Last month, the newly launched Congressional Progressive Staff Association published a survey of more than five hundred Congressional staff. The results were damning. Half of Capitol Hill staffers who weren’t in management reported their pay was so low they were struggling to make ends meet. Roughly one in four of those who weren’t managers said they didn’t have the equivalent of even one month’s rent in the bank in the case of an emergency. And this despite routinely working twelve-hour days and weekends.
The survey’s troubling findings come as a viral Instagram account called “Dear White Staffers” has been drawing new levels of national attention to the low pay, poor working conditions, and toxic workplace environment that is often even more pervasive for staffers of color on the Hill.
But a critical point that this growing national conversation demands is that the problem isn’t limited to Capitol Hill. Low starting salaries at many of the think tanks and policy organizations that shape public policy only serve to compound an existing lack of pipelines into public policy jobs for the communities most impacted. Another major contributing factor is a hiring culture that continues a cycle of exclusion—including the unstated but incredibly pervasive limiting belief that people with lived experience of societal problems like poverty and rampant inequality couldn’t possibly have anything to offer when it comes to shaping the policies and programs that directly impact their communities.
Meanwhile, a new organization called The Next100—housed within The Century Foundation—is turning the exclusionary nature of Washington policymaking on its head. Now in its second cohort, the Next 100 has created a model for what recruiting, hiring, and supporting diverse talent in the policy space can look like—and more generally for breaking down deeply embedded barriers to inclusion of diverse perspectives in policymaking, with broad applicability for think tanks and policy organizations across sectors, as well as Capitol Hill.
So for a look at how we create a policy sector where those with the most at stake are driving the change they and their communities want to see, for this week’s Off-Kilter—now that we’re back up and running for 2022—Rebecca sat down with Emma Vadehra, executive director of Next 100, and two of the members of the organization’s current cohort—Lindsey Cazessus and Chantal Hinds—for the first in a series of conversations with the organization’s Policy Entrepreneurs.
[bright theme music]
REBECA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas. Last month, the newly launched Congressional Progressive Staff Association published a survey of more than 500 congressional staff. The results were damning. Half of Hill staffers who weren’t in management reported their pay was so low they were struggling to make ends meet. Roughly one in four of those who weren’t managers said they didn’t have the equivalent of even one month’s rent in the bank in case of an emergency. And this despite routinely working 12-hour days and weekends.
The survey’s troubling findings come as a viral Instagram account called “Dear White Staffers” has been drawing new levels of national attention to the low pay, poor working conditions, and toxic workplace environment that is often even more pervasive for staffers of color on the Hill
But a critical point that this growing national conversation demands is that the problem isn’t limited to Capitol Hill. For example, in just the past few weeks, workers at my own think tank alma mater, the Center for American Progress, have been threatening to strike, citing what union members say are starting salaries too low to afford to meet the expenses of living in Washington, D.C., among other grievances. Importantly, though, this isn’t just about jobs with unlivable pay. It’s about which people and which communities in the U.S. have access to the policymaking sector and who ends up excluded from the decision-making table instead. Low starting salaries at many of the think tanks and policy organizations that shape public policies in this country act to compound the lack of pipelines into public policy jobs for the communities most impacted.
Another major contributing factor is a hiring culture that continues a cycle of exclusion, including the unstated but incredibly pervasive limiting belief that people with lived experience of societal problems like poverty and rampant inequality couldn’t possibly have anything to offer when it comes to shaping the policies and programs that directly impact them and their communities.
Meanwhile, a new organization called The Next100—which I’m proud to say is housed within The Century Foundation—is turning the exclusionary nature of Washington policymaking on its head. Now in its second cohort, the Next100 has created a model for what recruiting, hiring, and supporting diverse and directly impacted talent in the policy sector can look like. And more generally, what it looks like to break down deeply embedded barriers to inclusion of diverse perspectives in policymaking, with broad applicability for think tanks and policy organizations across sectors, as well as Capitol Hill and government. Here’s a quick clip from a new video highlighting the organization’s mission.
[recorded clip plays, plucky music in the background]
DIANA MARTINEZ QUINTANA: Public policy is all around us. It’s from your access to public education to the quality of the life that you’re able to live.
EMMA VADEHRA: It’s the rules we live by. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the food we eat.
LEVI BOHANAN: The way that you can access health care.
ZAKI SMITH: What businesses can exist in certain communities and what businesses can’t exist in certain communities.
VADEHRA: But too often, public policy has been written, shaped, defined, implemented by a lot of the same people.
SMITH: How do you create a policy that is geared towards the alleged betterment of the people, and the people are not present to help shape the policy to benefit them?
VADEHRA: The Next100 is about changing that. It was born out of The Century Foundation’s desire to really invest in a new generation of policy leaders who better reflect America. We recruit and support people who have a problem they wanna solve, who have creative ideas about how to solve it, but who don’t necessarily have the platform to make the change they wanna see. [recorded clip ends]
VALLAS: So, for a look at how we create a policy sector where those with the most at stake are driving the change they and their communities want to see, for this week’s Off-Kilter, now that we’re back up and running for 2022, I sat down with Emma Vadehra, executive director of the Next100, and two members of the organization’s current cohort, Lindsey Cazessus and Chantal Hinds, for the first in a series of conversations for Off-Kilter with the organization’s Policy Entrepreneurs. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. And be sure to check out TheNext100.org for lots, lots more. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
VALLAS: Emma, thank you so much for taking the time to come on. And Chantal and Lindsey, really excited to bring you into the conversation as well in just a moment. But Emma, starting with you, thanks for making time for this episode! You and I have been talking about doing this for quite some time as sort of colleagues at The Century Foundation. But before we get right into what the Next100 is and what you’re working to do with that organization, talk a little bit about how you come to this work. What’s your pre-Next100 life?
