My name is Edgar Romero, I am from Caracas in Venezuela, but I graduated last year from college in New York City, and I would like to share a story about my last two years in school. At City College of New York I chartered the chapter of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, a student run think-tank. And this is the story of the failure and success of that adventure.
I found out about the Campus Network sometime during the spring of 2010. Their work on public policy seemed appealing to me, and since I knew nothing on how public policy gets done, I thought it would be good to do something with them. Unfortunately there wasn’t a chapter at my college, so I decided to charter a chapter.
The first year was bland in strategy. It was a full year of nothing substantial done; even though we had a great team – or I at least I thought we did. Our executive board members were active students; three of us had been presidents at different school organizations. We managed to split errands evenly, get little things done on time and find the support of excellent faculty members as advisers. But when the time arrived to recruit members to grow up and shared our vision while engaging others with a clear set of goals and purpose, we failed.
As the fall season passed, during the cold months of winter I began to reflect on this. Especially after receiving e-mails from almost all the executive board members explaining their reasons for being unable to continue. Whenever I ran into our adviser I didn’t know how to respond to questions about the chapter. The executive board planned to join an event from the School of Education who accepted our proposal to join one of their spring conferences. Nothing was done.
The spring semester began and our chapter only existed on the student life’s registration form. Somehow it occurred to me that the problem was, paradoxically, the executive board, including me. I knew I was not going be able to do everything myself, not even having committed students like them, because I was very busy, we were all very busy. So the problem was we were all too busy. We were all junior and senior students preparing to graduate. And we never considered the demographics of our school.
After that reflection I began to think it would be better to find freshmen and sophomore students. Also a new executive board because the former were graduating. Also new members would give the group a sense of fresh hope, they wouldn’t have that feeling of un-satisfaction. And suddenly, with all these in mind, I met Mohammed. We were in a class together; he actually e-mailed me asking about the organization because I had the logo under my e-mail signature. Back there I knew he was the to-go person.
With all these thinking going on, new strategies began to emerge. I told Mohammed to meet after class. We sat in the cafeteria, took a notebook out, and drew the six policies models that Roosevelt works with within circles. Mohammed listened carefully as I explained that since we were the executive board, we were not able to do any of the policies. We only were translators of the vision about the things the organization does, we were going to get the paperwork done for the club, and be the liaison between the chapter and the college administration. We were going to provide the tools, and we were going to find members who would have all these tools ready to start researching and writing policy.
It all sounded beautiful but we only had an issue (that became an advantage), summer was already here. Mohammed and I decided to reunite at our first Roosevelt Institute Campus Network conference in August in Hyde Park, NY. This bonding time was incredible, we returned back to school two weeks later inspired. We wanted to be the best new chapter. We drafted our ideas again, and we began as planned.
The easiest way for us to do it was to promote policies as individual departments. We came up with the idea of Policy Directors, and we envisioned and talked about them as positions that were the most important of the chapter. We set up interviews for anyone who wanted to be in that position. For each policy, we needed a Policy Director, who would be in charge of finding a Deputy Director, and they would both recruit members for that specific policy. It was optional if they wanted to find a faculty member in their department to help them, but highly recommended.
We also had very clear deadlines. We laid out all the months of the fall semester on a table, and we looked at important dates such as holidays, midterms, and finals. We understood the demographics of our school, we were an urban public college, which means students work and they live out-of-campus. With all this in mind we set expectations and demands according to our reality. First we wanted our executive team, secondly all of our policy directors. And we had a hefty goal, to do our first general membership meetings with 30 members including our board and directors. Where we would talk about the members of the board, the directors, and our next upcoming event – a staff from the Campus Network to teach on policy.
We asked professors to let us say something about it at the end of a class. We sent emails to department chairs and student life to help us promote it. It was working.
We were surprised to see how fast this was growing and to meet new people everyday. We were taking others to a place where not even Mohammed and me had been before; we were all shaping together the culture of our chapter.
In our strategic plan we had a very clear goal for them, to research about their policy, on something affecting locally our residents, and to have a draft before the Thanksgiving holiday break. Two weeks before the deadline for the draft we invited the former CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, Dr. Andrew Rich, to speak and inspire them about getting involved with their community through their work on public policy.
They all did a wonderful job. The Roosevelt Institute Campus Network staff kept hearing from us, since the executive board kept sending e-mails for support and any other questions we had. Then we were featured as chapter of the month. The excitement continued growing, until we found out that 4 of our policies were published and sent to members of congress. We did it.
I don’t think there is a formula for success. We were aware of the strengths and weaknesses of our college population. We took time to think and to plan. We had a strategy, but more importantly we were inspired and instilled in our classmates how to think and act about the chapter.
I asked Mohammed to be the chapter president, and I think I was lucky with that call. Mohammed was the best person I could have ever chosen to help lead the team in such a wonderful way. He took it very seriously, very personal, it was his challenge. He wrote e-mails every week, he found the rooms for meetings every time, he would make sure to follow protocol steps, such as having food for every event. He had an edge, because he had been involved with student government.
I also always avoided having a title because I wanted them to feel empowered. One time a student asked to be the secretary of the executive board, and since she was a junior/senior, I asked her to be the Vice President. In my case I acted as Executive Director only because Mohammed asked me. We had little tolerance if they weren’t serious, and we had to ask our first treasurer to leave. There is always misunderstanding with people, but that could be room for engaging into improving things.
In the spring 2012 I step aside. We found the person who was going to be chapter president, we asked directors to run for regional office, and we knew our time was up. I was going to write my thesis, and Mohammed become a senior and apply for law school. Our philosophy of organizational culture was passed to the members: recruit early, recruit freshman and sophomore, and nurture them. The chapters continues bringing speakers, now they teach each other to write policy, so they bring speakers about events related to problems about the local, regional or global concerns.