Student Activists Turn Truth to Power at the 2011 Campus Progress National Conference

Alison Beth Waldman
July 13, 2011

“I say truth, you say...”

Slam poet Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai stood before a crowd of twentysomethings, who shouted back a resounding, “…POWER!”

And with that, Tsai kicked off the seventh annual Campus Progress National Conference on July 6.

Over 1,000 college students and recent graduates flocked to Washington D.C. for this annual convening of progressive activists. They came to learn how to do one thing: Turn Truth to Power.  That was this year's theme, and a slogan splashed across programs, posters and signs and embedded into the rhetoric of the day’s conversations and panels. 

Campus Progress gets mad props for keeping participants engaged over an eleven-hour (!) day and cooking up a program packed with topics that strongly resonated with the room full of young progressives.  Covering issues ranging from social media and journalism to green jobs, immigration and reproductive rights, the Conference gave young activists a platform to share and celebrate their passions, absorb skills, dissect messages, meet potential allies for action and of course, geek-out at the star-studded list of presenters and panelists. 

Participants heard from the likes of Bill Clinton, journalists Jose Vargas and Amy Goodman, HHS Secretary of Kathleen Sebelius, and a celebrity-turned-White House official (Kalpen Modi), just to name a few.

So how exactly do we turn truth to power? And what does that even mean?

In the first plenary speech of the day, former President Bill Clinton, who entered and exited to standing ovations, summarized it this way:  “You cannot turn truth to power unless you have [truth] in the first place.” 

Turning truth to power means getting the facts to inform yourself and other people to convey that change is needed—and specifically what changes are best for the well-being of our country and citizens.  No matter where you stand on an issue, Clinton emphasized,  the most important place to start is by getting the right information—the facts, the stories, the stats—and sharing them. 

Clinton gave college students and young people a lot of credit, acknowledging that while we may lack resources and inroads to power, we often have “the best ideas.”  Yet there is always more to know and more to learn—and sharing the information you acquire is the best way to change what’s happening on the ground.   “There is so much we don’t know, and so much that we know that we don’t share,” he said.  “So make sure you know and make sure you share.”   Check out Clinton’s full speech on YouTube 

President Clinton’s idea of the power of information was echoed throughout the day. At lunch, we broke into small groups to “caucus” around specific causes. I sat down with other attendees for a discussion about higher education.  In light of proposed cuts to Pell grants in the federal budget, my lunch buddies—college students at both public and private universities from Oregon to New York—agreed that to support Pell, they needed to stay informed and then inform their peers about what’s going on.  Get the numbers straight, get the results straight and collect real stories from people whose Pell grants advanced their lives, and use that knowledge as a driving force to create change. 

“Getting Heard” in the Media

To influence policies and communities, activists need a platform and a way to reach beyond their own ranks to a broader public. Most attendees said they saw progressive journalism as an essential tool for spreading truth.  Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who recently gained national attention when he “came out” as an undocumented citizen in a New York Times column, called journalism a way to “navigate and guide himself and his readers through issues that our country faces.” 

As a journalist, he said, “your job isn’t only to ask questions, but it’s your job to look away from something that you believe, and look at an issue holistically.” 

His best advice, in my opinion?  When writing about an issue, don’t talk to people who already believe what you believe.  If you want to use the truths in your writing to create something powerful, it has to be accessible to others. It has to become universal. Even though being an undocumented immigrant is not something that everybody can relate to, for example, issues of identity, equality and opportunity are universal experiences.

Amy Goodman, host of the nationally syndicated (and, among this crowd it’s fair to say, worshipped) left-wing radio show DemocracyNow! gave her say on the essence of information during her keynote—and how using journalism was a powerful way to make sure the truth gets out there.

“Information,” Goodman said, “is the currency of a democratic society.”  Journalists have a vital responsibility to expose what is going on in the world around us.  Even, and perhaps especially, the issues the public may not want to know about. 

