- Change Agent:An Interview with Tamara Draut
Tamara Draut is a social critic, especially of inequality in the U.S. Her new book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (2016), calls attention to the shifting composition of the working class, composed less of the iconic male construction worker and more of women of color holding various service jobs. It extends research from her first book, Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (2006), an exposé of the increasing difficulties that young Americans face, starting with escalating student and credit card debt, and compounded by the high price of housing and other obstacles blocking their way. In addition, her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, The American Prospect, and Boston Review.
Rather than at a university, Draut is based at Demos, a progressive think tank, where she conducts research and now serves as vice president. Born in 1971 in Ohio, Draut earned a BS in journalism at Ohio University (1993). After moving to New York to work in advertising, she returned to school to earn an MPA in Public Policy from Columbia (2001). In 2001, she started at Demos, founded in the 1990s to counter the phalanx of rightwing institutions, and her early work there resulted in her essay “Growing College Gap,” in Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and its Poisonous Consequences (eds. James Lardner and David A. Smith ), and led her to write Strapped. In 2011, she became a VP at Demos, although she took a sabbatical in 2014 to write Sleeping Giant. In addition, she co-authored several recent Demos reports, including: “Stuck: Young America’s Persistent Job Crisis” (2013); “The Great Cost Shift: State Higher Education Funding After the Recession” (March 2014); and “Millions to the Middle: 14 Big Ideas to Build a Strong and Diverse Middle Class” (2015), all at Demos.org.
This interview took place on October 19, 2015 at the Demos offices in New York City. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, a professor of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University, and transcribed by Adam Ahlgrim, an MA student in literary and cultural studies there. [End Page 525]
There’s been a lot of attention to the figure of the public intellectual over the past two decades. Some claimed that public intellectuals have disappeared, as intellectuals retreated into the confines of academia. On the other hand, there have been announcements of the revival of the public intellectual as a number of academics have made a point of crossing over to more public venues. You have a different kind of position, working at Demos, a policy think tank, but you write for magazines and in trade books, such as Strapped and your forthcoming book, Sleeping Giant, so you have a role as a kind of public intellectual. How do you see your role? Do you see yourself as a public intellectual?
I struggle with the term public intellectual. I would like to be doing much more public-oriented writing, but being the Vice President of Policy and Research at a big think tank, a ten-million-dollar think tank, I have a lot of management responsibilities. Since becoming a VP, I shape and influence the research and reporting that we do here, but behind the scenes, and I’m not writing as much of my own, so it’s a continual tension between helping to produce the best work but not being a producer myself.
That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write a book, because at my day job, managing staff and working in the research pipeline and organizational management, I don’t feel like I make enough of a public contribution. That’s a continual problem once you get promoted and move into management, when you work in the nonprofit world.
What do you do? Planning and fundraising?
Not fundraising. We have ten researchers, and I manage half of them directly, so it’s developing new ideas for us to research. So a lot of the work...