Name: Andrew Kaplan
College and Major(s)/Minor(s): Brown University, Political Science
Role(s) at Common Sense Action: Co-founder and Chief Action Officer
Social Media: @andrewnkaplan
Name: Sam Gilman
College and Major(s)/Minor(s): ConcentrationsPublic Policy and History
Role(s) at Common Sense Action: Co-Founder and CEO
Social Media: @GilmanSam
What is Common Sense Action (CSA), and how did you get the idea for it?
Andrew Kaplan: Common Sense is a grassroots organization that expands opportunity for Millennials by bringing our generation to the policymaking table and building a movement of Millennial voters committed to advancing generational fairness, investing in Millennial mobility, and repairing politics.
In the summer of 2012, Sam Gilman (one of my best friends) and I realized that nearly every group has a representative at the policymaking table in Congress, whether it’s the AARP or Big Oil, yet Millennials do not. To make an impact in politics, you need to have money or connections, yet Millennials most often have neither. That’s where the idea for Common Sense Action comes in. By building a movement of Millennials spanning the political spectrum, we can mobilize the numbers necessary to impact politics without money or connections.
Sam Gilman: Common Sense Action is a bipartisan grassroots organization that brings our generation to the policymaking table. We mobilize a coalition of Millennial voters working to expand opportunity by advancing generational fairness, investing in Millennial mobility, and repairing politics. In short we are an interest group with a Millennial agenda dedicated to political change. We currently have 25 chapters in 16 states.
The idea for CSA came when I was an intern at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) in Washington, DC in the summer of 2012. I was getting increasingly frustrated while conducting research for a book on gridlock in Washington as well as research on workforce development initiatives. I learned about the decline of relationships between members of Congress and I learned that Congress has not taken on issues of workforce development – a critical issue for young people –because members don’t find it “sexy.” Not only did I learn just how broken Congress is, but also I started to realize just how little effort they make to fix things for my generation. So I called up my buddy and co-founder Andrew Kaplan and told him I had a stupid idea.
As we were formulating our ideas along with our third co-founder Heath Mayo, I voted in the primary election on September 11th 2012 in the polling place just thirty steps from our campus center. At 1:30 in the afternoon, I was the 17th voter. It was at this moment that the thought crystalized that we had an avenue for change. What if we could significantly increase the number of Millennials who cared about politics and mobilize them to vote in primaries when there are fewer voices in the room? At worst, we’d swing the conversation to Millennial priorities; at best, we’d swing an election.
What’s your favorite thing about being part of the CSA team, and what’s something that most people don’t know about your operation?
AK: My favorite part about CSA is witnessing the incredible diversity of people who are a part of the organization. To see people from inner-city Baltimore and New York work closely with others from rural Tennessee and Louisiana to craft hard-fought, legitimate policy and organizing has been the most compelling aspect of CSA for me. It’s great to interact every single day with people who not only span the political spectrum, but also come from extremely different and diverse backgrounds.
Few people realize how new we are. When we began in the fall of 2012, CSA only had one pilot chapter at Brown University. We didn’t add any chapters until the fall of 2013, when we grew to 17 chapters. Now, in the spring of 2014, we have 25 chapters in 16 states; in just 9 months, we expanded from one chapter to 25. Sam and I could never have imagined expanding the idea so quickly and effectively.
SG: My favorite part about the CSA team and the CSA model is that our top priority is relationship building. This is probably something that people often don’t see or don’t think about when they hear Common Sense Action. But friendships and relationships amongst our members are critical to accomplishing our mission and an awesome way to learn about people’s different experiences growing up in the United States.
We can only develop bipartisan policy if Democrats and Republicans learn to trust each other. And we can only do that if we focus on friendships. For example, I love that some of our leaders who come from places as diverse as rural Mississippi, inner-city Baltimore, and suburban Iowa have to work together to solve problems. Even if we never swing an election or get a policy passed in Congress, these friendships built across difference will allow the next generation of leaders whether they be leaders in Congress, business, communities, or faith to not only understand people who come from different places, political ideologies, faiths, races, and sexual orientations, but also to have experience solving problems together.
Three words to describe CSA?
AK: Inclusive. Evolving. Action.
SG: Innovative, Inclusive, Impactful
What can students do to get involved with CSA?
AK: There are many different ways to get involved with CSA, each with a different level of commitment.
