This week, to continue Off-Kilter’s ongoing series of conversations about the limiting beliefs we as a collective must release and replace to pave the way for economic liberation, Rebecca sat down with Stefan Lallinger, executive director of an organization housed at The Century Foundation called The Next 100. They have a far-ranging conversation about a core limiting belief constraining economic and other public policy making in the United States today—the notion that you need an advanced degree from an ivy league school and a Washington resume to be qualified to shape our society’s public policies—and how The Next 100 is working to update the archetype of public policy expert.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and I’m a former legal aid lawyer turned policy advocate who works with public policy and law, as well as organizing, coalition building, and narrative as tools for building a more just society, one premised on collective consciousness of our common humanity and the inherent dignity and rights that come with being human. And every week, I talk with visionary leaders working to reinvigorate our shared imagination and disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve.
And to continue the series of conversations we’ve been having on Off-Kilter about the limiting beliefs we as a collective must release and replace to pave the way for economic liberation, I sat down with Stefan Lallinger, executive director of an organization housed at The Century Foundation called the Next100. We talk about a core limiting belief constraining economic and other public policy making in the U.S. today, the notion that you need an advanced degree from an Ivy League school and a Washington résumé to be qualified to shape our society’s public policies, we also talk about how the Next100 is working to update the archetype of public policy expert. You can learn lots more about the Next100 in show notes. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Stefan, thank you so much for taking the time to come on the show. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for a while.
STEFAN LALLINGER: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. And I’m just honored to be on Off-Kilter. This is great.
VALLAS: Well, it’s my total honor, always, to be in conversation with folks from the Next100. Those were some of my absolute favorite episodes that we did last season, actually, and we’ll mention that in a little bit. But before we get into the Next100, before we get into really the limiting beliefs that we’re going to focus on in this conversation, I wanna throw it to you to talk a little bit about how you come to this work. And you’re a colleague of mine at The Century Foundation, so I’m actually really excited to hear the full story.
LALLINGER: That’s right. I feel honored to be a colleague of yours, and I love the work that you all do. And how I got into the work is a really deep and complicated question. So, you can feel free to cut me off at any point if I’m [laughing] going on too far.
LALLINGER: But this is a question that I feel is just really wrapped up in my own personal history. And I always say that I stand on the shoulders of giants and also, just that my path was influenced by my elders, those who came before me. And I typically will sort of start my story of self by talking about my grandfather on my mother’s side, Louis Redding, who was born at the turn of the century, had my mother very, very late in life. So, he was born in 1901. So, just sort of think about that in terms of American history and where we were as a country and as a Black man who was two generations removed from slavery. So, his grandmother was enslaved in Maryland, Kent County, Maryland, about, I would say, 70 miles from where I live today. So, he’s two generations removed from slavery, ends up attending Brown University in the 1920s, and graduating at or near the top of his class as one of six African-American students at Brown at the time. And then he moves to the South to teach in a school that was built during reconstruction to cater towards the children of emancipated slaves and works there for a couple of years and then attends this little-known university, Harvard University, for law school in the late 1920s, is one of the first Black graduates of Harvard Law in, I believe it was 1929.
And that sort of set him on a path of launching a decades-long career, decades-long legal career, where he was the only Black lawyer in Delaware for about 25 years. He then brought two cases against municipalities in Delaware for denying the right of local Black students to attend the school that was nearest to them that happened to be a white school. Won those cases at the state level, and those cases became part of Brown v. Board. So, as folks, and some folks don’t know, but Brown v. Board was not just one case. It takes the name of the case from Topeka, Kansas, but it was made up of five cases. And two of those came from Delaware. They’re my grandfather’s cases. And so, he became part of the legal team that won probably the most famous Supreme Court case in American history in 1954, Brown versus Board of Education. A few years after Brown, he had my mother. My mother was the sort of generation that began to integrate schools that had been de jure segregated in both the South and the North. And then my mother had me, and I sort of came up in a generation that was supposed to be past all of these things. And I think that’s part of the narrative that we all tell ourselves.
But to the contrary, as part of my emerging consciousness as I became a young person in this country, I realized that we were still functionally very segregated. And I grew up in North Carolina. I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the South, attended public schools. And I distinctly remember that once I got to middle school, we were separated into different tracks. There was the standard track, then there was the, what they called the advanced track, and then there was the accelerated track. And you couldn’t help but notice [laughs] that these tracks were essentially dividing lines that segregated students along racial lines. And so, for me, as a young Black person, as a young biracial person, just trying to figure out his own identity, that contrast, the clash of knowing what it is that my grandfather fought for and supposedly won, and then looking at my lived experience, that clash was enough to sort of set me on a path that, you know, a lifelong path to not just explore this issue, but to do something about it. So, yeah, those are the beginnings. And then I’m happy to get into some of the other things that I did. I think my early career was very, very sort of instrumental in how I thought about some of the issues. So, but it looked like you wanted to jump in with a question, Rebecca, before I go there.
