Servant leadership in politics: A midterm election perspective - Activate World

Servant leadership in politics: A midterm election perspective

servant leadership midterm election

Emily Cherniack, Founder and Executive Director, New Politics

Emily Cherniack is steeped in the traditions of servant leadership. From her service in AmeriCorps and employment with City Year AmeriCorps, to being part of the founding team of Be the Change — where she led a coalition of over 200 organizations to engage 250,000 people for a Day of Action in support of the $6 billion Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009 — Emily has worked tirelessly to serve our country and support others who serve. In 2018, Emily was named to the Politico 50 as one of the 50 “thinkers, doers, and dreamers driving politics.”

Emily’s path to politics came when her boss and mentor, Alan Khazei, decided to run for the US Senate in 2009. Khazei asked Emily to become his Deputy Campaign Manager and, although he was defeated, Emily learned a great deal from his campaign and the power of political leaders who chose to serve country before self.

This experience led Emily to conclude that our current system for recruiting political talent is broken. The current talent pipeline is intentionally exclusive, and has significant barriers that prevent transformational leaders from successfully running for office; the only way to change that is to change the pipeline. New Politics was founded in 2013 to address exactly that.

Emily graduated from George WashingtonUniversity with a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice and Psychology and aMasters Degree in Education Policy.

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Servant leadership in politics: A midterm election perspective 

How do you create a community of servant leaders who run forpolitical office?  A new organization – New Politics – is engaging former military andservice volunteer leaders (e.g., Teach for America) and supporting theirelection campaigns. Gain insights from the midterm elections as a diverse classenters the U.S. Congress and servant leadership begins to transform politicsand the way we serve our country. Can our politics change through the effortsof organizations like New Politics?

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Servant leadership in politics: A midterm election perspective 

Emily Cherniack, Founder and Executive Director, New Politics

Season 3, Episode 2

Jon Mertz:          00:02         Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. Emily Cherniack is joining us today. She’s the founder and executive director of New Politics. Emily, welcome to Activate World.

Emily Cherniack:    00:25          Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here.

Jon Mertz:          00:27          We are excited to get your insight on this past election. Before we get into that, tell us about your background and what led you to start new politics as well as your mission.

Emily Cherniack:    00:35          Sure. I was not political at all. I was a youth worker, and then I got pulled onto a US Senate race with my former boss Alan Khazei, who co-founded City Year, decided to run in Massachusetts. He asked me to join his campaign. Then, so, I said, “Yes,” because I wanted to be helpful. Then that campaign experience, I felt like … You know in the movie the Matrix when he swallowed the red pill? Because this entire world appeared before me that I didn’t know existed. I saw this crazy kind of broken system of the campaign world.

Emily Cherniack:    01:13          There are significant barriers to entry. It’s counterintuitive, and so it’s really hard for people to figure out. So through that experience, I realized two things. One is that elected leadership matters. You know, who’s in office, who make decisions about our community and country really matter, and that there are the barriers to prevent transformative leaders from running for office are steep. So I thought about New Politics as a way to recruit and support those incredible leaders because I say the lack of leadership in our politics is not for a lack of leadership in our country, right? They’re out there. But we just need to bring them into the system. So, that sort of was what inspired New Politics.

Jon Mertz:          01:57          As you looked back on the past election, what was your big takeaway?

Emily Cherniack:    01:58          I think it demonstrated to me that voters really rallied behind proven leaders who are authentic, and they lead with courage, integrity, and empathy, and who really … I think a common narrative was around putting country first, right? Country over politics. So I just think that that resonated with voters on both sides of the aisle, and I think that’s a takeaway from this election cycle.

Jon Mertz:          02:25          What were some of the lessons learned from the specific races that you were involved in?

Emily Cherniack:    02:29          Yeah, I think what we learned, you know, a) that candidates matter. When you have exceptional leaders with the backgrounds that our candidates had, candidates like Chrissy Houlahan in Pennsylvania, who was a former Teach for America alum and veteran. Mikie Sherrill in New Jersey, a former Navy pilot. Max Rose in New York, an Army veteran, and Jason Crow as well in the Army in Colorado. They all really ran in places that were tough races, and I think they were able to build bipartisan coalitions because of their a) authenticity and b) their values that sat around courage and integrity and empathy, and also because they were really about that narrative of “country first.”

Emily Cherniack:    03:16          I think we learned that that candidates really matter and their message matters, and that you can build the politics that unites us and not divides us.

Jon Mertz:          03:26          Did these candidates seek out your organization New Politics, or do you find the candidates that represent the traits and try to encourage them to run for office?

Emily Cherniack:    03:33          A little of both. We are always obsessively recruiting and trying to identify talent, and especially after this election cycle in 2016, we did have people come to us. A lot of our veterans sort of said, “I didn’t put my life on the line for this country to watch my democracy fall apart. I’m ready to do something. What do I do?” Right? So, a little bit of both.

