Roosevelt Reacts: What Else Did We Need From the 2015 State of the Union?

Jan 23, 2015

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network members and alumni weigh in on President Obama's sixth State of the Union address.

Brett Dunn, University of Alabama '17:

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network members and alumni weigh in on President Obama's sixth State of the Union address.

Brett Dunn, University of Alabama '17:

In the face of strong Republican opposition, President Obama made his stance on many controversial topics quite clear. He outlined his views on topics such as the minimum wage, equal pay for women, LGBTQ+ rights, tax reform and more. These bold and somewhat ambitious goals for change in 2015 will require bipartisan compromise in Congress. It is likely, however, that there will be little correlation between President Obama’s bold vision for the future of the United States and Congress’ actions in the final two years of his presidency. No matter how wonderful or ambitious President Obama’s plans are for the country, the likelihood of any these issues being independently addressed by a Republican controlled Congress is very slim. Yet the president’s plans do not fall on deaf ears. President Obama’s speech gives Democrats in Congress and, more importantly, the American public, ammunition against the Republican’s inevitable inaction, which could potentially help set the stage for the 2016 election.

Chisolm Allenlundy, University of Alabama '16:

It was difficult to miss the amount of politics that happened on Tuesday at President Obama’s next-to-last State of the Union address. What might have been easy to miss, however, was the meaning of it all.

President Obama knows that his days of passing game-changing progressive legislation are over. This is a common position for 4th-quarter presidents to find themselves in, and Obama did exactly what such presidents do when they can no longer effectively push for policy change: they push for culture change.

But most Americans don’t watch the political process so much as they hear about it from media sources, which put their own spin on material. According to consumer watch company Nielson, 31.7 million people tuned in for the SOTU, and even that figure is at a 15-year low. While the president has attempted to set the direction for progressive politics for the next year, policy change will be a struggle, and he needs to reach many more Americans to steer the course on our political culture. 

Tarsi Dunlop, Middlebury College '09:

Middle class economics played a key role in the President’s 2015 State of the Union. He explained that middle class economics is about the policies needed for average American families to get ahead. These policies aren’t handouts, but they make daily life better, easier, more fulfilling. For example, what if students could graduate from K-12 with good grades and know they had the option of going to community college without the staggering cost of debt? Granted, there are certain investments that must be made to make sure that community colleges are, as an institution, prepared for the role the President wants them to serve for our nation’s youth.

The President also touched on other elements of middle class economics: key policy proposals that will help young people, new families, and the elderly. He emphasized affordable day care (right now monthly costs can run higher than a mortgage payment), as well as paid family leave and sick leave. Families shouldn’t have to choose between time with new babies and paid work, nor between working and staying home with a sick child. We need a vision and a budget to help the middle class thrive and it was great to hear concrete proposals in the President’s speech.

Hayley Brundige, University of Tennessee, Knoxville '17:

Obama's State of the Union Address illustrated just how far we still have to go in the fight for gender equality. I was ecstatic when Obama asserted that the right to quality childcare and paid maternity and sick leave are not just “women's issues” — as they are often brushed aside as — but a “national economic priority.” But in the back of my mind, I was dismayed that this concept that is so obviously a human right is still so far from being obvious to our elected officials. 

Noticeably missing from the speech was any mention of preventing sexual assault, especially on college campuses. This was particularly surprising seeing as the administration has made this issue a point of focus recently, creating a White House task force on sexual assault and investigating colleges for Title IX violations. Obama even had a readily supplied anecdote, as campus activist and sexual assault survivor Emma Sulkowicz was literally in the audience. As a college student, I applaud Obama's efforts to make community college more accessible, but it's disheartening for him to not address the importance of keeping our campuses safe. No president on record has discussed sexual assault in a State of the Union address.

Zachary Agush, Wheaton College '12:

Over the years, President Obama has always integrated personal stories into his annual State of the Union addresses to paint a visual about the troubles individuals may be facing or to explain how a certain effort can help spark further growth and development for others. I have always considered that a major strength. This year’s speech focused in particular on young families. The President knows that the new generation is quickly becoming the majority of the nation's population and that the lingering inequalities and economic hardships will definitely make it increasingly difficult for them to have the quality of life they desire. This generation is also going to struggle to maintain Social Security and Medicare for those entering these safety net programs in the coming decade. I think those stories in particular hit some members of Congress, even those of the new Republican majority, that something needs to be done to at least give the next generation a chance at success. I am cautiously optimistic that something may happen - but it will only happen if this Congress can actually stop and think about how their gridlock is directly affecting the next generation. Maybe then, there can be progress.

Sarah Hilton, Wheaton College '16:

President Obama made huge strides for education policy on Tuesday night; even raising the issue of rising college tuition is a positive step forward. However, the President hardly mentioned the K-12 system. He praised rising graduation rates and higher test scores then ever before, but ignored the staggering inequality and lack of student performance when compared internationally. Obama’s two-year community college plan, while economically beneficial for the middle class, shows that our base expectations for education continue to require more time and expense.

The focus instead should be on improving the K-12 system we already have by creating more diverse programs that train students for a variety careers from academic to vocational. Today, about half of students begin community college in remedial classes. We should be making our high schools more effective at reaching students. Vocational training for profitable and interesting jobs can be done in high school, and academic programs should be strengthen to reduce the need for remedial classes in community colleges. Strengthening the underlying K-12 system and increasing vocational training would have an earlier impact on our students’ lives.

Jas Johl, University of California, Berkeley '08:

The main rhetorical touch point for the state of the union was 'middle class economics.' Throughout the address, Obama repeatedly turned to that concept, presenting policy ideas designed to bolster it.  Of paramount importance to the ongoing success of middle class, he argued, would be to make the first two years of community college free for all. This proposal does address some of the symptoms of growing economic inequality, namely rising student debt. Nonetheless, it overlooks the underlying, systemic issues at the core of the problem: the broken state of our current education system. 