VALLAS: Oh, Stefan, I’m actually just, I’m getting chills even just hearing you tell your story of how you got to this work and what your lineage in this work is. And I have to confess, I didn’t know that story. I didn’t know that that was your background and your entry point here. So no, please, continue and pick that up with then what you did with that emerging consciousness as a young person thrust into the contrast between the reality on the ground and what supposedly had been won. That makes a lot of sense to me now understanding what you do with The Century Foundation and some of the pieces now that you’ve picked up with Next100. But pick up the story then with some of the hats that you wear today.
LALLINGER: Absolutely. So, I think the key thing about the contrast for me is that because at such a young age I was so aware of what my grandfather worked on and what he accomplished, I couldn’t help but to see the dissonance in my day-to-day life. The sad thing is, Rebecca, I think that for most Americans, we have been so accustomed and accultured to segregation that we don’t see it as an issue. Just to give an example, so, let’s fast forward from my youth to my young adulthood. Hurricane Katrina happened while I was in college, and that sort of coincided with me trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And I knew I wanted to get into education in some way, and I thought the best thing that I could do is move to New Orleans after Katrina and become a teacher down there. And I did. And one of the most beautiful cultural, annual cultural traditions in New Orleans is Mardi Gras, the Mardi Gras parades that happen. And I think to your casual observer or even to your local observer, but certainly to the millions of folks who come in every year to watch Mardi Gras, one of the things that I just can’t wrap my mind around that people just don’t either notice or seem to care about is the fact that you’ll stand on St. Charles Avenue and watch the parades go by. And you’ll notice, you’ll hear from a few hundred feet away, oh, the next band is sort of coming through. Really cool. Let’s step up and let’s see who’s coming through. And the band will come through, and it will be an all-white band, not a single Black student in it. And I’m talking hundreds and hundreds of kids from the trumpet players down to the drum line, and they’ll pass. And the crowd will cheer, and everyone will be so excited. And then you’ll hear the next band 50, 60 feet away, and it’s an all-Black band. And they sound great, just like the previous band, and there’s not a single white student among them. And it’s 2022. [chuckles] And that is just a normal thing. I think most people just sort of like don’t even think about that when they watch these parades, but it’s ingrained in every part of our life.
I mean, we’re so—I’m sure we’ll get to this—but we are increasingly polarized and segregated along lines of race, along lines of class, in ways that are really, really unhealthy for us. And of course, there are parts of the country and there are counterexamples to that narrative. And that’s what we often seek to shine the light on in the Bridges Collaborative and the work we do at The Century Foundation. So, there is another way that is better for us as a country and as a society, not to just accept the status quo as it is in so many places, and not to pretend like the status quo just happens because certain groups of people just like spending time with each other, [laughs] right? Like, that’s just a common narrative about the segregation, the segregation myth. So, that’s one thing.
But the other thing that was important to me about the New Orleans experience is I moved in the years right after Hurricane Katrina. And I’d say another kind of national myth that I fit into at the time was if we just do education well enough, like, if we make our schools good enough, if we just get the best teachers and the best principals, that will be enough to set a kid on an entirely new trajectory. A kid who grew up in the 7th Ward of New Orleans, one of the poorest square miles in the entire United States, a place where there’s endemic violence, a place where there is massive destruction—at the time that I moved, it still hadn’t been recovered from Hurricane Katrina—if we just give those students in the 7th Ward the best education that they can, then we can solve this issue. And my immediate experience in the aftermath of Katrina completely shot that down. I was in a place where I would, on occasion, I’d drive students home from school because they missed the bus or they had detention or they had some extracurricular activity, and I would drive through their neighborhoods. And I had students who were facing homelessness, students who, if I drove them home one or two months apart, I was driving them to a completely new place ‘cause they were moving every couple weeks. I had students who experienced food insecurity. The only stable meals they got were the breakfast and lunches that we served them. So, we started a program to send dinner home with kids. I had students who faced endemic violence on a regular basis. I mean, just getting to and from school was a struggle.
And so, it became increasingly clear, and I think this has been really instrumental in the way that I see our work at Next100, that these issues are entirely intersectional. There’s no way you can just work on one issue and make the kinds of progress that we hope to see for so many of the communities in our country that have been left behind. And so, that’s a key sort of theme in the Next100 work. This is intersectional work. This is generational work. And you don’t just, you can’t just sort of bury your head in the sand on one issue and hope to make the kinds of transformational differences that we would hope for.
VALLAS: That’s so well said, and I love you bringing in your time as a teacher as some of that education, right? [chuckles] It also just, it resonates so strongly with me thinking about my former life as a legal aid worker in a lot of ways playing a similar role, right, and yet realizing and learning every single day that real life doesn’t happen in silos. And so, if we try to address it that way, right, we’re never actually gonna be meeting people where they are.
So, Stefan, you now serve as executive director of the Next100. That’s a project at The Century Foundation, which is some of how we get to be colleagues. And you’ve referenced before, and this is part of your journey to this point as well, being the lead for a project also at The Century Foundation called the Bridges Collaborative. Before we get into talking about the Next100, just give a quick snapshot of what Bridges is for folks who might not be familiar, having heard now how that’s been a part of your work.
