Reflections on the Campus Progress National Conference
July 28, 2009
This post is from Aaron Teskey, Youth & Campus Outreach Coordinator. Note: this is the same conference where former President Bill Clinton announced his support for marriage equality. Earlier this month, HRC’s Youth & Campus Outreach Program once again attended the Campus Progress National Conference. It was an opportunity to talk with many of the 1,000+ students who attended about the role progressives play in the LGBT rights movement. While Candace Gingrich (Youth & Campus Outreach Associate Director) and I tabled throughout the day, many of HRC’s summer interns were listening to prominent speakers, participating in panel and small group discussions and enjoying spoken word performances. Scroll down to read Youth & Campus Outreach Intern Dennie Zastrow’s thoughts on what went down at the conference. At around 5 pm, the halls were empty and tabling organizations abandoned their posts to catch former President Bill Clinton and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The main part of Clinton’s almost hour-long speech that stuck out to me was when he termed us the “how” generation. While we call it Generation Equality, we’re basically talking about the same thing. Our generation has come to a consensus on many issues – whether it’s the existence of global warming or that who you love shouldn’t dictate what rights you have – but we have to actually deliver change. As Clinton said, “You’ve got to be able to turn your good intentions in the concrete changes.” I particularly liked this part of what Clinton said about the “how”:
It’s good if you sign petitions and go to meetings and clap for people who say what you agree with, it’s better if you make your campus carbon neutral. Then you don’t have to say anything, especially if your campus is located in a district with a Republican congressman. Think about it. They’ll be under all this pressure. Oh, this is not economical. It can’t be done. Then, instead of saying please do this because I don’t want the planet to burn up for my children, you say, “You know, on our campus, we created 150 new jobs and we reduced our power bills this much. And now we have avoided the following increases in tuition. Why are you against this?” Better argument, don’t you think, for people who don’t agree with us already.
In terms of queer equality, it’s obviously important to call your Senators and Representative about important bills, but it’s even more powerful to launch a campaign to get gender identity included in your school’s non-discrimination policy. In many cities, colleges and universities are among the largest employers. It’s much harder to spew lies and make excuses when you can point to your campus and say, “Hey, we implemented inclusive policies not only because it was the right things to do, but because it helps keep our school competitive and attract the best faculty, staff and students. And hell didn’t freeze over either.” Feel free to throw in other buzz words like “brain drain.” And that is exactly why the Youth & Campus Outreach Program at HRC exists – to help you advocate for changes on your campus that will have a ripple effect in your community and across the country. Check out our resources for students: www.hrc.org/geneq. With that, I turn it over to Dennie for his reflections on the Campus Progress 2009 National Conference. Awesome photos courtesy of Media Center Intern Zachary Bennett. One note, you can watch many of the speeches and panel discussions he refers to on Campus Progress’ website.
I was one of many young people fortunate enough to attend the Campus Progress 2009 National Conference. The conference, which was completely free, sought to bring together a diverse group of progressive young people who share a strong desire to see change in America. In this respect, the conference was an unqualified success. The day began with a morning plenary. The session featured remarks by John Podesta, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, David Halperin, Director of Campus Progress, and Erica Williams, Deputy Director of Campus Progress. These three did a great job of not only welcoming everyone, but also explaining the importance of engaging young people in the effort to advance a progressive agenda in the United States. Personally, I thought that Erica Williams did a phenomenal job. Her passion for many progressive issues, ranging from reforming the student loan industry to creating a new, green jobs-friendly energy policy, was evident throughout her remarks. Additionally, I found John Podesta’s commentary on the policies of President Obama’s administration fascinating, as he spent several years serving as President Clinton’s chief-of-staff. The morning plenary also featured a performance by spoken-word artist Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai. Following the plenary was the conference’s first breakout session. I chose to attend an interactive panel titled “Human Rights: How Can We Prevent Crimes against Humanity?” Several hundred of us listened to a handful of panelists recount their experiences in fighting for the equal treatment of all people, whether in the context of gender equality or in advocating for the elimination of genocide abroad. We then broke into small groups of about ten students and brainstormed different strategies for fostering youth engagement in human rights issues. The second plenary session of the day was high-energy, to say the least. Spoken-word artist Staceyann Chinn delivered an explosive performance. It is difficult to convey the impact of her poem on the audience. Suffice it to say, she left the crowd invigorated. Van Jones, President Obama’s Special Advisor for Green Jobs, followed Chin. He touched on the importance of creating a sustainable energy policy that would create green jobs. His most memorable remark seemed to strike a chord with the audience when he proclaimed that Obama would be more powerful “as a precedent, rather than a president.” Viewing the president not as the final result of the movement, but as the beginning of it, was poignant. The second and final breakout session that I attended was “Threat Assessment: How the U.S. and the Global Community Should Deal with Terrorism, Rogue States, and Nuclear Proliferation?” This panel was fascinating not only because it dealt with foreign policy (I am a diplomatic history major, so this was right up my alley) but because the four member panel included a Bush administration veteran. I too often find that conferences such as this lack in substantial dialogue because only one side of the spectrum is represented. I was thrilled that Campus Progress reached across the aisle so that attendees could see the diversity of opinion that exists in our nation regarding our role on the world stage. The panel did not produce any concrete solutions to any global problems; rather, they fostered a dynamic dialogue surrounding a lot of the complex problems that exist in foreign policy. This was one of my favorite parts of the conference. The most highly-anticipated programming of the day was reserved for the closing plenary. It began with a hilarious discussion with John Oliver, writer for the Daily Show. Following Oliver was Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Her remarks were brief, but powerful. She hammered home the three major priorities of the Democratic Congress and President Obama: Energy, Education, and Health Care. Speaker Pelosi received the loudest applause from the audience when she reiterated her commitment to making college more affordable for American youth and extending health insurance to all Americans. The real highlight of the day came when former President Bill Clinton took to the stage. Like Speaker Pelosi, he spoke to the importance of reforming energy policy, making college more affordable, and extending health insurance coverage to all Americans. In what is common fare for all politicians, he could relate almost everything going on today to his eight years in the White House. After his speech, I was left to wonder what might have happened in the 1990s had President Clinton not been faced with a conservative Congress that blocked most of his progressive initiatives? Everything seemed to come down to the reality of the opportunity that we have today. For the first time in years, America has progressive majorities in both the House and the Senate. We have elected someone who is arguably the most progressive President in American history. All of this is the result of the mobilization of young people in the 2008 election. As Bill Clinton said, “It’s a good time to be young in America because things seem possible again.” I left the Campus Progress National Conference with a renewed enthusiasm. Progressive youth are playing a large role in changing the face of America. The conference reminded me of the huge impact that young, engaged people like me can really have on the policy-making process at all levels of government. It was an energizing experience and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to be part of the progressive movement.