As The Institute for College Access & Success and the Brookings Institute have both argued, the majority of those attending community college are already getting their tuition covered through Pell Grants and other means of financial support. I’d argue the more pressing issue is the fact that many of the students who enroll in community colleges are ill-prepared for 4-year universities, and spend the first two years of college taking remedial college (read: high school) courses that they didn't do well in or even pass the first time. Free college doesn’t help a student who isn’t ready for it.

Obama makes the very valid point that making those colleges free would assuage the financial burden of a large number of young adults, and likely precipitate a better-prepared workforce. But a glaring absence in the president's speech was acknowledgement of the fundamental cracks in our institutions, namely, our already free K-12 educational system. Real middle class economics necessitate not just free education, but better education for all.

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Ten Years: Students Moving the Country Forward

Dec 18, 2014Taylor Jo Isenberg

After ten years of engaging young people in the political process, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network continues to push for a system that works for all of us.

In an email to peers at Stanford University students on November 4, 2004, a student attempted to turn the tide on the malaise setting in after a disappointing election night for progressives. He captured the sentiment of the moment:

After ten years of engaging young people in the political process, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network continues to push for a system that works for all of us.

In an email to peers at Stanford University students on November 4, 2004, a student attempted to turn the tide on the malaise setting in after a disappointing election night for progressives. He captured the sentiment of the moment:

Elections are a great time to shape the future of our country, but democracy is not something that happens every four years. We have a lot of work to do … we need to figure out how to explain what we care about in a coherent and convincing way, we need to develop a leadership network to match the conservatives of the next generation, and we need to keep public officials accountable to the issues that brought us all in.

In a follow-up email, he boiled it down to one simple statement: "I'm seeing a student-run think tank that will reinvigorate mainstream politics with a new generation's ideas."

In one of those rare occurrences that indicate that people might be on to something, others were incubating a similar concept. Two friends at Middlebury and Bates also felt compelled to respond to the political moment, and articulated their initial thoughts on a "think tank that unites college students across America under one political agenda aimed at taking back our democracy." Something similar was taking shape at Yale University.

The rest of the story is Roosevelt lore – the late nights, cross-country recruiting trips, the passionate debates about how best to position the organization to effectively elevate young people as a source for powerful ideas capable of policy change.

Yet what makes this particular story potent is that, ten years later, we celebrate not only that vision, but also today's reality. Thousands of students over the past ten years have worked tirelessly to actualize the initial vision that emerged from a bleak moment in our political history. We’ve published 600+ policy solutions that have been read over half a million times; trained thousands on how to challenge the fundamentals of our social, political, and economic systems; and catapulted young people as civic actors into key debates on the policy challenges of our day. Most importantly, the list of student and chapter successes on the ground is staggering in its breadth and depth of examples where young people have taken active ownership of their communities to bring about solutions with meaningful impact.

As a proud Roosevelter, I think we have much to celebrate. We took a few days last week to elevate our work in Washington, DC – a celebration that included a conversation with Representative Rosa DeLauro and members of Congress on how to look to best practices from Roosevelt’s model to effectively engage a new generation in policy and politics, a discussion on the Campus Network’s next ten years, and presentations at the White House featuring our student’s policy work. And of course, we hosted a party for 190+ alumni and supporters (a rockin’ one, according to keynote speaker Jared Bernstein).

Ten years is also a moment to look towards our future. It’s been a common refrain around our office and with our members that there are some unsettling parallels between the post-election reality ten years ago and the one we face today. Distrust of institutions is on the rise, policy priorities with high public support are thwarted by special interests, and our debate is seriously deprived (with a few exceptions) of a vision for what our country can build towards. We’re still in need of a shake up. The upside? Where things are happening, it’s often led or heavily supported by young people – from the ballot initiatives in the 2014 election to the sustained demand for accountability in our justice system.

It’s no secret that the political establishment is perplexed about young people. The media haphazardly jumps between two narratives, unable to decide if we’re self-absorbed, naïve and complacent in the face of our economic future, or the most civically minded quiet do-gooders since the Greatest Generation. Yet many of the major civic and political organizations are struggling with declining membership numbers. It’s not unheard of for organizations to develop “Millennial engagement strategies” to combat this problem.

We think the answer pretty simple: it’s about institutions and systems embracing the shifts instead of fearing them. From the moment they walk through the door, our members are asked to be a part of building something as equals. They’re given the tools to be the architects – and are instantly connected to a network of peers who support them. In a political system more interested in managing young people than tapping into their ingenuity and energy, Roosevelters come to us because they see the limitations of traditional pathways of engagement. As a result, the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network has remained a network that evolves and shifts as our students lead the way.

We aren’t, of course, the only ones – there is a vibrant ecosystem of organizations and movements that are also innovating and responding to the changing ways people of all ages are expressing their priorities. We could not be more proud of our alumni who have gone on to lead, participate in, and learn from these efforts.

Our successes also beg the question – what does this mean for the next ten years? How do we continue to amplify our strengths and evolve to reflect the moment, opportunities, and risks? That’s the conversation we’re having next – a conversation we want our alumni and supporters to be a part of. In 2015, the Roosevelt Institute will introduce our Alumni Network, which will focus on how to strengthen the Roosevelt community and its potential to influence social and economic priorities. If we are to respond to the call for an economic and democratic system that works for this century, it is going to take all of us.

It is now a Campus Network tradition to close any major convening or retreat with a passage from Jean Edward Smith’s FDR. It narrates President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepting the nomination at the 1936 Democratic National Convention. It’s a famous speech, most notably for his “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny” quote. We start reading a little earlier – Smith sets the stage, with the country emerging from the worst of the Great Depression. Roosevelt walks to the platform on the arm of his son James. Smith details a powerful moment, where the President sees the poet Edwin Markham, author of Man with a Hoe, reaches out to greet him, and stumbles and falls. People rush to snap his braces back into place. He then proceeds to give the speech, which puts forward uncompromising and substantive statements on political and economic equality. It’s resolute, forceful, and clear – there are wrongs we must right, power that needs to be rebalanced, problems to be solved by the people.

