City Year Alumna
Founder and CEO of
“If you've put the country first in your formative years between 18 and 24, we find that you're more likely to be the kind of person that embodies servant leadership: you put the country first, you embody values of courage, empathy, and integrity. From that pool of people, we believe that getting them to run for office will be transformative for our democracy.”
By Heidi Legg
When Emily Cherniack graduated from George Washington University in D.C. in the year 2000, she had no clue what she wanted to do. A friend recommended she check out City Year. She looked them up online and the tagline on their website read, “Get up, get coffee and change the world.” She took it literally.
She moved to Boston to work in public schools for City Year. After four years, her mentor and the co-founder of City Year, Alan Khazei, asked Cherniack to be his deputy campaign manager for his failed 2010 Senate race. She watched this American social entrepreneur try again in the 2012 primaries. In those races, she recognized a problem that now drives her mission: how to encourage and support more military veterans and national service alumni into politics. In 2013, she founded New Politics, a bipartisan organization helping bring a new generation of leaders to politics.
Her new mission: setting out to encourage and support more military veterans and national service alumni to run for elected office. In 2013, she founded New Politics, citing that there are fewer representatives in Congress who have served the country than ever before. “Before 1970, over 75% of Congress had service backgrounds,” says Cherniack. Not only does she believe that those who’ve served in the military and in national service are better suited for positions of elected office, but she’s seen first hand that our modern politics is a closed system that the most qualified candidates struggle greatly to navigate. In 2014, New Politics supported five national service candidates in key states and federal races, winning three of those races including the election of Congressman Seth Moulton in Massachusetts. In 2018, they hope to support 50 candidates from both parties.
What drew you to City Year?
I was a senior in college in 2000, and I didn't really have a focus or a plan of what to do after college. I was lacking inspiration, and I really wanted something that was meaningful. I had been talking to somebody and they were like, ‘you should do City Year.’ I looked it up online and it spoke to me. I think the tagline at the time was, ‘Get up, get coffee and change the world.’ I was in D.C. at school and I thought Boston was a cool city. I applied and I got in and then I moved up here and thought it would be a year of service (AmeriCorps is a year long), and I ended up loving it and stayed for almost four years.
When you signed up, could you specify what you wanted to be doing?
I had no idea what I was going to do. Malcolm X said, "you should always research an organization before you join it." I definitely did not take his advice. I knew only that I'd be doing some type of service to the community of Boston.
Was your family service-minded?
We had done the occasional soup kitchen-type work. I was raised Jewish, and part of the values of growing up as a Jew is giving back and Tzedakah [Hebrew word for justice and righteousness often used to signify charity], but I wasn't like a candy striper. My mom would bake for the teachers and that kind of work. On a micro level, it was very much about ‘how do we make people feel special?’ but not in a meta way.
What did you notice during your four years at City Year?
I think for me it was being ingrained full time in a community, I was really able to understand the effects of poverty. I think you can read a lot about policy, about poverty, or about education challenges, but when you actually see it, it was nothing like I'd ever experienced.
Where did you spend your time at City Year?
I worked in Boston schools in the communities of Dorchester, Roxbury, and East Boston, which at that time had significant achievement gaps, inequity, and poverty. Kids were failing in schools. We really focused our work on helping kids in those communities, whether it was extracurricular programs or mentoring and teaching to help them get back on track. At the time in Boston, there was a lot of youth violence happening and so we were really working with different groups of young people – "gangs" is the wrong word – but more housing development beefs. If you’re from Tent City or from Lennox Street Housing Projects, they were violent with each other, and we really tried to work to bring young people together.
We interviewed John Feinman from Inner City Weightlifting and he was at AmeriCorps. What was your take when you saw the inner city challenges?
I think there are two reactions. One is ‘Oh, my God, how to even start to fix the structural issues that are really impacting these kids.”
It feels so big.
It does because their parents are hardworking and it's not the long-told stereotypical things. Instead, you totally get why they're this way because of the situations they have to deal with, but then on the other side you are working to solve problems and you're seeing results and the work you do has impact. While simultaneously these are huge structural issues, you can make a difference, and you can really solve problems and be innovative in the problem-solving.
With that, you’ve founded Newpolitics.org. In between, you worked on a senate campaign for City Year founder Alan Khazei. What did you learn there?
I was not someone who had ever been involved in politics and my former boss, Alan Khazei, who founded City Year and was a mentor, decided to run for the US Senate.
He asked me to be on the campaign and I said "no," because I didn’t know anything about campaigns. And he said, "it's fine. You'll figure it out." I talk about it like The Matrix. This whole world appeared to me that I never knew existed. It was unlike anything I'd ever done, and the learning for me was to create New Politics. It was like a light bulb went on because I had spent my career at that point around incredible servant leaders: people that had done City Year, they had done Teach America, they were military veterans. As I went through that campaign, I learned that the best social entrepreneurs in the country do not know how to intuitively run for office because it's really counterintuitive.