VADEHRA: Yeah. First of all, thank you so much for having me and all of us today. We’re really excited to be here and big fans, so we appreciate the opportunity. Thanks for asking. My pre-Next100 life deeply informs my Next100 life, so I appreciate it. I have spent the past decade or so working in public policy in Washington, D.C. I spent some time on Capitol Hill. I spent some time in the Obama administration as a senior staffer. I left that time deeply motivated by the problems we need to solve, by the urgency with which we need to solve them. I am an optimistic person, so I left with a decent amount of optimism. But I also left feeling that we have these massive systemic problems we need to be working on, from climate change to inequality to structural racism. They need systemic solutions, and we weren’t getting there, and we weren’t doing the work.
And I had these amazing opportunities between the Hill and the administration to work with fantastic folks. I got to work on passing major legislation. I got to work on failing to pass major legislation. I had the privilege of working for Senator Ted Kennedy across a set of issues. And in the Obama administration, I got to work on implementing major legislation, major programs, and policies and just came away from it believing in the power of government to make people’s lives dramatically better or dramatically worse, but also deeply disappointed by how those conversations were taking place, for a variety of reasons, but one of which was who was driving those conversations and who was at the table. And that’s pretty much where Next100 came from.
VALLAS: And that’s exactly what we’re gonna get into with today’s episode. So, before we get into Next100 and the model and the full story behind setting up the organization, it feels like the right place to start is to talk a little bit about what business as usual looks like at policy think tanks. I talked a little bit up top in sort of setting the table for this conversation about Dear White Staffers and some of what came to light in the Congressional Progressive Staff Association survey that was published last month, really opening a lot of people’s eyes about really low pay and unlivable wages rampant on Capitol Hill. But I also mentioned that that’s not just a Capitol Hill problem. It actually has a lot to do with who’s able to take jobs and to get into that sort of policymaking pipeline at policy think tanks.
So, talk a little bit about what the picture looks like. And this is a picture I’m a little too familiar with myself as someone who’s now been at think tanks for going on a decade. Talk a little bit about what the consequences are of that sort of business-as-usual approach in terms of whose perspectives end up missing and excluded. So, just to put a really blunt sort of frame on this: What do we end up with in terms of shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion the way that we’ve been doing things at think tanks until now?
VADEHRA: Yeah, that’s a great question and something we think about a lot. And as you indicated, it’s something we think a lot about when both the, when the entire policy ecosystem is such a closed ecosystem, right? Government to think tanks, think tanks to government, and folks working in those spaces or excluded from those spaces and what that ends up looking like.
So, I wanna step back for one second and just talk about think tanks for a moment because to be frank, I think a lot of the people who we ought to have at the table are not thinking about think tanks. We start our Next100 time by saying, “What is a think tank? What does that mean to us?” And I would not have known had I not worked in D.C. for a long time what these things called think tanks were and why they matter so much and how they differ from other organizations. So, public policy think tanks do a ton of critical work in terms of shaping public policy at the federal, state, and local level, shaping the debate, developing new ideas, bringing data to the forefront, evaluating different policy ideas, and educating policymakers at every level. I was in government for 10 years. Policymakers and their staff can’t do all this work on their own, nor really, should they be doing so. They need outside voices and influencers. So, on both the left and the right, they end up relying on this ecosystem of outside policy researchers and advocates to inform their work to inform the decisions they make, the issues they prioritize. So, who sits in these roles and how they think about their work is an integral part of how government sets policy and how policymakers do their work.
And this is important work. I think we take it for granted, and your listeners probably take it for granted, that in the policy space, this is an immense privilege. We get to come to work every day and work on these issues that set the rules, that set the policy rules by which we all live, and who is at those tables just doesn’t reflect the people living within those rules and the people most impacted by policy. So, you end up with, you know, our sector’s traditionally been disproportionately white, disproportionately wealthy, disproportionately elite, and disproportionately well-connected. It’s really hard to get into this space if you’re not coming from a place of privilege.
And if you find your way in—and this is, I think, a lot of what we learned from the Capitol survey—it’s really hard to thrive even if you get in the door. And that has implications for the work, right? We all come to our work with a set of backgrounds and experiences that inform how we do our work. I’m a New Yorker, I’m a mom of twins, I’m a daughter of immigrants. Each of these shapes how I think about what’s important. And that’s true for all of us, and that’s not bad. At Next100, we talk about bringing our whole selves to work. But if we’re systematically excluding the folks whose whole selves include being most impacted by the policy decisions we’re debating, we’re just missing a huge part of what’s important, what matters, and the nuances of those experiences.
VALLAS: And all of that, I think, states the case for the theory behind Next100, of course. So, it’s segues nicely into why you teamed up with the Next100 to say, “You know what? I think we need to do things differently, and I think we can actually create a whole organization that is centered around doing things differently as something of a proof point.” Talk a little bit about the story behind how the organization came into being. What is the model? What is it that you’re setting out to prove? In some ways, it feels like you’re kind of taking on this big, unstated limiting belief that has governed think tanks culturally for as long as they’ve existed.
VADEHRA: Yeah, that is a great question. And I appreciate the “unstated limiting belief,” and I’ll get into this. But I think there’s a series of unstated limiting beliefs about what matters, what matters if you’re gonna shape policy, and implicit beliefs that if you’re gonna shape policy, what you should have is government experience. If you’re gonna shape policy, what you should have is academic expertise. If you’re gonna shape policy, what you should have is quantitative knowledge or strong writing skills or whatever it is, right? These are all basic precursors to so many think tank roles and government roles. When you step back, it’s just hard to imagine that’s the full suite of what we should be valuing, right? So, at Next100, we’re really explicit that one of the things we need to be valuing is lived experience, is proximity to the issues. If you’re gonna shape policy, those are things that need to be a part of what is happening and that we need to flip that belief on its head.
