WASHINGTON – Jeans and T-shirts ruled the day at the Omni Shoreham Hotel Wednesday as more than 1,000 young people converged for the fifth Campus Progress National Conference,an all-day event focused on youth activism and advancing the progressive agenda.
Former President Bill Clinton,Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius headlined the lineup of speakers and panel participants,though Daily Show correspondent John Oliver may have gotten the loudest round of applause.
The informally clad students looked a little out of place in the ballrooms of the hotel,which is more used to catering to a sea of suits. The more traditional group attending the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance's convention on the other side of the building contrasted with the Campus Progress crowd in almost every way.
Campus Progress is an arm of the Center for American Progress,a progressive think tank that was closely linked with President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Campus Progress focuses on involving young people in general,but particularly college students,in the political process.
A few exhibitions in the hotel corridors probably confirmed expectations one might have of a large group of college-age liberals. Some members of the Energy Action Coalition were recruiting participants to spell out “stronger” with their bodies in the Hart Senate Office Building's courtyard later this week,to try to convince senators to strengthen a climate change bill.
But most of the sessions concentrated on the best ways for young people to engage with technical problems in public policy. In a morning session on health care,participants encouraged each other to rely on more effective conversation-based advocacy instead of demonstrations.
At another panel,on climate change,panelists encouraged students to work for green non-profits and use strength in numbers to influence lawmakers,or even run for office.
“It shouldn't be a ‘when we grow up' kind of thing,” said Jessy Tolkam,director of the Energy Action Coalition. “It should be right now.”
The informal attire was not the only tweak that Campus Progress made on the average Washington conference. Most national meetings focus exclusively on discussion panels and speakers. Befitting the organizer's activist philosophy,the Campus Progress convention used shorter panels to launch interactive small-group brainstorm sessions.
Natasha Vickers,20,is an intern at the Center for American Progress and served as a facilitator for one of the small groups at a panel on health care. The junior from Ohio State University thought the format was better suited to a young persons' conference
“I've been to a bunch of conferences that were completely panel-driven,” she said. “Campus Progress tried to make it more interactive because that's what 20- and 21-year-olds respond to. People are here because they want to make change,so the best thing to do is discuss and participate instead of sitting and watching.”
Participants in the conference came from all over the country. Some were in Washington for summer jobs at progressive organizations and belong to progressive organizations on their campuses. But a number came to the conference because they wanted to get involved with such organizations.
Rosanne Izzo,a 20-year-old senior from Simmons College in Boston,belongs to a group that discusses economic issues in current events. The Campus Progress conference had her wanting to inject some advocacy into the group's mission.
“We haven't done it before,but now I'm interested,” Izzo said.
Mytheos Holt,a senior from Wesleyan University in Middletown,Conn.,had little time for much beyond schoolwork in the past,but he said that the conference had galvanized him.
“I have sympathy for a number of progressive causes,” the 21-year-old said. “I think I might get involved with some of them now.”