Younger, hipper brand of activism

Ret Boney 

DURHAM, N.C. — For Triangle-based Traction, the key to getting young adults engaged and active in their community is fun, friends and a dose of creative education.

Through social networking, with the emphasis on “social,” Traction aims to “build the critical mass of energized and engaged citizen activists who will power the progressive movement,” says Lanya Shapiro, the group’s executive director.

Shapiro defines “progressive” broadly as “working for social justice, protecting the environment and living according to one’s values,” and says that could mean living in a diverse neighborhood, shopping locally or carpooling.

Formed three years ago as a project of the San Francisco-based Tides Center, the group organizes events, usually from two to four a month, where “Tractivists” gather face-to-face to hang out, meet people, learn a little something new and find ways to contribute.

Recently, that took the form of a sushi-making workshop, attended by about 20 people who, in addition to honing their culinary skills, learned about the state of water quality and how to help fellow Tractivists with knowledge of conservation issues.

In early February, almost 200 people gathered for a Super Fat Tuesday party to watch election returns and hear a word or two from young people who work for groups like Democracy North Carolina, the N.C. Center for Voter Education, and Fair Vote N.C.

And Tractivists recently met for drinks and a viewing of Change Comes Knocking, a documentary about race relations in North Carolina in the 1960s.

“We give people small ways they can get involved without being overwhelmed,” says Shapiro. “And it’s no guilt. You don’t have to feel bad if you don’t sign up for the work team at the end of the event.”

It’s all part of a long-term process in which a change in attitude can lead to a change in behavior, she says.

And while social networking is a buzzword across all sectors these days, and young adults tend to be at the forefront of new technologies, Traction is old school in some ways.

“We’re very much about building an offline, face-to-face community,” says Shapiro. “It’s word-of0mouth. People bring their friends and they add their names to the list.”

That email list now numbers about 1,300 people in their 20s and 30s, generally young professionals or graduate students.

It’s a demographic ripe for involvement, says Shapiro, because the transition to adulthood leads many to contemplate their relationship to their community.

With a 2007 budget of $165,000, which in part pays for Shapiro and a temporary employee, Traction is supported primarily through grants from funders like the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem and the Open Society Institute in New York City.

But as it aims to raise $250,000 this year alone, Traction is beefing up its search for major gifts, which Traction defines as $100 and up.

Its largest grant to date is $250,000 over three years from Peter Lewis, chairman of Progressive Insurance, and his son, Jonathan, who are investing similar amounts in other organizations aiming to involve young adults in progressive politics.

That investment primarily will fund a new Traction effort.

With the 2008 election season in full swing, the group has created the Traction Action Fund, an affiliated organization that aims to mobilize young people to vote and help create a progressive policy environment in North Carolina.

The fund will endorse candidates it sees as progressive and who appeal to young voters.

“They don’t have to be young,” Shapiro says of candidates. “But we want the candidates to be ones that will help us motivate young people to get involved.”

Over the long-term, Traction aims to change the way people approach their life choices.

But in the shorter term, Shapiro says, Tractivists have a need for community in a more personal sense, too.

“We need to meet people and get married,” she says, pointing to at least 14 Traction romances, and she guesses there are others she doesn’t know about yet.

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