So, going back to the origin story of Next100. Huge credit to The Century Foundation, a 100-year-old progressive think tank that basically decided to invest in doing things really differently. The Century Foundation was interested in supporting a new kind of think tank that did the work in a different way and that empowered a different set of people to drive policy change. We were founded about three years ago, supposed to be a short-term project, and we basically, from the start, tried to develop a model that is part policy leadership development program and mostly nimble think tank, right? And so, if we step back and think about what’s missing from the policy space, it’s really hard to find your way in, right? It’s really challenging to even know these jobs exist. So, we set up a recruitment process that just got us out into the world outside of D.C., outside of our friends, former interns, and tried to get the folks working with communities with impacted individuals and explain this is a kind of systemic change work that we’d be eager for their help with.
Barriers to policy space? Often people need to come in early and work their way up. There’s no intentional training on the job. So, that obviously excludes a ton of people who would be amazing at this work with a little support upfront. So, we set up a model that starts with an upfront basically boot camp, a set of skills training and individual learning sprint where folks actually get the time and support to learn.
In the policy space, it’s hard to make change without a platform, right? So, we are giving people a platform to support the change they wanna see with their communities without telling them what that needs to be, what that needs to look like, right? So, we basically tried to set up a model—
Oh, and by the way, we’re paying people for full-time jobs, right? I have to say, as we were getting started and I was looking across the sector, there’s fellowships left and right. They might pay, they might not. We all know the problem of unpaid internships in the policy sector. But mostly, if you wanna enter the policy sector, the pathways in rely on no to low pay—even as a Capitol Hill staffer, as you said—might rely on fellowships with no benefits, might rely on a short-term 8-to-10 month stint. And that’s not really how we get new people in the space, right? I get paid to do policy work. Why shouldn’t Chantal and Lindsey get paid to do policy work? So, we set up a model where we’re bringing people into full-time roles, supporting their skill building at the beginning—they’re bringing way more to the table than we are, frankly—and then supporting them to drive the change they want to see.
We launched, as I said a few years ago. We didn’t exist. We had a website and nothing else. I think you and I spoke about Next100 way back then. I was a little nervous. Would anybody wanna do this? And we ended up getting over 700 applications from folks with super diverse backgrounds from all over the country who literally said things in their application like, “Of course, I wanna do this. Nobody’s ever asked me to help before.” And that was sort of a really telling moment for us in terms of maybe this wasn’t a short-time thing, a one-time thing. There’s a real need out there if we build the right kind of organization that knocks down all these barriers at once and support people in driving their change.
VALLAS: And inherent in a lot of what you’re saying is obviously, paying livable wages is important. It’s a necessary precondition for people to be able to break into this sector, but it’s really just scratching the surface. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, as one might say. And so, a big part of what you all are doing is trying to actually build the rest of the model, as I understand it, so that other folks out there can say, “All right. Well, if I’ll play, if I’ll question some of those unstated limiting beliefs that I didn’t realize were governing the culture of this sector, how might I go about doing this within my organization as well?” So, for folks who are listening and who are going, “OK, I’m there. I’m interested in this. But does it work,” how’s it going so far? You guys already had your first cohort. Now you’ve got your second cohort in. This is no longer just a one-time thing. This is a model that’s growing. Talk a little bit about the experience so far and maybe some examples of the kinds of policy areas that your Policy Entrepreneurs have focused on. And we’ll get to hear in just a moment from Lindsey and Chantal, two of this cycle’s Policy Entrepreneurs who are specifically working to change how anti-poverty policy is made.
VADEHRA: Great. Thank you. I’ll let Lindsey and Chantal talk about their work ‘cause they’ll be way more interesting than I will. But I think it’s going pretty well. I’m not gonna lie! Three years ago, when we started, as I said, we were nervous: Would people apply? Folks walking in, how would we do at supporting people? And generally, if you think of our basic theory as being, if we bring folks who bring lived experience in their issue areas, who bring proximity to impacted communities, who bring, frankly, a set of interesting professional experiences, from designers to organizers to activists to lawyers, if we bring them into the space and give them a little bit of support so they know the basic policy language that they might not have known before and a platform, can they do the work? Can they drive the change? Can they elevate their ideas and those of the communities they are working with in ways that are rigorous, relevant, and impactful? And I think the answer is (spoiler) yes.
We learned a lot through our first process. We think a lot about how we continue to improve some of those things that we want to be lessons for the sector. How do we run a selection process that values proximity and that values potential and doesn’t exclude folks ‘cause they don’t have all the traditional markers, right? And I think we got better at that the second time. How do we have a training program that gives people enough of the tools and language they need to be able to identify places to make change without weighing them down with an academic experience? That is not what we are trying to do here. And so, I think we’ve continued to learn and improve upon these pieces. But at a basic level, the theory has held, and we’re incredibly excited.
We have folks, folks come to us with the issue area they want to work on in mind. So, we end up working on the issues that the people we hire want to work on. We’ve worked on immigration, we’ve worked on climate change, we’ve worked on education, we’ve worked on economic inequality issues and criminal justice issues. And sort of across the board, we’ve seen some real wins.
