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.
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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.
What is your typical day like at DMI?
: My days differ, but they always start with me taking the train somewhere (to a meeting, to my office, to an event) while reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and getting caffeine as soon as possible. Each day I meet with members of my staff to talk about the important work they are doing. I also interact with fellow progressive activists, with members of government or their staffs, with people who are experts in the issues we are discussing, with people who have the resources to support our efforts. And I try to take time just to read and write and get ideas for what DMI should do next.
What are the most exciting parts of your job?
: What’s exciting is the incredible opportunity we have to generate ideas that impact the public dialogue. I love being able to dream up programs and make them a reality–like our DMI Scholars program, which came from a brainstorm about the lack of young people interested in public policy careers, especially from diverse backgrounds and experiences. It’s always exciting to dialogue with great thinkers and activists, a special treat I have since I get to do a lot of public speaking and facilitation. And I love institution building–watching the office grow as we expand our operation and bring on more and more talented young people.
What are your least favorite parts of the job?
: I spend a lot of time raising money for our work. This is part of the job of any executive director, and since I believe so strongly in the work that we are doing, I’m honored to be able to make the case. But it can sometimes be a real drag to know that there is so much wealth in our country–even held by those who want to see a fairer and more just world–and we have to work so hard to get access to it. On the other hand, when it works–when we find someone willing to invest in our work–it is incredibly affirming.
How do think tanks typically support the broader social justice movements?
: The right wing has demonstrated the power of think tanks. Over the last 30 years, their think tanks have helped shape critical debates, literally changing the way people view their government, the “market,” power, rights, taxes and people. Think tanks do that slow, steady work, analyzing issues through their specific lenses, offering their viewpoint to the world in a steady stream of public relations, briefing current and aspiring elected officials to move their agendas forward, developing and evaluating the public policies that embody their vision.
Could you describe DMI’s specific contribution?
: DMI’s vision is to create the tools to advance a progressive agenda of social and economic justice. We develop the ideas, identify the model policies, create the frameworks that enable people to understand why a progressive agenda is the best way to realize our potential as a democracy. We are a think tank that challenges what it means to be a think tank–no boring Ivory Tower stuff for us. We try to be there, on the frontlines, mixing it up, and making our case.
What personal goals, vision or values moved you to work in this field?
: Since I was on the board of education as the student member in high school, where I realized the importance of having people impacted by public policy around the table debating that policy, I have wanted to bring that value into my work. I believed that progressive activists needed to be around the table–not just protesting outside–to really create change. Personally, my goal has always been to use my talents to good use, and I think I am best when I am combining my skills in policy analysis, politics and communications. I’ve been lucky enough to find situations that enable me to do this. Ultimately, my goal is to make the world a fairer and more just place. And I’m just optimistic enough to think this is possible.
What are you most proud of in your work in the past year?
: I’m particularly proud of two things: The first is the result of the midterm elections. I believe strongly that Democrats were able to win because they finally made the case to America’s middle class that their interests were best represented by a progressive economic agenda. DMI has been creating for years precisely the kind of tools to make this case, and we have urged Democrats to go after this population that the left had ceded to some supposed centrism that has taken us further and further away from the origins of progressivism and the possibility of a coalition between the poor, working class and the middle class against the interests of our wealthiest individual and corporate citizens. So we were proud to have contributed to a winning conversation. The second is the launch of our DMI Scholars program. We have an incredible opportunity to cultivate a generation of progressive activists who will influence public policy–from both outside and inside of the system.
What advice could you give to young people that want to break into think tanks and the public policy sector?
: The public policy field is varied–there are academics doing critical research, activists advocating on issues, people running for office, those who support those people running for office by making them smarter and deeper in their understanding. The luckiest thing in the world is to find your place on this continuum–I am grateful that I have. The best way to find it is to experiment. I recommend, for example, that anyone interested in public policy work on a campaign. You’ll get to see how this process works up close (and understand why they say politics is like a sausage factory; you don’t want to see how it’s made).
Any career “lessons learned” that you wish someone told you as you were starting out?
: I’ve been very fortunate in getting excellent advice from people throughout my career. This is perhaps a result of my cardinal rule–you must cultivate mentors. Those are the people who care enough to give you thoughtful advice. I have found mentors in former employers and colleagues, teachers and sometimes peers. Usually I ask someone to officially be my “mentor,” and I get nervous beforehand and everything, but most of the time the relationships develop organically. I try to find people from whom I can learn. I make sure to check in with my mentors regularly and let them know what I’m up to and ask for their advice. And I don’t wait for a crisis to check in; it’s amazing how many ideas you can get just by talking to your mentors about what you’re up to in the course of regular conversation. Now that I’m getting older, I find that there are younger people who turn to me in the same way, and it’s incredibly rewarding to be a mentor as I’ve been a mentee.
What would you suggest as recommended reading for someone interested to learn more about how think tanks shape the world around us?
: The Right Nation book. There is so much more, but this gives insight into the importance of think tanks on the other side.
Who are your heroes?
: Interesting question. My heroes are people who have been able to make a significant impact on the way we view our county and the world, people who challenge the orthodoxies that have kept us from greater equality and justice. I read a lot of biographies, and find this kind of heroism in many of our leaders–people like Dr. King, the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, presidents who changed our world like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson (when he wanted to). There are so many others, but I have to admit that my current obsession is reading presidential biographies, and that’s where my mind goes.
What are you reading right now?
: I’m reading Robert Caro’s series of incredible biographies of Lyndon Johnson. I’m on the third. I’m also reading Haruki Murakami’s latest collection of short stories. This is unusual–I rarely make time for fiction.
What kind of music is on your music player right now?
: I’m listening to lots of jazz–Horace Silver, Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers. I play jazz all day in my office.
(Full disclosure: Andrea Batista Schlesinger serves on the advisory board of Wiretap.)
More Op-eds by Schlesinger:
“Our Time Has Come” panel at Take Back America conference, June 18, 2007.
“How civic education died–and why we need it back,” NY Daily News, Sept. 17, 2006.
“Immigration raid “an economic dead end”,” Chicago Sun Times, Nov. 23, 2006.
“Don’t Forget Us: Young People in the Social Security Fight,” ColorLines Magazine, Oct. 1, 2005.
“Involve Young People,” NPR, April 18, 2005.
Kristina Rizga is the director and an editor of Wiretap magazine. Is there is an inspiring leader you’d like Wiretap to interview? Or would you like to interview that person yourself? Please let Kristina know at Kristina (at) WiretapMag (dot) org.