with Heather Smith
Rocking The Vote
Heather Smith started as president of Rock the Vote in September 2007. Under her leadership the organization helped register 2.2 million voters in 2008. Now she’s working on a program to bring the group’s message to high schools. Smith has spent almost a decade organizing youth. In 2006 Campaigns & Elections named her as one of its rising stars, and Esquire magazine named her as one of its best and brightest for 2007. She spoke with DEMOCRACY IN ACTION about her experience and work at Rock the Vote in a November 2009 interview at the group’s Washington, DC office.
Democracy in Action: How did you come to Rock the Vote?
Heather Smith: In 2004 I was the field director for the New Voters Project, and that was really funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and worked with the student PIRGs. And it was using all the best practices from all the years of study to put together a model for how to best register, educate and mobilize young voters.
Democracy in Action: One thing I’m a little unclear on, it says right there in your mission statement, progressive. Do you ever feel like you’re wearing two hats or there’s a little bit of conflict when you’re speaking for young voters, but there are conservative young voters as well? How does that work both in your previous role and what you’re doing now?
Heather Smith: So we take the meaning of partisan very seriously. We are a non-partisan organization. We never have and never will endorse a candidate. In our ideal world the Democrats and the Republicans would be fighting for the youth vote, elevating their needs and interests and issues and paying even greater attention to them as a constituency.
So on that side it’s pretty clear we don’t care who does it, we just want the interests and needs of these young people to be addressed. We think it’s important for our democracy and the future of this country. But in terms of young people, there’s 45 million 18-29 year-olds; they’re the most diverse age group and generation that our country has ever seen, and that’s everything from race to political point of view. And we have a point of view. And so we attract the set of people we believe that share our point of view and our ideas, and we try to elevate their voice in the political process.
Democracy in Action: But do you ever find yourself in situations where you’re speaking for young people; is it ever awkward for you?
Heather Smith: It’s not. We’re Rock the Vote. If we were “Opera the Vote” or “Country Western the Vote” or something else then we might have a different set of people who were signing up to be activists with us. It hasn’t been a problem. And then honestly we do things that are in the best interest of young people that are pretty hard to argue. When we’re working to make access to registration easier and the process more accessible… Nationally and without prejudice we create technologies and tools and we reach out to people and we give them the way to do that. We never judge who fills it out. And in fact I bet we’ve registered more conservative and Republican young people than any other organization as well.
But at the end of the day we bring people in who want to be registered. Then we ask them to sign up and take action and be members of the organization. Our very first campaign was in 1993 and that was to pass Motor Voter. We continue today to fight for online voter registration and automatic and permanent registration and things that remove what we see as the biggest barrier to participation which is the voter registration process itself. So those are kind of hard to argue about. They’re both about access to young people but also about improving the democratic process.
Democracy in Action: What’s your typical day like?
Heather Smith: It’s a funny role that is something I never could have imagined prior to doing it. Part of it’s just running a non-profit. So I’m on the phone raising money, doing donor meetings, talking to foundations, writing grant reports. I spend a lot of time trying to raise the money we need to do this work. Then there’s all the administrative tasks. We’re in the middle of our audit--not that sexy but clearly important to keep the business running and the organization running. But then I tend to work —as a national organization, we’re the only youth-focused organization on the national level, so I’m working with all of the other major progressive organizations and members of the White House on ensuring that young people in the health care debate are taken into account and they can stay on their parents’ health care plan ‘til age 27. And then I was talking to my friend Adam Yauch from the Beastie Boys last night about his movie that’s coming out around young veterans—on Friday and how we might support that and get the word out about it.
There’s the DC world and the political world and there’s the music industry and the Hollywood world, and in many ways they’re very similar, but I tend to work in both spaces because we really do use the voices of artists and musicians and popular culture to reach young people who may not otherwise be paying attention, bring them into the political process, and then leverage that power here in D.C.. And so I find myself kind of splitting my time between L.A. and New York and D.C. and working equally in those three communities.
Democracy in Action: In fact didn’t your office used to be in Santa Monica for a while?
Heather Smith: Yeah and we still do have an office in Santa Monica.