To give an example that you won’t hear from today, or actually two examples you won’t hear from today, we had Zaki Smith in our first cohort, who is a superstar. Zaki was formerly incarcerated, in and out of the justice system. Ended up losing his job that he loved at a school in New Jersey because he had a record, and he couldn’t keep that job with a record. Came to Next100 right about at that moment, where basically, policy had ruined his life, and he was looking for ways to change that and ended up being one of the leaders here in New York of the Clean Slate Coalition, which you, Rebecca, and your listeners are super familiar with to think about how do we expunge criminal records so folks like Zaki, as you would say, who have served their time, can actually successfully reenter society? And he did work from policy and advocacy work with the New York State legislature to putting up murals around Brooklyn in some of the most impacted communities in New York State, some of the communities with the highest incarceration rates, to bring those communities to the table to explain what this record expungement law could mean for them, what the policies were that were impacting their lives, and how they could be a part of changing those. So, sort of ran the gamut in terms of the types of policy changes, types of policy change he engaged in.
VALLAS: And I know that we’re gonna have Zaki on this show at some point this year. As I mentioned, up top, this is gonna be the first of multiple episodes where we’ll get to hear from past and present Next100 Policy Entrepreneurs. And Zaki is truly amazing, doing amazing work. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know him through some of his clean slate work. But just very excited to have him on the show at some point soon as well. Was there one more example you wanted to offer before we bring in Lindsey and Chantal?
VADEHRA: Happily! [laughs] I mean, I could talk about this all day! We’ve had two cohorts. I talk about every one of them. The other example I was going to give also from our first cohort, since we’ll be seeing more from our, hearing more from our second group today, is Rosario, who was in our first cohort. She had been a teacher before she came to Next100 in Texas and New York City. She was formerly undocumented. She came to us directly from the classroom. And basically, bringing together those two parts of her experience, she came to Next100 to work on issues around education for immigrants, children of immigrants, and mixed status families. And lots of really interesting things about her journey with us, one of which was that she came to us talking about federal policy. But as you and I will recall, Donald Trump was the president, and moving federal policy was hard. She came to us talking about education because that’s where she had been most directly involved right before us. But basically, upon getting some time to step back, learn more, think more about the policy ecosystem, decided she wanted to focus on state-level policy, where she decided there was more opportunity for change and far broader than education.
So, she basically did a project where she engaged directly with a set of Black and Latinx mixed status families and led them through a process of sort of, what is your vision? What is your vision for your children? What are the challenges getting in the way? And help me think about, identify, prioritize potential solutions and policy solutions that states could put in place to address that. And it was an amazing project that we put out in multiple languages to be respectful and reengage the communities we worked with in terms of directly from the voices of these parents what was most important, and how could that connect with policy to solve it? She then paired that with a sort of pretty traditional 50-state policy analysis of what states were doing. And so, collectively brought to the table the voices and priorities of families with the reality of what states were doing to develop a set of recommendations for states to improve immigrants’ lives while the federal government was not moving forward.
VALLAS: And there’s so much in there that deserves to be told in sort of full-length format, which is why we can’t just have one episode featuring Next100 Policy Entrepreneurs. It’s why we need several. But there’s so much in there that is also really the through line, as I understand it, across really all of the Policy Entrepreneurs in cohort one and cohort two’s work to date, which is really, it’s changing how the work is done, it’s bringing different perspectives to the policy sectors that they’re working in, but it’s also creating bridges in lots of different ways, at least as I understand it, now having gotten the chance to meet all of this cohort, as well as multiple of the folks from your prior cohort. But it’s building bridges to the communities that folks in many cases come from, but who don’t have access to policy making because those pipelines have not existed. So, really, really, really incredibly excited about so much of the work that’s already going on and so much of what you’re shaping.
And that’s just really a fantastic segue to bring in Lindsey and Chantal so that we can hear more about their work as well. So, Emma, I’m gonna ask you to stay and kind of still be here as part of this conversation while we move over to talking a little bit more with Lindsey and Chantal in this next segment. So, Lindsey, Chantal, thank you so much for taking the time to join this episode of Off-Kilter. And I’m really, really thrilled to get to be in conversation with you both today after hearing about some of the amazing work you’re doing when I was up at the Next100 offices just a couple of weeks ago. So, first off, just welcome to the show.
LINDSEY CAZESSUS: Thanks for having us. Thanks for having us, Rebecca.
CHANTAL HINDS: Really excited to be here. Really excited.
CAZESSUS: It was so good to see you in person also.
VALLAS: I know! We’ve got to take those moments and really savor them in this pandemic life, right? Being in person is just such a rare treat. So, I wanna ask you first each to talk a little bit about how you come to the work that you are now doing, housed at Next100. And Lindsey, I’m gonna start with you and then go over to bring you in as well, Chantal. But each of you is, as I mentioned, really leading projects that are, yes, they’re about specific parts of anti-poverty policy, but they’re really also about trying to shake up and change and model the changes that are necessary to how anti-poverty policy is made and who’s at the table and which perspectives are really centered in shaping policy in that sector. So, first to you, Lindsey. And I’m so thrilled to get to hear you talk a little bit about how your project came into being.
CAZESSUS: Yeah. So, I can just start by talking a little bit maybe about how I come to the work. I grew up in southern Alabama in a pretty tiny rural community where most folks were interacting with public assistance in some form throughout their lives, and my family definitely experienced that as well. So, I think growing up, seeing my parents work hard and still struggle, that didn’t make sense to me. And hearing how people I knew as my neighbors, my family were talked about in politics and on TV, in the media, that also didn’t make sense to me. And I think those early experiences are kind of what I carried with me through becoming a first-gen college grad and having my early experiences dipping my toe into kind of like professional policy world. And I think I continue to sort of think from that place today, informing my work here and informing my first project.
I think about the vision that I wanna see through our policy work as a vision of a society where every child is born with a very basic minimum guarantee of dignity and security. And I focus a lot on welfare policy around public benefits, and specifically cash aid, because I kind of see that as the way that we achieve that vision in terms of policy, but also in terms of the way we should be changing our thinking on problems like solving child poverty. So, that kind of brings me to my first project.