Did you learn this by working to elect Khazei?
Yeah. And it's really hard to figure it out. I thought if one of the best social entrepreneurs in the country was struggling as a candidate to know how to navigate the space, how are all of us going to figure it out?
Did he have significant funding behind him?
Fundraising is always going to be hard. He wasn't a self-funder yet; he had a lot of networks and champions of people who wanted to support him. So, his fundraising was okay. It made him a formidable candidate, but it wasn't like he could self-fund $10 million.
What are the pitfalls, then, for people without his background to run?
It is in understanding how to set up a team and what you need to have on your team; how to prepare to run for office. He had done little preparation because it hadn't really been something he had thought about. Even the small things like his personal database from City Year wasn't organized, and it took a long time to separate the City Year database from his people. It is in all these structural and systematic things.
As we are seeing with POTUS Trump right now, there is a lot of church and state breakup that should happen. Is it usually this complicated?
I think any individual, whether they're a lawyer, whether they're in private equity or tech or a nonprofit, they have to have their people organized because the first thing a candidate does when they run for office is calling everyone they know and ask them to help them in whatever way. Thinking through all that and preparing and really being ready to jump in is key because we say that politics is unpredictable and you never know when the opportunity arises and success is when opportunity meets preparedness. Many potential candidates who are not in this political ecosystem are simply not prepared because they don't know what they don't know, and that's what I saw of Alan. He was not prepared to be in this primetime space because he hadn't been planning since he was five years old.
And yet you believed in him?
He's someone who would have been an amazing senator, and he is someone who should be a senator. But the ecosystem that is the campaign world is closed, it's exclusive – it's really hard to be set up for success.
New Politics supported five national service candidates in 2014. You won three of those seats, and you claim you are non-partisan. How do you stay non-partisan?
I actually don’t find it complicated. We recognize that there are political parties and what we're seeing right now is gridlock. We have the least productive Congress in history, where things are not getting done and people have started to put their own party over the country, or their own self-interest over the country. Parties play an important role in our democracy and in our system, but we recognize that leaders come from both sides and for us, it's about investment in people that put the country first and who have a framing of service.
We want to solve problems, we want to figure it out together, and we're not always going to see eye to eye on things. But we're all in this for our community and our country, and those are the kind of leaders we invest in, regardless of political party.
We have seen many distinguished politicians over the decades who had military backgrounds: John Kerry was a Lieutenant in the Navy, George H. W. Bush served in the Navy with distinction, John McCain was a Captain in the Navy, Ronald Reagan was a Captain in the Army, Jimmy Carter was a Lieutenant in the Navy Lindsay Graham was an Officer and Judge Advocate in the Air Force, Seth Moulton served in Iraq. Where do you see the disconnect in Congress between leadership and service?
Right now we're at the lowest number of veterans in Congress in history. Before 1970, we had the Greatest Generation from World War II and over 75% of Congress had service backgrounds. It's really a significant decrease and we don't support all veterans – We have a brand of a servant leader that we support at New Politics: We support those who have done national service.
How many currently in Congress have served?
Under 20 percent. [A recent count showed 79 veterans serving in the House of Representatives and 19 in the Senate per reports from politico.com and aei.org]
Besides military service, what in your mind is falls under service?
People who've done AmeriCorps programs like City Year, Teach For America, Youthbuilds, the Peace Corps, and Jesuit Corps – any type of significant service where people have dedicated a year or more to full-time service. We recognize that military is a high level of sacrifice. We're not saying that we're equal, but they all kind of embody the ethos of service.
When Seth Moulton came back from serving in the Iraq war, he had trouble connecting to civilians and he felt like no one understood his experience as a veteran. He ended up hanging out with AmeriCorps alums like me – I actually first met him in 2007 – and he said it was the first time he felt connected to people that were not veterans, and it was actually what inspired him to be a fan of the idea of national service. He realized that AmeriCorps had that same sense of service and commitment to country as what he and his veterans had. Of course, it's a different level of service – he was in combat – but that same sort of commitment to the country and that service ethos comes through.
Your mentor, Alan Khazei, is passionate about poverty and education. What are your passions?
Education is a huge issue. I've always cared about it, especially since City Year. I think your zip code determines your path, and that has everything to do with what schools you get to go to. Economic opportunity is important, and in our country, it should be a fair fight for everyone.
Why the need for a New Politics Academy?
How do we inspire and engage a group of people who are not engaged in the political space? We want to teach them how to 'answer the call' and really give them a space of reflection and leadership development, or to think, ‘Is this my calling? Is this my political path?’ Whether you want to be a candidate or work on a campaign or you want to work on the Hill or in the State House, what is your political pathway? The academy is about making sure people really feel connected to their core mission and purpose and values of whom they are.
Plus I’ve realized that skills like teaching someone how to raise money are not easy but not impossible, either. What's hard is that they do not necessarily have a clear sense of why they're running or their core values. It's really easy to get off center when you're in a campaign.