Democracy in Action: Was that your headquarters at some point?
Heather Smith: It was. I moved our headquarters here in 2007 with the idea being in 2008 we were going to register more people than had ever been registered by a single organization in a single election cycle, and that was our goal. And we were going to turn out more young people than had ever voted in any previous U.S. election, and that was our goal. And if we did both of those things successfully then we would have an opportunity really for the first time in decades to be in DC and leverage that political power amongst those who are making decisions about our lives and the lives of the young people that we work with. So we came here.
Democracy in Action: In terms of your budget, do you have some numbers?
Heather Smith: You can imagine it varies dramatically from a presidential year to an off-off year. But in the 2008 election cycle our budget was about five million, and this year it’s about one and a half million. In the mid-terms our goal is to go back up to five million, but we can pull it off at three and a half. So we go up and down. We always keep our core staff, but then we increase the number of people all around the country in the field and in the states and doing the work.
Democracy in Action: How many core staff?
Heather Smith: Five. There’s five of us who run Rock the Vote.
Democracy in Action: And the high in 2008?
Heather Smith: Twenty-seven.
Democracy in Action: Looking at your budget where does that money come from?
Heather Smith: There’s foundations, there’s individual donors, and then—so it’s about a third foundation, a third individual donors and then a third—this is a very simplistic view, a third is probably corporate. And what that is--sponsors for Inauguration and Convention and companies that support our work, which has been very, very helpful for us and something that as a very well-known organization we’ve been able to leverage. And then there’s another—So maybe it’s a quarter, a quarter, a quarter and then the last quarter is concerts and tee-shirts and other what we call marketing.
Democracy in Action: I was looking at your website and I saw all those tee-shirts for dogs.
Heather Smith: I know you can get thongs and a tee-shirt for your dog.
Democracy in Action: So that does bring in some revenue?
Heather Smith: It does. It does. People—there are 700 volunteer street teams around the country. We give them downloadable stuff. But they all buy posters and tee-shirts and buttons and stickers. So here’s a good example of merchandising and corporate. We partnered with Rolling Stone to make a tee-shirt around the inauguration, and we sell that to raise money to cover our costs. Some of those proceeds are from selling the tee-shirt and some are from the magazine, but it works really well. It’s a unique way to raise money when every dollar is being fought over by all the groups doing really good work in this space. It’s kind of unique to us.
Democracy in Action: Have you noticed the economic downturn?
Heather Smith: Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard to raise money in this environment. Especially when you’re seen as a voter organization—our core is registering and turning out new young voters, and what people know in their minds is, of course that means in 2009 there’s a lot of work we need to do to build the technology and to put all the pieces in place for a 2010 campaign, but it’s harder to give money and raise money in 2009.
Democracy in Action: Is there a board of directors or how does that work? Is the founder still involved?
Heather Smith: Absolutely. Rock the Vote was founded 19 years ago. It was founded by a whole set of folks from the recording industry—video producers and record executives and artists themselves who came together. You might remember, Tipper Gore was putting censorship labels on [inaud.] and these artists said freedom of speech and artistic expression is core to our democracy and censorship is un-American, and they launched a campaign called Censorship is UnAmerican, and quickly came to realize that as with most of the issues that are important to us, if you’re not participating in the electoral process you have no power or accountability to fight for these things you care about. And they realized that suddenly politics could be relevant to young people if they knew that the people they elected were deciding things like what music they could listen to. And so a set of these folks founded what was soon called Rock the Vote. And then Jeff Ayeroff was really the—
Democracy in Action: Is he still there?
Heather Smith: He’s still there every day. This is his life’s passion and work. He’s said you reach into a hat and sometimes what you pull out is nothing and sometimes you pull out the rabbit. And it’s the kind of magic that he’s been able to pull out the rabbit more times than most people on the music side and ultimately in the non-profit side too with Rock the Vote.
He was at Warner Brothers for a long time, he founded Virgin Records in the U.S., and a number of other record companies. He signed Madonna to her first label and Paula Adbul and Lenny Kravitz and all these people who then to give back and to do their charity work became the spokespeople and the board members and the supporters of Rock the Vote and have been loyal and faithful and incredible in donating their time and the reach that their voice has in promoting our work for almost two decades.