I think coming from a background where I kind of, I know what those struggles look like of navigating government systems. I know what it’s like to be in the computer room with your parents going through it with them. And I think that gives me an appreciation for the fact that legislative solutions are awesome, but they’re just not gonna cut it. So, there has to be another avenue to achieve material gains for people right now. So, my first project kind of led me to think about executive action. And I landed on making policy recommendations based on an executive order that was handed down by the Biden administration this past December. That’s an executive order with a very sort of wordy title, Improving Customer Experiences In Government. What that essentially means, I think, in terms of anti-poverty policy is providing an opportunity to reduce administrative burdens for families who are having to use their own time every day to check the SNAP portal online, to try to navigate these systems themselves.
So, my first project will really be about trying to see how we can use the powers of that executive order to make policy change that will just cut down on the dehumanizing experiences and the time-wasting experiences that a lot of young families have when they need to access those really sort of survival-level benefit systems like SNAP and WIC. So, I’m excited to get going on that. And I think that, again, looking beyond legislative change is really important here when we talk about making immediate change for real people on the ground. So, I think I’m starting my thinking there, but also looking forward, like I said, to having this vision of a compassionate welfare policy agenda. And this is sort of just the first practical step there.
VALLAS: And there’s so much more in there that we can and will get into, but I just have to say, as someone who has spent many, many years, first as a lawyer trying to represent folks who are coming up against what is often called “bureaucratic disentitlement”—a benefits system that is designed more to shut people out than it is to enable people to be able to access survival benefits, as you note—and then later as a policy professional trying to remove bureaucratic red tape to make benefits programs more accessible, something that has been true as long as I’ve been doing this work is that people who are directly impacted by survival-level benefits programs are almost never at the table being asked, “Well, so, does what we have, does what we’re setting up actually work in real life?” And that’s a big part of what you’re working to change in all the ways that Emma was starting to describe Next100 is trying to do structurally across so many sectors. So, I’m so incredibly excited for your work and to hear more in this conversation and in future conversations too.
But Chantal, bringing you in next as well, talk a little bit about how you come to this work. You’re also working to change how a really important component of anti-poverty policy is made, but which impacts families in a little bit of a different way.
HINDS: Yeah, sure. So, I’m really excited to be here and to chat with you all and have been reinspired by hearing Emma share about Next100 and just the work that we get to do here. So, I come to this work, I’m trained as an attorney, and I have practiced for about 10, 11 years. And really, was very much doing direct service, public interest work on the ground, with families accessing anything from public benefits to helping folks fight eviction cases in housing court, all the way through to the work that I’m continuing to do at Next100, which revolves around the foster system and child welfare systems. So, I come to this work with a lot of connection to the communities that are experiencing policy decisions in a very real and intimate way because it’s impacting their family, right? It’s impacting their family units.
So, I had spent most recently, in my last position before coming in Next100, I was doing direct service work to students and families impacted by the foster system. So, I was representing families, making sure that their students’ educational needs were met. I was working with foster care agencies in New York City to make sure that the staff there had the tools that they needed to be strong education advocates for the children that they served. And in doing that work as an attorney and one on one with individual families, your head is kind of really down very close to the problem, and you’re just fixing issues as they come along. So, it’s a very reactive kind of position. And I was really longing for an opportunity to think more proactively about how we can kind of correct some of the things and decisions that have been made at higher levels, often, like you just mentioned, not involving the people who are actually impacted. How can we change some of those decisions that were made? How can we change some of those policies? How can we course correct so we kind of fix the issues that I was seeing that were a direct result of these decisions?
And usually, folks don’t think about, I imagine don’t think about, sort of child welfare and the foster system and anti-poverty work together. But really, if you take a second to zoom out, if you look at the numbers, if you look at the data, what we know is about 64 percent of children and youth who enter the system do so based on an allegation of neglect. And what research has found is that that is actually also very closely tied to poverty. So, what’s happening in the child welfare system is that issues that are related to poverty, issues that are related to basic family needs of trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents, right, those issues are getting viewed as neglect and then are pulling families into this system that includes and results in a lot of surveillance of these families, of their interactions with each other, of just parenting, and causes a lot of families that end up in the foster system through no fault of their own, but the fact that they have been made vulnerable by systems that were supposed to protect them.
So, just thinking about the families that I worked with and a lot of the challenges that they face, I could easily see that some of these cases I was working with, some of these families I was working with, the issues that plague them were not pathological issues with who they were as people. They were issues with what society had failed to do to support them. So, in my work, I think about, in addition to sort of trying to address the issues that students in the foster system face once they get in the education system and how that intersectionality of these two big systems work together, I also think a lot about just how families end up there to begin with and why, and the kind of ripple effect that involvement in those systems causes to families, to children, especially when you look at some of the outcomes for these children and youth who have been in the foster system.
The outcomes are really horrible. We’re funneling a lot of these young people into the carceral system. They’re being funneled. They’re not able to make the educational gains that they need to make because systems have failed them. So, we have to really think holistically about what does this anti-poverty policy over here in this realm, how does that affect and trickle down and implicate other systems which are kind of caught up in this view of poverty as something less than or some sort of inherent issue with the person, and not viewing it as a systems issue and a societal issue.
VALLAS: And I appreciate so much your just calling out directly something that lots of folks who maybe haven’t ever encountered the child welfare system directly or who haven’t had some kind of direct service experience or other type of exposure to what happens and how families get split up and children get taken away, poverty equals neglect in the eyes of so many different caseworkers in this system. And it was something I saw firsthand with the families I was representing back in my legal aid days in ways that really burned that understanding into my skull pretty early on doing this work. So, I just really appreciate your shining a light on this and all the work that you’re doing to change some of how the policymaking in that sector is done. And as you said, course correct with some of the immense harms that have been done with what I think people often thought was, you know, with good intentions or was to protect children, but really did not understand that the realities of the families that have been torn apart in so many cases and the structural drivers and policy failures that have put people in those positions.