I hope that our members take two things away from the passage. First, that every individual can’t do it alone. Second, that it is possible to stand for something that upsets the current balance of power – and to see the country move forward as a result. It’s a valuable reminder today, when all seems hopeless in the face of stagnation and entrenchment.

As we look to the next ten years, that’s the question Roosevelters will continue to ask, and will eventually answer. What do we stand for, and how will we move this country forward?

Taylor Jo Isenberg is the Vice President of Networks at the Roosevelt Institute.

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Daily Digest - December 15: An Uber That Really Is Sharing

Dec 15, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Socialize Uber (The Nation)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert present a way to transform Uber into a company that would truly be part of a "sharing economy": make it a worker cooperative.

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Socialize Uber (The Nation)

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Mike Konczal and Bryce Covert present a way to transform Uber into a company that would truly be part of a "sharing economy": make it a worker cooperative.

My Talk to the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network (On The Economy)

Jared Bernstein gave the keynote at the Campus Network's 10th anniversary party. He's published his talk, which was on the need to combine head and heart in economic policy-making.

Wall Street’s Revenge (NYT)

Paul Krugman says that Wall Street has so heavily funded the Republican party in order to get back on Democrats for Dodd-Frank financial reform, and this spending bill is only the first step.

  • Roosevelt Take: Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Richard Kirsch and Fellow Mike Konczal each wrote about the rollback of Dodd-Frank in the cromnibus last week.

Pension Bill Seen as Model for Further Cuts (WSJ)

John D. McKinnon says some on the left worry that the pension-cutting measure in the spending bill could create precedent for even more pension cuts, possibly even to Social Security.

Obama's Left-Side Headache (Bloomberg Politics)

Margaret Talev and Michael C. Binder suggest that one of the biggest challenges the president will face from the incoming Congress will be from progressives like Senator Warren.

The Devalued American Worker (WaPo)

Jim Tankersley explains how the past three recessions, by breaking previous patterns of post-recession job growth, have cut middle-skill jobs and lowered wages for many.

Thanks to Labor Board Ruling, You Can Now Use Company Email to Organize a Union (In These Times)

Overriding a 2007 decision, the National Labor Relations Board has decided that email functions more like the water cooler than as high-cost company equipment, reports Moshe Z. Marvit.

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Daily Digest - December 10: Young People Want Political Engagement Across the Calendar

Dec 10, 2014Rachel Goldfarb

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Millennials Need to Turnout Every Day, Not Just Election Day (Huffington Post)

Click here to subscribe to Roosevelt First, our weekday morning email featuring the Daily Digest.

Millennials Need to Turnout Every Day, Not Just Election Day (Huffington Post)

Joelle Gamble, National Director of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, argues that young people want to be asked not just to show up to the polls, but to be engaged in the political process year-round.

New York's Signature College Aid Program Turns 40, But Falls Short of Meeting Needs (Gotham Gazette)

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Leadership Director Kevin Stump proposes ways to update New York State's Tuition Assistance Program, which he argues is woefully out of date after 40 years.

Elizabeth Warren's Latest Wall Street Attack Was Her Boldest Yet (TNR)

David Dayen reports on Senator Warren's speech at yesterday's "Managing the Economy" conference, co-sponsored by the Roosevelt Institute. The senator directly attacked Wall Street's influence on financial policy.

Workers at Amazon Warehouses Won't Get Paid for Waiting in Security Lines (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Josh Eidelson reports on the Supreme Court's decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. vs. Busk. The Court held that workers do not have to be paid for time spent waiting for security checks.

Congressional Leaders Hammer Out Deal to Allow Pension Plans to Cut Retiree Benefits (WaPo)

Michael A. Fletcher says retirees on the plans that will be permitted to make unprecedented cuts feel betrayed by this speedy congressional decision.

How Income Inequality Holds Back Economic Growth (AJAM)

A new report examines the significant link between income inequality and slowed economic growth, which cost the U.S. as much as 7 percent of GDP from 1990 to 2010, writes Ned Resnikoff.

New on Next New Deal

Let the Fed Lend Directly to Cities and States to Save Taxpayers Billions

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Saqib Bhatti suggests that allowing the Fed to make long-term loans to municipalities would protect cities from economic crises and promote fair and sustainable development.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 66: How Do We Make the Promise a Reality?

Ariel Smilowitz, Northeast Regional Policy Coordinator for the Campus Network, and Monika Johnson, a member of the Alumni Advisory Committee, call for an expanded approach to human rights, including non-state actors like corporations accepting responsibility.

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 66: How Do We Make the Promise a Reality?

Dec 10, 2014Ariel SmilowitzMonika Johnson

Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

Full implementation of the UDHR isn't a pipe dream, but it will require us to look beyond governments and international institutions.

Sixty-six years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, who is responsible for upholding our most basic rights as humans? And are rights truly universal, or are they relative?

These questions are indelibly inked into the fabric of our economy, society, and political system. Following World War II and the creation of the United Nations, the UDHR represented “the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.” Championed by Eleanor Roosevelt, the widely accepted manifesto built upon the work of her husband, who famously declared that worldwide democracy should be founded upon four essential freedoms.

This primordial soup of rights-based ideology and dialogue resulted in the birth of the United Nations, and subsequently a handful of substantial treaties, frameworks, and guiding principles for our quest to define and maintain human rights globally.  

However, after decades of debate, we have yet to answer the ultimate question: who is responsible for ensuring this productive discourse is transformed into tangible action? Earlier this year, political scientist Stephen Hopgood proclaimed that we have reached “the end of human rights.” Hopgood argued that despite successful recognition of all human beings’ moral equivalence (no minor feat), little has been done to meld regional differences in interpretation and practice. In other words, our attempts to answer the critical question of implementation -- whether through international declarations like the UDHR, conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or the creation of the UN Human Rights Council -- have fallen short.

