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How the Journey Began

Thursday, April 8, 2010

 Two years ago, in the wake of the 2004 election, we all had a sense that something was wrong with our democracy.

 
After Barry Goldwater's ignominous defeat in 1964, the conservatives had gotten organized, and by 1980, they were on the warpath. Since that day, it seemed, progressives had been stumbling around blindly -- either trying to obfuscate the debate, looking like wusses, or eagerly helping conservatives to undo all the progress of a fifty-year national consensus that Roosevelt had begun with the New Deal.  After 2004, progressives were looking more seriously than ever at pieces of conservative infrastructure like Heritage, the Norquist meetings, ALEC, Young Americas Foundation, the Reagan Ranch, and the Chamber of Commerce; they were trying to figure out how conservatives had stolen America and how to get it back.
 
In those heady days, Howard Dean had just showed that there was an untapped reservoir of individual progressive activism to counter the traditional conservative individual-donor advantage.  MoveOn had grown from a single campaign into a multi-issue progressive clearinghouse, Rob Stein was on the road with his famous powerpoint, Matt Bai was reporting in the NYT magazine about the Rappaports and others, such as the Center for American Progress were just coming together.  George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant and Nordhaus and Schellenberger's famous Death of Environmentalism essay were making the case that single-issue advocacy wasn't enough to fundamentally shift American values -- and America Coming Together perhaps made the best point that even the most collosal election-year effort wasn't enough to win. Words like infrastructure, values, ideas, media, and think tanks were the bread and butter of the progressive lexicon.
 
At the time, I had just returned from leading a group of 135 Stanford students to knock on doors and turn out John Kerry voters in Nevada. After catching up on some long-overdue homework in a diner in Las Vegas on November 3, I returned back to my dorm room in Crothers Hall -- literally in the phallic shadow of Hoover tower -- to think about what was next.
 
At the base of that tower is a plaque explaining that it is the only federal monument to president Herbert Hoover. Small wonder.  Though Hoover's ideas -- that Americans would be better without "communistic" programs like like Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the FDIC -- had been seen as widely discredited by the 1932 election and the subsequent success of the New Deal, in that one lonely tower the spark had apparently been kept alive. Now, resurgent from organizations like the Hoover Institution, we saw plausible efforts to take apart Social Security and gut the Securities and Exchange Commission. If organizations like Hoover had restored the dream of a do-nothing government presiding over the economic ruin of middle class America, it was clear that we needed a "Roosevelt Institution" to bring back a can-do problem-solving spirit, bold new ideas and programs, and policies that move America forward.
 
As students at Stanford in the 2004 election, we had seen directly that knocking on doors with America Coming Together wasn't enough. We knew we needed to be involved in the other stuff, the ideas-media-values-infrastructure think tanks thing. New vigor and new ideas were needed, and we thought new leaders could provide that. I sent out an email on November fifth to every email list I had access to at Stanford proposing a student think tank called the Roosevelt Institution: "How do we fight Hoover's resurgent right-wing rubbish? Roosevelt's 1932 solution: don't get mad, get even."
A few days after that email, I got an out-of-the-blue email from Dar Vanderbeck and Jessie Singleton, study-abroad students at Bates and Middlebury. They proposed having campus chapters organized into regions, "for example Georgetown, GWU and American U. will all be a part of a greater 'DC Chapter'" they wrote. While campus chapters would be funded primarily as student organizations, the national organization could be guided by a "board of directors - no more than 20 people, comprised of both students and advisors" and could "write a grant proposal or appeal to foundations and private donors."
 
I thought Dar and Jessie were totally crazy. The full design capacity of the Roosevelt Institution, as initially conceived, was forty-eight students -- eight working groups of five student researchers each supported by a communications and administrative staff of eight student volunteers. I tried to be diplomatic as I wrote back: "In the constructive criticism/refining the idea department: ...I've seen a lot of people trying to start national college chapter-based organizations and I've seen it fail...". I told them I thought we should focus on campus organizations rather than a national one, and "My guess is if we're wildly successful, we'll have fifteen chapters started by the end of the school year, which means about 30 people who are #1 or #2 at their chapters. Within a group of 30 go-getters I think better to have less structure, maybe have four committees or something." We agreed to work together to get some chapters organized and put a national organization on hold.
 The next week we were having a meeting on the floor of my dorm room, putting together a one-page brief for the Open Societies Institute, Soros' progressive policy foundation. "Roosevelt Institution: the nation's first student think tank," it read at the top. "Are we really the nation's first student think tank?" someone wondered. I responded that we had all been doing a lot of reading and if there was another one, by that point someone in the room would have heard of it.
 
