In April, the Census Department released new data that showed that youth participation in the 2018 midterm elections was even higher than initially reported. Among eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds, voter turnout jumped from 20 percent in 2014 to 36 percent in 2018—a 79 percent increase, the largest of any age group.
It’s no coincidence that historic youth turnout in the election, combined with significant, double-digit increases in turnout among Hispanic and African-American voters, resulted in a historically diverse incoming class of Congress. It’s simple: when the voting electorate looks more like the fabric of the country, so too do our elected representatives.
Of course, we still have a long way to go, both in terms of increasing voter turnout and increasing the diversity of our elected leaders. Even in 2018, only one in two voting-age adults cast a ballot, a rate well below that of most other developed nations. And despite being dubbed the “Second Year of the Woman,” women still make up less than a quarter of Congress.
Both of these facts—the incredible civic energy of this moment and the incredible amount of work still to be done—are at the heart of Next100, a new, independent think tank built for the next generation of policy leaders. When TCF announced Next100 in February, executive director Emma Vadehra said that the new organization aimed to “take the hunger for change that we see today in the streets, online, and at the ballot box, and turn it into tangible policy progress that results in concrete change.”
Now, with the application period closed and with only weeks until Next100 is up and running, we wanted to check in with Emma to get a better sense of her vision for the organization, and how she sees Next100 fitting into this larger moment in advocacy, policy, and politics.
Casey Berkovitz: So, Emma, you’re the new executive director of Next100. Let’s start with a tough question: What’s your elevator pitch?
Emma Vadehra: Next100 is a pop-up think tank for the next generation of policy leaders. Our goal is to build on the tremendous young, diverse, progressive energy that we’re seeing making change in all sorts of ways in the world, and create a space for new progressive leaders to drive policy change in particular. We’re going to be both identifying and supporting a new set of leaders, and giving them a platform to drive a new set of policy ideas and approaches to policy impact.
You’re in the midst of this process—applications to join the Next100 team as a policy entrepreneur closed recently, and you’re reviewing them and interviewing candidates. How are you feeling?
Well, it’s been super exciting and motivating and, honestly, overwhelming so far. We opened applications in late February, and had a pretty fast turnaround to the application deadline. We were worried that we might not see great uptake—we don’t even exist yet, after all! But as it turns out, our hypothesis about the demand out there for this kind of work was right, and our worries were wrong.
We ended up getting 740 applications from a really diverse set of people with a ton of creative ideas to drive change using policy. People with diverse lived experience, people with diverse professional experience. Lots of people saying, “I have new ideas for how I want to make the world better, but nobody has ever asked! And this is what I would do, if you would support me to go do it.”
Until the full team of policy entrepreneurs is on board, it’s essentially just you running the ship. Can you tell us a bit about your background, and what you were doing before you joined Next100?
It’s not just me—I also have a fantastic colleague, Jill Lanney, who has joined me for a few months to help Next100 get launched.
But as for me, most of my career has been spent in the education space. I spent some time in government and policy roles—in the Senate, and, most recently, as chief of staff in the Department of Education during President Obama’s second term—and some time in the direct service world, working with educational nonprofits. The goal of all of this work has been geared toward equity and opportunity. Education can be an incredible tool to increase equity and opportunity; how do we ensure it is? Because young people will definitely make the world better, if we just let them.
What do you want to bring from those experiences into the next two years?
For me, this project is exciting precisely because it brings those different strands together. I believe policy is a critical lever for making change, but it’s not always the first path that young people jump to. In fact, it’s not even clear it is a path, if folks aren’t exposed to it, if you don’t tackle the many barriers to entry that exist. We still do not have a diverse talent pipeline in the policy world, and we don’t make enough room for different voices and perspectives—even as we know that’s what is needed. And that is something I believe deeply in changing, and have been working to change.
We still do not have a diverse talent pipeline in the policy world, and we don’t make enough room for different voices and perspectives—even as we know that’s what is needed. And that is something I believe deeply in changing, and have been working to change.