As we reflect on the anniversary of the UDHR, perhaps it is time for us to reconsider and expand our approach toward human rights. Leaders of the classical human rights movement envisioned a world in which governments agreed on and multilaterally implemented a set of principles. Since that time, we have witnessed immense globalization, putting civil and political rights at odds with economic and social ones while introducing a set of new players, including multinational enterprise.

Consequently, these conventions, declarations, and institutions are not fully equipped to enforce human rights at every level of society. It is necessary for us to be inclusive of all influencers, including the private sector, non-state actors, and other organizations and groups, in order to truly realize a society in which every person can fulfill his or her full potential -- the dream of FDR’s progressivism and Eleanor’s Declaration of Human Rights.

Beyond Institutions: Global Enterprise and Human Rights

If governments and international institutions are unable to police human rights at every level, non-state actors must accept responsibility for integrating dignity into their practices. While vast ground remains to be covered, many companies are taking the lead on assessing their spheres of influence and ensuring their profits do not come at the expense of the choices and livelihoods of others.

One such company is Carlson, a corporation in the hotel and travel industries that works to stop human trafficking crimes. According to the International Labor Organization, 14.2 million people are victims of forced labor exploitation in economic activities worldwide. Despite 90 percent of countries enacting legislation criminalizing human trafficking under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, it persists as tragic but preventable collateral damage of everyday economic and social activity.

Upon realizing that traffickers regularly use the hospitality industry to transport victims, Carlson used the valuable information provided by UNODC to be part of a solution. Now, they train their employees to recognize and report trafficking and have partnered with the State Department to educate travelers on the sexual exploitation of children.

For Ford Motor Company, being a more responsible business wasn’t as simple. Forced labor was buried deep in its supply chain, far from Detroit in Brazil’s charcoal mines, which provide an ingredient in steel production. When slave labor was exposed there in 2006, Ford was purchasing pig iron made from refined charcoal and using it in Cleveland to manufacture cars sold nationwide. The company took action to halt the use of pig iron and ensure its supply chain procured materials responsibly. Today, it collaborates with the State Department, the ILO, and the Brazilian National Pact to eradicate forced labor and improve transparency in manufacturing.

Like Ford’s model, supply chain innovation offers an opportunity for rising leaders to use the economic influence of private business to impact human rights. Both of these companies leveraged their own success to help solve a global problem. They confronted their spheres of influence and were willing to work with partners to develop solutions.

Similarly, Unilever, the maker of products including Dove soap and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, partnered with Oxfam in 2013 on a supply chain analysis of its operations in Vietnam. The partners sought to better understand the implications of the UN Framework for Business and Human Rights and Global Compact Principles on global companies, and to improve conditions for thousands of workers along their manufacturing chain. Oxfam discovered that while Unilever was committed to high labor standards, policies ran only skin deep; Vietnamese managers were not equipped to implement them and lacked internal reporting mechanisms for violations.

Oxfam dissected Unilever’s business practices and concluded that while Unilever still had a long way to go, its positive corporate culture and long-term relationships with suppliers make it well positioned to confront the root causes of labor problems and authentically attempt to solve them.

Unilever, Ford, and Carlson did not sacrifice profits or shareholder obligations. Instead, they participated in a global conversation on human rights -- one aggregated by the UN Global Compact -- and underscored the importance of effective, cross-sector collaboration to reform their own practices.

A New Legacy for Our Generation

Each of these entities demonstrates the many spheres of influence at play in the pursuit of full human rights and dignity for all. What if every company took the same initiative to understand the social repercussions of its actions?

We need to rethink human rights by recognizing the power of our own choices upon others. Everyone is responsible for upholding human rights, whether as a part of your day job or as a member of a community. Seemingly benign actions -- how much you pay your employees or which charities you support -- are manifestations of your own unique interpretation of what dignity and rights mean.  

The UN, NGOs, and other global institutions have provided a priceless platform for dialogue on human rights. Without the consensus-building mechanisms they provide, there would be no Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no “naming and shaming” of human rights abusers, and no coordinated effort to stop the world’s cruelest atrocities.

And yet, as we continue our efforts to avert the "end of human rights," what will our own generation's legacy of implementation be? As this generation rises to power in public and private leadership roles, those at decision-making tables across the spectrum will have an opportunity to think critically about their own actions. The foundation and forums, from the UDHR to the UN Global Compact, certainly exist. Now, it’s up to us to ensure a future in which human rights are celebrated not only at the institutional level, but at a more personal, human level as well.

Ariel Smilowitz is a senior at Cornell University majoring in Government and the Northeast Regional Policy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network.

Monika Johnson is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Alumni Advisory Committee.

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There Will Be Another Michael Brown: Millennial Perspectives on Ferguson [Updated]

Nov 26, 2014

(Last updated Dec. 5, 2014)

In the wake of the announcement that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not stand trial for the shooting death of Michael Brown, members of our Networks shared their views on what's unfolding in Missouri and what it means for us as a nation.

Marissa Charlemagne, Campus Network member and junior at Goucher College:

(Last updated Dec. 5, 2014)

In the wake of the announcement that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not stand trial for the shooting death of Michael Brown, members of our Networks shared their views on what's unfolding in Missouri and what it means for us as a nation.

Marissa Charlemagne, Campus Network member and junior at Goucher College:

I was in a Roosevelt meeting when I heard the news of the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson. As I looked around the room at all the faces, at all the colors of those faces -- black, white, and brown -- there was not a sense of surprise, nor shock, nor sorrow. The room was silent and full of blank expressions. Then one white girl said, “the system does work; it just works for those who it's made for.”

On social media, I saw that people were talking about the riots, about the looting, about the police, and about Michael Brown’s family, but hardly anyone was talking about Michael Brown. We hear the words "institutionalized racism" and "systematic oppression" so much that they lose meaning. Based on our history, there will be another Michael Brown, and there will be another Darren Wilson, but will there be another movement for change? I pray not just for black people but all people; I pray that this world gets it together to see real justice and real peace for all the Michael Browns, and for all the people who are tired of living the struggle. Because I too sing America.

