A Conversation With Sophie & Noah Blumenthal, Co-founders of Move The Future
By Editor Joyce Chen
When students return to school this fall, it’ll be to a different, heightened environment following a tense spring riddled with headlines of school shootings, education inequity and other hot-button topics. By that same token, however, the start of the school year also marks the first time students are returning to the classroom after the new wave of student activism that has risen out of the chaos.
On February 14, 17 students and staff members were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a gunman opened fire on campus; 17 more were injured. In the days that followed, students around the globe rallied behind their counterparts at Stoneman Douglas, following the lead of student survivors there who formed a group called Never Again MSD.
Rather than shirk away from the horrors of the school shooting, the students chose to lean in and take action where adults and politicians had not. They started the viral hashtags #NeverAgain and #EnoughIsEnough, vocally condemned politicians who were receiving contributions from the NRA, led international student walkouts, and spearheaded March For Our Lives, a nationwide protest that took place on March 24. Then, in June, they announced a 20-state tour wherein members of Never Again MSD held conversations with pro-NRA conservatives about guns and encouraged newly 18-year-old students to vote. The tour ended on August 12 in Newtown, Conn., the site of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
In other words, students took charge in the aftermath of the shooting, finding new ways to take action where there once were only words, and adults took note. Even after the headlines faded, the students understood that there still is, and always will be, so much work to be done.
Sophie Blumenthal, a 15-year-old high school student from Nassau County, NY, was dreaming up ways to be more politically active in February when the Parkland shooting happened some 1,300 miles south. The previous summer, she had interned for Josh Lafazan, who was running for County Legislator in Nassau County, and after helping him to win the election as the youngest county legislator in Nassau County history (he’s now 24), she began to see the potential for a youth-led movement in politics.
“Young people are pretty dramatic, and we have a sense of urgency and also a sense of drive,” she told The Seventh Wave during a chat via Skype in July. “So those two paired together makes us really perfect for changing elections and progressing issues for the better.”
Here, Sophie and her father, Noah Blumenthal, who helped co-found Sophie’s student-run organization Move The Future, tell The Seventh Wave about the power of youth, the necessity of agency, and the importance of just rolling up your sleeves and doing the damn work.
The Seventh Wave: I’m so happy to connect with you guys! And thanks so much for being patient while we were in the process of figuring out all the things, too. I really appreciate it.
Sophie Blumenthal: Of course! Thanks so much for the opportunity. This is awesome.
TSW: It’s so great to finally meet you. So just to start out, tell me a little bit about the formation of Move The Future. Give me the basics first — how did it all come about?
SB: Right. So I started interning for Josh Lafazan, who was running for County Legislator in Nassau County, in the summer of 2017 to help him get elected. He had over 100 interns overall, and they were all just so supportive of him and got so much done. They really did everything for him — they canvassed, they phone banked, they wrote letters; we were his entire campaign staff. And when election day rolled around, he ended up winning by a 12-point margin against a Republican incumbent in a primarily conservative district. So his internship program really worked, and I wanted to replicate that success for Democrats all across America. And that’s when I created Move The Future. Together, we created a guide for any Democratic candidate that wants to start their own internship program, and it includes sample documentation, sample letters to the editor, sample orientation agendas, that sort of thing. And that’s something we are spreading to Democratic candidates all over the country.
TSW: That’s awesome. And did you know from the get-go that a guide would probably be the best way to go about getting involved? It’s fail-proof, in a way, because people can go ahead and take that and do whatever is most fitting for their candidate.
SB: So we started off with the guide and we tried to make that as comprehensive as possible. But then, as we started working on campaigns, we realized that they might actually need a little more than a guide, and that’s when we started providing other resources as well. We now have a weekly troubleshooting conversation in which all of our campaigns can call in and ask any questions about recruiting interns, running an internship, etc. We also provide an intern harassment hotline for any intern to call in with anything that makes them uncomfortable, so people in the campaign can be made aware of any issues and we can help them fix that. The guide is available on our website for any campaign to use and it takes them through the whole process, but when campaigns sign on to use our full program, we provide additional resources as well.
