American University students and alumni (including Action Network’s Amy Chin-Lai!) came together in 2018 to found Blue Future, a youth movement that trains and invests directly in student leaders helping progressive Democrats win key elections across the country. Co-Founder Nick Guthman joins us to share how it all got started.

Knocking on Doors

I was in seventh grade, and it was 2008. My parents are both union organizers here in Los Angeles. They asked if I wanted to go to Las Vegas to knock on doors for GOTV for that election. I did not understand what GOTV was, I hardly understood what was happening in politics or who Barack Obama was. Even though I was 12 years old and clearly the youngest person in our canvassing group, I was able to speak to voters in English and Spanish.

I didn’t know what I was really doing, but it felt good. I felt really proud and like I was a part of something bigger than myself. I felt really cool doing that work, and, even though no one else was, none of my friends were, I never looked back after that.

I got involved in the reelection campaign in 2012, just doing some local phone banking in Los Angeles. 2014 was when I had my first real organizing experience with Obama’s grassroots group Organizing for America. I was a fellow for OFA, and we were getting people signed up for the Affordable Care Act, ahead of the first deadline in 2014. That was really empowering and throughout all of the work, I always noticed that I was like one of the only young people in these spaces. I noticed that most of my friends thought it was pretty cool. They were intrigued by it, but they didn’t really know if they could do it or didn’t believe in themselves or didn’t have parents who encouraged them — there were all sorts of privileges and factors that went into that.

I just felt it was something that could be worked on and that we could find ways to make it easier for more young people to do political work.

I think a lot of young people want to take part, but it’s the structural barriers that get in people’s way. At American University I participated in College Democrats, which is where I met Amy Chin-Lai (currently Solutions Engineer at Action Network). We did a lot of good work organizing for local elections in 2014, 2015, and then building up to the 2016 Presidential Election.

And then we all remember what happened there. All of those friends of mine who were intrigued or supportive of the political and community organizing work I had been involved with all of a sudden came out of the woodwork and were like, “I want to be involved, I want to donate, I want to march, I want to rally. This is not who we are. I’m so upset.”

Campus Origins

All of the energy that was building up was released when Trump was elected. That’s what really set the foundation to start Blue Future. There were so many more people who wanted to get involved, and even as someone who had been involved, we were struggling to find meaningful opportunities for folks to fight for our shared progressive values.

We didn’t know where to tell people to go. We didn’t know how to mobilize the newly engaged people. So we started meeting about it. We learned about what was out there, and we thought there was a space for a new organization to work directly for Democratic candidates and campaigns.

What we found was that there were so many groups out there that work with young people that are either issue specific, nonpartisan groups, or voter registration groups. We didn’t want to come and compete with either of those pools. Then, when you look at which groups exist to support students who want to work directly with candidates, you have the party infrastructure, there’s a handful of local groups, PACS, and College Democrat networks, but these groups have no funding.

We thought that there are a lot of people like ourselves who believe in Bernie Sanders, Katie Porter, Lauren Underwood, Jessica Cisneros, or Colin Allred, all of these really wonderful candidates. There wasn’t a lot of space created for people who wanted to go work for those candidates. That’s where we first dug in and found ways to better support high school and college Democrats. That was our first goal, because that’s what we knew. That’s where a lot of us came from. We knew that those institutions and organizations don’t have any money whatsoever. I mean like $0, not $10, not $50, not $10 thousand — like, not even a bank account.

Funding a Movement

That was one of the first things we did. We put a call out that if someone wanted an ActBlue account, let’s say you’re the High School Democrats of Massachusetts and you have people who want to donate to support the work you’re doing. Many of them, still to this day, do not even have the actual account to accept donations because they don’t have a bank account. That’s something we still offer. It’s some of those base level things that we got started with and ultimately what culminated in our first year.

We got started with a grant from the Voqal Foundation. They have an early stage progressive technology startup program. We got $30,000 from them, and that was pretty cool. The first thing we had to do was figure out how to get more money. This is where we get into Action Network.

If you’re working directly with candidates, you can’t really accept large donations above candidate limits because it’s all coordinated. If someone wanted to write us a big check, we can still accept it in our legal structure, but we can’t do the work that we set out to do with just one individual’s money. We are a hybrid PAC. So we have the ability to accept it, and it can help pay for things like our overhead costs, but we can’t move that money into students’ pockets.

So what do we do? I went back to Amy and Morgn, Devontae and Andrea and the rest of our co-founders and asked, “How could we raise small dollars?” That’s where we first started thinking about Action Network as a CRM. So that if one day we had enough money to start doing a major acquisition and list building program, we would have the infrastructure and the foundation there to be able to raise money.

Community Efforts

Blue Future transformed as a result of many conversations with young activists to meet their needs. In that first year, we listened to what students needed. Some of them needed ActBlue accounts. Some of them needed direct funding. Some of them needed training. Some of them needed even just connections to political campaigns.

We’ve always been guided by what the youth organizers need and how we can be of service to them.

In our first year, we made grants. $25,000 went out the door to college and high school Democrat groups who mobilized on various campaigns. It was a lot of the same work that our co-founders had been doing, but they were able to do a lot more when they had $2,000 to help pay for Ubers in Miami, or get gas money, or pay for pizza at campus phone banks in Pennsylvania. Because that’s how you go from having five volunteers to 25 volunteers, and you just made five times as many calls. And some of the candidates who we work with won by 3,000 votes. That’s what we did in our first year.

Since then we’ve evolved. What we’ve learned since 2018 is that there’s an even greater need to develop people’s leadership, confidence, and belief in making a difference. Because if they believe that they can make a difference, then they can start solving the different problems and finding solutions to funding, organizing people, moving resources in a community, or getting more students involved. So we’ve transitioned to leadership development training while still doing campaign work.

Building for the Future

Leadership development training is a core fundamental challenge. If we want to help elect Democrats, which is part of our mission statement, we can’t really do that if we haven’t helped people believe that they can help elect Democrats. It took a long time to learn that that was the reason people weren’t getting involved.

If we pay people to be trained or we provide funding for them to do work, it is both the right thing to do, but it also creates space for them to start really learning about themselves, learning about how to do political organizing, and then making a difference.

Part of the training programs are connected to working on political campaigns. We don’t think training can live in a vacuum. We’ve helped people learn about themselves and build their own confidence by starting from equity and making sure that the work is accessible once we’ve done that, which is an ongoing struggle to raise enough money to do it.

Action Network has been essential in helping us to do what we have done.

Our training program has three stages:

We start by building community. We build community within the cohort of organizers to start. And that in itself helps to build a lot of confidence. Students teach each other more stuff than we can teach them.

The second stage is doing real training. We pull training from OFA, where I was trained. We pull training from the Midwest Academy. We pull training from all sorts of partners and organizations to give people the real, direct, “here’s how you phone bank,” “here’s how you recruit people to your cause,” “here’s why voter contact matters.”

And then lastly — I think this is one of the things that makes us unique and is connected to the way we raise money and the partnership with Action Network — none of this works if you’re not actually doing the work if you’re not actually making an impact. So you come onto a six-week training program and you learn about what it means to talk to voters. Every week you’re phone banking for different campaigns, every week you’re recruiting volunteers, and every week you’re thinking about social media content that might help to shift the narrative around a particular issue or campaign or something like that.

We always connect the training to that real-world impact and the combination of impact and equitable leadership development, making the opportunities equitable and accessible so that we are developing leadership and confidence of those who have long been denied access to opportunities like this, is powerful for the long term change young progressives seek.

Thank you Nick for joining us! I’m proud to share the work of an organization that started in a familiar place, American University.

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