Riley Jones IV, Campus Network member and sophomore at Columbia University:

For many people of this generation, the Ferguson situation highlighted for the first time the supposedly dormant tensions of race and class. For others who come from communities where murder is not an uncommon occurence, myself included, it is simply one further injustice in a system of inherited economic and political oppression. In either case, this should serve not as an excuse to despair, but rather as an impetus to abide by the call that President Theodore Roosevelt -- cousin of our organization's namesake -- lived by: "Get Action." As students and alumni of the world’s best universities, we must do our part to ensure that every citizen has the right and access to opportunity that we have been fortunate enough to receive. Only through displaying our humanity in the gravest of situations, at the climax of our anger and the inexorable depths of our sadness, can we truly overcome the societal infirmities that led to the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri.

Alan Smith, Roosevelt Institute Associate Director of Networked Initiatives:

In a statement Monday night, President Obama said, "There are ways for you to channel your concerns constructively, and there are ways for you to channel your concerns destructively."

With all due respect, Mr. President, there aren't any ways for the people of Ferguson to channel their concerns constructively. After months of peaceful protesting, after being tear gassed and intimidated, after the media has made them out to be hooligans and thugs, after countless pleas for justice (or at least redress), after trying to do everything in their power to stand against a system that is blatant in not valuing them, this community was just told, in no uncertain terms, that all that constructive action and those attempts at dialogue fell on deaf ears.

Please, don't ask them to wait more. Don't ask them to "be constructive." That ball is not in their court. They are mourning, they are scared, and they are hurt. And we've made it very clear to these protesters that nothing they do or say makes even one iota of difference in how this discussion unfolds.

Katie Kirchner, Campus Network member and senior at American University:

In the wake of the Ferguson decision, we have clearly seen how our country's systems serve as tools of oppression. We have also seen how afraid the country is of voices rising from that oppression and using channels outside the system to cry for justice. Newspeople condemn those resisting rather than the police officer who used deadly force on an unarmed child. But the power of those resisting has been beautiful, powerful, and inspiring. I will fight as hard as I can, for as long as it takes, in solidarity with those who refuse to allow this oppression to continue. I will fight for my students, middle school kids from Southeast DC, who have already been victimized by racism and racial profiling. I will fight for my adopted niece and nephew who, I pray, will never have to justify their presence with their family or in their neighborhood. And I will fight because I believe that every single human life has an equal value. No justice, no peace.

Casey McQuillan, Campus Network member and junior at Ahmherst College:

When I watched the announcement that the grand jury had decided not to indict the officer responsible for shooting and killing Michael Brown, I felt outraged. Yet, as a white American, my privilege was to be outraged by the court’s decision while others had to be terrified of it.

As is the case with any discussion of race and discrimination, part of me felt that since I am white, it is not my battle to fight. However, it is exactly this intuition and comfortable inaction that must be changed. Failing to fight for what I believe in is equivalent to taking action against what I believe in.

As the family of Michael Brown urged, let’s ensure that the dialogue on discrimination sparked by the events in Ferguson results in substantive change. Let’s work to translate our words into actions. Let’s make a difference.

Jessica Morris, Campus Network Senior Fellow for Equal Justice and senior at Mount Holyoke College:

The police shooting of Michael Brown and resulting suppression of protesters in Ferguson reflects a testament to racial inequality and a failure in responsible policy. A major response to the unjust death of Michael Brown is to mandate body cams for every police officer in the country. While this policy explicitly responds to the criminal injustice system, I don't think it's a perfect solution; there is too much potential for abuse of the technology. We need just as much accountability with our police officers as in our court system. As Roosevelters, we recognize that progressive change happens best when policy is effective and transformative. Now is our time to respond. 

Andrew Lindsay, Campus Network member and junior at Amherst College:

In Darren Wilson’s grand jury testimony, he describes Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, as a “demon.” After he fired the first shot, Wilson says he noted a “grunting, like aggravated sound” coming from the teenager. Each shot after appeared to make Brown more powerful. The “gentle giant” that Brown’s friends knew was gone, according to Wilson. He explains, “You could tell he was looking through you. There was nothing he was seeing.” After firing 12 rounds, Wilson eventually shot Brown in the head, killing him.

In these descriptions we see less of a teenage boy and more of a vicious animal. Many extrajudicial killings of black people share similar dehumanizing testimony. Policymakers and community members need to shift this pervasive negative narrative. Micro-place community policing is one solution. Programs such as Project Longevity in Connecticut, Operation Ceasefire in Boston, and lesser-known initiatives in Chicago and Cincinnati have all reduced crime and increased police-community relations. Community members not only patrol with police but are considered equal partners. Working closely with residents provides information that can prevent dangerous encounters with police, simply by police intimately knowing community members and their families. There are no demons, just police officers isolated from communities.

Molly Williams, Campus Network member and senior at UNC Chapel Hill:

“Atticus”…said Jem bleakly. “How could they do it, how could they?”

“I don’t know, but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it…seems that only children weep.” – To Kill a Mockingbird

It was difficult to enjoy Thanksgiving this year. It was difficult to enjoy a holiday made possible by white people claiming indigenous bodies and land that did not belong to them. How far we’ve come. White people continue to murder and incarcerate people of color, now in the name of the law. Police officers, primarily white men, who agreed to protect and defend instead continually murder people of color and face no punishment. Racism masked by language like self-defense and “the only option.” 

Yet while it was difficult to enjoy Thanksgiving this year, it was still possible. It was not possible for Michael Brown, for Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Tyisha Miller, Aiyana Jones, Ezell Ford, Pearlie Golden, Orlando Barlow, Jordan Davis, Erica Collins, and countless other people of color murdered at the hands of white men, primarily police officers. I cannot speak for them, but I imagine it was impossible for their families as well, seated around tables with an empty chair.

“It was difficult to enjoy Thanksgiving this year” – a clever rephrasing of white guilt and another product of a racist system.