TSW: So you made mention earlier that you were the one who primarily spearheaded putting the guide together, but how many people are involved with Move The Future at large? How big is your team now?
SB: We have a 10-person team right now, and (except for my dad) we are all high school students. I’ve found it incredibly powerful to work with them all. I wanted to build out a team of students because they provide such energy and excitement.
TSW: That’s so great. I’m sure you might get this question often, but how do you juggle everything? Because schoolwork is obviously its own beast. To have the passion to do this also — how do you juggle that?
SB: I mean, I’m just [laughs]. I love politics so much and I was so horrified by the 2016 election and Donald Trump and all of this craziness that I had no idea existed in our world, and that just pushes me every day to do as much as I can. And with schoolwork, I get that done, but when I’m finished studying for my tests, I go off and I do work for our guide or organizing our team. It’s just super important, especially in our political climate right now.
Noah Blumenthal: If I can add on there too — I think it was just earlier this week even when we were talking about another extracurricular that Sophie has done in the past, and she was talking about dropping that for Move The Future, and her mom was saying, “You need something that’s just fun for you. Something where you can just let off steam and relax.” And that led to a whole conversation about how Move The Future really is fun for her. For her, that’s fun. She’s so passionate about it and yes, there’s a lot of frustration about the political climate of today, but at the same time, when we talk about balancing, so much of that for her is doing as much as she can for this thing that she’s so passionate about. So it’s been really fun as her parent to watch her get as excited as she’s gotten about the whole thing.
TSW: Sophie, was your interest in politics something that came from way back when? Was it something that was instilled within you from the get-go?
SB: I mean, I’ve always been so interested in social activism. When I was 10 years old, I stopped eating chocolate because of child labor issues within the cocoa industry. That freaked me out so much that I’ll only eat fair trade chocolate even now. So I’ve always been a social activist, but the 2016 election really opened my eyes to politics and what’s happening right here, outside in my backyard, where I live. That’s when I really got interested in politics and campaigns and that’s when I figured out that there’s more that I can do and more direct action I can take.
TSW: Right, right. And for Josh’s campaign in particular, what was it about his campaign that struck you? Did it have to do with the fact that he was the youngest, I believe, ever elected into this position in office?
SB: Yes, he is the youngest county legislator in Nassau County history.
TSW: Gotcha. Was that part of the factor? Like hey, here’s someone who’s not 50, 60 years old, someone you’re maybe more used to seeing in politics. Was that part of the factor? Like, yeah, I can get behind this candidate because I believe in what he stands for?
SB: Well, honestly, after the 2016 elections, I was so ready to do anything to fix anything about what was going on in our country. So I just jumped on his campaign, and after I started really getting to know him, that’s when I realized the awesomeness of his campaign and him as a candidate. Obviously, of course I knew what his policy stances were before I got involved with his campaign, too. I saw that he was just for no-brainer issues; he stood for things that people should just stand for. They were just very non-partisan things, like fighting the heroin and opioid epidemic, getting affordable housing. Those are the kinds of things that we should just have. And so I loved those policies and that’s why I jumped onboard, and after I did and got involved, I realized that this was a special candidate and a special internship program, and that’s really when the rise of youth activism hit me. I thought, that’s really awesome. That’s really cool.
TSW: Did you have any expectations going into the campaign? And was there anything that was most surprising to you, either positive or negative, about working on the campaign as a whole?
SB: Well, I was really nervous walking into that office the first day. I was shaking hands, I was talking to people, making small talk, and it was the weirdest thing. I was just this kid with half-baked ideas about the world and no idea what I was doing. It was just so strange to be treated like I belonged there. Then we started doing ice breakers and everyone was so friendly and I knew everyone else was just as nervous as I was. It was just a really cool experience, because then I got to actually talking to the interns and these were all high school students who knew about politics and knew what they were talking about. And I just found that so interesting and fascinating. The energy and the intelligence in the room was mind-blowing. Everyone in there was smarter than me and knew more than me, and it was such an awesome experience to listen to them talk and have conversations with them.