A hand went up. "My friend at Yale started a student think tank." 
The next morning, I was on the phone to Jesse Wolfson of Yale University. I caught him on the way to class, and he said he would talk it over with his leadership team at their meeting that evening. "This is far too important," I told him. "It can't wait." By the time we got off the phone, Jesse and I had talked through everything, had adopted a common name and a common model. The national organization, despite our better judgement, was on hold no longer, and we made a map with circles at Stanford and Yale to put on our website. It was perhaps the first time someone had missed class for Roosevelt, but it was far from the last. A few weeks later we added Middlebury, Bates, and Columbia to the map.
 
Quinn Wilhelmi, who was leading the administrative operations of the Stanford chapter at the time, inquired at the law school about filing incorporation papers. They put us in touch with a law firm at which FDR's son had been a partner. We were quite mystified that a historical figure such as FDR had a family -- it just hadn't occurred to us. "We'd better get in touch with them and make sure they don't mind what we're doing." Within a few days the word came back from Anne Roosevelt in Chicago: "We've been waiting for fifty years for this to happen."
We had a launch event at Stanford in February, which Jennie Kim covered for the Stanford Daily. The San Francisco Chronicle read her piece, and the New York Times read their piece.
 
All of a sudden, the phones started ringing. The "if we're wildly successful we'll have fifteen chapters started by the end of the school year" comment seemed oddly modest.  By the end of the year, we had chapters in a dozen states, Quinn and I had taken a leave from school to become full-time staff, and the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, which Anne Roosevelt had put us in touch with, offered to host a summer conference to get the team together, and we were on our way.
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Two years later, the "crazy" email from Jessie and Dar turned out to be closest to the mark. Among something like sixty functioning campus chapters, the Roosevelt Institution's DC-area regional federation does have chapters at GW, American, and Georgetown (and a few more), and we have a board of twelve advisors and students ("no more than 20," she had written), under the aegis of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, who oversee a national office funded by individual donors and foundations.
 
Far from inevitable, our success as an organization is a series of near escapes, fortuitous coincidences, unintended consequences, luck, and a whole ton of hard work. Organizationally, I think we've made it -- having formed stable governance structures, programs, staff, and funding sources, we've evaded many of the obstacles that cause young organizations not to become established. But I think for the first time we're also seeing that students can in fact form a policy think tank that produces real, useful policy in a systematic way. In other words, it was neither inevitable that we would exist or that we would be successful, but against the odds we've done both.
At our annual Policy Expo in DC a few weeks ago, we released seventy-five student-authored policy ideas to solve three pressing challenges facing our generation: clean energy, access to higher education, and the work-family squeeze. Thirty-nine presentations were given at the Expo, which was attended by the heads of the Economic Policy Institute, Policy Studies Organization, the American Political Science Association, officials from Center for American Progress and the MacArthur Foundation, and by two members of Congress, Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Rep. Mike Honda. These influentials, among others, came to see student policy presentations, and left impressed.
We've had meetings with legislators and given testimony in DC and in the state houses; we've coauthored articles with "grown-up" policymakers and published volumes of "grown-up" policy journals; and our student fellows have been cited in the media and gone on to take important positions in government and the progressive movement.
 
It's working. 
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Just as the blogosphere has re-empowered the citizen-journalist, the Dean movement and its aftermath have re-empowered the citizen-donor, and MoveOn and others have re-empowered the citizen-lobbyist, the Roosevelt Institution has re-empowered the citizen-policymaker -- in this case, the student policymaker.
 
By lifting up new voices, the progressive movement and organizations such as Roosevelt have brought new energy to progressive politics -- energy that was palpable during the 2006 elections, where official campaign organizations and standard tactics seemed to take a back seat to community-driven organizing, fundraising, and media -- in a word, community-driven politics. As the political world gears up for 2008, just four short years after the turning point of the 2004 election, we have done a lot of hard work and the environment is clearly different as a result.
 
At the Roosevelt Institution's third annual chapter leadership retreat, again hosted at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, a group of students will once again gather to refine the Roosevelt chapter model and to select which policy challenges to work on in the coming year.
More importantly, perhaps, they will immerse themselves in the legacy of Franklin, Teddy, and Eleanor Roosevelt, great progressive leaders who were not afraid to shy away from bold solutions to the problems of the day. Under that banner the students will go forth to chapters around the country, leading a student membership of around seven thousand to propose ideas for a new, post-industrial New Deal that will once again provide strong communities, a strong economy, strong families, and a strong nation to Americans who can feel that even in this global age the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
At this year's retreat, I will be handing over the reins at the national office to Nate Loewentheil and Caitlin Howarth, founding members of the Yale and UVA chapters who have just graduated from college. I'm headed back to Stanford to finish my degree. It has been a good couple of years.

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