“Where do you want to be in five years?”
When I got that question during my senior year at Yale in 2000, I really had no clue how to answer it, but I had that fairly common Yalie desire to change the world. The way most of my classmates saw it, there were four big paths open to us: business, academia, community service and politics.
Now, after a wild post-college ride and a fifth-year reunion where I got to see what my classmates have done, I thought I’d share a little bit of insight into which of those paths is most likely to allow you to achieve change on the biggest scale possible. My path started immediately after graduation, when I picked up and relocated to Israel, where I took Hebrew classes and worked on an organic collective farm known as a kibbutz. I had a fantastic time working outside, picking organic potatoes and trying out my Hebrew on Israeli girls, but I was in for a rude awakening.
In November (okay, December), George W. Bush won the presidential election. I kicked myself: I had been thinking about working on the Gore campaign, but had decided that it would be better to use my political science degree as an ersatz migrant laborer. Who knows — instead of picking up thousands of potatoes, perhaps I could have picked up those 537 Floridian votes.
It started to dawn on me that picking potatoes, organic though they may be, wasn’t really doing much to address the world’s big problems. So I called a wise older friend from Yale and asked what I should do.
She talked to me about different opportunities and said politics was the way to make the biggest change. I soon found out how right she was.
She recommended that I apply for a year-long Green Corps fellowship, which she said was the only program she knew of that effectively taught all the arts of political organizing — media, grassroots organizing, coalition building and recruitment. I took her recommendation, applied for the fellowship, and was accepted. That summer, after a month-long training, I was assigned to lead a team of nine organizers working in California with Greenpeace to get the State of California to switch $2 billion out of $5 billion they had in energy financing towards clean energy like solar and wind power. It was a daunting goal, but the training I had made me feel confident.
First, we got media attention for the campaign and got coverage in the Los Angeles Times and other major media outlets. Then, we recruited more than a thousand people from all over California to come to a solar-powered concert at the State Capitol, and convinced a bunch of them to stay the next day to lobby their state representatives.
We kept up our campaign, and California ultimately decided to put all $5 billion into clean energy projects instead of fossil fuels. I really couldn’t believe it. Here we were a year out of college and, with a little training, had leveraged a $50,000 campaign into $5 billion worth of social change. At that point, I decided to make a career out of political organizing.
Five years out, I’m not looking back. The scale of what’s possible in politics usually far exceeds what any non-profit, business or academic venture can achieve on its own. There’s no where else where the stakes are so high: when you win, the government acts with authority, personnel and financial resources rarely matched by even the largest private sector entities.
Besides, working to protect the environment, elect progressive leaders or achieve social change is more fun than sitting in a cubicle or slaving away in a law school library, or even working in well-meaning community service efforts. Anyone really looking to make change should explore the handful of opportunities to get involved in politics such as working on a political campaign or trying for a fellowship with the State PIRGs.
And when your fifth-year reunion comes around, you’ll be the one with the great stories to tell — and you’ll have some world-changing under your belt.
Glenn Hurowitz ’00 is a former Editorials Editor for the News. He is a graduate of Green Corps.