12/02/2009 10:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


There has been a noticeable drop-off this year in progressive campus organizing. Part of this simply is the predictable return to more normal levels following the intense excitement generated by the Obama campaign in 2008. But there is more to it than that. Foundations and donors have curtailed their funding for progressive student political organizations. In The Nation magazine's "special youth issue" of November 23, 2009, Matt Singer of the Bus Foundation writes that during the last year the youth sector has experienced "a lack of external support from the progressive movement" and that "any model predicated on foundation and major-donor backing was in trouble heading into 2009."

Kristina Rizga summarizes the situation when she reports that youth organizers who, inspired by the Obama campaign, "anticipated increased funding from donors and foundations..." but now feel "as if they're sitting on a bus that's out of service. As markets crashed, already meager funding pools got even smaller."

Singer himself suggests a solution to the problem which, though attractive, is certainly unrealistic. He wants student organizations to be self-financing. He writes, "The path to strength is to develop grassroots fundraising models for making youth organizations supported the way organized labor is - by millions of individual members who see reason to contribute."

Unfortunately such a self-financed student movement is unlikely to develop. The problem is that the analogy with unions does not work. Union members not only are income earners but also receive financial benefits as a result of their union membership. Dues to student organizations would, on the contrary, provide no such compensating financial benefit. Donations would act solely as a drain on the meager financial resources of young people, who not only earn low levels of income but are increasingly in debt because of ever-rising college tuition and fees. Student dues would be at best sufficient only to run shoe-string operations, and certainly not substantial enough to create a meaningful political voice.

For many years the political Right has generously funded conservative youth leadership and training. The financing of Left youth organizations, of course, cannot be expected to match those levels. There are in general more wealthy individuals and corporations willing to underwrite right-wing organizations than progressive ones. But even so - and not withstanding the financial crisis - a great deal of money continues to support liberal causes. That progressive student organizations are accorded such a low priority, receiving very little of this money, reflects a serious political misjudgment by liberal funders.

In the first place, if the first year of the Obama Administration reveals anything it is that no matter how progressive the President might be, he needs constantly to feel pressure from his core supporters. The voices of the political Center and Right are constant. On issue after issue, ranging from the fate of the public option in health care reform to the future of our military involvement in Afghanistan, centrist and conservative voices have drowned out those most responsible for Obama's election. What is tragic is that young people, especially those who played such a critical role in energizing Obama's campaign, are not actively providing a counter-thrust to the conservative tide. But they cannot do so without the resources needed to mobilize large numbers. Jessy Tolkan of the Energy Action Coalition reports that during the election "we found ourselves one of the most coveted constituencies around." But considered a "safe base...we are now ... left wondering how that position is impacting our ability to ensure that our issues and our agenda are met."

Perhaps even more important than the foregone opportunity that the failure to support progressive young people represents for the present, is what it portends for the future. It is deeply debilitating to the task of strengthening Left politics over the long run. The political habit of activism is an acquired trait. When engaged in at a young age, that habit persists. But if not, life will offer many gratifying alternatives which will crowd out political involvement. A progressive politics can only succeed if it mobilizes large numbers of young people today. There simply is no other way to be certain that, as this generation ages, there will be enough activists to secure a more just society.

It takes a lot of people to overcome the power of wealth. And it takes money to organize people. Furthermore, that money has to be spent even though there may be a limited immediate payoff. Funding student activism today has to be thought of, at least in part, as an investment in the future. Political organizing of any kind requires a long time horizon, and that is particularly true when dealing with students. Unless progressive funders make a significant investment in young people today, the potential for a resurgent politics of justice and equality will be irrevocably lost.