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Voices of Tomorrow

You've heard all the stereotypes. Students are apathetic, complacent and unaware of the world around them.

There's a grain of truth to that statement. But a whole lot of falsity. Just ask the 1,000 student journalists and activists who converged on Washington early this week from every single state for the third annual Campus Progress conference.

On Monday The Nation co-sponsored a journalism training day at the Center for American Progress with over 150 student journalists, featuring speeches by Katrina vanden Heuvel and two of America's best muckraking journalists, Barbara Ehrenreich and Eric Schlosser, panels on covering corruption and the courts, featuring the likes of Helen Thomas, Dahlia Lithwick, David Corn, John Nichols and yours truly, and workshops on culture, blogging, investigative journalism and reporting beyond the Beltway.

In her lunchtime address, Ehrenreich implored students to focus on issues like race and inequality that are so often excluded from mainstream media. She told a story about how an indifferent editor in a posh Manhattan restaurant agreed to let her do a piece on poverty as long she "made it upscale." Yet by ignored these petty dictates and immersing herself in the lives of her subjects, Ehrenreich has been able to produce such memorable and lasting work as her book, Nickel & Dimed.

Schlosser, the author of the best-selling Fast Food Nation, also spoke of spending years chronicling stories of struggle and injustice: undocumented migrant strawberry pickers in California, workers fighting to unionize for better pay, horrific conditions for employees at massive hog farms, and most recently, for an upcoming book, the millions of Americans incarcerated in prisons. This kind of work isn't easy, Schlosser said. But it is more necessary than ever.

Excerpts of the journalism conference will soon be available on The Nation's website and broadcast in the coming weeks on Radio Nation with Laura Flanders on Air America Radio.

At day-two of the conference on Tuesday, hundreds of activists joined their journalist counterparts. Prominent speakers like legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison moved beyond cliché by articulating not just the unprecedented challenges faced by college-age Americans, but also the unique assets their generation might bring to politics and the world.

"We've completely screwed you guys," Hersh told a room of more thanone thousand. "You're going to have to do so much better than we did."

But Hersh deviated from a relentless attack on American foreign policyto give his observations on current college students and add a bit of hope.

"Young people today are less seduced by the mercantile, Wall Streetsociety of 20 years ago," Hersh said. "There is more concern for theThird World."

Attendees agreed that problems well beyond the plush academy move students the most. "It is the issues farthest away from us that get the most attention," said Bobby Smith, a sophomore at Ithaca College. One example is how students are fighting to force attention and an end to the genocide in Darfur.

Like Hersh, Ellison, who became the first Muslim elected toCongress in November, spoke of the Iraq war's immorality and its consequences for both the troops and America's credibility. But he devoted much of his talk to issues that hit closer to home, such as student loans and credit card debt. Ellison adroitly tied the need for a single-payer health care system to the fact that many in the audience will be without coverage--and in debt--upon graduation

"We need you to continue to talk about affordability for college,"Ellison told the audience. In 2006 the over two-thirds of college seniors who took out loans graduated an average of $19,200 in debt, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Ellison also stressed that making politicians pay attention meansgetting young people to the ballot box.

"Don't forget to turn out votes, not just at your campus, but two-yearcommunity colleges and vocational colleges," Ellison said. He added that in his race for Congress, "We blew up the vote at the Aveda Institute of Hair and Cosmetology."

The conference closed with a panel of young Iraq war veterans, who spoke movingly about their time in combat and the hardships upon returning home. They are the lucky ones. Every week soldiers so often still in their teens are shipped back in body bags.

Young people, said Abdul Henderson, a vet from Los Angeles who spoke out in the film Fahrenheit 9/11, have the power to change things if they so choose.

Another one of the panelists, Jon Soltz, is a testament to that possibility. Upon finishing his tour in Iraq, "confused and disillusioned," Soltz began to speak out after being threatened with arrest for trying to attend a Veterans Affairs press conference in his hometown of Pittsburgh. "I don't know why I'm good enough to go to war but not good enough to ask the tough questions of our leadership," Soltz recalled. He soon founded an advocacy group called Vote Vets, which ran some of the hardest-hitting and most effective TV ads of the last election cycle, exposing how pro-war politicians had betrayed the troops.

Soltz found an audience, both with veterans throughout the country and attendees at the conference, who after two days of speaker after speaker, still listened intently to every word. "This is the only time where I've been in a room with young people in the last three-and-a-half years," Soltz said, "when I felt like people cared."

--With Reporting by Matthew Blake

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