LALLINGER: Absolutely. So, the Bridges Collaborative seeks to fill a gap that myself and my colleagues noticed in terms of the advocacy and work happening around the country combating school segregation. And that is, there are a big, there’s a big community of folks who recognize that this is a huge problem. And just to give a couple statistics to sort of highlight the extent of the problem. One of the statistics is that today, in 2022, about 16 percent of white students in this country attend a school that is essentially, it’s functionally all white, so at the very least, 90 percent or greater all-white student body. About the same percent for African-American students, and it’s slightly higher for Latino students. Okay. So, we have about one sixth of all of our students who are attending same race schools in 2022. Now, why is that important? Well, one reason that that’s important is that the consequences for Black and Latino students of that are that they are much more likely to be in high-poverty schools. And there are reams of research around the impact, the negative impacts, on the average student of attending a high-poverty school, everything from lower average teacher quality, fewer resources, any host of things. And the fact of the matter is, we in this country have not really figured out how to serve the high-poverty student populations really well when you have high concentrations of poverty. There are few exceptions that are few and far between, but by and large, what it says to me is we shouldn’t be making policy that makes concentrated poverty the norm, particularly when we have so many other options, policy options at the table. So, there’s a community of folks around the country who recognize this is a big problem, who work on it, policymakers, advocates, so forth and so on.
But the gap that we saw is there are also practitioners, there are school district leaders, there are folks in the housing world and housing non-profits and other parts of the sector in education and housing who recognize this. And they don’t really, other than consulting the research or talking to advocates, they don’t have much guidance on what are the things that they can actually do in the 2022 context, both from a legal perspective, but just also strategically, this can be a really hot button issue. Any time we inject race into the conversation in this country in a sort of big way, in a way that implicates policy, it can be a touchy subject to touch in. And the Supreme Court has also, over the years, issued a number of decisions that have very much narrowed and constricted the policy options available to school districts. It’s actually somewhat interesting that we’re happening to have this conversation on a day where the Supreme Court is engaged in its oral arguments on affirmative action at the higher education level, and there are some implications for what they decide for K-12. I don’t know that we’ll have time to get into that today.
But the point I’m making is we started the Bridges Collaborative because we wanted there to be a place for practitioners, for people who are in schools and in districts who are trying to address this issue and who need ideas that work legally, strategically, politically to combat segregation in their communities. And that’s what the Bridges Collaborative is because there are folks around the country who’ve done some really innovative and creative things, but people just don’t know about them. And what better way for someone in a school district in California to figure out what they should do than talking to someone who’s figured out part of the problem, you know, part of the solution in Texas or in Florida or North Carolina. And so, we’ve got dozens and dozens of school districts and charter schools and housing organizations at the table who come together regularly to collaborate on these issues. And we’ve seen a lot of success in spreading the word on what works and getting people interested in addressing segregation as a key lever for improving what the outcomes are for their students in their school districts.
VALLAS: Stefan, I love how this conversation is developing because I have to say, I don’t know that I knew that when we set this conversation up that one of the toxic limiting beliefs that we as a collective need to make visible and that we’re making explicit, that you’re making explicit, in this conversation is that we didn’t successfully desegregate our schools in this country, right? I mean, the limiting belief being that school segregation is a thing of the past, right? That it’s something that’s squarely in our rearview mirror. And it is such an important conversation to have given that so much of what gets, what honestly gets talked about these days is usually either proxies or dog whistles, or it gets cloaked in the debates in Loudoun County over critical race theory or whatever the front is where these wars are still being fought. And I don’t know that we will have time to get into that Supreme Court case, but maybe I’m gonna need to have you back to talk about that!
But I wanna take this and segue way into some of the other pieces of this conversation which really connect quite beautifully, which is some of the work that you’re now leading as the executive director at Next100 and some of the amazing work that the policy entrepreneurs as part of that project are leading. And I wanna acknowledge that for the last season of Off-Kilter I had a whole bunch of just really, really fabulous conversations, conversations I very much enjoyed, with Next100’s founder Emma Vadehra as well as some of the organization’s policy entrepreneurs. So, for folks who are new to hearing about the Next100, I would definitely strongly encourage folks to go back and listen to those. It was a series that Off-Kilter did earlier this year on putting people at the center of policy change. So, that should be easy to find in whatever podcast app folks listen in. But for our newer listeners, Stefan, talk a little bit about the story behind Next100 and how it got started, and in particular what the organization’s mission and theory of change is. ‘Cause then that’ll get us a little bit into some of the limiting beliefs that you and I are gonna get to talk about today.