NB: There was something that surprised me in her internship, which was that when she first signed up for it, we figured, okay, she’ll work some amount but we didn’t really give it that much thought. But she was there nights. She was there weekends. She was putting in 40-hour weeks all summer long. While her friends were going to the beach, she was off canvassing. And there are two sides to that. One is just that it was amazing to see her be this enthusiastic and this dedicated to something. I think that that’s something that every parent is thrilled to see in their kid, if they can find it. The other thing is that in this world, we put so much energy and so much money into trying to send our kids off to something that’s going to be useful and valuable for them in the summer that they’re also going to enjoy, and here we are, Sophie’s off on this free experience that we paid absolutely nothing for, and she gets this incredible experience where she makes these great friends and she does this incredible thing for the world. And it’s wonderful for her future. This is something that every parent should want for their kid to discover, especially for any kid that’s remotely interested in politics. And it doesn’t take much to find it. We have elections every year, so every summer these opportunities are out there.
SB: One of the coolest things about Josh’s internship is I never got him coffee, I never ran out to grab things from his car. Every single day I was doing something, so that says a lot because I was doing something that both grew me as a political person and was educating me every day on different issues and how the government works. And at the same time, I was also helping Josh get elected, so it was a parallel strategy, and it was really awesome to experience that without ever having to run out and get coffee. I was always doing something important.
NB: I just want to say, too, that Sophie and the team have also done a really great job of incorporating everything into the guide as well as into the coaching work that we do with the campaigns, to make sure that these internships are really meaningful for the students involved. And not just a resume filler, but an actual professional builder for the students.
TSW: Right, because that’s just so much more fulfilling for everyone involved, right? I definitely remember in my own high school experience, the emphasis was often on “What can I add to my resume?” When the focus should have been on “What are you passionate about? And what kind of difference are you making?” So I think that’s a great point that you’re making there, that you’re not grabbing coffee. You know, that’s — everyone should just grab their own coffee. That should just be a basic fact. And Sophie, is there something, or was there something, about working with a group that was primarily between the ages of 12 and 22 years old that was extra powerful?
SB: Yeah, there was just this constant energy source coming from the interns. We were always just so energized. We were always so passionate about what we were doing. We were able to, every single day, be talking about the campaign. We’d be talking about other political issues, too, things we cared about, and that was just so powerful. It kept us energized and it kept us going and it kept us working for Josh.
TSW: Is there anything that you personally are very passionate about? In terms of what he stands for and/or issues that you’re very adamant about getting out there a little more?
SB: Well, as the president of an organization that’s run by students and primarily focuses on getting students involved in politics, we have two incredibly important issues, and that’s climate change and gun control. And that also ties into why we’re a partisan organization, because if you look historically at which party has voted to actually help the progression of these issues and putting gun reform in place and look into climate change, that’s the Democratic party. The Democratic party consistently votes to further the fighting of gun violence in America and fighting climate change, and that’s why we’re supporting Democratic candidates. We encourage students of all political affiliations to get on board and join these campaigns and actually fight for the causes that they believe in, but those are our two main issues, because gun violence is faced by young people every day all across America, and climate change is impacting us in our day-to-day lives. And it’s only going to get worse and it’s going to continue to affect us and that’s why we’re for Democratic candidates.
TSW: Gotcha. And is there something — and I’m not trying to make this an ageist thing — but is there something that older advocates maybe don’t get that younger advocates like you guys do?
TSW: [laughs] Right. I don’t want to frame it in any negative way, but I’ll put it this way: I think it’s very powerful that there are so many younger voices now that are being elevated and I think that needs to happen more often because there’s something to be said about not being afraid to say things.
NB: Also, they haven’t gotten jaded yet. They still believe that the system can be changed. For the positive. And no matter how much we did believe, as we get older, sometimes we start to believe that it can’t be changed any more. At some point, something does have to change. And it almost always comes from the younger generation.
SB: I was going to say that too, absolutely. I think young people, they haven’t had the chance to become cynical yet. They still believe in the process, and when they believe in the process, they’re so much more likely to act to actually change things for the better.