Democracy in Action: Has the focus changed over the 20  years?
Heather Smith: The way we do it has, but the focus has not. We were set up to bring young people into the political process. Not the— There’s a whole set of people. They turn 18, they can’t wait to vote, they know exactly who their Secretary of State is and where their elections officials reside and they know how to get the form and go do it. We’re not really here for them. There’s about 80-percent who are living their lives, and they see this political stuff happening but don’t know how to engage, and we’re there to ask them to participate.
In 1992, that’s the first presidential campaign that we were around for, and we had Madonna wrapped in a flag singing something to the tune of “Vogue” in a public service announcement that was aired on MTV. We were laughing about it just the other day. The words were something like, “Dr. King, Malcolm X, freedom of speech is better than sex. Vote.” And the call to action was a 1-800 number, call 1-800-REGISTER, and there were people standing by, volunteers and artists standing by to take your call, fill in your registration form, ask you the questions, mail it to you so you could sign it and mail it in. Eighteen years later there’s the 2008 elections and it’s not Madonna wrapped in a flag anymore it’s Christina Aguilera. The spot’s not on MTV exclusively, it’s on Facebook and MySpace and YouTube and [inaud.] and NBC and CNN and MTV and Comedy Central and instead of a 1-800 number it’s an online registration tool that simplifies the registration process and allows you to fill it out on our website and on any website that wants to put the tool there. It’s technology that’s free for anyone to use.
Democracy in Action: That’s where the 2.2 million registered came from, through that tool?
Heather Smith: There was about 2.25 million unique voter registration applications completed through the online registration tool and then there were additional registrations collected on the ground, but we consider those gravy I guess.
Democracy in Action: So that tool was on your site and on other sites?
Heather Smith: It was on 23,000 websites in the U.S.. The vast majority still come through our website. Seventy to 80-percent of those registrations were from the RocktheVote.com website, and then a bunch of them were through partners and programs that we set up online. On Facebook, where when you turn 18 you get a reminder from us that you can register and the application’s right there built into Facebook. They can fill it out, tell their friends. On MySpace, we worked with MySpace really closely to run a program where bands would be registering their fans to vote right there–each band had the registration tool on their own MySpace page, and the band that registered the highest percentage of their fans got to come open up on stage at our Convention concert [in Denver]. We did work with Xbox where when you logged in to your Xbox to play your game, built right into it when you logged in there would be a registration and election information and a button you could click that would generate a voter registration form with a lot of the information they already have because you’re a registered user and e-mail you a copy of it. So we set up a bunch of those, all online, and then we made it available to anyone who wanted to use it. And campaigns from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Ron Paul used the tool to CNN and Yahoo! to local organizations and radio stations. There were 23,000 of them.
Democracy in Action: Did you do anything comparable [to Denver] at the RNC [in Minneapolis]?
Heather Smith: We did do stuff at the RNC. We worked with Lifetime networks and did a young women’s event at the RNC and then we also did a second event at the RNC with John Rich from Big and Rich. It was great.
Democracy in Action: How do you approach some of these issues like health care, which is ongoing right now, and global warming? There are concerns that these health care bills really aren’t going to do much to control costs. On your website you have a “Yes We Care” pledge and some video, but are you getting into some of the policy aspects.
Heather Smith: This policy work—I should say issue work, we tried a few things coming right out of the elections. We realized that issue work and the governing process is actually very similar to the electoral process in that young people care about it and they’re paying a ton of attention to it, but no one’s making it relevant to them, no one’s educating them about their role in it, about how it will affect them, and ultimately what they can do to have their voice heard.
And so we started out and spent most of the summer and the fall so far mostly doing education around this stuff to our audience, saying: The health care fight is going on, there’s health care reform being proposed, it’s one of their top three issues and has been for years. Young people are the most uninsured age group in this country. And so here’s what’s going on. Here’s how the process works, here’s the bills that are being decided and what’s in them and how that might affect you, and giving them information and tools and really raising the visibility about what it means to them as a young person in this health care debate, and simultaneously calling on the White House and the members of Congress to go out and speak to young people directly, making this debate relevant.
