Policy wonk Tamara Draut: ‘Lift up the dignity of work’ (NONDOC)

By William W. Savage III

Tamara Draut is vice president of policy and research for Demos, a policy organization focused largely around issues of equality and the economy. The group is based in New York City but also has offices in Boston and Washington, D.C.

Draut is the author of Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform American. She will be in Oklahoma on Wednesday and Thursday of this week as a result of an accompanying book tour. She will hold a book discussion at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5, at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa and will be the featured speaker at the Central Oklahoma Community Forum’s 2016 Labor-Religion luncheon at 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, in Oklahoma City.

In coming to Oklahoma, Draut answered the following questions for this Q&A via email. Responses have been edited lightly for style and grammar.

Tell us a little about Demos and how long you’ve been there.


Demos is a public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy. At Demos, we believe that progress occurs when the power of ideas and the power of people align. We regularly collaborate with changemakers in states and community-based organizations to bring policy closer to the people. We also believe in generating ideas that are not always tempered by what’s currently possible — but instead driven by what’s necessary.

We regularly move ideas that have been excluded from the debate on behalf of people who have been excluded from the conversation. As a result, we take the long view. We champion ideas powerful enough to improve the lives of millions, shift the narrative to clear the way for their acceptance, and advocate until they take effect. We use the right strategy for the right moment, whether it’s research or communications, supporting organizers or litigating. I’ve been with Demos almost since its founding — just over 15 years.

The name ‘Demos’ and President Obama’s early involvement probably lead a lot of people to think you are a partisan organization. Do you have a partisan slant on certain issues? Do you have to work extra hard to reach GOP audiences on the topics important to you?

We are nonpartisan. Our name means “the people.” It’s the Greek root of the word “democracy.” Demos works to reduce both political and economic inequality, deploying original research, advocacy, litigation and strategic communications to create the America the people deserve. We would be happy to work with Republican and Democratic elected officials. Most of our ideas find a receptive audience with large swaths of ordinary people who would like to see greater investments in our common good and a democracy that works for all of us.

Your website lists several issues under five different categories that Demos works on. In the 2016 election cycle, could you name a couple that might carry the most weight or importance at this moment in time?

This election cycle, we are committed to three major goals. First, we are championing the need to return the United States to a system of debt-free, public higher education. For the first time in our nation’s history, we are saddling a generation with five-figure student loan debt and undermining what has long been our nation’s primary lever for upward mobility. Demos’ proposal has become a central plank of the Democratic Party platform and one of Hillary Clinton’s major domestic priorities. Second, we are working diligently to protect the right to vote, most recently filing lawsuits to challenge the illegal removal of eligible voters from the rolls. And finally, as an organization committed to racial equity, we are engaging in the narrative battle about what kind of nation we want to be and the hard work needed to achieve racial equity and healing. We believe America’s greatness comes from the amazing diversity of our people — an idea in stark contrast to the political platform of Donald Trump.

Imagine you are in the proverbial elevator with a briefly captive audience. If someone clicked on Demos’ “publications” link, they’d be overwhelmed with data and documents. So link us to three items you think are really important for people to see today.

a. The price tag of being young: Climate change and millennials’ economic future
b. Stacked deck: How the racial bias in our big money political system undermines our democracy and our economy
c. The case for debt-free college

Let’s do some more pretending. You’ve been given 30 minutes with Hillary Clinton. On what topic would you want to provide her information and perspective?

I’d talk to her about the needs and aspirations of the new working class — our janitors, home health aides, fast-food workers — who are more female and racially diverse than the old industrial working class. I’d ask her to commit to improving the quality of jobs that are already here (in addition to reviving manufacturing), and that includes raising the minimum wage, revitalizing union rights, addressing scheduling practices and so on. But even more than policy planks or positions, which she largely has embraced already, I’d ask her to lift up the dignity of the work done by people who punch into a clock and whose contributions to our economy and society are far too often ignored.

Now imagine you’ve got 30 minutes with Donald Trump. Same question.

I’d talk with him about the strengths of our nation: our people. And how racism, sexism and xenophobia prevent our nation from fulfilling its highest potential. I’m pretty sure I’d get tossed out before the 30 minutes were up!

What do you know about Oklahoma, and what would be your brief analysis of the state’s socioeconomic status and challenges?

This will be my first time visiting Oklahoma. I know the state’s minimum wage is still just $7.25, the same as the federal minimum wage, which likely means many people in the state have a difficult time making ends meet, despite working hard.


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