So, I want to zoom out and ask you both—and Emma and I started to get into this, but I really would love to give each of you a chance to speak to this as well—but that sort of threshold question of, what are the consequences of the way that we’ve been making anti-poverty policy, that sort of business-as-usual approach, that doesn’t include directly impacted communities and a diverse and inclusive set of perspectives in shaping policy solutions? So, what happens when it’s only the folks in the ivory tower who make policy decisions, shape policy ideas? And I’m curious if you each want to speak a little bit from within your focus areas of your work, given some of what you’ve seen in terms of the, you know, here’s what happens when it’s done the wrong way. But also on the flip side, I’d love to give each of you a chance to talk about how policymaking, and in particular anti-poverty policymaking, can improve, will improve when it is shaped by, informed by people who have been impacted or are currently being impacted by poverty. And Lindsey, I’ll let you speak to that first.
CAZESSUS: [sighs] There’s so much there. And I think with anti-poverty policy, it’s a really clear example of a situation where it does feel like— I remember my first impression of stepping into this policy space was a feeling that policy was being made about people who weren’t there and were a sort of a very abstract idea of what their lives must be like and what the factors must be that have contributed to them needing a SNAP policy to be reformed. And I think the kind of downstream from that what you see is you see policies being made that don’t really incorporate an understanding of what the real barriers, what the real sticking points might be that keep programs from being effective. We know, for example, that around a quarter of everyone living in poverty currently have no access to any of the major anti-poverty programs that you might think of when you think of the safety net like SNAP and WIC and housing vouchers.
So, we know that accessibility becomes sort of a number one issue here when the people making anti-poverty policy just don’t understand what it’s like to be trying to fit in maybe multiple jobs, multiple child care arrangements, and how small parts of program design—from work requirements, a larger part, to even just, are we having to do in-person appointments this week, or do we have online access, those sorts of things—I think that when you have policy coming down from an ivory tower and not really being formed at the starting point from the people who will have to live with those decisions, I think that the accessibility question becomes a real issue.
VALLAS: It’s such a timely set of points as well, and I feel like in some levels, here we are having this conversation right now, as the Child Tax Credit expansion, our country’s first ever guaranteed cash allowance to families with children has expired, right?
VALLAS: Because that’s a whole conversation in and of itself that I think reflects how broken government is in many ways. But without getting too much into the politics there, even when the program was up and running, there were lots of folks—you included, myself as well—lots and lots of people across the whole kind of public policy sphere who are all starting to say, “Wait a second, wait a second. Eligibility doesn’t equal access, and we have to think through the access piece if we actually want these benefits to reach the families that they’re intended to help.” So, that obviously is not restricted to the Child Tax Credit or to programs of that scale. It’s something that applies to public assistance and really, basic living standards programs across the board with varying degrees of bureaucratic red tape that nobody’s really talked to the quote-unquote “consumers” about why they have trouble cutting through it.
Chantal, I’m gonna ask you the same question. And you started to get a little bit into this in talking about the problems kind of baked into so much of the child welfare system, often with good intentions, but with really sometimes devastating and tragic consequences for families. Talk a little bit about what it looks like when it’s only the ivory tower crew shaping policy in the child welfare system and what that’s gotten us that policymaking that actually includes impacted families might be able to improve.
HINDS: Yeah. I feel like, Lindsey, that is a loaded question for my issue area too, because I could say that ivory tower policies in some ways have gotten us 400,000 children across the country in the foster system. Those policies have gotten, or sorry, put 1 in 17 children at risk of placement in the foster system between the ages of birth and 18. There are a lot of real consequences for these decisions that are made in isolation by people, frankly, who do not have some of the financial instability and insecurity that a lot of families in the systems face, that do not have, you know, do not live in the communities that these families live in, are not at risk of their children being removed from their homes. Their relationships and their interactions with their children are not surveilled by school systems and by other government systems in the same ways. So, it is very easy for someone in an ivory tower to assume that if we put in X Y Z policy to quote-unquote “protect children,” that that’s the best thing to do because they don’t have anything on the line.
And I think that is the just most important thing that I think about when I think about this work, when I think about what I bring to the table being connected to those families, looking in the faces of parents whose children are in the foster system and walking them through becoming advocates for their children in terms of their education and seeing that these people are living a real experience, are having a real experience, and are the experts on what is the best solution for them. How can we help support a family that may be in crisis or just may be family-ing, right, just going through the dynamics of being a family? How do we help and support a family in those areas? And the people who are most at risk, who have been involved have the best ideas and plans and solutions.
And you had asked about where is that happening or examples of how that’s happening. I think of organizations in New York like the Parent Legislative Action Network or Rise, which are parent-impacted and parent-led organizations that push for change, whether that’s programmatic or legislative. I know PLAN played a big role in some changes to our state’s central registry, which is sort of the warehouse where all complaints of abuse and neglect go into. They made some changes about how long certain cases stay on parents’ records because those open cases of abuse or neglect end up having very long-term employment consequences for parents and just perpetuates a cycle of involvement with the child welfare system. So, I know PLAN was involved in a push to shorten that timeframe, create more pathways for parents to get their cases removed or their names moved from the registry or sealed. So, I think when we are able to look to the people who are experiencing the most, who have the most to lose, there’s a lot there for us to learn from them. And I look at myself as not being personally impacted by the child welfare and foster systems, but being very close to people who have as a conduit, right? I am privileged to have a law degree. I’m privileged to be able to do the work that I do, and I always wanna make sure in my work to kind of be a conduit for those voices, to bring them into spaces and then create space for them in these conversations.