What is the cost of the program? How many people can you handle?
It's $50 a person to do the course, but if someone can't afford it, we waive the fee. We want to make sure it's accessible for everyone. We have facilitators running the programs in seventeen cities.
Are these in-person sessions or virtual?
In-person, but we do virtual sessions as well. The biggest challenge we have is that we're trying to recruit people to jump into something, politics, that's not a natural space. We're taking people who are really not comfortable or haven't been engaged politically and helping them take a first step in the journey.
Our academy program is really a wide filter and it's for anyone from a service background who wants to think about a potential political pathway. In that filter some people decide, ‘this isn't what I want to do, but I want to be supportive of someone who's running,’ and we have 15% to 20% who then say I want to be a candidate .
The academy was launched this year, so that's new, but New Politics has supported candidates for a few years.
In the first days, how many candidates would you support?
In 2014, there were five. In 2016, we had 23 candidates. This cycle for 2018, we'll have 50. Twenty will be Congressional and 30 down-ballot.
What will you offer the fifty candidates in 2018?
Everything from helping them decide what to run for and then helping build their teams, navigating the consultants, vendors, website systems. And then we advise them on message, on fundraising, on being in the field. We help advise and help navigate that space for them.
How do you manage to be non-partisan? The American electoral system and process seem bifurcated.
I think it works because we're very clear about who we are and what we do. We have Republican vendors that we’re obviously not going to send to our Democratic candidates; we help build communities around these candidates depending on where they sit.
Do you get more excited about candidates whose policies reflect your own?
I would say that we operate in this way: if you had three children and were asked if you had a favorite, the answer would be no, you love all your children. Our candidates are all equally great and we support them.
What are the challenges to that mindset in these partisan times?
The biggest challenge we have is capacity; we have way more demand than we have the capacity. The hardest thing is saying no. We simply don't have the staff and the resources.
Who funds you?
We're really lucky. We have a diverse group of people. We don't really have a traditional prototype of a supporter. The Hewlett Foundation supports our academy, which is great. We have individual donors that come from private equity, academia, and the nonprofit space and we're really lucky to have some individuals and a foundation. Hopefully, we have some more in the pipeline.
Do you disclose what you have in a war chest?
We don't believe in dark money and our filings are public. Every three months we file reports. So, it's transparent. This year, our budget is about $750,000. Last year we were about $300,000. We're still pretty scrappy.
Are you finding new voices? Are you encouraged?
Yes. I call them the Captain Americas. They're amazing, incredible people. We had them all here recently for an event that Congressman Moulton helped organize, and they all spoke. People came up to us after and said, 'I have not felt this hopeful since before the election.'
Twelve were here but you’re heading to fifty?
We know 20 Congressional candidates we will support now. With the statewide work, we have some, and we're talking to them this fall while doing more recruitment in preparation for the state races. We don't know all of our fifty candidates yet.
What positions are you helping elect?
We do all segments "down ballot," which means state leg, city councils, school committee, mayors. We're really about the pipeline. If you look at data, we know that half of Congress comes from the state legislature; 20% are former mayors. Mayors become governors. Congressmen become senators. We believe that not everyone's ready to run for Congress right way but a lot of people are amazing leaders and their focus might not be federal. Especially if they did City Year, or Public Allies, or community-based programs where they really are interested in running for school committee or for the state legislature. Congress is different and not everyone wants to run for Congress.
Do you have a process for identifying future candidates?
Yes and I think we're figuring that out as we go. The hard part is choosing. There are so many great people and for us, it's a commitment and a relationship.
How big is the advisory group?
We're a small team. There are six of us, our board is eight, and we're building our advisory council, which will be probably twenty-five people.
Are most people on your board also major donors?
Not all of them, no.
We try to build a diverse board and they have expertise areas and not all there for funding. For example, Rosabeth Moss-Kanter who's a leadership professor at HBS is on our board. People like her are invaluable in their advice in helping us think through the organization.
How does one get funded today if you’re building a nonpartisan vehicle or non-profit?
I think what I know from my perspective is that we tell our story and we either get people who want to be part of our community or they don't, and that's okay. I've had people say, ‘I'll never give you money because you support this party or that.’ A lot of people do not support us for that reason and that's okay. For us it's about stating that this is who we are; this is what we do; this is why and we think we make a pretty compelling case and not everyone's going to want to support us and that's fine. That's how we get to grow and build our organization.
America is extremely partisan these days. Being nonpartisan, is it hard to find funding?
I think if this were easy, somebody else would have started it. It's hard and I knew that going into it.
Any favorite Boston haunts?
I would give a shout out to Jodi Adams from Trade, which is a big go-to spot of ours because it's right by our office and we love it.
Where do you go in Boston to unwind?
I'm an introvert. My job is so extroverted that I honestly hide in my room. I'm a Sci-Fi nerd. I've read all the Game of Thrones books n my room, shutting out the world.
Do you read or watch Game of Thrones?
Both. Seriously, any Sci-Fi.