Every constituency needs some tending to if you want them to participate. In an election setting you can’t go knock on a hundred doors and expect the hundred people whose doors you didn’t knock on to go vote. You expect the hundred people whose doors you knocked on to go vote. You have to ask someone if you want them to come out. Same with this issue stuff as it turns out. You can’t sit there in your State of the Union address or joint session speech and say seniors, let me talk to you for a minute and walk through all the various components of the health care bill and how it will affect a senior citizen or someone 65 or older and then expect that someone age 19, 20 and 24 is going to tune in and find this debate relevant. You have to speak to them. So we’ve done a lot of work calling on the White House to do more to in fact engage young people and make it relevant. And they’ve responded in some levels. There was a great speech at the University of Maryland where they turned out 12,000 students. We hosted an online forum with Secretary Sebelius, and Pete Wentz from Fall Out Boy moderated that and really got in all our members and led them to ask questions about the issue. So a ton of education on it, and then as the policies now are getting developed with more detail, we’ve spent more time taking the issues and the concerns and the ideas that we’ve heard from our members and from young people in this process and bringing them up to the Hill and bringing them to the White House.
Democracy in Action: So are there two or three issues in particular—extension under parents’ coverage to 27…?
Heather Smith: That was the big one. What we found is one, cost matters. There’s 30-plus percent of young Americans 18-29 don’t have health care coverage and in part it’s because they’re not being offered health care by their employer...entry-level jobs or part-time jobs or no job at all. Two, they have been kicked off their parents’ plan. They went to school or they got a job and they can’t get back on, they aged out of it at 21, 22, 23, it varies in each state. And three, they have a pre-existing condition. One in five young people have a pre-existing condition, whether it’s obesity or asthma or diabetes, pregnancy. So we really wanted to eliminate these barriers so that more young people would have access to health care. And so that meant, one, allowing people to stay on their parents’ health care plan ‘til age 27; two, eliminating any discrimination based on pre-existing condition or gender; and three making these plans affordable.
The first one we were thrilled when the House announced a couple of weeks ago they would be including that in their bill, and Speaker Pelosi and representatives Dahlkemper and Van Hollen and a number of folks stood up at this huge press event on the Hill, brought in a bunch of Rock the Vote’s young members who had been telling their story about how this had affected their lives, and announced that that’s in the bill, and it is in the House bill that passed. We hope it will be in the Senate bill as well.
Two, on the pre-existing conditions, it seems like everyone’s on the same page on that so we’re just continuing to voice that that’s important to us but that there’s not much more that we need to do there.
And then on the affordability issue, it’s of great concern. So we are asking our young members to make phone calls and write letters...
Democracy in Action: But are there any particular approaches you’re advocating?
Heather Smith: Yeah, it’s based on income at this point as opposed to age and so insuring that the income level where you can start giving government subsidies to help cover your costs is low enough that it matters.
Democracy in Action: Does that address the overall issue that health care costs keep going up?
Heather Smith: Oh, I see what you’re saying. On the affordability, we were advocating that government subsidies kick in when you’re paying more than 8-percent of your income and that there be a public option to keep costs competitive.
Democracy in Action: That would be the key? Public option keeps costs competitive? Any other ideas on controlling costs?
Heather Smith: Those are the two big ones. You know that the thing were fighting against, as opposed to for, is, on the cost issue, is there’s this idea that we could provide catastrophic plans to young people that would give them a really low cost option. These are window dressing from what we’ve seen. They are plans that offer little to no health care, no preventative care, no gynecological care…
Democracy in Action: Just major, major…
Heather Smith: Just a major, major thing where it then caps how much you have to pay at $6,000 or $10,000 or whatever it ends up being. Even paying that much could put a young person in bankruptcy and then ultimately it’s not providing them with health care on an ongoing basis. So we’re asking that actual health care plans that provide comprehensive coverage be made affordable rather than these low-cost options which could ultimately spell catastrophe for young people if they ever need to use them.
Democracy in Action: [You mentioned a couple months ago a program for] visiting high schools. Have you done that already?
