In 2006 The Nation reported on a little-known group of students working to get their classmates involved in progressive campaigns on the ground level. They called themselves SNAP (Students for a New American Politics), and given that they were entirely student-run, Nation writer Sam Graham-Felsen expressed concern that once the six highly motivated founders graduated, the group might simply fizzle out.
Now, four years later, the concern has been addressed affirmatively and replaced by the broader question of how SNAP can maximize its growing influence. SNAP endorses ten progressive Congressional candidates each cycle, then chooses twenty students from across the nation with an interest in progressive politics to work on these campaigns throughout the summer. SNAP provides up to $2,500 per fellow for their work. The group raises funds throughout the year to raise the money.
SNAP Executive Director Rhiannon Bronstein, a junior at Yale, believes that the fact that most students can’t afford to volunteer with a campaign is the biggest obstacle holding back the progressive movement. "The fellowships are a way to jump start students’ involvement in progressive politics, who otherwise don’t have a chance to take an unpaid internship," Bronstein says. For many students, the experience is a stepping-stone to a career in politics. Aja Davis, who was a fellow in 2006 for Ned Lamont Jr.’s campaign, describes her experience in those terms. Davis was one of three interns on the campaign. She lived in the campaign house and was "immersed in the campaign 24/7, which was something I would not be able to do under any other circumstances," she says.
There is no doubt that SNAP’s fellowships provide invaluable training for students who want to enter politics, but they also shape the future of politics by electing progressive leaders to Congress. Congressional candidates are endorsed based on their progressive politics and the closeness of the race. SNAP fellows arguably do make a difference. In 2008 three of the nine endorsed candidates went to recounts. All three won the election.
Given its early success, the organization is looking for ways to expand its impact. This year they are focusing on building stronger relationships with both fellows and candidates and maintaining them after elections are over. SNAP hopes to get in contact with previously endorsed candidates and "spend more than one summer with them" by pushing their progressive agenda while in Congress and helping on re-election campaigns. And once fellows return to their campuses, SNAP wants to keep them mobilized and active in progressive politics. SNAP has also begun floating the idea of hiring a professional staffer. Being student-run is both a blessing and curse for SNAP. Having no permanent staffers means no overhead, so all money raised goes directly to supporting fellows. But being entirely student-run also limits the amount of time and energy spent on developing and expanding the organization.
For now, SNAP will continue to provide firsthand campaign experience, which is otherwise not financially possible for students, while helping progressive leaders get elected. But the influence of this group is not just in the immediate future of an upcoming election; rather, SNAP is also filling the void of training tomorrow’s grassroots organizers, who receive invaluable training regardless of whether their candidate wins the race.
Ever since Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and associate publisher Peter Rothberg happened on the group during a campus visit to Yale University in 2006, The Nation has supported SNAP, recently hosting a fundraiser for the group in the magazine’s New York office. The more money the group raises, the more organizers it can dispatch to the field, so please consider contributing. To find out more about SNAP’s summer fellowships, click here.