Thursday, July 9, 2009

The 2009 Campus Progress National Conference

So I figure it is about time I profile the conference I attended yesterday that motivated me to start this very blog. As I mentioned in my previous post, I heard about the event, as well as Campus Progress itself, from my girlfriend Lucy who had heard about it from a fellow intern. Campus Progress is the college-focused division of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded in 2003 by John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton Administration and recent co-chair of President Obama's transition team (aka an all around baller).

The Conference was hosted at the luxurious Omni Hotel in NW Washington DC, and began with a complimentary breakfast in a massive ballroom. Lucy and I found our seats among the other 1400 some-odd college students piling into the room. The morning plenary was dominated by Campus Progress (CP) and Center for American Progress (CAP) staff welcoming us all to their event, headlined by the CP and CAP Directors, David Halperin and John Podesta, respectively. Podesta spoke extensively about his path to the national stage (it helps to go to kindergarten with a future president of the United States), his vision for the CAP (the largest and most effective progressive organization in the nation), and his close relationship with two US Presidents.

After the morning introduction, we broke out into focus groups on different topics, including health care, climate change, human rights, labor rights, and college affordability. I attended the panel on climate change (duh!) and thought it was really interesting. The speakers were great and informative, but I thought our small group discussions were most valuable. It was amazing to engage my peers in dialogue about climate issues, effective organizing methods, and the importance of social networking.

After the morning sessions, lunch was served in the ballroom, accompanied by speeches from Van Jones (Special Advisor for Green Jobs, White House Council for Environmental Quality), Kathleen Sebelius (Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services), and John Prendergast (Co-founder of the Enough Project) and Joel Madden (activist and member of Good Charlotte). Jones, an incredible and captivating public speaker, detailed the challenges presented by climate change, and how a green economy can not only be a solution to mitigating carbon dioxide emissions, but also to lifting the nation out of recession. He spoke of the importance of connecting our renewable energy centers with our population centers.

Sebelius stepped in briefly (she had just come from, and had to return shortly to Capitol Hill), to talk about the status of the current health care legislation and about how we needed to transition from an "illness system" to a "wellness system," yet she failed to explain the role reform of industrialized agricultural and the nation's current nutrition delivery system would play in this shift.

Prendergast and Madden, quite the dynamic duo, described at length how key minerals needed for the production of our electronics (cell phones, laptops, iPods, etc.) are being mined by gangs in Africa who use rape as a weapon in the war for social control. They drew comparisons to the blood diamond situation in Sierra Leone (where gangs had previously used amputation as their method for social control) and how consumer pressure caused jewelry titans to alter their buying strategies. They both stressed the amount of power we have as consumers in our ability to dictate economic markets depending on the purchasing decisions we make. They implored us to "create a critical mass of confrontation" so that the big electronics manufacturers would be forced to change their practices. When asked by a member of the audience who were the most flagrant of the rape-electronic offenders, they replied that it was an "industry-wide issue" and all were culpable.

After the lunch presentations, we broke up into focus groups again, this time covering topics from the economy and free media, to hip-hop, threat assessment, and faith. I attended the media session moderated by Amanda Terkel, CAP deputy research director and recent Bill O'Reilly ambush journalism victim (see video here). The panelists were all very interesting and came from diverse journalism backgrounds. Media has been something in the forefront of my consciousness lately - CNN is always on at my office gym where I train every day after work, so it's kind of hard NOT to pay attention. One of the panelists, who argued in favor of "hungry journalism" ( read comprehensive and contextualized journalism) as opposed to "drive-by journalism" (read minimally investigative and devoid of perspective), articulated precisely what bothers me about CNN and other commercial media outlets (in case you're wondering, they are drive-byers). They skip almost jubilantly from topic to topic, on subjects ranging from celebrity gossip, to airline crashes, to political coups without delving below the surface or delivering comprehensive coverage. One panelist also referenced an interesting quote that my mom had told me a day earlier: the role of the media is to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." All in all the session was tremendously informative, and also contributed to my desire to start this blog, itself a form of free media.

Following the afternoon session, we all returned to the ballroom to hear the "big three" presenters: Daily Show correspondent John Oliver, Speaker for the House Nancy Pelosi, and Former President Bill Clinton. Let me just pause for a moment and let that resonate and also give me time to ponder referencing John Oliver in the same sentence as the other two (ahh, what the heck!?). Oliver was incredible, and barraged the eager and attentive audience with 110% of his Daily Show charm and wit. He testified to the strengths of the British public health care system ("Just look at my teeth!") and also how much of an honor it was to work alongside John Stewart every day. He admitted how far he still has to climb on the learning curve of political satire, dissuaded us from the notion that he would start his own show like Stephen Colbert, and also revealed his concerns of deportation (his visa is set to expire on Saturday). All in all, he undoubtedly brought down the house, and who's to blame him? As he put it, we are his target demographic, after all...

Pelosi ducked in briefly - she, like Sebelius earlier in the day, had to rush back to the Capitol after her address. She spoke about the "three pillars" of American society: 1) Energy, 2) Education, and 3) Health Care. She profiled the challenges she and other members of Congress faced in the weeks to come as debate on health care reform raged on. But she wanted to clarify the public option, which has come under such scrutiny lately, explaining that the new plan would not put government between you and your doctor, but rather take insurance companies OUT.

Clinton was absolutely, positively AMAZING. An eloquent and engaging speaker, Clinton urged us to get involved in solving the problems in this "very interdependent world that is inherently unstable." He explained how being a good citizen forty or fifty years ago meant simply voting and paying your taxes, but that now it was necessary to be "public servants as private citizens" who advocate for and practice innovative and progressive behaviors in our daily lives. He described the extent to which building retrofits were the real low-hanging fruit of the climate change movement and cited the recent plan to retrofit the Empire State Building, one of the few architectural symbols of the United States, as evidence of this opportunity. All in all, he argued that if we are to ever catch up with Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and the United Kingdom (the world leaders in investment in renewable energy technology), we need to rethink how we fundamentally operate as a nation and as a society. He was not shy about detailing the challenges which lay ahead, but he also made it clear that if there were any generation equipped to handle them, it was us.

All in all, the 2009 Campus Progress National Conference will be a day I remember for a long time. The speakers, the fellow participants, the discussion groups, and the panelists were all very inspiring. Lucy and I were asked today whether we learned a lot at the conference, and although there was a considerable amount of information covered, we agreed that it was the inspiration and motivation we felt by particpating in the event that was truly invaluable. I want to ride this emotional and intellectual high as long as I can, and hopefully it will aid me in my desire to save the planet and its people for years to come.

Note: All images courtesy of Campus Progress. Full album can be found here: (


  1. Look at you go, Adam. Solid.

  2. Enjoyed your photos. What an inspiring and powerful (in all senses of the word) group of presenters!

  3. Hey Adam! Don't know if you remember me from high school, but thanks for inviting me to your blog. It's so crazy because I actually attended this conference, and went to the Media panel discussion also! (But Health Care in the morning) Small world.

    I enjoyed your summary and comments, and I completely agree that it was an incredible day, thoroughly inspiring and insanely well-organized. Keep up the good work, and best of luck in the blogosphere!

    Lucy Zhou