Sitting in a Zoom interview, Jessica* told me that she didn’t think she was qualified to be a field organizer. She’d seen how political decisions, from redlining to the War on Drugs, had affected her own life, but she’d never had the opportunity to work in politics. Instead, she spent her evenings, weekends, and summers working in fast food.

Jessica had started working when she was 15 so she could help her mother pay the bills. At 16, she was promoted to manager. At 17, she was leading a team of fifty.

She didn’t have conventional political experience, but she had all the skills she needed to succeed as an organizer: the grit she demonstrated by showing up to the same grueling job year after year, the people skills she learned by managing a team of adults who were years older than her, and the work ethic she proved by juggling a job, school, and commitments at home.

Jessica is the kind of person progressive organizations and campaigns say they want in politics, but too often, they don’t hire young people like her. Instead, they take shortcuts, selecting for experience instead of potential and tapping personal networks to fill roles instead of casting a wide net.

I run Progressive Pipeline, a new non-profit that recruits underrepresented students and places them in paid fellowships on progressive campaigns. Our mission is to find remarkable students like Jessica, give them the training, coaching, and connections they need to succeed as organizers, and then help them launch their careers.

Who we hire matters. When we take big, strategic bets on new organizers, we don’t just expand our talent pool; we decide who has a voice in the political process and who doesn’t. We took a bet on Jessica and invited her to join our inaugural organizing cohort. My instincts were right. Jessica was a natural organizer. Even during the pandemic, her boss described her as “the cheerleader of the group.”

In six months, Progressive Pipeline has deployed 120 organizers like Jessica to 27 campaigns in twenty states. We’ve learned the hard way what works –– and what doesn’t –– when recruiting, selecting, and training the next generation of progressive talent. Here’s what we found out.

You can’t expect great organizers to find your websites or network their way into jobs. The biggest barrier between your organization and the talent you need to win is that most potential applicants have no idea that you exist. This is especially true for students from low-income backgrounds, who are often working campus jobs and don’t have access to professional mentors in the political world. Even if you run a fair, smart, and equitable hiring process, you’ll be limited to the applicants who managed to find their way to your website.

We’ve found our strongest applicants through non-political channels, like professors, student organizations, and college access organizations. A simple email sharing a job description and asking for introductions to qualified candidates unlocks an enormous pool of otherwise untapped talent. And, by recruiting through mentors, not just mass emails, you’ll give applicants who might be on the fence about applying the confidence they need to throw their hats in the ring.

How you message matters too. It’s not enough just to include an EEOC statement: if you want to attract a diverse pool of applicants, you need to speak to your organization’s values in hiring and be clear about your willingness to hire applicants without conventional political experience. I’ve found that by explicitly telling applicants that many of our strongest fellows brought the skills they developed in retail or food service to political campaigns, we’re able to recruit students who otherwise wouldn’t have thought they could work in politics.

Conventional job applications will mean you miss out on the best candidates. We talk about recruitment and selection a lot, but we often ignore a hidden trap that limits our talent pool: the confidence barrier. Many of the organizers we should be trying to recruit have no conventional political experience, and, no matter what we say, will think that their odds of getting a job are slim. Often, they’re juggling responsibilities at home with schoolwork and a campus job. They have to make tough calls about how to spend their time. 

When they see applications that ask for a resume or cover letter, they might pass because they don’t know how to make one. Worse yet, they might leave feeling inadequate or unwelcome because they haven’t had the opportunity to develop the professional skills that their more affluent peers learned while they were working unpaid internships.

Consider splitting your application into multiple rounds. Keep the first application short and to the point. I’ve found that once students get some validation, they’re perfectly willing to go through a rigorous hiring process: they just need to know that you are open to considering them. If you insist on asking for a more thorough application up front, you should consider offering applicants the opportunity to share a more direct narrative summary of their work experience instead of a conventional cover letter and resume.

When you hire, you need to measure the right skills. You probably hate reading cover letters, and applicants certainly hate writing them. More often than not, cover letters are better measures of privilege, access, and time than relevant skills. Unless you really care about a candidates’ aptitude for professional writing, find a better way of measuring the skills that will make them successful organizers. We’ve found mock coaching sessions useful: interviewers play struggling volunteers, and applicants pretend to give them feedback on a not-so-successful call with a voter.

Most importantly, make sure that applicants know what you’re measuring and what you aren’t. Applicants who send you thank you notes after interviews or who come prepared with a few thoughtfully researched questions aren’t more courteous or curious than those who don’t: the only difference is someone told them about the unspoken rules of the professional world. It’s fine to have high standards for applicants, but they deserve to know what those standards are.

There is plenty of great talent out there. If your staff isn’t reflective of the diversity of the progressive movement, that means you’re missing out on the most qualified candidates.

Hiring better doesn’t have to be draining or difficult. There are tens of thousands of extraordinary future organizers eager for jobs at organizations like yours, and you don’t always need a fancy applicant tracking system or a full-time recruiter to reach them. It just takes a smart hiring process, a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a willingness to reach out.

 

*The names in this piece have been changed to protect the privacy of the fellows. 

 

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