New American Leaders

New Orleans       With all of the deserved celebration and whoopsie-do about the historic diversity of the newly elected Congress, talking to Sayu Bhojwani, the founder and director of the New York-based nonprofit, New American Leaders, on Wade’s World seemed as right on time as these new representatives themselves.   Sayu made some interesting points that underscored that this election was not a combination of magic and miracle, but the result of years of grassroots work in communities and by the candidates.

The topline is well-known at this point.  The new Congress is the most diverse in American history.  Two Muslim women, the first, are now in Congress.  Two Native Americans were elected.  Latinas from the left and middle gained seats, including the youngest woman ever to be elected from the Bronx.  Donna Shalala, former Cabinet secretary and president of universities in the Midwest and the South, was the gerrymandering of the new gang and elected as a freshman Congressman from Miami.  Expectations are high!

In our conversation, as well as in her book, People Like Us:  The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door, Sayu underscored the points that let to the election of new bellwethers of change like Ilhan Omar, who became the first Somali-American to be elected to Congress representing the 5th District of Minnesota.  She didn’t come out of nowhere to suddenly be elected.  She ran campaigns for other candidates elected to her state’s senate and the Minneapolis City Council.  She served as a policy aide, a health and nutrition worker, and as head of a national nonprofit advocating for immigrants from East Africa living in the United States.  By the time she was elected to the Minnesota house, she had paid her dues in grassroots politics, preparing her way to move up when Keith Ellison, who had been the only Muslim in Congress, stepped down.  This theme came up again and again in Sayu’s book where races for local school boards, city councils and state legislative seats against all odds had taught old lessons in grassroots politics to new leaders who kept challenging and running until they won.

Part of the backstory is obviously changing demographics challenging an older generation trying to hold on.  Sayu is unforgiving about the replacement of a veteran woman who had been office for 44 years by a younger woman representing the new majority in the district.  She thought perhaps the older war horse had been a progressive in her time, but she had settled into a liberal rut, allowing a new progressive to step forward now.  Sayu is equally unapologetic in her advocacy of term limits to make room for new leadership.

Small donations beat big money.  New communication methods have been easily adapted to modern campaigns by new leaders.  The need for more equitable redistricting and the end of gerrymander would be critical in allowing the next generation to move forward.  If Sayu is right, what we are seeing in the new Congress is not an exception but another leap forward in the changing of the guard to new leaders with profoundly different and more inclusive views of America’s future.


Bringing Our People to the Graduation Line – Go Pounce!

New Orleans     What is “pounce?”  I actually know, because I’ve spent time over a bunch of years in the downtown campus of Georgia State University.  This blue panther head seems to be everywhere around the sprawling and expanding downtown campus.  Walking from the parking lots up and down the hills in Atlanta near the capitol to the classrooms of the School of Social Work or the cafeteria or the popular Waffle House, I sometimes wonder how many years it will be before the school has grown so large that it will be running programs in the capitol hearing rooms during their recesses.  It might actually be a good thing, because the record of GSU in many areas is becoming a benchmark for others, which is not the same thing many of us can say about the legislative accomplishments in that building.

GSU is getting some recognition for something that is obvious to any of us that have spent time in their classrooms or with their students.  This is a diverse campus where African-Americans are everywhere, not speckled about here and there.  The leadership of GSU is paving the way by doing the “right” thing, rather than the popular thing.  Rather than trying to rejigger their curriculum and scholarships to chase after big, rich state and elite universities, they have focused on how to bring their student population success.  For example, in the last five years, Georgia State University has awarded more bachelor’s degrees to African-Americans than any other nonprofit college or university in the country.  They have developed programs to bring their students to the finish line, not just run them through the application mill.

It’s not just African-Americans either.  The Hechinger Report in 2016 reported that:

From 2003 to 2015, according to GSU, its graduation rate (finishing a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting) for African-American students rose from 29 to 57 percent. For Hispanic students, it went from 22 to 54 percent. By 2014, for lower-income students (those eligible for a federal Pell grant), it reached 51 percent — nearly the same as for non-Pell students. Its graduation rate for first-generation students went up 32 percent between 2010 and 2014.


We’re talking about success across the board on those metrics at a time when we read daily about the hand-wringing of elite and other schools with way more resources bemoaning the fact that they can neither recruit not graduate lower income and minority students even though they keep drinking at the same well and doing the same things over and over.

Luckily, other institutions both here and abroad are studying how GSU is pouncing on this situation.  Maybe they’ll learn something, maybe not.

From my experience I can tell you one thing for certain:  it’s hands’ on.  When ACORN has been involved in several practicums on issues like remittances with undergrads and predatory installment land contracts with graduate students, there’s constant attention and discipline in the professor’s expectations, not just an online grade eval like I receive from some of our other university partners in the US and Canada.  Heck, the professor in our just completed program got out and doorknocked with the student team and showed them some tips on the street.  That’s the kind of involvement that moves students – and the rest of us – to the finish line, as all four of our team got their Masters in Social Work (MSW).  Of course, the professor was Dr. Fred Brooks, former ACORN organizer and canvass director, so who would be surprised, but the fact that he is there on the ground with GSU says something amazing about their program – and accomplishments – as well.