Jon Mertz:          03:58          In the past election, which of your candidate stood out in their wins and which stood out in their losses?

Emily Cherniack:    04:05          Yeah, so I think the ones I mentioned, Chrissy Houlahan, Max Rose, Jason Crow, and Mikie Sherrill all won. I think we’re going to see … They are amazing, transformative leaders, and we’re going to see a lot from them when they take office and excited for the impact that they’ll make and the change that they’ll make. I think we had a couple of reasons where we were so close. Dan Feehan in Minnesota, and Dan McCready both came with a few thousand votes. We had 3,000 votes decide two congressional races. So it was a very, very close election, and all of our candidates over-performs in their districts, but they were close. So the losses are hard when they’re close.

Emily Cherniack:    04:51          It’s because they’re amazing leaders, and they would do such amazing work in Congress. But we know that we’re going to see a lot from them in the future, so this is not their last rodeo in politics.

Jon Mertz:          05:03          Are there certain lessons learned that you will fold into how you work with the next set of candidates?

Emily Cherniack:    05:08          Yeah, I mean, we learned a lot. I think we learned that being on the ground matters. It’s important to go and go early and spend time with the campaign, staff, and the candidates just to sort of get a sense of what’s going on and help guide and coach. So that was a lesson learned. The lesson learned was also in a cohort. So we brought all these candidates together, and we helped raise money collectively, working with Congressman Seth Moulton on the democratic side for this and really created a community.

Emily Cherniack:    05:41          A lot of times when you’re a candidate and you’re often isolated, and it’s just you, and so there’s no community of people. So we really created that, this cycle, and that’s very powerful. Several of our new members are now going to … They’re going into congress knowing each, having existing relationships, which is really powerful.

Jon Mertz:          06:00          The ones that are now in office, will they continue to work with New Politics going forward?

Emily Cherniack:    06:04          Yes. We’re actually in the process of helping advise on hiring, so as they form their teams, how do they build a team culture? That’s powerful. How do they think about hiring staff that’s aligned with their mission and values? So we’re really helping guide them through that process.

Jon Mertz:          06:19          It’s fascinating that you’re building a sense of community around these candidates, not only as they’re running, but continuing once they’re in office.

Emily Cherniack:    06:26          Yeah, it’s incredible.

Jon Mertz:          06:28          Another thing about this past election is that there were a lot of firsts. In Colorado, we have the first gay governor. We had the first Muslims that were elected to the US House, and we have the youngest elected US rep from New York. What’s your view on how diversity played a role in the election and we’ll continue to win?

Emily Cherniack:    06:43          I think in general representation matters, and our Congress should reflect its people. As our country grows and changes, our Congress should reflect that. We have the oldest congress in history. So I think we will continue to keep changing the makeup of Congress in the next election cycles to come. So I think it’s great. I think there’s still a lot of work to do, and we’re excited to be part of that change to do it.

Jon Mertz:          07:12          Does diversity play a role in how you recruit candidates?

Emily Cherniack:    07:15          It’s important for us to have a representative group of people. There are barriers to entry that impact women and people of color specifically. So we’re really aware of that. We helped Juana Matias who ran for Congress in Massachusetts for the open seat when Congresswoman Tsongas retired. She did not win the primary, but she was the first Latina to run for federal office in the history of Massachusetts, and she came in third place, raised the least amount of money and did exceptionally well.

Emily Cherniack:    07:50          So yes, we absolutely believe that, and our community is diverse. The military and Americorps and Peace Corps programs are very diverse.So for us it’s about how do we recruit the best leaders and make sure that we can help break down the barriers to entry into politics.

Jon Mertz:          08:07          There were a few propositions that some CEOs got involved in. In San Francisco, it was Proposition C, dealing with homelessness. Marc Benioff got very active in supporting that tax. In Washington state, the CEOs of Expedia and REI as well as Bill Gates were supporting a new carbon tax to deal with the climate change. What role do you see business leaders playing not only in elections, but in working with these newly elected representatives?

Emily Cherniack:    08:31          Yeah, I mean, look, I think it takes a village to create change, and there are lots of … The business community has a lot of insights, best practices and ways to engage and convene conversations. So I think that’s really invaluable. I think the business sector, the nonprofit sector, I think everyone has a place at the table to think about impact and working with … We think our servant leaders are … Their role is to be conveners, is to really make sure they do what’s best for the country. Yeah, that’s how they think about leadership. It’s not sort of the hero model of leadership, it’s how do we do this together?

Emily Cherniack:    09:12          So I think the business community and other sectors play a really key role in working with elected officials to shape our country’s political policy agenda.

Jon Mertz:          09:25          That servant leadership attitude is an important principle in your organization, New Politics. Why is that?