LALLINGER: Sounds great. I’m more than happy to. And I should start just by saying I feel so honored to be able to be the executive director for Next100 and to attempt to step into Emma Vadehra’s very, very large shoes and wonderful vision for Next100. And I completely concur with your recommendation to listen to Emma’s episode because she was the founder, and she had a founding vision. And what I will do is I’ll tell you a quick story, a personal story, since I’ve told you a little bit about my roots and my origins, that connects to Next100 and sort of gets to the essence of Next100 is so important and so needed. But again, it’s not the founding story, if you will, because I wasn’t the founding executive director. I stepped in after Emma’s leadership of about three years. But so, when I was in college, I got to participate in this program that brought 24 high-achieving Black males to Washington, DC for a two-summer experience, where they got a chance to participate in an internship, take classes, so forth and so on. And I had the opportunity to intern on the Hill. It’s one of the most defining experiences that I’ve ever had. And so, just to take you there, it was in the office of a little-known senator. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of him, Senator Biden from Delaware. [chuckles]
VALLAS: No! Who’s he?
LALLINGER: Yeah. [chuckles] So, it’s actually funny when I tell this to younger folks than you or I, they’re like, “Wait, Senator Biden?”
LALLINGER: “Man, you are really old. Like, this is before he was vice president and everything!” So, I had the opportunity to intern in Senator Biden’s office. And I was one of I would say eight. I was the only Black intern. And I mention that ‘cause I think it’ll be relevant in a second. But I remember maybe on our first week there, the senator invited us into his office to have, I think this is a tradition with all the interns, to have lunch with the senator. And so, they provided lunch, and we all sort of sat around. And we just were giddy with excitement. Like, this is why we came here. We get to have facetime with a sitting U.S. senator. And I remember the first thing that he said, and I’m not gonna get the exact words right. I’m paraphrasing because it’s been quite a few years. But I remember the first thing that he said brought us down to earth immediately. [laughs] He said, let’s get one thing clear before we start. The only reason any of you are in this room is ‘cause either your father or your mother knows someone who I know, and that’s how you got this internship. [laughs] Which sort of like, immediately took the air out of the room. Because here the eight of us are thinking like, wow, we’re hotshots. We’re on Capitol Hill. This is so cool. And then we get a swift reminder that we’re here due to political connections. And in my case, that was absolutely true. So, Rebecca, I told you a little bit about my grandfather. He was a lawyer in Delaware for a quarter century. And my grandfather, Louis Redding, and Joseph Biden crossed paths in the Wilmington Public Defender’s Office. So, they overlapped for a little amount of time. And actually, Biden is on record as talking about my grandfather as a mentor of his on issues of civil rights. And so, indeed, my aunt, who was still connected to folks in the senator’s office, called in that favor because I had that political connection.
And so, I wanna zoom out just to talk a little bit about the significance of that story and why I think that’s important and what it has to do with Next100. One, that is how Washington, DC tends to work, right? People get where they need to be where they get to influence issues or policies or matters because they know someone. And in my case, my grandfather, as I sort of told you a little bit about his story before, my grandfather got an advanced degree at a time when less than 1 percent of African Americans were getting advanced degrees in this country, right? So, there was an upward mobility, if you will, of my Black family that happened one or two or three generations before it did for many other African-American families. And for some African-American families, it still has not happened, particularly African Americans who are generationally African American, right? So, why is that important? Well, if that continues to be the way that we operate, right, people get positions based on who they know and relationships, then we’re only gonna ever have a very insular crowd of folks who get to be at the table to make decisions now. And obviously, an internship is not a, you know, it’s sort of symbolic that I got to step onto the Hill more so than claiming that there was any real opportunity for influence. But it shaped the way, a) it shaped what I thought was possible, b) it shaped the way that I understood our institutions from the inside, and c) I think it’s indicative of positions from an internship all the way up to a cabinet secretary position. Relationships, who you know, where you went to school, all of those things dictate who gets to sit at the table more so than what perspective do you bring? How in touch are you with the issues? What is your lived experience?
And that is the core essence, I think, of why Emma sought to found Next100 is because she has an incredible track record of working in government. And I think everywhere she worked in government, she saw this exact problem. It’s sort of the same folks with the same pedigrees, the same sort of signals and markers that they belong at the table. And it’s very limiting when it comes to policymaking and decision making. And there’s tons of research out there about the benefit of diverse teams and what they bring to decision making. And I think the crisis that we are facing in our country right now that is largely rooted in the mistrust of institutions and of leaders has a direct tie to that. People don’t look at their leaders anymore, their political leaders, and say, “You know, you really get what I’m going through. You’re one of us.” That’s missing from our politics today.
And so, I give that anecdote just to say Next100 was founded to secure a spot at the table, if you will, the symbolic table, for voices who are typically excluded from that table, whether it is people who have been excluded because they don’t have the political connections to be at the table, whether they don’t have the financial means to be at the table, whether people don’t take their voice seriously, despite the fact that they have decades of lived experiences of being impacted by the policies that are debated on a daily basis or not debated. [chuckles] That’s the other piece of it is, are the things that folks in Washington talk about relevant to the everyday folks in cities and towns across this country? And so, that’s the core of what we try to do.
