Benj Singer, Communications Director for Clean Missouri
“Most nonprofits and political campaigns really fail to articulate a theory of change that takes a vision of changing the world and a strategy to get there. And making it clear how we can do that.”
Meet Benj Singer. Benj is a Midwestern man who hates politics but works collaboratively to help ensure America has a government of, by, and for the people. He is the co-founder of GiveWhen, a trigger-based fundraising platform, and is currently working for the Clean Missouri ballot inititative. Benj is @benjamindsinger across all social media.
What Does He Do?
Benj is an organizer. He is currently the Communications Director for Clean Missouri, a ballot initiative to reform the state legislature, including campaign contributions, lobbyist gifts, gerrymandering, the revolving door, and sunshine laws. Benj’s background includes running reform campaigns for national groups including Larry Lessig’s MAYDAY.US, Common Cause, and the Patriotic Millionaires. Last summer he was a fellow at Higher Ground Labs, incubating GiveWhen.
How Did He Get Into This Work?
While Benj and his parents share little in common in terms of their politics – his mother was president of her College Republicans — he asserts that he is “proud to carry out some of what they bring to the world: A strong anti-authoritarian streak. A belief in being informed, doing your own research; standing up for what you think is right.”
Growing up, Benj recalls going to protests, and one particular incident: His mother almost got arrested for hugging a tree — literally — because a neighbor was intent on cutting it down.
In hindsight, but Benj’s interest in working on non-partisan approaches to problem solving seems to stem from childhood: “There was so much conflict in my household that, from a young age, I had a strong desire to bridge differences and work together with people who were coming from different perspectives, and focus on what we can do together.”
Benj was an accidental organizer in high school – doing the work without naming it. As the co-founder of Environmental Campus Outreach (ECO) — a Jewish environmental group — he realized that for ECO to persist after he graduated that he had to create not only a plan of succession but develop its theory of change.
After university he focused on film, documenting the lives of formerly incarcerated drug offenders before joining A Safe Haven Foundation. “I tried my best to stay away from politics because it felt dirty, corrupt, and broken to the point of hopelessness. In 2011, I was managing communications A Safe Haven, Illinois’s largest provider of homelessness services, when the state owed my organization $2 million for services we’d already done. We were helping citizens become healthy, employed, permanently housed, and tax-paying members of society. The politicians running the state pledged an income tax increase to maintain funding for human services — but, after raising the income tax, they still cut funding. An $80 million tax credit went to the Mercantile Exchange, which had just donated $200,000 to Rahm Emanuel’s campaign and gives millions to politicians at all levels. With 1 in 6 Americans in poverty, I felt a moral imperative to work to fix our political system so it would work for the people, not just wealthy insiders.”
Benj decided that he had to take a more proactive approach — which entailed two things: learning how to fundraise and volunteering with a coalition for campaign finance reform. “I was literally getting money into politics during the day, and getting money out of politics at night.”
Common Cause then hired him (after he raised the money to fund his position) to manage the statewide campaign that made Illinois the next state to call — with bipartisan sponsorship — for a Constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United v. FEC. Benj has stayed in the movement for a more perfect union ever since.
What Project Is He Working On?
Benj has just recently moved back home, working to pass the Clean Missouri ballot initiative for this fall. It’s his belief that Missouri is currently a focal point of the national movement to reform money in politics, lobbyist gifts, and fair, competitive districts. So while Benj continues to help with some projects for the nation’s leading nonpartisan reform organizations, he is focused on helping Missouri citizens to reform our corrupt government.
“If there’s a movement you want to see succeed nationally, look at where you can invest in that, whether that’s Missouri or South Dakota, or wherever it is. I believe that’s what I’m doing right now. While it’s true that this law won’t solve everything, if we succeed I think that it’s going to make it even clearer to places like California and New York — and in between — that we have this opportunity to change the system so that our government really reflects the will of the people at the grassroots level.”
How Did He Come to Civic Hall?
When Benj moved to Brooklyn while working for MAYDAY.US. His friend Alex Soble connected him to Danielle Lee Tomson, a core part of the Civic Hall team, and an ambassador at the time. She encouraged him to become a member, and he joined her ambassadorial cohort lunch, which was a great opportunity for him as a network member to check out the space and make some human connections.
“After I hosted one or two events (including Hamilton Karaoke!), Danielle asked me to become an ambassador, as well. I loved working out of Civic Hall and forming a community. I’m looking forward to stopping by while I’m in town to talk to Jerry for this profile!”
What Is His Ask of Civic Hall?
Benj tasks us to consider life beyond our walls: “Remember that the world is bigger than New York, and New York City is not representative of the whole country (or even of the whole state!). If you’re confused about why people are doing what they’re doing, spend some time outside the bubble. Seek to listen and understand. The only way to victory for a people’s movement is with the people. We don’t all have to agree on everything to work together on something.”
“After this election is over I’m thinking about what ways I can make the biggest difference in our country, starting in Missouri, trying to figure out how to create the kind of movement I want to see and I think a lot of people are hungry for.”