VALLAS: So, and a big part of what each of you is doing with your work also really gets into changing narratives, not just policy, but also how we talk and think about what it means to make policy in this area. I know that’s a big part of what each of you could probably spend whole episodes talking about. But I do wanna give each of you a quick chance to speak a little bit to how that connects to your work as well. And Lindsey, you started to get into some of this as you started to talk about the feeling of watching television and hearing policymakers talk about you and nobody actually talking to you.
CAZESSUS: Yes, I definitely think that narrative change is incredibly important in anti-poverty work because I think the narratives that we hear and that we subconsciously buy into, maybe even, about what poverty means and what it says about you to be living in and out of poverty are what drive all of the political decisions and all of the discussions that we might have and even unfortunately, how we might view even ourselves and our neighbors and those around us experiencing that.
So, I think the two shifts that I think of as being most key to my work are the move away from the sort of work-ism, the recognition that work alone, jobs alone are not going to be enough to lift most people out of poverty because most people who are experiencing poverty are experiencing poverty because they could not be employed even if they wanted to be. That’s mostly children and seniors and students and people with disabilities, people you wouldn’t want to be working anyways. So, I think recognizing that for those folks in the most need, welfare really is the answer. That means we have to design a welfare system that treats them with compassion and meet their needs in a way that treats them as full people with dignity.
And I think the second narrative shift that I’d really like to see is a recognition that first of all, the family has done nothing wrong to be in the situation, that poverty does not originate from some sort of pathology of weak moral character or anything like that. And it certainly is not a child’s fault. So, beyond even just taking the blame and the stigma away from poverty, also realizing that just irrespective of that, if what you care about is ending child poverty, then you should care about giving money to children who need it to have food on the table, regardless of the situation with their parents. And I think those two shifts alone would go a long way in changing what our policy looks like.
VALLAS: And hearing you talk, of course, about needing to move beyond that sort of myth that somehow that the difference between being poor and not being poor is just getting a job, right? Of course, there’s obviously a huge share of the country that’s working and still in poverty, right? So, here you are. You’re of course, focused on benefit policy, but obviously, that goes hand in hand with things like raising the poverty-level minimum wage and other policies that really scream out for structural solutions, rather than continuing to blame people who haven’t pulled themselves up by their mythical bootstraps.
And Chantal, narrative is a big part of your work as well. And some of that has to do with really telling a more accurate story about who parents are who are in poverty, and what it means not to be able to provide for your kids, even though that’s what you want more than anything in the world.
HINDS: Yeah. I mean, I think that this is one aspect of my work and Lindsey’s work that overlaps so clearly, at least in my mind, is just the way that we speak about people. And thinking about this question about narrative, what came to mind is this saying, “But for the grace of God, there go I.” Which is this idea that we are all susceptible to something happening in our lives that could change the trajectory of our lives. And none of us would want to be identified by that sole experience or the thing that causes our family dynamics to shift or causes us to struggle financially or what have you. But when we look at systems like the child welfare and foster system, or like Lindsey’s been speaking about, about her work, we see how people are characterized by that one thing or characterized by a certain set of experiences that don’t fully humanize them and don’t give them a place to have the full range of human experiences and to then have the agency to navigate those experiences.
So, in my work, when I think about shifting narrative, I think about the fact that we have to start thinking about all parents as parents and all parents as valuable people in the conversation about what happens to their children because they’re their children. We have to think about looking at parents who may do things differently than someone else would. We have to validate who they are, validate the choices that they make, and support them in the way that they need to be supported so that they can be safe.
I think it goes into poverty. It goes into the Child Tax Credit conversation, it goes into the Universal Basic Income conversation, it goes into the type of mental health supports that we have around, and the things that need to buoy people when life gets hard or life just happens, as it does to all of us. We need to think about the importance of having those structures in place because we have to see ourselves in each other. We have to look at the next person and say, “This could be me. And even though right now it’s not, I wanna make sure that this other human being who’s living in the world has the support and experience, support that they need to ensure that they have a better trajectory.” That’s a big part of the narrative shift in my work as a direct service provider, supporting in a legal services capacity.
I did a lot of trying to challenge assumptions that we would make about what parents thought or what parents would care about or how they would show up for their kids at school. I say it all the time: I have never worked with a parent who did not want the best for their child academically. That was my context: education. Never, ever, ever. Every time I talked to a parent, they were just like, “Yeah, I want— What can we get? What can they do? They’re struggling. How can I help?” That is always, always, always the perspective. But so often, nobody had asked them. So, I think really seeing the humanity and bringing that truth of like, this is another human being living life, having an experience, we need to all think about that as we do the work to shift the narrative around these groups of people.
VALLAS: And we’re gonna run out of time before I get to everything I wanna get to with all of you. But I wanna make sure to give each of you a chance to talk a little bit about how the work is going so far. You’ve talked a lot about from the policy perspective, from the narrative perspective, even organizing and bringing in some of the work that you’ve done before and connections to your communities, how all of that is shaping up for some of what you’ve started to tackle at Next100. But Emma talked a little bit about from her perspective how things have been going so far at Next100, and I’d love to hear from both of you. What’s it like doing this work at an organization that’s working to change not just policy, but how policy is made?
And so, Chantal, staying with you for a moment, what does it mean to be able to work at an organization like this and to do this kind of work at an organization with that model? One of the phrases I heard you and others use when I got the chance to meet all of you in person the other week was that you’re able to bring your full selves to the work. What does it feel like to be able to do that when you’re doing this kind of work?
