A Sleeping Class

Young Americans fight for every cause but their own. Wake up, already.

Public-university students of greater means are getting into the political game in a more permanent way, forming groups that may play stronger roles in the future. The $8,000 budget for Daly's film in Maryland came from his state political action committee, the Student Citizens Action Network. The PAC's lobbying won passage of a bill capping tuition increases at 5 percent a year and mandating a bottom-line level of education funding, and members are currently marshaling support for an override to the governor's expected veto.

The idea for a student PAC started in neighboring Virginia, where in 2002, students at William and Mary formed Students of Virginia to help pass a $900 million bond issue for higher education. Last summer, the coalition, now called 21st Century Virginia, or VA21, went statewide. "We're trying to find a way to support mainstream, bipartisan, middle-of-the-road issues that affect all of us on a day-to-day basis," says Jesse Ferguson, the 23-year-old executive director. This month saw passage of a budget with $218 million more for higher education, the first increase in years. Funded with contributions from the likes of Philip Morris's corporate owner, the group draws on its 14,000 members for letter-writing campaigns and rallies, but also employs Ferguson as a full-time lobbyist to drive home its message about budget priorities.

Ferguson says he wouldn't turn down the chance to take VA21 national if offered funding, in a young, wired equivalent of the AARP. "There's a change you can see in recent years in 18- to 24-year-olds—they would rather have a seat at the table than a rally outside," Ferguson says. "It's got to be not just student activism but effective student activism."

illustration: Viktor koen

In the end, building an effective movement for this generation, and getting that seat at the table, will come down to the "click" moments.

Just as the early feminists realized their fights over dishes and diapers had a larger significance, so will young people need to realize, through a chain of small, firecracker-like epiphanies, that their personal woes are related to systemic problems and require systemic solutions. In this, they can take a leaf from other ongoing struggles. Evan Wolfson, executive director of the gay and lesbian rights organization Freedom to Marry, says overcoming isolation is the first priority. "Unlike other oppressed groups, gays and lesbians don't necessarily start out having connections to people in their group, and maybe can't even turn to their friends and family. So reaching out, using the tools of democracy that exist, like organizations and the Web, is very important. The camaraderie gives each person a sense of empowerment."

Sara Horowitz agrees that building a constituency is the first step for a new social justice movement. Horowitz is the founder of Working Today, which does legislative advocacy on issues facing workers outside the corporate safety net. "A lot of [freelancers] start thinking they don't know how to save or they have irresponsible spending habits," she says. "They hear these messages that they're spoiled dilettantes and should get real jobs. . . . Our number one policy goal is to get people to see that a set of policies were voted in that have left them out." Stop blaming yourself, in other words, and start getting even.

Modeled more on a union than a typical think tank, Working Today offers practical solutions: group rates for health insurance provided directly to 4,000 freelancers and independent contractors in the New York area through its Freelancers' Union. Of the total base of 40,000 members of partner organizations, Horowitz estimates that up to a quarter are between the ages of 20 and 30.

The group is working toward nothing less than a new New Deal. "How can we start having policies that make sure that people have health care, pensions, and quality of life?" Horowitz says. "This generation coming into their twenties now, unless things really radically change, should be expecting to work through their sixties and seventies in part-time jobs. They're the first generation since WW II that won't have pensions." And if we don't open our eyes soon to our own precarious position and our own power to change it, we're going to be dining on dog food sooner rather than later.

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