Heather Smith: No we’re piloting this fall, and we’re so thrilled about it.
The health care and the issue debate is really about saying don’t forget young people in this battle. We’re not policy experts and we know that. It’s about giving our young people the tools and the vehicles to express their opinion and have their say amongst those that they elected. But for us our core work continues to be registering, educating, breaking down the barriers to participation for the young and traditionally disenfranchised Americans.
And in 2008 there was amazing success. We ran the largest voter registration drive ever run by an independent organization, we helped fuel the turnout of more young people than have ever voted in a U.S. election. It was an amazing day for participation amongst young Americans, but there’s still those that didn’t vote and those that had a hard time making their way through the process, and those people tended to be young, 18-29 year-olds with less education, education level was the biggest indicator of who would not turn out or who would turn out.
And so we wanted to take what we know, which is civics and democracy and power and why it works and how it works and teach this basic concept of participation our way, meaning using language and tools and visuals and spokespeople that resonate and that young people can identify with and bring that into classrooms in the high school, where these young people may be eligible or they may be eligible in a year or two –but teach them about the basics of civics and do this in places where they’re less likely to go on to college, where they’re less likely to learn it on their own.
We do not teach civic education in any sort of widespread way in our country. Funding for civic education has been cut, and if we can have our volunteers and our activists all around the country coming out of a big election like 2008 they’re eager to do something. We can give them the tools to go into the classrooms in their communities and teach about the election process, and about voting and about the basic principles of our democracy and start reaching people when they’re 16, 17, 18-years old we think we can really continue to break down the barrier of process, the lack of knowledge about how it works that is why most people don’t actually enter the process.
Democracy in Action: When would that start?
Heather Smith: We have just finished the first draft of the teacher’s guide, we are working on the video component now, and we’ll be piloting it in some high schools in December, mostly in inner cities—Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, DC—places where we have a lot of volunteers and we have teachers that we’ve worked with for years. Get some really good feedback from both the students and the teachers about what works and what resonates, make some tweaks this winter and by next Spring be ready to roll it out nationally.
Democracy in Action: Did you look at other programs like that? You didn’t start from scratch—you looked at what’s been done?
Heather Smith: There’s a lot of long-term curriculums and semester-long or year-long curriculums, there’s a lot of great programs that are out there, but we wanted something that was simple and easy for a teacher to take and bring into their classroom. We had 2-3,000 teachers call us in ’08 saying what can I do with my class? We want to say great, here you go. It’s 45 minutes or 90 minutes, whatever your one time class period is, it’s simple, it’s cool, your students will love it, it will teach them the basics they need to know. It’s also something that a lot of these groups already running curriculum or civics programs can use or integrate as one of their classroom modules, and it’s something that our volunteers can easily implement in a classroom on their own. And then we have learned from a lot of what other people have done. We actually have a great advisory board of a lot of the organizations that do this work full time to make sure that their input and advice and guidance has been sought. If teachers want to do more then we have all these great partners to say okay, we got our hooks into them with one classroom thing, but if we really want to keep teaching this, here are these ten great organizations that do much broader and much deeper and much longer term work.
It doesn’t take much more than forty-five minutes to just say one person, one vote—that’s how it was set up. Registration is an intentional barrier that we’re going to break down. There’s a struggle for the right to vote, here’s why. The power to decide your future is actually one that you were given. And we’re all equal at the ballot box. So here’s a form, here’s how you fill it out, here’s where you go, and if you have more questions, RocktheVote.com. And if you want to learn more here’s all these great projects you can get involved with.
Democracy in Action: So have you developed this all in house with input from that advisory board, is that how that worked. Looking at all the materials (already out there) are there one or two things that really influenced you?
Heather Smith: Yeah, a ton of things. We’ve been doing this in college classrooms and with 18-year olds for 19 years, so we knew how we wanted to, we know how we get someone’s attention and bring them into this process. It’s just the high school world is a new setting for us in some regard. Granted we ran a huge high school program in Iowa called Rock the Caucus in 2008.
Democracy in Action: I missed that.
