“Anyone Can Be an Activist”
Alumni get involved in politics.
Across the political spectrum, Harvard alumni concerned about the state of U.S. democracy, their apprehensions later intensified by the events of January 6, are doing what they can to advocate, educate, and mobilize voters ahead of the next elections. Janet Singer ’84, a nurse-midwife and longtime reproductive health activist, is a case in point. In the fall of 2018, she had organized a group of friends to knock on doors in Tennessee prior to a midterm election there. With encouragement from a classmate before their 35th reunion in May 2019, she arrived in Cambridge with a plan to get her classmates involved with Democratic campaigns in key states. On the last day of the reunion, Singer happened to sit down next to Lisa Ulrich ’84, M.P.A. ’89, who joined the founding staff of City Year and also has a background in nonprofit leadership. They struck up a conversation about engaging more alumni in pro-democracy work. Ulrich immediately thought, “I have to join you.”
Shortly after the reunion, Singer and Ulrich created a Facebook group for those interested in grassroots work, and 700 people—nearly half the class—joined. Among their former classmates, they discovered, were hundreds eager to work on political campaigns but uncertain how to go about it. To address this shortcoming, they founded Crimson Goes Blue, an organization that rallies Harvard alumni to support Democratic candidates vying for office. But they were far from the only alumni getting involved.
Although more Harvard alumni are registered as Democrats than as Republicans, Democrats are by no means the only ones pushing to uphold American liberal democracy. This work is coming from both sides of the ideological spectrum. Several alumni, representing opposing political parties, have created organizations with the shared goal of upholding the integrity of the electoral and democratic process. “It was clear people were concerned about our democracy,” says Singer. “And we believe anyone can be an activist.”
Bill Kristol ’73, Ph.D. ’79, known for his thought leadership and analysis of American conservatism, has shaped U.S. politics from both inside and outside the White House. He served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, edited and created The Weekly Standard, and now edits The Bulwark. But Defending Democracy Together—the advocacy organization he founded in 2018—is something new. The group specifically seeks to engage moderates, conservatives, Republicans, and former Republican voters who are dissatisfied with the current direction of the Republican Party. Defending Democracy Together uses research, educational campaigns, and grassroots activism to fight what it perceives as the abuses of power and the dissemination of misinformation that pose a threat to democracy and a peaceful transition of power in 2024, and to support candidates—from both sides of the aisle—who will help fight these forces. “Thinking about how to help the candidates, individuals, and parties that are defending democracy in this era,” says Kristol, “I just decided this is the most useful thing I could do.” (Read an earlier interview with Kristol here.)
Defending Democracy Together is the umbrella organization for several campaigns and projects working toward a shared mission. Among them is the Republican Accountability project, which supports Republicans in Congress who defy party leadership and works to unseat those who want to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Another, Republican Voters Against Trump, created a social media campaign in 2020 in which Republicans, conservatives, and former Donald Trump voters from all states uploaded 30-second videos articulating “their story” about why they didn’t vote for his re-election.
“The citizen videos were effective,” says Kristol. Through focus-group testing, Defending Democracy Together found that “people get suspicious of TV ads, but were more responsive to testimonials from people who looked like them, and felt like them.” In anticipation of the upcoming midterm elections, Kristol plans to focus on supporting pro-democracy Republicans and Democrats. By mobilizing those Republicans and former Republicans who feel alienated from the party, Defending Democracy Together, too, fills a gap.
Like Kristol, Singer and Ulrich have built their campaigns around connecting people to others like them. Ulrich says that Harvard alumni were informed but unsure of the best way to take action: “We allow them to get involved in ways that reflect their interest, time, and talents.” The sign-up process for Crimson Goes Blue is geared especially toward the hesitant participant. The “join us” page highlights a welcome video with testimonies from Harvard alumni in and out of politics, including Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg ’04, Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin ’83, J.D. ’87, and actor John Lithgow ’67, Ar.D. '05, all endorsing the efforts of the organization and sharing stories of their own political activism.