TSW: Once that belief fades a little bit, it’s hard to be as passionate and have that energy too.
SB: Yeah, exactly.
NB: But there’s still a few old people out there who are passionate about things. [laughs]
TSW: No, that’s very true! And that’s why I wanted to be careful with how I asked that question. I didn’t mean it in any agist way, it’s just that more than anything, it seems to be that there’s more space and more focus on youth activists these days, which is great.
SB: Young people are pretty dramatic, and we have a sense of urgency and also a sense of drive. So those two paired together makes us really perfect for changing elections and progressing issues for the better.
TSW: That makes me think of a two-pronged question: first, what are the tools — social media obviously comes to mind — and character traits that you think younger activists have that those activists who are a little older might not have tapped into just yet?
SB: I think the willingness to just talk to strangers about politics is something really important. Canvassing was one of the largest things we did on Josh’s internship. So we knocked on doors every single day. We knocked on nearly 23,000 doors by the time of election day, just as an internship, which is an insane number of people to talk to. So we weren’t afraid to talk to people, and when they tried to shut the door in our faces, saying things like, “We’re Republicans and we don’t believe in these issues,” we’d say, “These are all non-partisan issues, everything Josh is doing is just positive stuff,” like fighting the opioid and heroin epidemic. Those are just good things. So that sense of just being willing to talk to voters and be willing to put yourself out there is, I think, something that’s very important that young people have.
TSW: That’s so refreshing to hear.
SB: Young people are also just really tech-savvy. Their passion translates through their tweets, so that’s something that’s really important that young people have. They just know how to manage social media.
TSW: Right. And react in the moment.
SB: Yeah, and they have the outlet to do that, via social media.
TSW: Right. Like with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently in New York. I think the way that, say, that campaign realized the importance of visuals is so key. I think that her knowing that it was important to be tapped into her voters in a very real way really resonated with people.
SB: Right, the candidates who are honest. Not just saying what their stance is but how they’re going to come about it, I think that’s something very powerful: honesty. And I think that’s how Bernie Sanders got so many young people involved and passionate about his campaign. He told things like they were, and young people really responded to that.
TSW: It’s interesting when you mentioned the willingness to talk to strangers, and to talk about stuff that’s complicated, right? Because people are probably going to say, “Oh, no, I only vote Republican,” so that therefore anything outside of that label is no longer a viable option. Were there any specific instances that you can think of while you were canvassing or just during the campaign when you did encounter that kind of resistance? And what did you do?
SB: Yeah, so there was this one time my friend and I were knocking on doors and we were talking to this man about Josh’s policies and everything that Josh planned to fight for in Nassau county, and the man was basically agreeing with everything we were saying, saying, “Yes, I agree with all those issues and all those policy stances.” And then he asks, “What is Josh? Is he a Republican?” and we said, “No.” And immediately he was just like, “Wrong answer” and closed the door in our faces, which was really disappointing, because the man obviously stood for everything that Josh stood for and just because we said no to Josh being a Republican, that partisan divide, he just couldn’t even bring himself to speak to us, which I found really sad. Sad that he was depriving himself of a legislator who was actually going to fight for the issues that he believed in.
TSW: It’s interesting that so much of the conversation was front-ended by those questions and seeing that there was so much commonality between what issues the man was concerned about and what issues Josh is concerned about. It really just comes down to a label. Did you guys then say, “Okay, we gotta go”? Or did you bang down that door?
SB: Usually with those kinds of people, we’re not going to be able to change their minds. So we walked away. But there have been other instances where they didn’t actually slam the door in our faces, so we were able to open up a dialogue and have a conversation, and we did sway some voters that way, which was really awesome.
TSW: That is really awesome. I’m going to shift a little bit toward Move The Future specifically. Tell me a little bit about how it was founded and how many different districts you’ve reached out to at this point. How many different places are on that wave, so to speak?
SB: So we are currently in 45 different campaigns in 12 different states. And a lot of those are New York campaigns, but we have some in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Georgia, Texas, and more. It’s really refreshing to talk to so many people living all across the country, and it’s incredible to talk to them and to see how everyone’s on the same page policy-wise. Just because we live in different areas doesn’t mean we can’t open up conversations and work together. It’s been really awesome and interesting to talk to so many different candidates.