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Artisanal Millennials and the Resurrection of Free Labor Ideology

Nov 25, 2014Brit Byrd

Millennial's rising preferences for artisanal, local, and genuine products must not minimize the importance of wage labor in the economy.

In July, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight summarized the state of the minimum wage debate in one grand old super-cut of sound bytes. To top off repeated invocations of “class war!” Senator Marco Rubio croons that “We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves. Of people who have made it and people who will make it.”

Millennial's rising preferences for artisanal, local, and genuine products must not minimize the importance of wage labor in the economy.

In July, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight summarized the state of the minimum wage debate in one grand old super-cut of sound bytes. To top off repeated invocations of “class war!” Senator Marco Rubio croons that “We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves. Of people who have made it and people who will make it.”

Putting aside Oliver’s observation that this statement “makes no sense – economically, mathematically, or even grammatically,” it is nonetheless very informative of the ideology behind the resistance to raising the minimum wage.

Rubio’s rhetoric is an ideological descendent of “free labor ideology,” a defining tenet of the Republican Party before the Civil War. Made famous by historian Eric Foner in his seminal work, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, free labor ideology stood vigorously against the economic dependence of one individual on another.

Although this ideology admirably stood in opposition to slavery, it predated the industrial revolution and thus developed a strange relationship with the rise of the non-propertied, yet emancipated, wage-earning class. When the wage earner was introduced to the dichotomy between the slave and the propertied man, the ideal citizen of free labor ideology remained “a farmer or independent mechanic,” with wage labor on the outside looking in.

In Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Foner observes that although the progenitor of capitalism, Adam Smith, had “seen intractable class divisions as an inevitable consequence of economic development,” across the ocean, thinkers and politicians held that “in America, wage labor was a temporary status, and 'laborers for hire do not exist as a class.'”

Eventually, after a grand period of nation building, the industrial revolution, and the progressive movement, wage labor was recognized beyond this transitory status.

But even the most casual observer of American politics knows of the continued ubiquity of the “self-made man” in the political lexicon. Although less blatant, the specific image of the homestead also remains inappropriately fixed in our collective political imagination – and not just with Marco Rubio, but also amongst Millennials who may consider themselves committed progressives.

Weighing in on what is and isn’t “Millennial” has been the media’s fetish for quite awhile now, but earlier this year the Pew Research Center threw some fresh meat into the otherwise overcooked discussion. Their report, “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology” identified a “next generation left” that was six times more likely than traditional liberals to agree with the statement “blacks who can’t get ahead are responsible for their own condition.”

The headlines wrote themselves: Millennials are libertarians, Millennials have abandoned the state, seven gifs that show how Millennials are racist, and so on. Amongst the dreck, an exceptional column in The New York Times by Anand Giridharadas distinguishes this anti-institutional vogue as a personal reaction against impersonal big-box capitalism, not a political reaction. In his most potent example, “the locally foraged mushrooms on menus in Brooklyn … are a small-scale elite secession from the ways of ruthless global trade, not a political resistance of it.“

Giridharadas contrasts this urban farm-to-table fascination with the more familiar, anti-state views we see from the right, which are “anchored in rural life.” Yet his local-mushrooms example is his most potent because it hints effectively at an actual connection between this millennial angst and the very old image of bucolic self-sufficiency. It is not just the newfangled app-tech craze of Uber and Venmo driving this reaction, but also a very organic, homestead aesthetic.

In fact, this visual connection has already been made explicit. Look no further than Portlandia’s revised anthem for the city that so infamously exaggerates our generation: the “dream of the 1890s is alive [in Portland].” As front man Fred Armisen notes, remember when “everyone was pickling their own vegetables and brewing their own beer?”

Now obviously, Portlandia is an exaggeration of a particular trend. But this compulsion towards the “genuine” and “artisanal” does permeate our current moment. Not every child of the late 60s was at Woodstock or burning draft cards, but it would be specious to suggest that such cultural touchstones did not and do not affect the generational perspective.

Ultimately, Portlandia’s invocation of the 1890s is cruelly apropos, given that we are now living in what many refer to casually as a “New Gilded Age.” Giridhadaras’ take that, “though some [millennials] may fight it, they cannot, in the main, escape Amazon and its cutthroat brand of capitalism,” is similar to the dominance of industrial tycoons in the late 19th century that overshadowed even the state.

Farm-to-table fascination represents a welcome political-cultural rebellion against the big box, but it shares an aesthetic with the free labor ideology that lifts Senator Rubio’s rhetoric and head into the clouds.

To finish Portlandia’s anthem, front woman Carrie Brownstein notes of 2014 Portland, “it’s like President McKinley was never assassinated.” As a nation, we were lucky enough to have none other than President Theodore Roosevelt fill McKinley’s shoes and plant the seeds of the Progressive Movement that his fifth cousin would later go on to solidify in the New Deal.

Millennials must be careful to not let fascination with the artisan keep them rooted in an era before Roosevelt. This reevaluation of authenticity is, on the whole, a welcome development . But now, just as in the 1890s, the frontier has closed and wage labor is a pressing political, economic, and quotidian reality.

Brit Byrd is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow for Economic Development and a senior at Columbia University.

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Leadership Wanted: Governor Cuomo, Homeless Students Need College Support

Nov 20, 2014Kevin Stump

For homeless youth to make it through college, they need extra support, best provided through a government program of homeless liaisons.

For homeless youth to make it through college, they need extra support, best provided through a government program of homeless liaisons.

New York has been among the top 10 states with unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY) filing for federal financial aid for the last three years. In a private report to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, the United States Department of Education, reports that there were 2,215 college students applying for financial aid in New York who indicated on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid that they were homeless last year. This number does not include undocumented youth who are not eligible to apply for federal or state aid.

Unfortunately, these students are often left behind. It wasn’t until last year that New York changed an extremely outdated component of its $1 billion Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) that updated this 40-year-old in-state need-based financial aid program. The change made it so UHY are now eligible for the maximum TAP award of $5,165 that Dependent students are eligible for, versus the maximum TAP award of $3,025 available to Independent students.