And just to get really sort of specific about the model, right? So, every two years we bring in dynamic, intelligent, critically thinking, young thought leaders who have, early career folks, who have really, really impressive experience and lived experience in a particular policy area, but who may not have had the traditional sort of policy set of experiences that are traditionally valued in the policy sector. They didn’t go to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government or a handful of other institutions that sort of signal, you know, that are the gateway for positions, whether they’re on the Hill or in think tanks or other parts of the sector. But they’re incredibly impressive individuals, and these are early career folks. And we bring them in on salary full-time for two years. We provide training and support, everything from just understanding the way things work behind the scenes in the political system, adding that onto their existing knowledge. ‘Cause again, everyone is coming in with a set of experiences that are extremely valuable, but just adding some context to that, to the nuts and bolts of legislative cycles, to what advocacy looks like. And then more important than anything, I think, giving them the time and the space to do the research that they need to sort of figure out the status quo for their particular issue. And then they spend two years researching and producing not just written products, not just white papers and reports, but other ways of influencing the system in terms of trying to advance policy recommendations that have been well thought out and that center the voices of impacted people and pushing those forward. And so, every two years we accept a new cohort. We are on the second cohort. We’ve had one cohort finish about a year ago and move on to take some really interesting positions. And we’re about halfway through our second cohort. And we’ll start the next cohort—this cohort has another year—we’ll start the next cohort a few months after this cohort ends in August of 2023.
VALLAS: I love all of that, and I wanna pull in a few threads. Before I do that, I just wanna join you in disclosing my membership as a card-carrying fan of Emma Vadehra [laughs] and member of her fan club. Because Emma is phenomenal. She’s someone I’m proud to count a dear friend. And actually, before I got to The Century Foundation, she was part of helping me come over there and seeing how much cool work is happening at TCF. But just to say, Stefan, I appreciate so much how you wove together the origin story but your own experience of seeing that it’s not so much what you know, it’s who you know in terms of getting your foot in the door in Washington. And I have to say, I think that it was something I knew myself intellectually before coming to DC, but which really, I had my own education in when I got to the Center for American Progress. And that wasn’t on the Hill. It was off the Hill, but a very connected think tank that very, very much embedded in a lot of ways with the Democratic Party. And the first day that I got there, and I was about to start doing some onboarding, and here I had a law degree, right, which is maybe a traditional hallmark of someone working in Washington. But I had come in from being a legal aid lawyer and something of sort of a bomb thrower in Philly, right? So, I get in this elevator. I’m on my way up to go check in with HR and get some kind of thick binder to go through like everyone does on a first day. And I’m in the elevator, and I’m meeting people, and someone says to me, “Oh, where did you come from?” And I say, “Pennsylvania.” And they say, “Oh!” And without any further questions, they just start rattling off a whole bunch of stuff assuming that that meant that I had worked for the Get Out the Vote operation in Pennsylvania on the Obama campaign most recently.
VALLAS: And it was like the level of just jumping to assumptions about the only acceptable or known or familiar routes to working in Washington became really, really crystal clear in that moment for me of, oh, I see. Even as a lawyer showing up here, I’m not what anyone’s expecting because how could a direct service background be something that sends you to become the policy director of a program at a think tank, right? So, just to underline that everything you were saying isn’t just true of our political leaders and people who have been voted into office or who are running for office. It’s not even just true of the staff in their offices. It’s also true outside of government, in the think tanks and the NGOs and the organizations in Washington that have outsize influence on how policy gets made, which is part of why from day one, when I got to The Century Foundation, I’ve been such a fan of the Next100’s model because of its intentionality around turning the traditional think tank model on its head and really intentionally flipping the script by saying, hey, wait a second. Not only do we need to put people back at the center of policy as we think about our approach to policymaking, but actually, as we assess what it means to be qualified as a public policy expert. Like you said, it’s not just did this person show up with an Ivy League degree and some kind of Washington-connected résumé. Actually, community-based and lived experience of the systems and the policy failures and the inequities that we’re all trying to address, or that many of these organizations in Washington, DC say they’re trying to address, these are actually huge qualifications. These are value adds. These are explicit credentials. And that’s a lot of what the Next100 is doing, both quietly in its recruitment and assembly of these amazing cohorts of leaders, but also quite explicitly in actually showing the broader think tank sector how this work can be done and why it’s stronger when we do it this way.
So, just to say it out loud, I think the limiting belief that we’re sort of dancing around here, right, is that you need some advanced degree from the Harvard Kennedy School and Washington connections to be a public policy expert. So, Stefan take that and talk to me a little bit about how you see that limiting belief showing up in Washington. You’ve been sort of sharing some of your experiences to date already, but talk a little bit more explicitly about some of the harms or the constraints on our policymaking sector and how Next100 is really taking this on head on.