Heather Smith: It was very fun. One of the volunteers in Des Moines called it, what’d she say, a tailgate without the beer or barbeque. We did a mock caucus in every high school and then we set up in every cafeteria—not every the largest high schools across the state—and then in every cafeteria there we had a DJ come and we had free pizza and we had the radio DJ playing music and we had some giveaways and then we had the students who ran the mock caucus come in and talk about the caucus process, and then we divided people up by where their caucus was. To get in you had to get your caucus location. And then we carpooled everyone, shuttled 500 students at a time off to their caucus location… We did the mock caucuses in the months leading up to it and on caucus day we had the tailgates.
So we have some experience, but writing curriculum and doing our program we’ve had great, great advisors. Steve Barr, he was one of the founders of Rock the Vote. He went on to found the Green Dot schools, which are really innovative schools in Los Angeles County, but are now expanding around the country. Steve’s been a great advisor. There’s Vote 18, this great group that was based in New York City and went around the country in the last couple of cycles doing exactly this, teaching kids about the registration process. They had some really interactive games that they played in the classroom. We went and watched and sat in on a lot of these programs and you could see the light bulbs go off. So we’ve integrated some of those components.
Democracy in Action: So how about Heather? There are a few questions I like to ask everybody. What was your first political memory? Growing up as a wee kid.
Heather Smith: I grew up in Buffalo, NY, and my father was the team doctor for the Buffalo Bills; he’s an orthopedic surgeon, he does sports medicine, and Jack Kemp ran for office so that was something that my dad got involved in, I remember hearing about that and some fundraisers that he would attend.
But I don’t think I really saw myself as political or got really engaged in anything until college, and even then I wasn’t in student government—I was probably protesting them. But there was a race. I was at school at Duke University and there was a race and someone came up and asked me to register to vote and told me all about who was on the ballot and what it meant and what we needed to do, and how this person was incredibly racist and had all these very conservative and old school ways—
Democracy in Action: Sounds like you’re talking about a certain Senate race?
Heather Smith: I am talking about a certain Senate race. And I thought that’s unbelievable. There’s no way that that should be allowed or that that even happens in our country. It floored me to think that—I just had a very different opinion of politics. So I registered to vote. The funny thing is I was registering to vote for a Democrat, but I didn’t understand the party system. I registered as a Republican, because that’s what my dad was. But then went out with the intention to support the Democrat in that race, or I guess to oppose the Republican really. That Senate race didn’t have the outcome that I had voted for, but it opened my eyes to the fact that what’s right and what’s wrong aren’t always the path that’s chosen by those that are elected and perhaps something needed to be done. I guess it’s that moment where you think maybe I should figure this out.
I was running a photography project with Hispanic youth in Durham County, and I was teaching them photography and running this class and writing about their experience as young immigrants here in this town, and there’s a lot of race relations and there’s a lot of displacement, and they told these beautiful stories and we took beautiful pictures and we used that art to then raise the concerns and needs of this new community in Durham and we ended up running a decent housing campaign in the city. And so that brought me closer to, at least on a local level, how you can fight for what you feel is right, and what you think is just and provide equal opportunity, and organize people to do that.
So that was my college experience; so after college I thought, this is what I have to do, right? I didn’t know you could do it for a living, the organizing part, because I didn’t want to be an elected official, but I wanted to organize people to make what’s right happen. And I found this program called Green Corps. Green Corps was a field school for environmental organizing. They trained you how to be an organizer around environmental issues. I fell in love with it as a way to engage people and make change. And so the next year I took on the roll as organizing director. I trained the recent college graduates and ran the campaigns.
Democracy in Action: What year was that?
Heather Smith: It was 2000. And I’ll tell you how I know. Because the first campaign— We’d train people in the class and then we’d take them all out to run an environmental campaign on the ground. And the campaign was my first campaign as an organizing director, and so I was the campaign manager I guess.
And we had all these great young organizers around the country and working to protect 60 million acres of roadless areas in our national forests. And we organized Senators to put pressure on President Clinton to designate these pristine wilderness areas, these roadless areas in our national forests [as] protected. And as his last act as president, Bill Clinton announced in the Washington and Lee National Forest in Virginia that these 60 million acres would in fact be protected. And I was asked to come by the White House and stand up there next to him when he made that announcement. So I was 22 years old, was standing in this national forest next to the president of the United States as he was designating and declaring victory on this campaign that we had just worked our butts off, that we worked so hard organizing students to help make this happen.
