June 27, 2007
Andrea Batista Schlesinger wants to see more young progressives in the halls of government. Today, most social justice activists work at the grassroots level mitigating the outcomes of unjust policies–from tutoring students of underfunded schools and incarcerated youth to running cultural venues as a replacement for missing after-school programs to reducing toxic pollution in low-income neighborhoods. But young people still lack the support and power to change the injustices that often originate in bad policies. Schlesinger, the thirty-year-old executive director of the Drum Major Institute (DMI), a New York-based think tank, is working to change that. The young staff of DMI work to put a new generation of progressive activists from diverse backgrounds in charge of the traditional forms of power–school boards, city halls, state assemblies, think tanks and media outlets.
Like many progressive institutions, DMI has learned from the astonishing success of the conservative movement. Setting aside political differences and competing interests, conservatives patiently built a movement of grassroots organizations, think tanks, media outlets and networking organizations that have shaped public opinion and policy. Last year alone, conservatives invested $48 million in 11 youth-focused organizations aimed at shifting the way students self-identify politically, and providing skills and tools to build conservative power.
DMI is among a handful of think tanks that provide a variety of tools to strengthen the progressive movement. DMI researches issues that affect poor, working class and middle-class Americans, holds forums to engage policy makers with local communities and DMI’s research, publishes papers sharing successful model policies, places op-eds across the country, and through its DMI Scholars program helps young, grassroots activists enter the world of public policy and think tanks.
WiretapMag.org talked to Schlesinger about the role think tanks play in achieving fair social and economic policies, how she developed her career, and what advice she has for aspiring public policy makers.
Wiretap: First of all, how did you get this amazing job?
: I had the great privilege of working for Fernando Ferrer, the borough president of the Bronx in 2000 and 2001. Freddy was really the leader behind the Bronx’s revival. I did his education policy and also helped advise on his historic 2001 campaign to become the first Latino mayor of New York City. After his unsuccessful bid, a philanthropist named Bill Wachtel offered him a role reviving the Drum Major Institute (DMI), which had been created by Bill’s father, a lawyer and advisor to Dr. King, during the civil rights movement. Freddy said “yes” and asked me to come along with him.