TSW: Has there been a proudest moment for both of you guys just in watching this organization grow? Because this was just last year that you were working on Josh’s campaign, right? And it’s cool, I imagine, to see how it’s grown in just a year.
NB: Actually, we founded it back at the end of February.
TSW: Okay, less than a year! I think I was thinking a year because the campaign was last summer.
NB: Yeah, Sophie interned last summer and the election was last November and then for a couple of months, we kind of kicked around ideas, like, so what are you going to do next, and what might that look like? And then we finally started writing the guide in February, putting real work into it. And a couple weeks after we started writing the guide is when the Parkland shooting happened, and so suddenly, while we’re sitting here saying, “We think there’s a real opportunity for a youth movement in the future,” Parkland happens and it felt like the right time to release the guide. So it’s very new still. We’re just a couple months in. So that’s my proudest moment, but what’s yours?
SB: I think it’s just been so fascinating and so exciting to be working on this organization. I don’t think I necessarily have a proudest moment, but every day it’s just so much fun, whether I’m working on a new piece for the organization or just talking to my team about what they care about and what they think they should be doing. I just love being in team meetings and hearing everyone’s ideas. Those are my most exciting moments.
NB: I love all the places where I’m seeing Sophie take a leadership role and I’m certainly very proud in terms of the organization and what it’s accomplished. We recently had a meeting with former Congressman Steve Israel and Sophie and I both went to the meeting. And I basically spent the entire time sitting there silent while Sophie ran the show and told them what we’re about and asked him to be on our board of advisors, which he agreed to, which was very exciting. Just seeing her achieve that — I mean, this is a well-known, well-regarded, well-connected congressman who’s saying, “Yeah, this is exciting and I’ve never seen anything like this. I want to be a part of it” — that was huge. And at the same time, as Sophie’s dad, seeing her so poised and in control of that environment, that was my proudest moment.
TSW: That’s a pretty awesome proudest moment. Do you think people are surprised that students are so passionate and vocal about social issues? To me, it shouldn’t be surprising, but maybe sometimes it is?
SB: I mean, I’ve talked to so many adults over the phone and in person — I think people are very skeptical at first, but then when they realize the students they’re talking to actually really know what they’re talking about and they get over their initial surprise, they sober up very quickly, and they start treating the students like equals and that’s just a very cool experience. To have people doubt you in the first 30 seconds of your conversation, and then for the rest of it, just have them completely engaged and involved, that’s something I found to be really inspiring and really cool.
TSW: And I want to make sure I leave some room, too, if there’s anything that either of you guys want to get across that I haven’t asked. I might have a page full of questions in front of me, but it’s your space and time, too, so is there anything you want to make sure our readers walk away with?
SB: I’d love to talk a little bit about how they can get involved.
NB: Well, similar. I was going say that if the question is how have you guys found the resources to do what you’re doing, part of the answer is that we’ve had people, artists, who, outside of the 10-person team members, have volunteered their time.
SB: Any students who want to get involved — either they want to get in touch with us, to see how they can play a role in our organization, or if they want to intern with one of our campaigns or work to start an internship program themselves — we encourage them to reach out to us. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also sign up on our website, campaigners and students, at www.movethefuture.co. We encourage people to reach out to us to talk to us about whatever it is that they think we could be doing, or if they want to actually get involved themselves.
Sophie Blumenthal is a 15-year-old high school student whose mission has always been to change the world for the better and fight injustice wherever possible. She founded Move The Future, an organization dedicated to activating youth involvement in politics and electing Democrats to office, in February 2018 and is currently running it alongside her brilliant team of fellow students.
Noah Blumenthal, an executive coach and leadership consultant by day, is the co-founder of Move The Future. Mostly his job now consists of getting out of the way of the students who have taken charge of the organization. His greatest activist achievement to date is whatever influence he can claim over the leader Sophie Blumenthal has become.
Featured image courtesy Creative Commons.