Passionate. Empowered. Fighting for Change.

August 28, 2014

Tracie Washington, an attorney, community organizer, and adjunct professor in New Orleans, walked into a Campus Camp Wellstone at Dillard University last year and memories came rushing back.

Flashbacks of her four years as a student at a tiny college in Northfield, Minnesota called Carleton.

And a fast-talking professor named Paul Wellstone, “Paul taught me to love organizing; he taught me the fundamentals and, more importantly, he taught me to teach others to organize. Stopping by that Campus Camp Wellstone, I saw something in those students that I remember in myself, a spark of passion for organizing, for meaningful conversation, just like Paul taught me.”

Looking back, it’s not at all surprising that when Wellstone Action started 10 years ago, one of the first programs we launched was Campus Camp Wellstone. It was in our genes, to empower young people to organize and win change. Anne Johnson is now the Executive Director of Generation Progress; in 2003, she was one of a handful of the original staff at Wellstone:

“Like a lot of good ideas, the idea for Campus Camp Wellstone happened on a road trip with another Wellstone staffer, Elana Schwartzman. From our first Campus Camp at Carleton, we went from 0-60 really quickly, hosting 20-30 Campus Camps annually within a year. We touched a nerve of what was needed at colleges: training our generation with real skills around organizing, and developing progressive capacity on campuses. Ten years later, Wellstone is at the center of the youth organizing sector, with a coalition of sophisticated and effective partner organizations all around the country.”

It’s never been more important for us to grow our progressive movement, with young leaders at its core. Student debt pushes the American dream further out of reach, yet young voices are routinely ignored. Guns enter our campuses with tragic results, yet youth are excluded from public policy decisions that affect their safety. DREAMers seek human rights and are rebuffed by partisan bickering.

The exclusion of young leaders is especially true in Texas, where for generations, conservatives have propelled their agenda forward, censoring textbooks, using tax dollars to pay for private school vouchers, and worse. For far too long, representation in Texas has not reflected the state’s rapidly changing communities.

So Wellstone got to work, and we partnered with the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund (TFNEF). TFNEF is the right partner for the right time because they don’t believe in simply asking young people to get involved in the final days leading up to an election; instead, they cultivate long-term leaders by putting youth organizing at the heart of their mission. “We really frame our work as the Wellstone Triangle in action,” says TFNEF’s Field Director, Val Benavidez. “We’re working on community organizing, electoral voter engagement, and meaningful policy and issue advocacy. The Triangle shows us how organizing must happen continually and what winning really looks like.”

Over the course of the 2013-2014 school year, we led trainings on six Texas campuses, each tailored to the unique challenges of each campus. The outcome? Allison Heinrich, a senior at the University of Texas Austin, the president of the TFNEF chapter on her campus, sums up the power of our work with this story, “Right after our training, we went out to register voters and to get them to pledge to vote. I was walking back to the office and one of our sophomore members comes running up to me and says, ‘Our messaging training worked! I was talking to a guy who was totally uninterested in registering, but after a few-minute conversation, I convinced him to register!’”

Step one, help young people find a passion for organizing. Step two, create a path, straight from our training to leadership in the movement. “I’m about to graduate,” explains Allison, “and Wellstone’s training has given our younger members a skill set, and the inspiration, to become leaders in their own right.”

And that’s Wellstone Action’s youth leadership philosophy in a nutshell. Whether we’re at Dillard in New Orleans, or the University of Texas at El Paso, or Bemidji State University in Minnesota, we run our Campus Camps with strategic partners so students can attend a Camp and then have an immediate opportunity to get involved in leading this movement.

Just like Paul Wellstone did with so many of his students, we are growing a movement today that will endure for many tomorrows. With passion, with a chance to launch their organizing career, and with a deep sense of how to change their communities, that’s how young Americans are winning the Wellstone Way.