Build a team. Never do anything alone. Ask your friends and family to pitch in whatever they can and create an environment where people want to be on your team. Some will give money, others time, others connections. Thank them for all of it, and then thank them again. Nothing impactful can be done alone. If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together. It’s that simple. And you’ll make more friends and expand your community in the process.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Guthman, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Blue Future.
Nick Guthman is a progressive political organizer based in Washington D.C. and currently serves as the Co-Founder & Co-Executive Director of Blue Future, the largest youth-led, progressive political action committee in America. Blue Future envisions a world where no matter our color or origin, our income or zip code, desire and determination are the only things getting in the way of young people’s ability to push for a transformative and progressive agenda. Nick also consults on various projects as a Partner at Democracy Partners and Unfiltered Media including digital and social media organizing, cultural organizing & creative advocacy, policy research and communications, community outreach and coalition building, rapid response field activities, and talent/staff recruitment.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Thanks so much for having me! I grew up in Culver City, California in a union household. Both of my parents are union organizers and raised me to believe in the collective power of ordinary people coming together to organize for better conditions in the workplace and equitable opportunities in the community. Political conversations were the norm at the dinner table and they always encouraged and supported any social justice projects or activities I could find as I was growing up. I feel lucky to have grown up with such progressive parents and they are the best organizers I know (especially my Mom). As I started to get involved in political campaigns in high school, I thought it was strange that I was one of the few young people getting involved. And while it was frustrating, I also knew there was an opportunity and responsibility to get my friends involved in the community.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Yeah, two organizations come to mind. The first is the YMCA’s Youth and Government program (Y&G). Y&G gave me the chance to find my voice, connect with other young people who cared about civic engagement, and develop my leadership. It felt empowering to be in a space where it was cool & popular to learn about government and come up with ideas about how to improve people’s lives through policy writing and mock campaigns. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the YMCA and without the mentors and friends I made through Y&G.
The other organization that had a profound impact on my life was Organizing for Action (OFA), which was the grassroots organization that came out of Obama’s presidential campaigns. OFA took my leadership and skills to the next level and trained me in the fundamentals of community organizing. OFA gave me a real sense of purpose in my final year of high school and I’ve maintained relationships with folks in the OFA community ever since. I credit OFA for helping me getting into American University where I got to experience even more social justice and community organizing opportunities and meet more inspiring young people who cared deeply about making the world a better place.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a difference can mean so many things, but the way I think about it is taking action to either help someone or advocate for some sort of structural change that helps a group of people. It can also mean creating space for others to find their voice or finding ways to give people an opportunity to help others.
Making a difference must be rooted in love, empathy, and a strong desire for justice. Love for the possibilities of a society in which we all can thrive and be free. Empathy for the struggles people face and an understanding of the structural barriers that hold people back from reaching their full potential. And an unwavering desire for racial, economic, and social justice to sustain us as we do the difficult work, day by day, to organize for a better society.
One recent example is the role our organization played in passing the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The ARP is an historic accomplishment that will create millions of good jobs, cut child poverty in half, make health care more affordable, and put the Covid-19 pandemic behind us. This legislation will help millions of people and it only passed because young people and especially young people of BIPOC communities organized and turned out in record numbers to elect new leaders who would work for progress. It feels really powerful to know young people made a contribution to this type of structural reform.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Absolutely. I’m the Co-Founder & Co-Executive Director at Blue Future which is a youth-led political action committee that raises money and invests it directly in the pockets of young people who volunteer on progressive electoral and issue campaigns. We pay and train people to develop their organizing skills and impact. We’re bringing young people together, across race and place, to own our seat at the table and to say no decisions about us, without us by organizing local youth advisory councils with elected leaders in 20+ states. We’re working hard each day to inspire, mobilize and invest in young people to organize for a brighter tomorrow. A brighter future with equal justice, good paying jobs, clean air and water, quality health care, free college, and livable neighborhoods. We believe one of the best ways we can make this vision a reality is through political and community organizing, electing leaders at all levels of government who will hear our voices and implement solutions that improve people’s lives.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Blue Future was started in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. After he was elected, many young people started to get engaged in politics and were looking for ways to stop Trump & Republican attacks on our fundamental values of democracy, freedom and justice. As a young person who was political before Trump was elected, friends asked me how they could get involved, but I didn’t know what to tell them or where to point them. I asked some of my other politically active friends and they were facing a similar challenge of connecting their newly politically active friends to impactful organizing opportunities. So, we started exploring what it could look like to build an organization that would help connect young people to progressive campaigns.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
We had so many conversations with other young activists in 2017, and what we came to discover was there was a real gap in the youth organizing space. We knew something needed to be done and the “Aha moment” came across when I learned of an early stage grant opportunity from the Voqal Foundation. We seemed like a good fit and decided to apply. A few weeks later we were accepted to the grant and fellowship program at Voqal. With our grant money in hand, then we started connecting with other organizations to figure out what we could do as a new organization to add value to the space.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Broadly speaking many of the steps we’ve taken focused on incorporating design thinking as a way to comprehensively understand the problem so that we can best figure out how to solve it. The first thing we did was investigate the problem by connecting with similar youth engagement organizations to understand what gaps they saw in the space and explore opportunities for collaboration. We also interviewed and connected with dozens of student leaders to understand the challenges they were facing as they were trying to organize in their community. We learned to really love the problem and spent our first three months researching the larger problem of why young people weren’t as involved in politics as they could be. Based on what we learned we then moved from the first stage of design thinking (empathizing with users and understanding the problem) to coming up with ideas to address that problem. Then we created a prototype (a strategic plan, often) with a couple potential solutions that arose from our ideation phase, and brought those concepts back to our users (partner organizations, campaigns, and student leaders), incorporated their feedback, ideated some more and then tested a pilot program. At every step of the way we were laser focused on understanding the problem we were interested in solving, and listening to our partner organizations and most importantly the student leaders we serve.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting story I can think of is the story of how our organizers continue to exceed expectations and find their own voice. Time and time again, when young people are faced with a challenge and equipped with the support to find solutions, and trusted to lead, they shine. I could share countless stories of individual youth organizers who have embraced this story and found their confidence and voice through our program, all while making an impact on local and national elections.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
I struggle to think of just one, but each day as I make numerous mistakes, I remind myself that failure is the surest stepping stone to success. It’s healthy to ask how you failed every day and to keep refining your effectiveness and efficiency, especially as a young person.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I totally agree. I’ve been so lucky to be mentored and coached by such inspiring and effective leaders. My closest mentor is an iconic woman named Heather Booth. Heather is a life long organizer. Over the last several decades, she’s been a part of most major national campaigns for social change. Heather helped me get my first legit political internship which opened my eyes to the world of progressive organizing and ever since then, she’s coached me on how to contribute to the progressive movement, connected me with impactful organization and leaders, and has shown me how to lead and manage with love at the center. I feel a profound sense of gratitude to have been influenced by Heather and to call her a friend. One of the most important roles I can play is to share her organizing and leadership style with Blue Future’s national network of youth organizers!
