Start-up launches college students’ political careers
by Steven Felschundneff | firstname.lastname@example.org
When Claremont Mayor Pro Tem Jed Leano needs help with the many chores of his office, living in Claremont has its advantages with many ambitious college students eager to gain some experience working for an elected official.
The students at the Claremont Colleges have another advantage when seeking an internship or volunteering for a political campaign—many have the socioeconomic privilege of free time. That luxury is beyond the grasp of the students at our local community colleges who tend to be older, have families and full-time jobs. They may aspire to participate in politics but cannot afford to miss hours at work by taking unpaid internships.
A start-up right here in Claremont wants to change that dynamic by providing community college students a chance to learn about campaigning, meet political professionals and the possibility of a stipend if they land an internship.
Community Groundwork, co-founded by Mike Ceraso, offers students a 20-hour course in grassroots politics including campaign organizing, data management and analysis, communications, digital storytelling, advertising, legislative policymaking and implementation. Once the students complete the coursework they are each matched with a mentor who works in the field that student wishes to pursue. The mentors are tasked with introducing the students to “professional opportunities with the prospect of gainful employment.”
No stranger to Claremont politics, Mr. Ceraso ran for city council twice, including a second-place finish in District 5 last November. Before that, Mr. Ceraso worked as the New Hampshire state director for presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg. During a previous election he was the California state director for Bernie Sanders. He is founder and executive director of the political consulting firm Winning Margins.
“From my last presidential campaign I saw a lot of four-year students, a lot of Ivy League students getting job opportunities but I wasn’t seeing resumes from two-year students,” Mr. Ceraso said. “You come through our 20-hour workshop, you are going to meet a dozen or more folks from various backgrounds. If you are interested in something, we are going to make it easy for you to connect with that person. And you are going to build those relationships, because politics and government is all about networks. It’s all about relationships.”
The seed for what would become Community Groundwork sprouted in 2019 when Mr. Ceraso raised $6,000 through a GoFundMe campaign for a pilot program with 22 students at Cerritos and Long Beach community colleges.
“The pilot program was a huge success but we did not have the infrastructure, we did not have the non-profit status,” Mr. Ceraso said.
Community Groundwork is now in its first year with Mr. Ceraso serving as executive director, and his cofounder Elizabeth Emerald as program director.
“All of the fundraising, all of the coordinating, all of the political stuff goes through me. Elizabeth puts the curriculum together and matches the mentors up with students,” Mr. Ceraso said.
The first 17 students completed the program this spring. Three program graduates now work for Mr. Ceraso at Winning Margins, including California State Los Angeles political science major Lizeth Hernandez.
The 21-year-old La Puente resident went through both Citrus and Mount San Antonio colleges before transferring to Cal State L.A. She started working on campaigns about two years ago, including a stint for Josh Newman’s successful bid to win a state senate seat in Orange County. She is interested in working on more senatorial campaigns and plans to run for office in the future.
“Working on Senator Newman’s campaign, seeing an elected [individual] as a person, was a different experience, so I look up to him as well because he just cares a lot for his constituents,” Ms. Hernandez said. “I imagine myself running one day for a congressional seat in the area I grew up in. I just want to build that community back up. I also want to do legislative policy change work and make sure everyone’s rights are secured.”
Going through the program she built on the skills from Senator Newman’s campaign, including how to communicate with elected official to advance one’s priorities. This also included how to raise money, network and to pitch an idea. “I learned a lot of stuff I did not learn working on campaigns,” she said.
Ms. Hernandez admires Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York because she put herself through college and “comes from people like us.”
She really fights tooth and nail to be heard and to make sure her constituents are heard. Someone like that who does the work even if it is thankless is someone I could admire a lot,” Ms. Hernandez said.
Last Thursday Community Groundwork hosted a mixer at Walter’s Restaurant, which included elected officials from the San Gabriel and Inland valleys.
The event featured speeches from Mr. Ceraso, Ms. Emerald and Mayor Pro Tem Leano as well as community college student Tanner Marston. Following the presentations there was an opportunity for the students to mingle with the electeds.
During his remarks Mr. Marston recalled how a fellow Mt. Sac student who was very passionate about his political science program announced he was switching to a business major because he did not see any future in politics—a conundrum that Mr. Marston says is common.
“That is why organizations like Community Groundwork are amazing. Going through the program I learned so much about what actually happens [in politics] I learned how the struggles on a daily basis can change the world. I am so thankful to Mike and Elizabeth and the entire team at Community Groundwork for this opportunity,” Mr. Marston said.
Thursday’s event was also an opportunity for Mr. Ceraso to increase his fundraising reach which is currently focused solely on individual donors. He has raised $25,000 this year, a quarter of which came from Claremont residents, which he attributes to his familiarity within the community from the two runs for council.
“A lot of the most valuable experience in politics that is unpaid essentially is only reserved for the people who are independently wealthy, they can afford to work for free 10 to 15 hours a week,” Mr. Leano said. “For a lot of community college students the time they would interning, that’s the time they need to make their rent or buy food…to support their families.”
“So what I really love about what Mike is trying to do, he’s not only connecting two-year community college students with political opportunities, but he is also trying to help fund them and give them stipends so they don’t have to choose between paying the rent or getting valuable political experience.”