I thought I’d changed the world. I was convinced that, check, I know how to do this now. We’re going to organize students forever. We’re going to keep making good things happen.
And then a few months later there was a new president, and one of his first acts as president was to overturn the roadless rule. And I was devastated, and didn’t know what to make of it. It was so wrong. And I started to really try to understand how could this thing that so many people had fought for and so many people had organized for so quickly be overturned. And the truth of the matter was it was students and young people who were engaged in that campaign. And then their turnout in 2000 was the lowest it had ever been: 36-percent.
We can’t expect to fight for these issues and our elected officials to be accountable to us if we’re not participating in the political process, if we don’t have any political power. And so I soon after moved out of the organizing young people for environmental concerns and public health concerns and started focusing on how do we actually register, turnout and engage more 18- to 29-year olds in the voting process. Because without that political power to hold our public officials accountable and actually leverage that power for the issues we cared about then no change would be permanent and the kind of change that I thought we need and still believe we need for greater equality and justice in this country couldn’t be possible.
Democracy in Action: From there…
Heather Smith: …It was the New Voters Project. We did “prescription drug trials for democracy” with Don Green and Alan Gerber at Yale, where we studied every last type of contact we can make and how impactful it will be and how we can make it most efficient. We raised the money and ran a campaign in six states to prove that it worked and took all of what we learned from there and brought it to Rock the Vote and in 2008 made sure that nationally all that work was being done.
Democracy in Action: Have you ever thought about running for office?
Heather Smith: No, I haven’t. My role is on the outside. We need young people and good progressives running for office, because those are the ones that ultimately make those decisions. Good candidates are what compels somebody to go vote.
Democracy in Action: Has anyone said you should do it?
Heather Smith: People
say that all the time. But—I’m not one for
compromise. Like in the health care debate, I respect my progressive
allies for what they have to do to get health care passed but I
couldn’t stomach it. I’m better suited on the outside fighting for the
principles of what I believe needs to happen and what I believe
represent the best interests of the youth of America.
Democracy in Action: Final question. What advice would you give to somebody who’s just coming into a job like yours, executive director of a small nonprofit?
Heather Smith: What would I say? Think big. Because you might not get all the way there, but you’ll get a heck of a lot closer to the impossible than you probably think is possible. And that it’s okay to ask for help… Don’t be afraid to ask for help, find good mentors and colleagues, because they really do matter.
Democracy in Action: Is there someone who’s been particularly helpful to you in this job?
Heather Smith:Yeah, it’s been the founders of Rock the Vote who’ve made me feel like this was my home and have been so supportive. They’ll tell you when you’re wrong, but you can go to them and say, I think I made a mistake and they’ll help you fix it. And you can say I don’t understand, and they’ll walk you through it. So Jeff Ayeroff and Jon Rubin and Hilary Rosen and... They’ve been amazing. They’re invested in it working, but they’re also invested in me. And that matters. Jerry Hauser at the Management Center is amazing.
Democracy in Action: What is the Management Center?
Heather Smith: It’s set up to help support young people running organizations and teach you basic management skills. They’ve been great.
There’s a whole set of people from the youth vote world who’ve
literally spent a decade working on this stuff—Tobi Walker at the Pew
Charitable Trusts, Ryan Friedrichs who’s now at State Voices, Mark
Strama, who’s now actually a member of the state house in Texas. When
no one thought young people would turn out and it was all about those
apathetic youth, there was a dozen or so people—Ivan Frishberg—who
said there’s more to be done. We can make them pay attention to us. We
can in fact solve this problem. They laid the groundwork for what Rock
the Vote is doing now. Many of them actually worked for Rock the Vote
during the years when no one was doing it, when the campaigns weren’t
doing it, when the organizations weren’t doing it. They took the chance
and reached out to young people and figured out how to do it. A lot of
them are very committed to us continuing to succeed.