The New America Foundation was founded in 1999 with an ambition to invest in “new thinkers and new ideas” and tackle the next generation of challenges facing the United States. Which new ideas will you be focusing on?
I’m not taking the job because I want to pursue specific ideas of my own. I am going to be spending six months figuring out what we should be doing.
We already have lots of programs, on fiscal policy, foreign policy, education and technology — including the Open Technology Institute, which has the best group of technologists in Washington. They actually write code, working on developing products that help dissident or opposition groups in very repressive states communicate with each other and with the outside world. In national security, we have drafted a grand strategy of leading a transition to a sustainable world. We also have a program on work and family, and I plan to build it up.
But if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s lead from the center, not from the front.
There’s been a huge increase in the number of think tanks over the past 50 years, and many are becoming more active as advocacy organizations. How do you plan to distinguish New America from, say, Heritage on the right and Brookings on the left?
This is one of the things that attracted me to this job. We really are nonpartisan. We look for big ideas that meet big challenges, and we don’t care which side of the political aisle they come from. We are not a think tank that has a whole lot of institutes and centers and legacy programs that you have to fund. We aim to be much more nimble, on the Silicon Valley model. We are an incubator of ideas; we nurture them and then spin off a program or more direct policy work.
Take the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget run by Maya MacGuineas. It grew in size and influence while housed at the foundation for the past 10 years and was recently spun off as an independent organization. Or the ideas fostered through our 20 senior fellows, like Gregory Rodriguez. He went on to found Zocalo in L.A., a public space for civic community that explores what it means to be a citizen. It’s a separate organization. We’ve come back to partner with it, but it’s no longer ours.
Think tanks have been called “universities without students.” Will you miss academic life?
The thing I will miss the most are the students. But a large part of teaching is mentoring young people, and I will continue to do that in Washington. The staff of New America is very young.
But my life has evolved away from academia. Princeton doesn’t have a law school, and I’m not comfortable in the contemporary political science space. So I felt it was time to move to a different way of connecting ideas to policy. Our fellows program means we can identify academics who have important ideas that need to be injected into the policy space.
We first met more than 20 years ago, and you’ve always pushed yourself hard. But you don’t have to do it all, right? There’s a lot of choice in this.
How could I start this conversation and not continue it? I accept probably one in five of the invitations that have poured in — from government organizations, corporations, women’s groups, as well as a whole set of global invitations.
New America is one of the few places that will let me combine my own work on foreign policy and social policy while empowering talented individuals to generate ideas and policies to actually make change.
At New America, I will probably be traveling less. I plan to be in D.C. a couple of days a week. I will also be in New York — that’s a day trip for me — where New America has an event space. And I’ll be working from home one day a week.
The thing that is most important is to make my own schedule, to be my own boss, so that if my kids have activities or if I need to go off to see colleges, I can do that. I think it’s going to be a much more predictable life.
My kids are quite excited. They say, “It’s beast.”
Ms. Slaughter will become President of NAF effective September 1, 2013. In the meantime, Rachel White, Executive Vice President and Director of External Relations, will serve as NAF's Interim President.