Program Aims to Energize Youth Interest in Politics

Posted July 15, 2003 at 4:38pm

The 12 college students in T-shirts and jeans blended with the rest of campus when they recently gathered at Georgetown University’s Bunn Intercultural Center. Although living at the university for the summer, they aren’t there for the traditional education.

The students are in D.C. for the United Leaders’ Institute for Political Service. During their eight-week stay, they’ll work, hear speakers and even do some community service. However, the group stands apart from other internship programs bringing students to the city because of the unique goals of its twenty-something organizers.

The United Leaders organizers, who sponsor the internship program, are planning a larger movement to show students and young professionals that politics can be rewarding.

In a Georgetown University basement conference room, the group met with representatives from EMILY’s List, WISH List and Susan Hirschmann, former chief of staff to then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The casual dress is reflective of the uniqueness of the program — after their early-morning breakfast they volunteered with Metro TeenAIDS for the rest of the day.

United Leaders, a bipartisan “action tank,” originated in 1999 as the idea of then-Tufts University seniors Larry Harris and Jesse Levey, and after graduation became the full-time passion of the now 24- and 23-year-olds.

While in college, the two saw how the Clinton impeachment hearings turned many of their peers away from public service.

“We’re really trying to revitalize politics through a generation of idealists,” Harris said. “United Leaders don’t ‘Crossfire.’ We don’t sit around and yell at each other until one person passes out.”

Harris says the group aims to change the perception of politics from a fight between two teams to an effective vehicle for change.

“It can be idealistic,” Harris said. “It doesn’t have to be like you see it on TV.”

Interns in the program work at traditional political or government offices and at nonprofit or advocacy groups.

“My family raised me in a community service environment, and I’ve always been interested in politics,” said Lindsay Brubaker, an IPS fellow and University of Virginia junior.

Her time as an intern will be divided between Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Americans for Gun Safety.

“One of the problems is that people come to D.C. and do the same thing for 10 weeks, and that’s great, but it’s only one experience,” said Eric Osborne, an IPS fellow and Amherst College student. “Getting the whole experience helps us understand all sides.”

In addition, the fellows meet twice a week for workshops and to hear speakers. Each week focuses on a certain theme. For example, one week is designated “Money in Politics,” the next “Working Across Sectors.” Each Friday afternoon, the group volunteers at a different organization to help bridge the “service gap.”

Bridging that gap, the disconnect young people see between volunteer service and political service, makes the program stand out, says Erin Ross, the 22-year-old executive director of the D.C. office.

“I think a lot of people are happy we’re coming to town because we fill a niche,” said Woods, who has been working in D.C. for several months establishing partnerships with Georgetown University, City Year Washington and Piper Rudnick LLP.

United Leaders has been running the internship program in Boston for two summers and with the recent expansion to D.C. hopes the program continues growing.

This year United Leaders received 750 applications for 12 spots in D.C. and 24 in Boston. The benefits of the program include room and board, a $2,000 stipend, speakers and programming, and the opportunity to interact with motivated young people.

The group initially was funded on $7,000 in donations but has now garnered a $1 million budget, with an expected $1.25 million for 2004. The group has partnered with several universities and credits its funding to the University College of Citizens and Public Service at Tufts University, the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, the Omidyar Foundation and individuals.

For United Leaders, helping enthusiastic students overcome the financial burden to public service helps keep tomorrow’s leaders interested in government service.

“If you want to make a difference, you shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty,” said Jack Schnirman, the United Leaders communications director, noting the financial barrier for students faced with nonpaying internships.

Besides sponsoring the internship program, the group is also planning to launch a D.C. networking group for young professionals. In the works is a July 23 event at the upscale Connecticut Avenue nightclub MCCXXIII.

The group is also working to create a national network of United Leaders and alumni from their internship program, which will expand to San Francisco next summer. After this class of fellows, the program will have 72 alumni at about 40 universities.

As for the future, in the next five years United Leaders aims to expand to 12 internship cities with more than 1,000 alumni, and group leaders hope that at least 160 members will have attempted to attain public office.

And when members run for office, United Leaders organizers hope they remember the model of politics that leaves strategy talk to sports games.

For more information, visit United Leaders online at www.unitedleaders.org.