Emily Cherniack:    09:33          We think that people who have served … No, not everyone. We don’t … Just because someone did services doesn’t mean that they’re a servant leader, right? But the people who have served in their formative years, between 18 and 27, their first job experience taught them leadership in particular around how to lead and build a team, how to work with people from different backgrounds and different ideologies, and how to problem solve in innovative environments, right? S we think that those leadership skills are really invaluable in political life.

Emily Cherniack:    10:07          So that’s sort of why we start with people with service backgrounds because of that. Their first, quote unquote, “job experience” really taught them those lessons. So their framing is really about, “How do we do what’s best for all of us?”

Jon Mertz:          10:22          Do you see a trend of renewed focus on servant leadership in our politics?

Emily Cherniack:    10:26          I mean, I think we really have been advocating for that for several years now. So I think … And our candidates really talk about servant leadership, and so we’re hoping that that becomes part of the political lexicon that servant leadership in a way of serving to be about others and something bigger than yourself, I think is important to talk about in a political frame.

Jon Mertz:          10:47          Looking at this past election, what promise or concerns do you see with Millennials and Generation Z?

Emily Cherniack:    10:52          I mean, I think from what I’ve read, I’m certainly not an expert, but the data shows that the youth vote was very high. I read somewhere that it was 400% above what it was, which is incredible. But I did read that among young people of color. Only 10% used kind of online. The online voter registration tools were really not effective, so I think the question is, is how are we really engaging all young people and making voting as easy and accessible as possible so that they become lifelong voters?

Jon Mertz:          11:30          I read an interview where you support a voting age of 16. Can you tell us why?

Emily Cherniack:    11:34          If we look throughout know I think if we look throughout history, it’s always been young people that have led to change, and so you look at what’s happening with the Parkland students, I mean, many of them are under the age of 18. They’ve been leading the charge on gun violence in our country. Young people were really the ones that created the civil rights movement. I mean, Martin Luther King was only 26 when he gave the March on Washington speech, but they were all … John Lewis was 17, 18, right? So these leaders are young, but they are really pushing us to be better as a country.

Emily Cherniack:    12:08          So I think that if you are allowed to drive in this country at 16, then you should be allowed to vote.

Jon Mertz:          12:14          As you look ahead, what are your hopes for the 2020 election?

Emily Cherniack:    12:18          I’m hopeful that we have more servant leaders if we’re interested in running and being involved in politics. So I’m excited to continue on doing the work, and we’re working on a campaign school to get more servant leaders into the campaign infrastructure systems so that they’re not just candidates, but they’re campaign managers or field directors. They’re finance directors. They’re organizers and really building a pipeline of servant leaders in all aspects of the political ecosystem. So I’m really excited to continue to do that work.

Jon Mertz:          12:51          On the other side of that, what are your fears for the 2020 election?

Emily Cherniack:    12:54          I don’t know if I have any fears. I think the challenge will be for people to continue to stay engaged. It’s just the work is hard. It’s a marathon, and I think wanting to make sure that people don’t sort of stop doing the work after this election, and that civic engagement and working on democracy is a long-term thing, right? So as long as all of us keep doing the work, then I’m not afraid.

Jon Mertz:          13:25          To wrap up, what’s your best advice for candidates who want to run for office?

Emily Cherniack:    13:29          I think you should run. We need more people like you in politics, and I think it’s okay to have honest conversations about what you’re afraid of because I think having those conversations before you run will solve anything that you will be up against during the election, because there are real challenges to running, and that’s okay to talk about it.

Jon Mertz:          13:51          What’s your best advice for citizens who want to get more involved and more active in their communities and society?

Emily Cherniack:    13:59          I think, you know, find something that you are passionate about that gives you energy and go for it. Anyone can play a role. You don’t have to have a lot of money. You don’t have to have a lot of time. Anyone can make our democracy better, so you should definitely just do it because we need you.

Jon Mertz:          14:16          Emily, you are a great example with what you are doing with New Politics and putting a new energy into our elections. So, thank you for your great work.

Emily Cherniack:    14:24          Thank you. I appreciate it.

Jon Mertz:          14:31          Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.

  • How might diversity continue to win in future elections?
  • And how do you think servant leadership can change our politics?

Send your perspective to me at Jon @ That’s Jon without an H, J-O-N, @ Write it out or record it. Send it my way. We want to hear and share your thoughts.

Jon Mertz:          20:14          Be sure to tell your friends and colleagues about the Activate World podcast. Encourage them to subscribe, listen, and share from their favorite podcast platform, AppleGoogleSpotifyiHeartRadioRadioPublic, and others. Let us know how we’re doing by leaving a review. Your reviews mean a lot to us.

Jon Mertz:          15:05          Join us next time as we explore a new model of impact investing with Kyle Lukianuk, President of Good Returns. Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.