If there’s a CSA chapter at your school, you can join up. If there isn’t an existing chapter, you can start one. If you already have a job working in DC this summer, you can apply to be an Organizing Fellow, the people who will shape and build CSA’s organizing efforts this summer.
If you want to add your voice to the CSA movement, endorse the Agenda for Generational Equity, the policy platform we crafted in conjunction with the Bipartisan Policy Center.
SG: Anyone can get involved in CSA at varying levels of commitment.
We are looking to expand our network of chapters. If you are interested in starting a chapter and there is no chapter at or near your school, it’s pretty easy to get started. CSA members are incredibly inclusive by nature, so another way to get involved is to join a local chapter.
A low-commitment way to engage with CSA is to endorse our agenda – the Agenda for Generational Equity – which we formulated in partnership with policy experts at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Endorsing the Agenda adds your voice to the crescendo of Millennial voices calling for Washington to work again and for our country to invest in our generation. If you are in Washington, DC over the summer, check-out our Summer Intern Network and the events we host each week, ranging from Pizza and Policy talks to events with former Senators to Happy Hours. And, as we launch our advocacy campaigns in the coming months, there will be plenty of opportunities to get involved, ranging from writing op-eds, to calling your Member of Congress, to organizing a local forum.
What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?
AK: Last semester, I was hanging out with one of my good friends at Brown, who isn’t involved in CSA or particularly interested in politics. He showed me a Facebook message he had gotten earlier that day from a childhood friend asking him to support CSA and endorse our agenda. Seeing that the movement could spread to communities that I had never personally touched (especially with the prevalence of technology) was amazingly powerful – it reinforced my belief that networks of motivated leaders have the ability to reach countless communities.
SG: The most surreal moment of my career at Common Sense Action came pretty early on in April 2013, only six months after we launched the pilot chapter. My co-founder Andrew Kaplan and I went down to the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) to ask for three desks so we could organize over the summer. To use a poker metaphor, Jason Grumet the President of the BPC not only saw us three desks for the summer, but also raised us by giving us an incredibly generous grant to sustain our venture through January 2014. It was surreal; the one organization actively trying to bring Democrats and Republicans together to advance solutions to our nation’s problems basically offered to be our incubator.
Do you have any advice for high school students and college kids looking to go into a similar line of work?
AK: Set ambitious goals. By pushing the envelope with your own expectations, you’ll surpass your initial objectives even if you fall short of your goals. You’ll probably only get 70% of the way there, but that 70% constantly moves the ball forward.
SG: A couple of weeks ago, I was going back over some documents from high school, and I stumbled across an email to a Maryland state Senator and former graduate of my high school. In that email, I virtually proposed the idea for CSA three years before we launched the organization. I wanted the Senator’s advice about how I could leverage my high school network to create a student movement and take advantage of the various resources in Washington, DC. The Senator and I never connected, and I soon forgot about the idea. Two years later, that idea came back, and I started CSA. From this story, a couple of thoughts come to mind.
First, if you care about something passionately, it is never too early to work on it; even if you don’t have the tools. And, if the doors are not open to the dream you care about, keep dreaming. Perhaps the doors will unexpectedly open a few years later.Second, make the leap. We’re all amateurs, particularly in our teens and early 20s. But that does not mean that we can’t follow our passions – whether it’s auditioning for the Hollywood blockbuster or running a business. One of Andrew and my mottos is: “build the plane as you fly it.” Sometimes you get air, other times you fail spectacularly. My hope is always to fail often, quickly, and never twice doing the same thing.
Where do you see yourself and CSA in five years?
AK: In five years, I hope to see CSA as an institution, a self-sustaining organization that advocates for Millennials. To me, the greatest outcome would be to see CSA succeed and continue to grow beyond my time leading the organization with Sam.
SG: In five years, I hope that Common Sense Action is a thriving interest group respected for its advocacy on Millennial issues. I hope that we can successfully run campaigns to pressure Congress to tackle critical issues facing our generation like the cost of college and student loan debt. I hope that candidates on both sides of the aisle begin endorsing our policy agenda as part of their platforms. And, I would see solutions first candidates in the Democratic and Republican parties who endorse our platforms get elected with tremendous Millennial support.
While I may still be working on CSA five years from now, I would like to see CSA sustain and grow beyond its founders. I think there is no better indicator for the importance of a start-up like CSA than its ability to sustain itself beyond its founders, particularly as Andrew and I grow too old to be the college-aged faces of this Millennial advocacy organization.