LALLINGER: Absolutely. No, I’d be happy to. And I think it’s interesting because throughout my career I have tried to straddle both worlds, if you will. I think I’ve had the opportunity to have certain experiences that I think are more typical of the sort of the markers that we just talked about and also tried to really take some nontraditional [chuckles] approaches to sort of like getting into policy work. And so, just as an example, I dedicated the early part of my career to being a K-12 teacher and then later, a K-12 principal. And I think all my experiences in that world have truly, more than any other experience that I could’ve ever had, shaped my understanding of what are the real challenges that people think about and face on a day-to-day basis? Because in many ways, a school is kind of a community hub for…it’s a center. It’s a place where people come together and where we sort of like put these things out in the open about what are the things that we care about, what are the things that are important to us? Now, at the same time, because I got my doctorate in Education and Leadership at Harvard, I also have stepped foot in classrooms at the Kennedy School of Government.
And one of the things that I think we need to just disabuse ourselves of is that there’s some magical fairy dust that gets sprinkled on you when you go to Harvard or any other. You know, I’m just using Harvard as a stand-in for the set of elite institutions that have often been the gateway to these types of jobs. Is that I can tell you from lived experience, having sat in classrooms with folks who have gone on to run for Congress or do all of these things that I’ve been much more impressed by the critical thinking abilities and communication styles and abilities of many of the people that I met in my community in New Orleans as some of the classmates that I sat with at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. And again, it’s not, this is not to put down any particular institution or any set of experiences, but it’s to say that we keep drawing from the same well, and that keeps producing the same sorts of experiences.
And increasingly, we’re sort of continuously polarized around class in particular. Like, who even gets to pay the tens of thousands of dollars that it costs to get one of those degrees serves to continue to put up this wall of separation between the people who tend to make decisions in this country and the folks who sort of feel like they are just along for the ride and have to put up with the consequences. And I think that’s, again, it’s an underappreciated factor in where we’ve, how we’ve gotten to the sort of dysfunctional nature of our politics and the broken nature of our politics, is that people just don’t trust the institutions or the leaders that are supposed to be making these decisions. And part of it is because the well that we keep drawing from is a well that lives in a bubble that is pretty insulated from the concerns and issues of the vast majority of people who live in this country, particularly those who would never even dream of being able to step foot in a place like the Harvard Kennedy School of Government for whatever reason. But then why should I trust you to have my best interests at heart if I don’t think that you could walk a mile in my shoes if you don’t understand what it is that affects ordinary people? So, I think that’s one reason why this sort of frame, this mindset is so pernicious, is because it serves to further erode the trust that we have in our institutions at a time where it’s probably needed more than ever. I mean, Election Day is a week away, and it’s an election that features very prominently folks who are, you know, who have an interest in really eroding the basis of our democracy and making claims about our democracy that could put us in a really dangerous place. So, that’s how I think about that. Yeah.
VALLAS: And just to hop in because it erodes trust for really good reasons, right? Because what we end up seeing in terms of the concerns and the priorities, and frankly, just some of the well-intentioned policymaking that comes out of Washington, DC that is disproportionately and massively overrepresented by folks who come from that well, as you’re describing, that insular, bubble-dwelling well that is very, very disproportionately wealthy, that is disproportionately white, but also that is, just brass tacks, disproportionately unlikely to be impacted by so many of the public policy decisions that come out of Washington, DC, it’s often said in many communities, including in the disability community, “nothing about us without us.” Some folks like to say in the movement that those who are closest to the pain are closest to the solution. There are a lot of ways to describe what I think increasingly people are starting to understand outside of just movement and organizing and community-based spaces, which is that even just from an enlightened self-interest perspective, a policy audience in DC can hear this and understand, policymaking actually gets better and smarter when people are involved in shaping it who know something about what it’s actually like to be affected by those policy decisions. It can’t all come down to bar charts and economic models and rational logic, right, that all might make sense on a white board, but isn’t actually how it plays out in real life, especially when you’re talking about what can be really, really, really significantly and often high-stakes policy decisions like how you design income support programs, for example, and how they show up in people’s lives, something we were talking about a lot last week on Off-Kilter in a series of conversations around how the Supplemental Security Income program is showing up today more as a form of large-scale institutionalization without walls for people with disabilities because of its highly intrusive rules and eligibility requirements than the income support lifeline that it was intended to be. And yet no one in Washington seems to be all that aware or even to care because of the disproportionate likelihood that folks who are actually in Washington holding the power will ever need to rely on a program like SSI, or frankly, know anyone who’s impacted by it. So, that’s—
LALLINGER: That’s exactly, I mean, Rebecca, I mean, you got to the heart of it, right? Which is that I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across someone at a think tank or on the Hill who works on criminal justice issues and has never stepped foot in a jail or a prison, doesn’t know anybody who’s been incarcerated. Someone who’s working on education policy who’s never worked in a school, doesn’t spend time with teachers and principals and children. Just to sort of name what I think you’re getting at, which is that the big downside of us over-privileging these very specific sets of experiences that have to do with, oftentimes, access to certain institutions over all of these other issues, is that we have people making consequential decisions about people who are truly impacted by these issues, who have no lived experience or even real understanding about what it is, you know, what it means to be an undocumented person, what it means to be a person who lives in a segregated neighborhood that is cut off from resources or high-quality schools. What it means to be a person who is a formerly incarcerated person who’s looking for work and can’t get work because of all the institutional barriers placed up. Every single one of our policy entrepreneurs has something that connects them to the issue in an intimate way. And that’s part of what makes the Next100 so special, is that we really privilege and we value the lived experience, the working in tandem with and on behalf of impacted communities, because we think that ultimately makes for better policy.