HINDS: Yeah, I think for me, I think a lot about the different experiences of people I’ve worked with. My own identity as a Black woman from New York City, I think a lot about how I’m able to filter a lot of what I read and contextualize a lot of what I read and think about through those experiences. So, I bring the experiences of the people I worked with prior to Next100 in that more reactive position. I bring those experiences to bear as I consider what are the most out-of-the-box solutions I can be thinking about? What are ways that I can be thinking through how policy can be different while not being bound by traditionally what I have been told is possible. So, being able to bring all of who I am, all of my experiences to bear every day helps me really frame, helps to frame, I should say, just my new universe of possibility. So, I think it’s been really helpful to not have to put that stuff to the side and just kind of operate in a particular system, but to bring all of those things and let those things dictate how policy and things I’m thinking about get shaped and formed and hopefully implemented.
VALLAS: Lindsey, same question to you. And I understand that another watershed principle of the Next100 workplace is that you guys are allowed to wear jeans. There are many dimensions of how things are done at Next100 might be a little different than the stilted business-as-usual public policy sector. But talk a little bit about what it’s like to do this work at Next100 and what that’s been like so far.
CAZESSUS: Oh, it’s a very, very heterodox environment with the jeans, definitely. I think I really—and again, kind of echoing what Chantal just spoke about—but I think that realizing how much, I’ve really just realized how much it strengthens my work to be able to speak from a place of values but not have to choose between speaking from a place of values, speaking about narrative change and storytelling to an extent, and then also being able to kind of keep my weedsy speaking about policy details hat on at the same time, I think is a really amazing opportunity. And I think being able to see the intersections between our work has been really incredible. And I think that speaking to each other from a place of values and knowing that the culture at Next100 invites us to speak about our work not from a place of just what’s effective, what’s being talked about in policy spaces, but what do we all feel that we’re sort of being driven to do?
And I think of conversations like speaking to Vidal about his work ending forced labor in carceral institutions and how that has so much to do with the state of poverty in the U.S. And that’s a whole other perspective. That’s a whole other experience that I need to be thinking about and putting into my work. So, I think that I’m just really excited to see how I’m able to keep sort of enriching my understanding of what does anti-poverty policy mean by kind of pulling in all these different areas.
VALLAS: So, Emma, I’m gonna bring you in for the final word and to hear a little bit about what’s next for Next100 since we’ve kept you around for this part of the conversation with Chantal and with Lindsey. What’s next for the organization? And in particular, what do you hope that other think tanks and policy organizations learn from Next100 and how it’s doing things differently? Those are a lot of the folks that listen to this show, and so, very curious what you’re hoping that folks take away.
VADEHRA: Yeah, thanks so much. And Chantal and Lindsey, thank you for sharing about your work and generally bringing yourselves and your work to our organization. Good reminder. We’re lucky to have you. I’m actually gonna use that to say when I think about what’s next, there’s sort of two things we think about. One is Chantal is amazing. Lindsey’s amazing. Zaki, who I mentioned earlier, is amazing. Rosario’s amazing. There are hundreds, thousands of people like them out there, right? We get hundreds of applications each round. We hire amazing people. We could easily hire far, far more of them because the reality is there are a ton of folks out there who, with just a pathway and a little support, are gonna bring critical new perspectives and ideas to the policy space, and we’re just not finding a way to do that. Next100 is doing that in a tiny way. But we should be doing it at scale across all policy organizations, government, and think tanks, policy advocacy orgs. And that, to me, to get to your second question is about what’s next, right?
So, we are just getting started. We’re pretty small. We also think we’re starting to learn some real lessons about what it takes, what an organization needs to choose to do, needs to be intentional about to bring different people into this space and to change this space so it works for those people who deserve to be at that table. I think—and Rebecca, you and I have talked about this—but I feel like we’re seeing little pockets of a version of this over the past 10 years: Progressive policy organizations are far more likely to think about, how do we do a focus group with folks who are impacted? How do we have people at a press conference? And I think one of the things we’re trying to do—I thought about it when you talked about the bridge comment earlier—is say, “That’s really not it. This isn’t a thing where you dip in and dip out to say you did the thing. This is gonna take an intentional approach to changing how you do outreach for people in your organization, who you hire, and how you support them, right? This isn’t about adding a focus group on top of your policy process.” It’s about changing who’s driving the policy process, changing that who, which will change that how of that process. And that’s gonna take an intentional effort across a set of dimensions that are things we don’t talk about or do very well in the policy space in terms of how do we think about talent, how do we value people, how do we systematically support and develop people, how do we change our culture, so it works for more kinds of people? And that, I think, is part of, at Next100, what we are hoping to do next: Just think about putting ideas out there, lessons learned.
We’ve gotten things right. We’ve gotten things wrong. There’s plenty to learn that we hope will be helpful to the broader policy sector so people can really engage in changing the who, who is at the table making those decisions, those urgent decisions at moments of crisis and all the day-to-day decisions that get made behind the scenes by people like me in my old job. Nobody knew who I was, right? But making a ton of decisions each day and how do we change who’s in that roles? And how do we have policy organizations change their talent practices, their culture practices, and their inclusion practices so they change that who and how?
VALLAS: And that’s a big part of why I’m so excited for this episode, but also to really make this into an ongoing series so that we can bring in other past and current Policy Entrepreneurs from your fabulous organization that you’re building while, you’re flying while you’re building it. In some ways, it’s amazing how much you guys have already been able to do. But I’m really, really excited to feature more of the voices of the folks who are working to change how policy is made right alongside you.
But we’re out of time, which breaks my heart. But also, just thank you so much for taking the time, all of you, for Off-Kilter this week. I wanna send our listeners to check out our little syllabus page at TCF.org/Off-Kilter. And great appreciation for all of the amazing work that all of you are doing. [theme music returns]
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shout out to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abby Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.