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Where did our vision come from? How did the journey begin? We look back to our progressive roots for inspiration.
A Student Think Tank Comes of Age
Roosevelt: The Beginning
The Roosevelt Institution, now The Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, was formed in 2004 to combat the disillusionment that young progressives faced. Quinn Wilheim, one of the founders of our organization, often told students that "money, manpower and ideas are the three main pillars of politics." We had no money, we'd never been asked for our ideas up until that point, but we did have manpower: students were already knocking on doors and ready for change.
Soon after the 2004 election, Kai Stinchcomb returned to Stanford after working for John Kerry's campaign in Nevada to think about what came next. He sent out an email to Stanford list servs suggesting the idea of a progressive student think tank to fight the influence of the conservative Hoover Institution. Jessica Singleton from Middlebury College and Dar Vanderbeck from Bates College responded to the email, proposing such an organization exist on campuses across the country. The question of whether they would be the “first and only” student think tank was answered when one student said a friend at Yale started his own think tank. Kai called Jesse Wolfson, and the two groups joined forces. A few years ago, Kai told the details of those earlier months in his own words.
Guided by the desire to change this unfortunate reality, the mission of The Roosevelt Institution was to give students a voice in the policy process. These students would not be advocates of others’ ideas, but generators of new solutions for current problems. In doing so, a new generation of progressives and informed problem-solvers could burst forth on the nation’s political stage.
The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute (FERI) was an early believer of the fledgling organization, providing enthusiastic support and a blessing from the Roosevelt family. "We’ve been waiting for you for fifty years,” they told us. In 2007, the Roosevelt Institution merged with FERI and formed a partnership that is only beginning to realize its full potential.
The development of a new mission statement unified the network, creating a more cohesive vision. The infrastructure grew organically, as everything does in the network, developing a regional field team and a policy strategist team to support the growth of the network and to support the policy creation that remains the center of our mission. Our policy model evolved from a journal of long impressive policy pieces to Roosevelt Challenges. Students would vote on three challenges they wanted to address during the academic year: socio-economic diversity in higher education, an America that works for working families, and energy independence for three examples. Those ideas formed the 25 Ideas series, a set of legislative proposals by Roosevelt students to tackle those specific issues.
In the early years, students took time off from school to staff The Roosevelt Institution. Today, there are six full time recent graduates working in the New York City national office.
Today, we have an even more stable structure; six national policy centers that are consistent year-to year: defense and diplomacy, economic development, education, equal justice, energy and environment and health care. Each center has a lead strategist, they are responsible for working with individual students on policy ideas, writing pre-emptive policy analyses on national legislation and guiding the organization’s policy focused initiatives.
A new website, custom designed policy and organizing trainings, a summer internship program that is in its third year, and the explosion of campus chapters are all signs that the organization’s growth is no longer a question, but a guarantee. Students remain drawn to, and inspired by, the vision that began with our founders.
The founders of The Roosevelt Institution came to the ultimate realization that college campuses were already effective think tanks -- just not efficient ones. That realization led to the foundation of the nation’s first (and only) student think tank. A host of incredibly visionary and inspired individuals took the organization from a few schools to the incredible 85 that The Roosevelt Institute Campus Network boasts today.