As many of you know, I started as the Center for Progressive Reform's new executive director this month. I am thrilled to join CPR in this historic moment, to commit the next stage of my life to fight for the integrity and strength of our democracy, and to establish, as FDR said 90 years ago, "the purpose of government to see that not only the legitimate interests of the few are protected but that the welfare and rights of the many are conserved."
CPR's mission speaks to me personally. My own winding story saw me raised in the American South, defending refugees and human rights in Central America in the '80s, living in Cuba in the '90s, and, for the past 15 years, working at Oxfam to defend workers' rights and socially vulnerable communities in the United States. The fault lines of race and entitlement that I witnessed in my early years are now recognized as our national tragedy; the political violence of Central America no longer feels so alien to the American experience.
I'm excited that the thread of my story meshes with CPR's story. My life's focus is helping social movements become powerful and sustained; CPR's is recreating public policy and invigorating government in a way that responds to the just claims of movements for social change (e.g., the Green New Deal and Black Lives Matter).
Coming to CPR feels like entering a new house and calling it home. Hey, the place looks great — good, solid bones, great location, welcoming feel, systems up to date and tremendous promise for the future. That's how I feel with CPR's extraordinarily talented staff, a deep bench of experts we can draw on among our Member Scholars, and a committed and impressive board of directors.
It's an honor to join an organization with such an impressive and storied history. Founded in 2002 by advocates and scholars, the Center for Progressive Regulation (as it was called then) debunked the conservative, industry-backed research that "showed" that regulations supposedly cost more than the benefits they provide and "harm" small businesses.
Through its own critical analysis and research, CPR laid out the essential role that government regulations play in protecting health, safety, and the environment in its New Progressive Agenda and offered evidence-backed recommendations for reform, testimony in Hill briefings, and a strong public narrative as a counterweight to conservative think tanks. At some point, the word "Regulation" changed to "Reform," yet CPR maintained its double-helix mission: strengthening government protections and organizing scholars for the common good.
As the new head of an organization that believes that ideas, evidence, and advocacy can guide our country to realize a progressive vision, I believe this is our moment. From our work on climate justice to workers' rights, from our blueprints for a sustainable future to a more responsive government, CPR is well-positioned to inform policymakers, help fuel social change movements, and mobilize supporters for policies that work for the public good. Others fondly refer to us as "the Dept. of Fine Print" for highlighting how rulemaking is a cause for activists. We're proud of the moniker and intend to continue shining the light on this critical but overlooked aspect of our democracy.
Many of CPR's core issues — and even those off our beaten track — are represented in plans of the new Biden-Harris administration (such as President Biden's Plan for Climate and Environmental Justice and the White House memo on Modernizing Regulatory Review). What a time to help instill a strong ethos of government protection for those so badly abused by the last administration.
Educate, Advocate, Collaborate
I look at CPR and see not only its forward-looking wisdom (Policy for a Just America) and our ongoing work (a slew of pending legislation in Maryland and Virginia, plus 11 blog posts published this month alone!), but I also envision what this organization can accomplish in the next five years as we advance our mission to "educate, advocate, collaborate" in this dire yet hopeful political context.
Barely into my second week here is too soon for me to lay out a comprehensive agenda for the future. That said, there are things that CPR does extraordinarily well that will inform our work going forward:
- Focusing on reclaiming government: The metal part that connects railroad cars is arguably the simplest yet most valuable part of the locomotive system: linchpins hold the whole train together. One of CPR’s linchpin issues is reforming the obscure White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which oversees the regulatory apparatus of all federal executive branch agencies based on a rigid analysis of cost and benefits. The version of cost-benefit analysis OIRA and federal agencies use is arbitrated nondemocratically. For example, those who bear the costs of air pollution have little chance of influencing OIRA. What is the social cost of carbon within the climate regulatory environment? Simply, it’s everything, and it’s OIRA that has the say. CPR has been arguing for overhauling OIRA and ditching the current version of cost-benefit analysis, and signs indicate that some policymakers may be catching on.
- Going from local to national: People experience change in an immediate way — in their lives, their homes, their local communities. With so many intransigent interests in federal politics, it’s often easier to foment change locally than nationally. In CPR’s work in the Chesapeake region of Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, DC, we have tackled toxic contamination, restricted pollutants from industrial poultry production, and protected natural resources. Promoting a just transition to sustainable agriculture in the region is a big task, and we’re making progress. In the months ahead, we’ll amplify our regional work at the national level, drawing lessons from grounded experience and state reforms and showing the nation that change is possible.
- Protecting people of color to protect all of us: Historian Ibram X. Kendi and, more recently, Heather McGhee (immediate past president of Demos, an allied progressive think tank) are helping white people understand that racial justice is not a zero-sum finality: Gains for Black, Indigenous and people of color do not come at the expense of gains for white people. CPR, for example, is a strong advocate of federal workplace safety and health protections for low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women and people of color. Yet, most low-wage workers are white, and robust workplace policies protect us all. Expect more from CPR here.
Returning to my history with social movements and CPR's history with good governance, imagine the interaction of social movements and government institutions as two gears meshing. Our concern at CPR is whether the gear of governance is meshing well with the gear of social movements. If not — if the gears' teeth are slipping and they don't turn in response to each other — then valuable public power is lost, the potential of these otherwise well-constituted social movements is wasted, and demands for change are frustrated. Lives are too precious to allow this to happen. I'm proud to join CPR to make sure these gears of our democracy are working in sync — and to build a stronger, more just America.