls well below the more than $10 million of the right-wing Young America's Foundation, Campus Progress has made an immediate impact. Wayne Huang, editor of Cornell's student progressive publication, Turn Left, has seen his paper "go through a shocking transformation in little under a year," thanks to funding from Campus Progress. On twenty-seven other campuses, formerly cash-strapped student left publications are finally competing with conservative papers, publishing regularly and printing on high-quality paper. At its virtual meeting place, CampusProgress.org, students from across the country are sharing ideas and getting advice on how to communicate their values from the likes of Senator Barack Obama. Features like "Know Your Right-Wing Speakers" and "Crib Sheet" provide concise talking points for fighting the right.

For the first time Campus Progress has given progressive students a sense that they, like the campus right, are part of a tangible movement. When 600 progressive students convened in Washington, DC, last summer for the first annual Campus Progress National Student Conference, many felt a profound sense of relief. "For so long there's been a disconnect of dialogue between progressives," says University of Kentucky junior Yuriy Bronshteyn. "There's been nothing central to look to." The mere existence of an organizational infrastructure seems miraculous to Bronshteyn, who says, "This is almost like a star that we can all see in the sky every night--it can give us the feeling that we're all fighting the same fight."

As Campus Progress works to build a national community for student progressives, Young People For (YP4) focuses on developing individual leaders. A project of People for the American Way, YP4 mirrors the right's Leadership Institute, which has trained more than 40,000 young conservatives, including movement heavyweights Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist, since its inception in 1979. Providing a leadership pipeline for the left, YP4 has trained 126 students on forty campuses in its first year.

Jenny Parker, a YP4 fellow at Baylor University, wanted to organize a living-wage campaign on her campus--but had no idea how. After YP4 training in January 2005 in media outreach, coalition building and event planning, Parker says, "now we have the most organized campaign I could ever imagine." Especially helpful, she says, was YP4's guidance on framing the message. "Our audience at Baylor is very conservative and was turned off at the announcement of a living-wage campaign," Parker says. "We realized we had to spin our message a bit in order to gain support. We changed our campaign to the 1 John 3 Campaign"--a reference to a biblical passage urging aid for the poor. "Now our campaign is centered on the idea that this is our Christian obligation."

The largest Baptist university in the world has not yet passed a living wage for its workers, but Parker and her fellow activists are making headway with 1 John 3. They convinced the Student Congress to pass a resolution calling for a living wage, and have motivated 600 students to send postcards to the university president supporting the campaign.

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