VALLAS: And Stefan, give a couple of quick examples of some of the work that current policy entrepreneurs are doing. I know we’re gonna wanna have some folks back on later this season ‘cause they’re some of my favorite folks to talk to. And we were actually just talking, you and me, the other day with one of your policy entrepreneurs, Lindsey Cazessus, who was on the show last season. And she’s got a cool project that we may wanna have her back on in a little bit to talk about around some organizing that she and others are doing with youth. But give a couple of examples of some of the work folks are doing. And then I’m gonna take us in a little bit of a different direction for the last chunk of the time we have together.
LALLINGER: Absolutely. More than happy to. And I think this is the best part of the, this is the best part of my job, [laughs] is getting to talk about the incredible work and ideas that our policy entrepreneurs have. So, an example is Robert, who has a background in organizing, who he himself went through the AmeriCorps program, which is a, I think, a fairly well-known national service opportunity provided by our government that essentially will provide a very small living stipend in return for young people, typically out of high school or out of college, engaging in a national service project somewhere across the country. And Robert has really seen a number of things. One is this AmeriCorps program was created with the best of intentions and certainly has had some positive outcomes for our country and for the young people that’ve worked with it.
But it has some serious shortcomings, and it hasn’t been reformed in a major way in a very long time. And one of those is, if we want to open this program up to folks who may come from low-income backgrounds, for instance, or folks who may not be able to rely on their parents as economic anchors for them, that we really can’t afford to pay these folks below minimum wage, which is what happens in most cases. And also, if we want this to be a gateway, if we want this to be a gateway for successful careers for folks, we have to be much more intentional about preparing them for careers after AmeriCorps. And so, what Robert has done, using his background as an organizer and his experience in AmeriCorps, is brought a group of AmeriCorps alumni together to create a board to really inform how we change the narrative around national service in this country, who it’s able to attract, how we’re able to prepare young people who are getting international service for their careers and lives beyond it, and has made some serious progress and gotten a lot of traction over the last year that he’s been working at Next100. And so, I think Robert’s work is really exciting. So, he’s someone you’ll wanna keep an eye on and certainly someone I don’t know, Rebecca, have you talked to, is Robert one of the folks you’ve had on or not yet?
VALLAS: We haven’t had Robert on the podcast, but I did get to sit with Robert and I believe the entire cohort when I got to visit The Century Foundation’s New York office earlier this year. So, I did get to hear him speak a little bit about his work. And I’m gonna consider this a pitch, and we’re gonna take it. We’re gonna do that episode.
LALLINGER: That’s great. Great. And that’s just one example. Like, we have every one of our policy entrepreneurs is engaging in some really neat work. Chantal Hinds, have you had Chantal on, Rebecca?
VALLAS: I did. And, Chantal, I am super, super obsessed with Chantal’s work, particularly, of course, because she’s a former legal aid lawyer.
LALLINGER: Yeah, absolutely. So, she sort of carries that same, you know, that passion for advocating for folks, and in her case, for children in the foster system. And so, I could go on and on about each of these, but maybe if I just give a quick 20-second what each person is working on and that will kind of—
VALLAS: Yeah! Oh, that’s great.
LALLINGER: —leave an appetite for—yeah, great—for follow-ups. So, you’ve already had Lindsey on, so you know Lindsey’s working on economic issues. And I think she’s a really, really, you know, really leans into her own personal experience to advocate for the voice of folks who are so often patronized and/or excluded from conversations about how best to provide an economic ladder into mobility that Lindsey’s work just shines a light on the voices of people who so often get excluded.
Alejandra Vázquez Bauer works on issues that are faced by our newcomer student population in schools across this country. We have the children of immigrants to the United States who have dramatically different outcomes, but on the whole, we just do not serve well in this country. And sometimes it’s because of a language barrier; sometimes it’s because of any number of issues. And so, she has proposed a number of really critical reforms to Title III on the federal level and just some very practical things that people can do in schools and local school districts around the country. So, that’s her issue.
Dan Mathis, who comes from Florida and comes from a part of our country that is experiencing climate change in ways that are visible on a year-to-year, month-to-month basis works at the intersection of housing and climate change and advocates for a number of policies. But one, chief among them, transparency and disclosure for people who often don’t have a choice in where it is that they reside around what the risks are to them regarding floods, natural disasters, even heat issues that are emerging across this country. So, Dan’s doing some really incredible work in that field.
We talked about Chantal’s advocacy on behalf of the foster care community.
