Heather McGhee chosen as Commencement Speaker

President of Demos Heather McGhee was chosen to be Vassar’s 2018 Commencement Speaker./Courtesy of Heather Weston Photography

Vassar College recently chose President of Demos Heather McGhee as the College’s 2018 Commencement Speaker. Demos is a Washington D.C.-based public policy organization. McGhee graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies and attended law school at the University of California, Berkeley.

The College told The Miscellany News, “Heather McGhee was chosen to be Vassar’s Commencement speaker because she has been a strong advocate on the national stage for economic and political equality.”

“Heather McGhee has been on the front lines of numerous important public policy debates,” Vassar President Elizabeth Bradley said. “She’s a fighter, and she fights for the right causes.”

The Miscellany News recently spoke with McGhee about her work at Demos and her hopes for the current generation of college students.

This year’s Commencement will be on Sunday, May 27 at 10 a.m. in the Outdoor Amphitheater.

The Miscellany News: Could you tell me a bit about Demos?

HM: Demos is a public policy organization that uses research and litigation and advocacy at the state, local and federal level to advance policy and legal change that addresses inequality in America.

Misc: How did you come to work there?

HM: I started working at Demos pretty much right out of college. I was 22 years old. I knew that I wanted to work in social change, and I knew that I specifically wanted to work on public policy and structural issues to address issues of economic opportunity and poverty and mobility. I found the job listing for an entry-level position at Demos back in 2002 when the organization was much smaller than it is. It was in its start-up phase, and I was lucky enough to be hired to work on an issue near and dear to my heart, which was the issue of debt: personal debt, credit card debt, payday loans.

I worked on that issue doing research and advocacy for two and a half years and then went to law school. I knew that I didn’t want to litigate, but I did want to have a degree that would help me write stronger laws to protect people. I got to see that dream realized when I left law school and worked for Demos in Washington, D.C., in the first year of the Obama administration, and was able to work on the Wall Street Reform Bill, Dodd-Frank, and helped write some of that policy into law.

Misc: Do you have any advice for college students who are interested in working in public policy?

HM: That is a great question. I do. Do your research and investigate the landscape of organizations that work on issues that you care about. Don’t be afraid to have an internship or an entry-level job at a smaller organization that may not be as established or prestigious, or as large, because oftentimes, at a smaller organization you get much more responsibility. You get to build your experience and your resume.

I had internships, for example, in college at a place that only had one full-time employee and a number of paid interns, but I learned so much and gained so much responsibility and experience from that that helped put me in a good position to get to the position at Demos, which, at the time that I joined, was probably only about 15 people. Now, there are 55 employees and it’s a $14 million a year organization.

Misc: Is Demos working on any projects now that you’re really excited about?

HM: Yes! One of our major priorities right now is advancing the idea of re-funding public higher education so that student debt is not required to get a degree for the working middle class. We call this idea “debt-free college,” and we have helped build the research case for it and the policy design over the last number of years and helped to put it into the mainstream of the political debate. There’s a bill being introduced next week that we helped to author, and we helped design some of the policy that was championed by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

We’re also working on policies to make our democracy more inclusive and make government less beholden to wealthy special interests. We work in the lead of a coalition that just passed public financing of campaigns in Washington, D.C., so that, in the future, people will be able to run for city council in Washington, D.C., and be reliant upon public funds instead of wealthy private donors.

Misc: Where do you see Demos going in the long-term future?

HM: At Demos, our goals are very long-term. We know that the change that we’re trying to see is going to take some time, and we champion ideas that we believe are necessary to solve major problems, even if they’re not politically possible today. So, winning the kind of reforms that we want to see in Congress is going to take some time. For example, winning public financing of all federal offices is a goal that we think won’t be done in this Congress, but we do think it has broad public support and we will be able to achieve it someday.

Misc: Is there anything in particular that you would like Vassar students to know about you?

HM: That’s a good question. I deeply believe in the power of people to chart their own course, to have a voice in setting the rules that affect their lives. I believe in small-D democracy and think that a university campus is a wonderful site for young people to learn how to become better citizens and stronger advocates in changing institutions around them.

Misc: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

HM: I have a lot of faith in today’s young people. I believe that many of the major problems that our society is facing are ones that our generation, and the ones that follow, are going to be the ones to solve. On issues like climate change, inequality, and racism, sexism and xenophobia, I’m very excited about what the world will look like when the people who are young today are the people who are in charge.

[Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.]

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