July 22, 2015

Our #MakeProgress Change Makers are moving our country towards a more progressive future. Meet Matt Singer, the executive director of GP partner organization The Bus Federation, which promotes civic engagement year-round and at all sorts of levels. He also helped found Forward Montana Foundation, a local Bus affiliate.

matt singer

How has your connection to Generation Progress impacted your professional and personal life?

Generation Progress trusted me early on, as a regular contributor of written content and as a moderator of a panel at their first ever Make Progress conference. It was my first foray into national politics. We helped prevent privatization of Social Security. How Generation Progress treated me when I was still in college reflects the values I try to bring to work all the time – respect young people, trust them to lead their own movement, and give them the resources they need to win.

What one concrete piece of advice would you give young people trying to make a difference in their communities?

Use all the tools in your toolbox. I come from an electoral organizing background, one where many long-time colleagues and friends have looked down on direct action strategies or other mechanisms to achieve change. But when we look at history, so many of the most powerful movements were about fusing direct action, lobbying, electoral organizing, and leadership development. It’s the story of SNCC and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It’s the story of the DREAMers. It’s the story of the LGBT movement securing such historic wins right now. Don’t look down on your brothers and sisters in the movement; ask what they know that you don’t and learn from them.

What inspires and drives you to do the work that you do, day in and day out?

I’m inspired regularly by the people of the Bus Federation and other young people around the country. Five years ago, in Missoula, MT, a town of seventy thousand people, I saw 2,000 of them come down to demand the city council pass a trans-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance. A few months later, that same town elected Montana’s an openly gay man, a close friend of mine, to the legislature, a first for the state. Watching young people in Chicago, IL, put Rahm Emanuel on notice earlier this year. Watching Baltimore City Attorney Marilyn Mosby indict six police in the death of Freddie Gray. The DREAMers, Occupy, #blacklivesmatter, #nokxl are all recent movements that are among the most fearless and impressive organizing in U.S. history.

What self-care tips and tricks do you use to avoid burn out and stay healthy?

I’m a bicycle commuter. It saves money and keeps me healthier, physically and mentally. When I’m on the road for prolonged travel and haven’t been on my bike, I can feel it. I get outside. I try to protect my evenings and weekends, but that definitely isn’t always possible. When I’m working, I work with people I like and respect. We laugh a lot. We enjoy it. When someone is burning out, we let them know that it’s OK to step back. We’re all vital to this movement, but that means we gotta stay in it. In the words of the one and only Tanya Tarr, “Social change is a marathon, so you have to train for it.” Eat right, sleep plenty, stretch your social justice muscles.

What moment or lesson had the biggest impact on you from the last 10 years?

A minivan hit me while I was on my bike at the very end of 2011 and put me in the ER and ICU for nearly a week. Being forced to step back puts into perspective how incredible a good team is at picking up the pieces. It’s also a good reminder of just how fortunate I am.

What issue do you think is most important to young people today?

Millennials are 1/3 of the country. We don’t have a most important issue. We have lots of them. And they’re largely interconnected, which means that we can’t pick a single issue to fix first. We have to move forward on all of them. So pick an issue or two to put at the top of your agenda, because none of us can do it all. And, please, please, please, be an ally to our interconnected movements even if you’re not putting other issues at the top of your list. We can’t win this stuff if we’re not together.

Who is your biggest inspiration?

John Lewis

What would you like to see young people come together to change in the next 10 years?

There’s a ton we need to do – fixing voter registration, addressing the climate crisis, ending white supremacy – but I think one of the biggest challenges we face that we mostly discuss around the margins is the future of economic power for those of us who aren’t wealthy. The rise of companies like Uber predicated on contractors rather than employees and sustained attacks on organized labor mean that vehicles for progressive economic power are limited. We need to start testing more ideas and finding a path forward.

How can we inspire young people to become more civically engaged?

We need to make this stuff much more actionable than talking about civic engagement. How do we get young people running for office, what changes need to be made by school boards, what do we want badly enough that we won’t take no for an answer? Whatever issue you care about, there’s a lever of power near you. Get your campus to divest from fossil fuels and private prisons. Get the school board in your town to take a long hard look at their history curriculum and what’s being taught to current students. Pass an anti-bullying policy.

What young person inspires you?

Ack. All of ‘em. But mostly these folks.

What’s the most rewarding part of working with young people?

Learning stuff all the time.

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