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Lessons for Progressives From Power Shift Youth

Power Shift March, New York Avenue at 14th Street, NW, Washington DC, April 17, 2011. (Photo: Elvert Xavier Barnes)

Part of the Series

Over the weekend of April 15, some 10,000 young organizers gathered in Washington, DC to build the movement to address climate change. The third Power Shift conference was overwhelmingly stocked with young people under the age of 30, and it offered a breath of fresh air for the wider progressive community.

The conference participants combined work on forming an agenda for action, strengthening coalitions, and building skills for organizing with hands-on lobbying of elected officials. A group of participants even ended up meeting with President Obama.

I think we need to take a page out of the book of the Power Shift youth – not just because they represent the next generation of organizers, but because I think they are being terribly smart about what they're doing. We can take three lessons from their experience.

The first lesson is that we need to recognize our role as social movement advocates within an inside-outside strategy for change. In order to leverage real pressure to move a progressive agenda, you have to have both reformers on the inside of the system and activists pushing from the outside. Having more liberal elected officials is not enough, because the pressures on them from other forces – the forces of organized money and corporate power – are too great.

We need to recognize that our role is to be a countervailing influence to these other forces. This means that we not simply go along with the administration, but rather remain resolute about our own agenda.

Read more “Walking the Walk” columns from author, activist, social entrepreneur and labor veteran Amy Dean.

These activists have embraced this dynamic as they have pushed larger, more established environmental groups to take stronger stands. And President Obama himself acknowledged its importance. As The Nation reported:

[Obama] told us it was our job to push the envelope and it's his job to govern,” said Shadia Fayne Wood, a member of the steering committee of the Energy Action Coalition. “That was really reassuring to hear from the president, because we've gotten lots of pressure from Big Green groups saying we shouldn't be criticizing him. I think our meeting [with Obama] shows their strategy isn't working, and it's time for young people to be leaders of this movement.

From the very beginning of Obama's time in office, progressives have trumpeted the need to create pressure from outside the administration, but too few of our organizations have really taken this to heart. Too many of us think of ourselves as insiders playing a role in the reform operation. But Obama has his own team, and most of us don't work in the White House. Our role is different. Instead of looking to Washington for favors, we have to show elected officials that we have a mass base that is demanding change.

This relates to the second lesson we can take from Power Shift. Namely, we need to frame the debate in clear terms by making resolute demands. The Nation story revealed that organizers were clear with Obama that they would not accept him caving to industry lobbyists by endorsing things such as so-called “clean coal” and nuclear power:

The president told us he wants the same things we want, but the politics in the country are really hard right now,” said Maura Cowley, 28, one of two chief co-organizers of Power Shift. “We said that's fine, but he can't call coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas clean energy when actually they are quite dangerous. And we said we're here to help create the political space so he can show bold leadership on truly clean energy choices.” This was precisely the focus of a jam-packed session at Power Shift aptly titled “What To Do When the President's Just Not That Into You,” where many former Obama volunteers seemed ready to apply their social networking skills to demand far more ambitious leadership from the president….

Obama really needs to address the urgency of getting [the country] off coal and fossil fuels if he wants us to get out the vote for him in 2012,” Ashley Hall, 21, a junior at Michigan State University, said as she joined 400 other students from Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin in training sessions to sharpen their skills at attracting and working with allies, writing press releases and other basics of political organizing.

The activists were essentially saying: “Here's what we want. If you can't deliver that, we're not going to be there with you.” That type of sentiment is what makes you a political force. They insisted that there is no middle ground on coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear energy, and thus framed the debate in effective terms. In the long run, this doesn't mean that they can't compromise on policy. But we must recognize that, if we go into a debate already compromised, we're not going to get anything in the end.

The young people are challenging a type of logic prevalent among more established progressives groups. This view is that, since the conservative position is so awful, we should endorse the administration's efforts to win even small gains – we should, in other words, hedge on strong demands and instead accept half a loaf. But that logic doesn't work. By showing our willingness to accept less from the start, we don't get even a quarter of what we want.

This group is doing something different: they are making their demands clear, and they are bargaining from a position of power. Young people played a huge role in getting Obama elected, and they weren't afraid to remind him of that fact.

Last, we can learn from Power Shift youth by observing how they linked their advocacy efforts with concrete training. Not only did they meet with elected officials, they spent their weekend learning how to build alliances and organize at the grassroots. While the idea of building skills is hardly novel, they broke from the usual practice by immersing themselves in training instead of just talking about the need for it. They left Power Shift with both a clear mandate to build coalitions and an enhanced ability to expand their base at the local level.

Although it is often forgotten, major reform movements in the past – such as the New Deal – relied tremendously on the energy of people under 30. The Power Shift conference should serve as a clear reminder of the importance of that energy. These young people were bold enough to draw a line in the sand. Having “access” – sitting in a room with powerful officials – is not enough, they told us. That's what we've been doing, and it hasn't produced the results we want. If we want substantive changes in the future, we need to act differently, and organize differently, to get them.

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