In addition to outdated laws that limit the amount of aid they can receive, UHY face a number of other challenges including food insecurity, a lack of adult guidance and support, failure to access available support systems, lack of access to parental financial information, limited housing options, and a lack of financial means to live independently and safely.

New York should create a policy that models the federal McKinney-Vento Act on a college level. This landmark piece of legislation successfully creates safety nets and institutional support structures for K-12 students. By law, every school district in the country, and every school building in New York City, is required to have a liaison who is responsible for coordinating support and resources for homeless and unaccompanied youth. Every year, liaisons are required to undergo training to stay current on best practices to support and assist homeless students. Furthermore, their work has given lawmakers data and information on the best ways to support these communities.

There are more than 130,000 K-12 homeless students in New York. Among those students, nearly 11,000 11th and 12th graders approaching the end of their high school careers. These are only the numbers that are reported and do not account for the possibility of additional students who are in need.

Given the number of colleges and universities, the number of community based organizations and support networks that exist, and the high-level of poverty in New York, the state has the potential to become a leader in creating a framework of how states should build support systems for unaccompanied homeless youth to access and succeed in college.

Governor Cuomo should initiate the policy process to develop a law requiring a homeless liaison at every brick-and-mortar college and university in the state, to ensure that all former McKinney-Vento students are supported during their transition into college and throughout their tenure until graduation. The homeless liaison would be the first point of contact for professionals working with these young people and for the students who experience, or who are at risk of experiencing, homelessness while at college. The liaison would also be charged with coordinating all needed services. In addition, the liaison would be responsible for tracking and reporting all relevant data to help inform future policy regarding homeless college students and develop greater support services.

This kind of support and data-gathering could potentially exist without legislation. However, this issue is a prime example of where the state could do it better and more comprehensibly. With legislative protections and teeth to ensure sustainable and uniformed support is given, as well as appropriate resources for service delivery, training, technology, data collection, and future statewide policy initiatives, the liaisons will be able to provide better support to UHY in college. A statewide policy setting up liaisons would establish an infrastructure that can be used to easily implement future policy.

As economic inequality and homelessness rates remain high, and college attainment continues to be so crucial, it’s critical that New York take action to protect our most at-need college students to ensure that those who are pursuing their dreams don’t slip through the cracks.

Kevin Stump is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Leadership Director.


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Expand Registration Efforts on Campus to Increase Youth Turnout

Nov 10, 2014Megan Ernst

A little-known provision of the Higher Education Act which creates a federal obligation for colleges to help with voter registration could be a key for youth turnout efforts.

A little-known provision of the Higher Education Act which creates a federal obligation for colleges to help with voter registration could be a key for youth turnout efforts.

After a disappointing election night, it’s time to start thinking about the effects of the collective decision our country has made. Despite the importance of Tuesday’s election for determining the direction of policy for the next two years and setting the tone for the 2016 presidential campaign, youth turnout was low – as it almost always is. Youth aged 18 to 29 made up only 13 percent of this year’s voting electorate, even though we represent nearly double that percentage of the population. Additionally, approximately half of 18-year-olds aren’t registered to vote.

Understanding and increasing youth turnout has been the topic of many policy papers and op-eds. The problem is twofold – we must register young voters in higher numbers, and then increase the number who show up to vote. Here’s the difference: often, it’s adults pushing registration and get out the vote efforts on newly eligible voters. What if, instead, we took the initiative to encourage our peers, create policy, and hold institutions accountable in order to get more youth engaged, registered, and voting?

Colleges have a federal obligation to “make the voter registration forms widely available to your students and distribute the forms individually to your degree or certificate program students who are physically in attendance at your institution.” If every “covered institution” made the broadest effort under this provision of the Higher Education Act, they would make sure every student at that university or community college was provided a voter registration form and the necessary instructions to complete it. Universities could also make registration change forms readily available to students who registered to vote in their parents’ district, but would prefer to vote in their school’s district. This would minimize the burden of voting on students as they could fulfill their voting responsibilities locally.

Here’s the first thing students can do: If students think their institution falls under this requirement, they should make sure it is fulfilling its obligation to its student body. If not, they should talk to administrators to try to find out what more the college or university can do.

In the state of Georgia, individuals are eligible to register to vote six months before they turn 18. Given the age range of most entering college freshmen, schools could provide voter registration forms at college and university orientation, as well as a time and place to complete the form and return it for mailing. This is such a simple policy change at the university level that could have significant impact. If students can prove to colleges that they are required to do this, and that they can fulfill this obligation in one fell swoop at orientation, why wouldn’t they?

Even if colleges have responsibilities to their students regarding registration, these institutions don’t necessarily provide unique opportunities to increase voting. Countless student organizations, nonprofits, and campaigns run get out the vote efforts on campuses, but universities themselves aren’t doing anything to increase turnout. Colleges could take responsibility for providing absentee ballot request forms in the same manner that they provide registration forms.

Some states provide special voting provisions for college students. Pennsylvania offers emergency absentee ballots for voters who could not apply for an absentee ballot by the regular deadline. One of the qualifications for receiving an emergency ballot is status as a college student. These ballot requests must be placed by the Friday before Election Day. States could help students (and other voters) apply for absentee ballots online, minimizing the burden on young voters to participate in this process.

Another chance to speak up: Students should talk to their colleges about what opportunities exist on their campuses to make voting easier. Students can help administrators devise or improve plans to offer absentee ballot request forms for students and could also develop policy proposals to take to their state government that argue for broader options in applying for absentee ballots.

Not all youth are in college, though, and a majority of engagement efforts targeting this demographic focus on college campuses. Even though there is significant room for improvement in those initiatives, we must also look at broader policy that could reach every eligible youth. The state of California opened online voter registration for one month before this year’s election. Though it was only open for a short time, the results are “striking.” Online registration appeared popular with all voters, but young voters in particular utilized this new method of registration. Thirty percent of online registrants were under 25, and this led to an eight percent increase in turnout in that age bracket.