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Oh this is tough because I’m continuously inspired by the number of young people who have shown remarkable leadership through our program. They’re all rockstars and they are the best part of my job, hands down. One of our first organizers in 2018 led her own organizing program in her hometown. The goal was to help elect a progressive to Congress in a traditionally red district. She worked with the community to create an engaging youth-led organizing effort focused on uplifting youth voices, art, culture, and advocacy to mobilize her community in support of the candidate. They were successful in 2018 and for the candidate’s re-election in 2020. However, what’s more impressive is that after working with us, this organizer used the training, network, and resources she got from Blue Future to start her own youth civic engagement organization that has been growing and inspiring hundreds of other young people to get involved. That sort of model is a dream come true. Train folks, invest in them with real dollars, trust them to lead, and see them grow from shy organizers to organizational and movement leaders.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes, pay young people for their time, skills, brilliance, innovation, determination. Unpaid internships should no longer exist. And when organizations and politicians start paying young people, they must center the communities longest denied access to opportunities and ensure our work is equitable. Pay young people, and then pay them some more.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Fundraise first. When we first started, I thought the best strategy for growth was to run a lean, pilot program with limited resources to test our model and upon being successful we could leverage the impact of the pilot program to raise money. What I’ve now learned is that it may be smarter to raise money on the promise and vision of a program. Then, market that idea and the impact it could have if people give money to support it. The vision of a well designed, effective and cost efficient program may be easier to sell than the post-mortem analysis of what impact came from that vision.
- Build a team. Never do anything alone. Ask your friends and family to pitch in whatever they can and create an environment where people want to be on your team. Some will give money, others time, others connections. Thank them for all of it, and then thank them again. Nothing impactful can be done alone. If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together. It’s that simple. And you’ll make more friends and expand your community in the process.
- Prioritize wellness. The work of a startup is hard. In the early days, I was working long hours, and perpetuating the idea that founders work on their idea all day long and dream about it all night long. I couldn’t turn it off. What I’ve learned since then is that you’ve got to stay healthy, well rested, hydrated, and happy to achieve the hard work of designing a new organization. I thought it was unproductive to go to lunch with colleagues during the work day. I felt if I didn’t push 10 hours at least each day I wasn’t working hard enough to bring my vision to life. Don’t do that, you know? Leisure is productive. Joy is energizing. Weekends are for rest, creativity, hobbies and friendship, not work.
- Do it today. Hopefully I don’t totally contradict my previous lesson on wellness, but another thing I wish I learned sooner was the following axiom: “If there is something to be done, do it today.” If you can concentrate and draft parts of a strategic plan within the next hour, get that lo-fi playlist bumpin’ and create it. If you can reply to an email within 3–5 minutes, do it right away. I try to clear my inbox or respond to each relevant email every before I end my workday, and before I go to bed. There will always be more to do and new challenges tomorrow. So, take care of as much as you can today.
- Dream bigger. It’s a beautiful thing to see your vision travel from an intangible, uncertain, risky, thought to a blank piece of paper or google doc as pens glide and keyboards type out a concept or strategy. It then bounces off the paper or google doc onto a website or social media, and the passion that ignited the vision is felt in meetings, Zoom calls, and over coffee. It marinates in the minds of our friends and loved ones, colleagues and allies, and out of thin air a foundation for your organization, business, or project starts to fortify. You feed it new ideas and tactics and water it with challenges and small wins. You watch it grow over time and what was once a dream is no longer a dream, and then you can dream bigger. You can dream about what more can we do to make a difference. And replenish the capacity for others to dream big, too.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Throughout history, young people have always led movements for multiracial, multigenerational social change. This moment is no different and we all have something to contribute to making this place more equitable, more just, and more joyful. Believe in yourself because your voice is powerful and in fact it is required for our society to reach its highest ideals. And in the final analysis, one of the best parts of making a positive impact is the community of friends, activists, thinkers, artists, and creators you’ll get to meet and build relationships along the way.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Barack Obama is the first person to come to mind, but also Taylor Swift. I feel like my personal story and connection to political organizing is intertwined with Obama’s. And I’d love to share that story with him so he knows how impactful his presidency was to my life and how as a result I’m impacting other lives and carrying on that legacy. And Taylor Swift is simply an icon and I think she’d love to hear about our work at Blue Future.
How can our readers follow you online?
Follow my hand made pasta Instagram page @NickDreamsOfPasta! Hobbies are important. And folks can follow Blue Future at:
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!