She made a powerful example when talking about media coverage of war, how much we don’t see, and how people’s opinions could shift dramatically if censorship were eliminated.   “It is critical that we know what is done in our name, and that's the role of journalism: to expose the truth...and it is more needed now than ever."

A Fist Pump for Democracy

I’ve heard a lot of recent discussion on listserves and in social media about young people who have experienced dismissal and devaluing of their voices in political conversations. The Conference served as a strong reminder for us, and for me personally, of what a democratic society really means.  In its simplest sense, it means that every person has the right to express his or her voice, and every voice has the right to be heard.  Like land or gold in times past, in this "information age," voices can equal power.

Kalpen Modi, Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement in the White House (and an actor who you may recognize from the films Harold & Kumar and The Namesake and the TV show “House”), reminded that “everybody has a voice in some capacity to be a part of the solution,” as he talked about the advantages and disadvantages of his ethnicity in working on the Hill in a Q&A with the attendees. 

Earlier, in a breakout session about youth at risk in a "recession generation," Deb Weinstein of the Coalition on Human Needs pleaded with the attendees of a breakout session to “raise hell” for a good cause, because “democracy is not a spectator sport.”

Van Jones, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow, progressive activist, and a truly motivating speaker, gave an arousing plenary in the afternoon. He didn’t hold back in telling the room, once again on their feet, that “America is in a moment of maximum peril,” and it was their time to take a stand. With charisma and straight-up umph that reminded me of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jones pointed to the crowd of Millennials and said, “Somebody’s gotta do something about it, and history has nominated you.” 

In fact, Jones pointed out that Martin Luther King himself was only 26 years old when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. Is that some positive historical support for young activism or what?

It’s no secret that advocating is difficult. Even President Clinton acknowledged that it can get discouraging quickly, especially when things are moving in a direction that you don’t like.  In the afternoon plenary sessions, Center for American Progress’ President John Podesta rallied the spirit of young progressives, who always like to “roll up our sleeves and enter a good fight.”

He gave a heartfelt “thank you” to progressives for standing their ground in a challenging political climate. He reminded participants that although working in politics is no walk in the park, the fight for what we believe is right—no matter where you’re perched on the political spectrum—is "what brings us to politics in the first place. It’s what brought us to this conference.”  It's what gives action power.

Connecting Progressive Social Movements

One of the breakout sessions that I attended focused on understanding social justice movements—and the need for advocates and activists to coordinate and communicate. Carmen Berkley, National Field Director of Choice USA, and Evangeline Weiss, Leadership Programs Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, both emphasized the importance of connecting with other progressive groups who are working for good. 

It’s most likely, Weiss said, "that your issue relates to theirs in some way." For example, LGBT issues link closely with economic woes, from income determination in marriage to employment discrimination.  (More on this panel coming soon).

One plenary panel featured young entrepreneurs—an inventor, a speech writer, and a sustainable famer—who spoke about getting on the right track when pursuing careers in social change.

“I know it sounds cheesy,” Vikrum Aiyer, 25-year old Senior Speech Writer and Communications Advisor at the Office of the Secretary of Commerce, said, “but even if you don’t know what or how you want to change the world, just keep going knowing that you want to do something … and all will fall into place.”   Aiyer, along with inventor and CEO of sOccket Jessica Matthews, talked about being efficient in networking, and recognizing opportunities and relationships when they appear, as key to becoming successful. 

Given economic challenges, one thought that kept sustainable farmer Natasha Bowens going was remembering that “It’s not about your individual goals, but about who is benefitting from your energies.”

That selfless attitude is not an easy one to grasp at any age, but I believe that each and every person who was a part of that conference walked out energized and ready to do just that. So let’s hope that what happened at CPNC doesn’t stay at CPNC11.  Spread the truth and spread the power, Millennials!

Alison Beth Waldman is Editorial Assistant with SparkAction. Email her at alison[at]sparkaction[dot]org.