Time for another action step: Roosevelt Institute Campus Network members should write policy proposals to bring online voter registration to their states. California’s success is an important metric to show lawmakers and stakeholders in other states that this form of registration is a viable option.

Colleges have historically been hotbeds of political activity and activism. It’s time to capitalize on the enthusiasm of young students and translate that into votes. Additionally, we should spread the spirit of political engagement on college campuses to youth outside the ivory tower. We need to be inclusive when it comes to youth registration and voting efforts, targeting nonstudent youth through statewide efforts. Expanding registration efforts, which by necessity involves talking to young people about voting, will make a big difference on Election Day 2016.

Megan Ernst, a senior at the University of Georgia studying journalism, political science, and public administration, serves as the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s Senior Fellow for Education.

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With This Political Scene, Millennial Turnout Isn't a Surprise

Nov 6, 2014Alan Smith

Millennials aren't engaged in the current model of partisan politics, but true networks of engagement would bring far more young people into the political fold.

Millennials aren't engaged in the current model of partisan politics, but true networks of engagement would bring far more young people into the political fold.

As pundits predicted (Nate Silver really has taken the drama out of election returns) the Republicans swept to a classic 6th year victory, winning senate and gubernatorial majorities on the backs of disillusionment with Obama and low turnout across the board. Also as predicted, young voters’ share of the electorate dropped: from 19 percent in 2012 to 13 percent this year. This pretty much mirrors the turnout in the last two midterm elections, and we can safely call this a trend in Millennial political engagement.

I'm not going to spend time trying to debunk the notion of Millennials as lazy or disengaged. I don't buy those narratives, either anecdotally or statistically, but what's important today is that we've seen the confirmation of a very dangerous trend: this moment of low turnout is perfectly in line with an all-time low in people's faith in our institutions of government.  If what we want from voting is for people to engage more with the rules that govern their lives, we need to make the process of engaging much more meaningful that what currently passes as voting.

I can't blame us, either. The connection between voting and positive change has never been so tenuous. The elimination of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has opened the door for disenfranchisement movements around the country, and there will be more felons prevented from voting in Georgia then the entire Alaskan electorate (who, by the way, still got to pick a senator). Money, as the Daily Show observed, pretty roundly trumped ideas in this election. Even worse, zooming further out reveals a federal government that seems pathologically incapable of doing anything at all. Why should we care that the senate swung red, or a congressional seat remained blue? We have passionate debates about global warming, about immigration, and about how to fix a healthcare system and an economy that both leave out large numbers of Americans, but when we get to the ballot box those debates seem very removed. How do you know if your vote is a vote for a carbon cap-and-trade program, or against gun control? You don't, and you can't, because the systems that govern our democracy are simply not that responsive.

While I've heard plenty of arguments that yes, this is how representative democracy is supposed to work, it seems to me that we risk a generation of voters systemically having their worst fears and cynicism (and thus disengagement) re-enforced by real results.

It's a real problem. So what? 

My title at the Roosevelt Institute is “Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.” I often end up trying to explain to people what, exactly, that means. Sometimes I'm not sure myself. But if we know that traditional institutions - from Beltway politics to social structures - are crumbling, then how can we take that knowledge and make something positive from it?  So the challenge of my position at Roosevelt is to figure out how organizations that already exist, and those that are starting every day, can work independently while being a part of a network.

In this, there is a vision for how we think about political parties. Not as top down institutions, but as networks of people who support and push each other toward social change, and then are moved to vote as a part of the process they are already engaged in.  

We know that Millennials are civically minded from extensive polling. We are interested in starting our own organizations, and are passionate about many issues. This is not, simply put, a generation that has checked out on change. We're running divestment campaigns, we're starting non-profits, and we're throwing ourselves into the breach as teachers. But with so much re-inventing of the wheel, the Millennial generation's activism is not reaching the scale that we need.

For our Federal government to work at all, we need people to buy in as voters. We need people to show up, to use voting as a starting point, and to assist on projects for the greater good. What if, instead of looking for people to joining the organizations that already exist to build to federal levels of power, we were looking instead for an affiliation of organizations? We are, at this point in our technological history, capable of communications structures and consensus building that is far more complex and more nuanced than it has ever been. And we're also at a point where simply repeating the same tired political process is not just not working, it's actively driving people away.

I am not suggesting creating a loose coalition of organizations, where people sign off on national legislation, or add their votes to other people's petitions. Roosevelt is a network in the sense of communicating between different nodes: active sharing of ideas and information and resources, as well as shared problem solving, to go along with the combined sense of purpose, and shared values. Imagine with me, a party that recruited organizations that already existed, without trying to change their mission. Education organizations, environmental groups, crowdfunding platforms, and better business bureaus with a shared set of values, sharing their work and collaborating with each other. Imagine a network, in the truest sense, that takes what is the same about local problems and elevates the core issues to a national platform, while giving each local group the agency to tackle things the way they need to be tackled. Instead of making voting the core part of how we engage as active citizens, let's make it an end product for engaged people who realize that they've reached the logical end of what they can do locally, and thus need to pass some power up the chain to a Federal government that is ready and waiting. 

There was a glimmer of this process in last night, with organizations that were able to move important issues like minimum wage hikes in Nebraska and South Dakota and soda taxes in Berkeley. A network of organizations that supports local groups, finds candidates that share similar values, and passes on best practices? That sounds like a network that Millennials are already engaged in.

Today, America is angry at Millennials for not voting. Instead, I would suggest that we should be angry at an American government that has passed on actual democratic principles in exchange for the consolidation of power. I think Millennials are smart enough to see this, and that we're building different civic infrastructures, some of which will eventually grow to scale. 

Could political parties be one of these things? Maybe. But they would need to embrace the grassroots, and stop worrying so much if that means getting some grass stains on their message. 

Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.

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