In the year preceding the last election, in 2020, Singer and Ulrich, along with class of 1984 team members Christian Cooper, Licia Hurst, Nancy Kates, Rondo Moses, and Sesha Sayanan Pratap, supported Democratic state and federal campaigns in North Carolina and Florida before pivoting to Georgia for the run-off senate election. Now, with 1,500 members, they’re focusing on the 2022 midterms.
Crimson Goes Blue’s three main goals for the midterms are to win elections in battleground states, protect voting rights, and ensure the integrity of the election process. Participants can work with state teams or program teams, and can direct donations to support candidates in close races. The state teams focus on Senate, House, and gubernatorial campaigns such as those in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. The six program teams work on canvassing, fundraising, phone banking, voter protection and election integrity, voter registration, and writing letters and postcards to voters.
Photograph courtesy of Janet Singer
When Singer and Ulrich sought other like-minded pro-democracy organizations in 2019, they noticed that many were founded by Harvard alumni. To date, Crimson Goes Blue collaborates with five such organizations. “We aren’t going to reinvent the wheel,” says Singer. In the 2020 election cycle, Crimson Goes Blue raised $300,000 for the Crimson Goes Blueprint Portfolio, for example, a data-driven donation platform focused on fundraising that is run by Swing Left. That grassroots organization, now led by Yasmin Radjy M.P.P. ’17, supports Democratic candidates running in swing districts.
Another key collaborator, Bluebonnet Data, was started by Nathán Goldberg ’18 during his senior year, to help students and recent graduates use their coding and data science skills in Democratic political campaigns. “I stumbled upon a big gap in the progressive ecosystem,” he says. “Big campaigns don’t always have data support.” He created Bluebonnet after seeking data volunteers (and receiving an overwhelming response) in support of Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign for the Texas U.S. Senate seat held by Ted Cruz, J.D. ’95. Like Ulrich and Singer, Goldberg discovered an untapped population of young coders and data analysts unsure how to get involved in politics, and helped them join campaigns. (One of those campaigns, co-led by Goldberg, was the Harvard Forward effort that resulted in electing pro-divestment petition candidates to Harvard’s Board of Overseers in 2020 and 2021.)
Singer and Ulrich hope the variety of organizations they’ve partnered with encourages alumni of all skillsets and backgrounds to participate. In addition to Swing Left and Bluebonnet Data, these organizations include Field Team 6, which organizes innovative citizen-led voter registration campaigns, especially on college campuses; Vote Forward, founded and led by Scott Forman ’04, which organizes volunteers to persuade fellow citizens to vote; and the Leadership Now Project. The latter, founded by Daniella Ballou-Aares, M.B.A. ’02, M.P.A. ’02, Katherine Cousins M.B.A. ’02, Craig Robinson, M.B.A. ’02, Lisa Blau M.B.A. ’03, Mariam Alsikafi M.B.A. ’03, Vineeta Vijayaraghavan ’94, M.B.A. ’01 and others is a membership organization of business leaders committed to protecting American democracy. The group works with its members to prevent election crises, promote reforms, and expand the number of government and business leaders working to protect and renew democracy in the United States.
Ulrich and Singer are now full-time at Crimson Goes Blue, Ulrich as managing director and Singer as political director. Singer left her 30-year career as a nurse-midwife to throw herself into the work. Jason Berlin ’94, the founder of partner organization Field Team 6 that runs Democratic voter registration drives, left an 18-year career in writing and producing for television to focus on political work, too. Kristol also is trying something new, one of many alumni hoping to change the direction of U.S. democracy. Singer recalls the inscription on Harvard’s gates: “Enter to grow in wisdom, depart to serve thy country and kind,” she recites. “Activism should be a norm of people’s time. Shared identity is a great catalyst.”
Updated 8-29-2022, 5 PM to correct chronology and other factual details. Updated 8-30-2022: Yasmin Radjy M.P.P. ’17 has succeeded Catherine Vaughan ’08 as executive director of Swing Left. Updated 8-31-2022 to correct the list of founders and description of Leadership Now Project.