Interview: Young People First’s Zach Kolodin

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Struck by how much lip service was being paid to young voters, yet how little real inclusion in the political process they were offered, Young People First (YPF) executive director Zach Kolodin and co-founder Lauren Smith launched YPF last summer as a way to mobilize the demographic to achieve long-term goals in the areas of educational, environmental sustainability, fiscal responsibility, health care, entrepreneurial opportunity, and infrastructure. Their means to that end is the “Future Preparedness Index,” a quantitative gauge of what kind of country and planet young people are inheriting. Koladin, a 2007 Wesleyan grad trained who for a year as a Coro Fellow in Public Affairs and then worked as a strategy consultant to Echoing Green, explained what Young People First and the Future Preparedness Index are all about.

What is the Future Preparedness Index?

The Future Preparedness Index is meant to represent the Millennial Generation’s shared interest in building a strong American future. We’ve tried to boil down a vision of a sustainable, prosperous future to specific goals to which young people can hold their leaders accountable. Future Preparedness represents a vision of what a responsible government ought to provide: sustainable national prosperity and security that benefits all Americans over the long term. The FPI is our main tool to systematically raise issues related to our long-term vision, and force action. We’re currently engaging a wide array of stakeholders in the youth advocacy and policy communities to set the long-term goals that form the core of the FPI in preparation for a Fall 2009 launch.

Where did the idea come from and how did you start Young People First?

I started brainstorming new ideas for mobilizing young people with YPF co-founder Lauren Smith in summer 2008. We were really interested in crowdsourcing technologies. The Future Preparedness Index concept really took hold as the financial crisis was deepening in the fall and winter of 2008. We realized that future preparedness was exactly what this country lacked. Our leaders had allowed a partially hidden crisis to overtake the nation. We saw young people as the best watchdogs for that sort of thing. At that time, the YPF team had a bunch of programs we were pursuing, so we began to focus more directly on developing the FPI.

So basically a bunch of recent college grads got together and just had the will to make it happen? What’s that been like? A big party or a lot of sleepless nights? A little of both?

It’s been occasionally exhilarating but mostly pretty mundane. Initially we were probably overly audacious–this business requires a big dose of modesty. But since realizing how much great work is being done in youth organizing, and beginning to work with these organizations, it’s gone much more smoothly. I can tell you one thing for sure: it’s not a big party–it’s a lot of working alone or in pairs in coffeeshops, cramped apartments, and windowless offices. But I’m not complaining.

fpi-logo-horizontalWhere do things stand with FPI development right now?

We’ve got several committees of young leaders working on the core FPI indicators. But what we’re really focusing on is asking young people for input through our FPI Development questionnaire. Quick plug: it matters, it’s short, and it’s right here.

What are you trying to achieve ultimately? What would success look like?

We want to give young people a reliable framework for raising and addressing issues of long-term national and regional concern. To this end, we’re training young people in legislation analysis and organizing in three locations beginning this fall. We aim for future preparedness to become part of the political discourse in the way that fiscal responsibility is currently used: as shorthand for responsible, forward-thinking governance. Ultimately were trying to shift policy priorities toward consistently accounting for and addressing America’s long-term challenges. No more hidden crises.

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