Diana Martinez Quintana works on the intersection of immigration and climate change, “climigration,” as we like to refer to it as. But this coming—well, not coming; it’s already here—but it’s an increasingly salient issue that there are parts of the world that are becoming increasingly inhospitable to humans and that folks are gonna have to, folks are actively and are gonna continue to have to find new places to live as a result of this. And this is gonna be a huge public policy issue in the years to come. And if we don’t get in front of it, it’s gonna be much, much harder to deal with and certainly to deal with in a humane way that centers the needs of people who’ve been displaced because of all of the activities that people in the United States in particular have benefited from in an economic way when it comes to the exploitation of our environments. So, Diana does some incredible work there.
And then finally Sury, who works on issues of the design of our public spaces and the ways in which those influence our democracy. And so, Sury has done some really, really interesting work, both on the local level and on the federal level, in terms of how we can push our thinking in terms of the way our public spaces are designed and who they’re welcoming for and how they sort of do or do not promote diverse decision making and inclusiveness in our democracy.
So, our folks are incredible. I think you should have every single one of them on. But also, an open invitation to you, Rebecca, to come spend some time with us ‘cause you’ll learn something new every time you sit on the couches at Next100.
VALLAS: I do. And I always, some of my, don’t tell Mark, our boss, but my absolute favorite part of our staff meetings every Friday is the Next100 presentations. There’s always a presentation from one of the policy entrepreneurs, and I have to say, it’s almost always the most impressive work that anyone in the building is doing!
VALLAS: So, I’m just really, really excited by all of what all of your policy entrepreneurs in this cohort are doing. And I had the pleasure of getting to meet some of the folks in the last cohort as well, and some of them have had been on the show too. So, just a total, total shameless plug for anyone to go back and listen who’s hearing this and going, “Oh, I wanna hear more from some of these folks.” Go back and listen to some of the episodes from last season about putting people at the center of policy work. And we have lots of these folks on, and we’ll continue to have policy entrepreneurs in conversation this season as well.
And Stefan, I have to say, as we’re closing, it just, it really does feel to me that what the Next100 is doing is changing the archetype of what it means to be a public policy professional, and in a way that is something that think tanks, research groups, folks on the Hill, folks off the Hill can all learn from because it’s easy to do it in a way that’s really tokenizing. It’s easy to do it in a way where you talk a good game about a fellowship and then don’t provide anyone real support, right? You guys are walking the walk. And I can say that having been in a lot of spaces that have been a mixed bag in terms of what it looks like to really do inclusive policy leadership work. So, just to say that. And just congratulations on everything that, frankly, Next100 has already achieved under Emma’s leadership and now under yours.
So, Stefan, I wanna make you a pitch before we move on just for my own accountability and for yours, because putting on my Century Foundation hat and taking off my Off-Kilter hat for a second, I think you know, ‘cause you’ve heard me and others talk about the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative in Century Foundation spaces, that part of what we’re really committed to is investing in the pipeline of the next up-and-coming disabled leaders in this work. And that’s true in disability organizations, but it’s also really increasingly and importantly true in organizations that are newer to disability work, which includes so many members of the collaborative. So, just gonna put out there, we’d love to partner with you guys on having a policy entrepreneur in a future cohort be someone who’s up-and-coming in the disability community. So, let’s put that on both of our lists.
LALLINGER: I love that idea, and I can’t think of many other initiatives that are more mission aligned than the work you’re doing with the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. The whole notion of centering the voices of the folks closest to the work is truly lived by you all, and it’s unfortunately too rare of a thing. So, yeah, let’s talk about how we can make that happen. That sounds promising.
VALLAS: I love it. I love it. So, Stefan, we’re gonna have to close out, but I just wanna give you a chance to let folks know where they can go to learn more about the Next100. And I’m hoping that maybe some of what might happen from this is that folks might be hearing about some of the work that your policy entrepreneurs are doing, that the Next100 is doing, and might be interested in connecting with you guys. So, where can folks learn more about the Next100 and how can they get in touch?
LALLINGER: TheNext100.org is our website. You can sign up for our newsletter there, sort of tells you what we’re up to, what’s been published recently. And then also, for folks who are local to New York City, on November 15th, from 6 to 8, we’re having an event where it’s called Experience as Expertise, where each of our policy entrepreneurs is gonna tell the sort of personal narrative, the story of why it is that they work on the issues they work on, and then spend a little bit of time talking about the policy issue they’re working on and some of the recommendations that they have and the things that they’ve learned. So, there’s an event coming up on the 15th. There’s more information on our website, but you can feel free to email me, [email protected]. There’s also a spot on our website just to reach out and ask questions. So, find us there. We’ll hope to see you live and in person on November 15th. But if not, there are other ways to check us out.
VALLAS: It’s a great place to leave this. And that is what I’m hoping happens, is a lot of the folks who listen to the show are folks doing the work and often doing the work in spaces that these policy entrepreneurs are paving the way. So, Stefan Lallinger is executive director of the Next100. And I’ve so enjoyed this conversation, Stefan. Thank you so much for taking the time. And folks can check out all of the links that were just mentioned in show notes.
[theme music returns] 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 shoutout 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.