Bill Clinton Wants You To Tackle The Planet’s Most Pressing Problems

Former president talks to MTV News about CGI U, a college-oriented offshoot of his Clinton Global Initiative.

NEW YORK — While his wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, struggles to regain traction in the Democratic primary race, her biggest supporter, Bill Clinton, has something else to be plenty excited about. Namely, the upcoming launch of CGI U — a college-oriented offshoot of the former president’s three-year-old Clinton Global Initiative, the yearly effort that brings together the world’s best and brightest to try to tackle the planet’s most pressing concerns. The inaugural CGI U conference, set for March 14-16 at Tulane University in New Orleans, hopes to cull the same sort of innovative solutions from America’s college students. The deadline for applications is Monday.

“Young people want to be relevant,” former President Clinton said, explaining to MTV News why he thought now was the right time for CGI U. “Look at all of the young people involved in this campaign for president. And I think that an enormous percentage of young people are already out there working on problems around the world, like Darfur or global warming, or in their own communities, like helping to tutor poor kids. They’re already doing so many things. And it occurred to me that the colleges and universities of America would benefit from the same sort of synergy that we’ve seen at the Clinton Global Initiative, where we bring in people from all over the world and in just three years, we’ve raised probably $30 billion to help 180 million people in 100 countries.”

Fear not, though, cash-strapped students: Unlike its parent program, CGI U is not looking for deep pockets, only good ideas and a willingness to follow through on them. Students can help in one of four areas: energy and climate change; global health; poverty; and peace and human rights. And if your idea has a price tag, Clinton said, assistance is available. “Some of them may need our help in raising money to fund the projects. And that’s OK. We do that at CGI. We have a full-time, ongoing, year-round office that helps people to develop commitments. And then if they need funding, we try to match funders with people who make the commitments so we can help with that. The most important thing is to get in the habit of doing something that will make a difference.”

Making a difference is at the heart of AmeriCorps, the community-service program that has had more than a half-million participants since Clinton created it 15 years ago while in the White House. The former president said he expects to see the same willingness of young people to give back to the community in CGI U. “I think there’s always been a yearning to do citizen service. I think whether that is up or down depends on whether the opportunities are there. They just need opportunities and a reasonable expectation that if they do this work, it will have a positive impact.”

CGI U is not only asking for solutions from college students, but educators as well. For example, in a request that would no doubt get the thumbs up from his former VP, Al Gore , Clinton calls on students and their schools to take immediate steps toward the greening of campuses nationwide.

“I think it would be an amazing thing if every college campus in America would commit to doing everything it could to becoming carbon-neutral within five or 10 years,” he suggested. “If you got everybody into this fight against climate change on the college campuses, that’s about 6 percent of America’s greenhouse gases — that’s how big the university community is in the United States.” He added that the universities would in turn be creating green-collar jobs, installing solar panels or windmills, and said any startup money needed through loans would be paid off through energy savings. “It wouldn’t cost universities or colleges any more money, it would create a lot of jobs, and it would give young people the exhilarating experience of greening the campus,” Clinton said.

But that’s just one idea. If you have a good one, get your application in at CGIU.org. More than a thousand applications have already been received for 600 spots, but if you get your submission in by Monday, you’ll be considered.

No one is looking forward to the first CGI U conference more than Clinton himself, the man who to this day is sometimes referred to as the “MTV president,” the man who in 1992 connected with young voters like few before him and few since (except, perhaps, a certain current senator from Illinois) and who has always been equally adept at communicating with generations X, Y or Z. What’s his secret? “I just try to talk straight to people,” he said, “and never talk down to them.” And although he said daughter, Chelsea , reminds him that he has some large gaps in his pop-culture knowledge, he added, “Young people are the energy, the drivers. They have more tomorrows than yesterdays, so they have the biggest stake in what happens. And intuitively, they know that. So all I ever do is try and treat young people with profound respect. I find them endlessly fascinating.”

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