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How Progressives Can Win in the Long Run

Right-wing groups spend ten times more on youth leadership development than progressives do. If we want to win, we need to start investing in the next generation of leaders.
For nearly 30 years, ultraconservatives have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in young people and built an infrastructure that initiates young people into the radical right movement through campus activism, leadership training and career development. Their investments have paid off. The radical right wing now controls the executive and legislative branches of government, and it's only one seat away from complete dominance of the Supreme Court.

If progressives want to achieve the same sort of political success that the radical right has enjoyed for the past two decades, we're going to have to do more than focus on the next round of elections and pay lip service to engaging young people. We must make a serious, long-term investment in our next generation of progressive leaders. Young people provide a vital infusion of ideas, energy and passion to the progressive movement right now, and their commitment to continued activism and leadership is critical to building a progressive future.

The right wing's investment in young people

For decades, right-wing organizations including the Leadership Institute, Federalist Society, Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation have spearheaded a massive effort to bring young people into their movement. Last year alone, the Right invested $48 million in 11 youth-focused organizations aimed at increasing the number of ideologically friendly campus papers, fostering networks of students on campuses, shifting the way that students self-identify in terms of political ideology, providing skills and strategies training, and promoting right-wing values.

Students are cultivated by the right-wing campaign against college courses that conflict with their agenda. For example, they have accused more than 100 professors of making "anti-American" statements. They attend courses with titles like "How to Stop Liberals in Their Tracks." They have internships, fellowships and jobs waiting for them when they graduate. They learn how to run campaigns and how to run for office.

The return on this investment has been enormous. A powerful network of young ultraconservatives fills state capitols, the halls of Congress, the executive branch and the courts. It is supported by community leaders, skilled organizers, academics and media personalities that help dominate the debate. The leaders in whom the right has invested in are familiar names. In 1970, a man named Karl Rove was head of the National College Republicans. In 1981, Grover Norquist took the reins. And in 1983, it was Ralph Reed.

Progressives need to do more

Young people have been at the forefront of every social and political movement in the history of the world. Through organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops and others, young people have defended the struggles of working people and challenged corporate power. And progressives have made great strides in supporting young progressive leadership development at a national scale over the last few years through the creation of new, progressive leadership development organizations with a nationwide and multi-issue focus, including Young People For, the League of Young Voters and the Center for Progressive Leadership.

At Young People For, we've created a diverse national network of young leaders on campuses around the country. We connect them with each other and provide them with skills and training from national progressive movement leaders. Over the course of their one-year fellowship, they work to implement individually designed Blueprints for Social Justice -- creating important change in the present while at the same time learning valuable lessons they can put to work in the future.

This year alone, fellows at Young People For have played a key role in shutting down Florida's juvenile boot camp system, expanding campus nondiscrimination policies, creating leadership institutes on college campuses for high school students and GLBT leaders, and engaging young people in the political processes by registering them to vote.

Collectively, we're doing great work, but we're not doing enough. Right-wing groups spend more than ten times as much on long-term political leadership development than we do, and financial trends over the past four years show that progressive leadership development organizations are actually, on average, experiencing a decline in revenue. Unlike their conservative counterparts, youth-focused progressive organizations are often funded with a "buying," not "building," mentality, meaning that donors want their contribution to have immediate payoffs, such as election-year voter registration, but are not focusing on investing in the strategic, long-term sustainability of those organizations.

We need more investments through growth capital followed by sustainable, multiyear revenue. Doing so would allow youth-focused progressive organizations to plan for increased growth and build for the future. Eventually, this sustained investment would also help them create reserve funds that would allow them to continue operating at the same scale if funding sources temporarily decline.

Progressives should make a commitment to youth leadership development throughout our nonprofit organizations -- not just youth-led organizations -- that is on the same scale as that of the right wing. It's time to scale up our efforts by demonstrating our commitment to young people through mentoring, professional development, networking and intentional training opportunities to help develop young leadership.

A way for progressives to catch up with the right's infrastructure

In order to address this disparity, we must build widespread knowledge about progressive leadership development needs and opportunities, increase awareness about the gaps between right-wing leadership programs and their progressive counterparts, and support progressive programs over the long term. We need to identify gaps in progressive leadership development programs and start to support programs that fill those gaps. And we need to be clear about the ways in which progressive programs are falling short and develop new initiatives.

Getting to scale is the process of expanding effective programs to achieve greater impact by:
  • Increasing the numbers of young people served by these programs
  • Broadening geographic coverage
  • Building multi-issue and multidimensional programs
  • Making sure various marginalized communities are reached


Simply put, getting to scale means that our programs will be able to extend services to more people in more places. If our youth-focused work grows to the scale of the work done by the right, we won't have just created more of the same or an increase in quantity. Instead, we'll have created a catalytic effect that leads to fundamental change.

By getting to scale, we can do a better job of reaching beyond urban areas to provide services for marginalized youth at community colleges and on nontraditional campuses. The marginal cost per youth may be expensive, but the gains of reaching more young people in community colleges outweigh the costs, especially when larger social benefits are factored in.

If progressives are to support young people over the long term, we need to make sure our youth-focused work consists of multiple programs that offer complementary types of leadership development to various groups of young people. We must build strong relationships between leadership development organizations to ensure that future leaders have access to various leadership development opportunities throughout their youth.

Together, these organizations will be able to connect young people with opportunities to grow and develop their skills over time, from high school experiential leadership programs to college-based activism and leadership trainings to career development and professional development to mid-level career development, training and networking -- providing the key infrastructure to get our movement to scale.

To learn more about Young People For, or to discuss this story, visit the YP4 blog.
Iara Peng is the director of Young People For.
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