So the opportunity to build an organization from scratch that is focused on using policy for change, and getting to do it from the perspective of, “How do we build a more diverse pipeline and support a different set of voices who want to make different change in different ways?” is really compelling.
It is a really amazing opportunity to give people full-time roles, training, and support, and say, “You don’t need to be well-connected, you don’t need to do an unpaid internship to get your foot in the door, you don’t need a public policy degree. You have things to say. You have ideas, and more ideas to develop. Let us give you a platform and support so that you can go drive that change.”
I want to dive into “drive that change.” You’ve worked both in and outside government, and I’m curious how you see the role of a think tank in making change. Are there any particular tools or tactics that you already can see Next100 using?
The first question is: “Are we a think tank? Does that mean we sit around and think? Or what are we?” And we’re playing with some different names, like “think-and-do tank” and “think-and-action tank,” trying to get at this idea that researching and developing policy is a critical piece of what we do—but not the only thing we do. We really want to focus, from the start, on impact, and acknowledge that part of impact is around policy. But part of impact is also around people; part of impact is around hearts and minds; part of impact is around power; and part of impact, frankly, is around implementation and practice.
We’re going to try to work more closely with pieces of the movement that some of us policy folks traditionally have not plugged into or supported—making sure people have a seat at the table and are actually driving the ideas, not just being used as examples.
That’s a lot of different sets of work. We will never be experts in all of those things, but we believe that all of those things are pieces of the puzzle. So, Next100 is starting from a place of, we’ll plug in in different ways, in different issue areas, but all of it needs to be part of broader movements. There are a lot of people already working incredibly hard and very effectively in each issue area that we’ll take on, and we’re excited to learn from and work with them. We’re going to try to work more closely with pieces of the movement that some of us policy folks traditionally have not plugged into or supported—making sure people have a seat at the table and are actually driving the ideas, not just being used as examples.
Soon you’ll have a team of policy entrepreneurs. As you’ve said, Next100 is about creating change, but it’s also about the people. Can you tell us about why the people will matter, and not just the mission?
We basically have two goals here. One is: we’re an action-oriented think tank. We want to be putting research out there, putting ideas out there, making those ideas happen by working with others, and actually making change. But the other thing is, we want to be a leadership pipeline for a new set of leaders—and we think those two things are inextricably linked.
If we have different people with different experiences generating the research, working with their partners and the networks that they bring, bringing their lived experience and their professional experience to the table, we’ll get a different set of ideas. Ideas developed by those with the most at stake, for those with the most at stake. By bringing different voices to the table, we will be generating different ideas, and those ideas will have different potential impact because of how we’re doing the work, and who’s doing the work.
If we have different people with different experiences generating the research, working with their partners and the networks that they bring, bringing their lived experience and their professional experience to the table, we’ll get a different set of ideas.
The other thing that’s really exciting for me is to think about how the different people fit together, and how a mix of experiences and backgrounds across issue areas makes for a real opportunity to work in a more intersectional way. In the policy world, we often silo things off: “Here’s education, here’s racial justice, and here’s economic inequality,” as if those things are separate. We all know they’re not. We’re going to be really small, so hopefully we’ll be able to bring a far more intersectional approach to our work.
Turning outside of Next100, there’s a fantastic energy among people who have traditionally not been part of the political world—not just tuning into the political conversation, but also organizing and running for office. Where do you see Next100 fitting in with all of that?
The answer is “yes,” and the question is “how?” One of our working assumptions is that policy change doesn’t happen because think tankers write words on paper; policy change happens as part of a broader ecosystem. We hope to formally and informally work with folks that are already driving change in the progressive movement, as well as folks who have been doing amazing work in their communities, and seeing if we can give them a little bit more policy momentum on their issues.
What’s next? How can people get involved and stay up to date on Next100?
We’re choosing our cohort of policy entrepreneurs now, and we’ll be announcing them and officially launching in August. To make sure you hear about it, and everything else that we’re up to, sign up for our newsletter, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
And after that? We’ll all have to wait and see what we come up with—that’s the point of this whole project. We’re learning as we go!