Editor's note: This is the latest profile in Kelsey Whipple's ongoing series highlighting local political activists.
For anyone who's ever seen Rushmore, Steve Fenberg's college experience makes him sound like a much better-adjusted Max Fischer. "I started a lot of clubs and stuff," he says modestly of his experience at CU-Boulder -- a place where, more importantly, he took on one of his earliest roles in politics.
It was not a glamorous one: As a representative of the university's student government, Fenberg served "when the bottom fell out," he says, referring to the mid-2000s, during which the state could no longer sustain many major construction projects and the student government was asked to increase student fees to fund new law, art and business buildings on campus. In exchange for doing so, school reps made demands in return, requiring that the new additions be LEED-certified and that the construction workers who completed them be paid prevailing wages and offered health-care and union opportunities.
"It just really struck me that all of this was possible through politics," Fenberg remembers. "We made our demands, and we worked to see them through. I won't forget that."
As a child growing up in Toledo and then Dayton, Ohio, Fenberg learned about politics from his father, a family practice doctor, and his mother, a former teacher. Every election cycle, his mother visited her party headquarters to pick up its official literature before walking door-to-door to promote its candidate, bringing Fenberg with her throughout the Clinton campaign. Until his teens, "I assumed that's what everyone's family did," Fenberg says. Today, his parents donate monthly to New Era, and during the 2008 election, his older brother worked for New Era for months. "I thought everyone learned about politics like that."
When he realized he was wrong, an older Fenberg, armed with a degree in environmental studies (and a minor in peace and justice studies), remained focused on educating youth about politics. As a new graduate, Fenberg founded New Era Colorado in late 2006 to immerse young people in "hands-on democracy," Fenberg says, to teach them to take on roles in Colorado politics. "Young people do play a role in politics, but mostly through free labor, this kind of bullshit stuff," Fenberg says. "We wanted to show them they can do more."
The group grew out of a generous but strict early grant that matched all donations its founder and five others struggled to raise. Early brainstorming began with the concept of constructing a sort of AARP for young people, but "we didn't want it to be this thing where you get a membership card in the mail so feel like you're a part of something," Fenberg says. "We wanted feet on the ground."
So they launched New Era, named after their inspiration, the progressive era of U.S. history, in the hope of creating a follow-up in the future. Within three years, they started New Era Colorado and the New Era Colorado Foundation, a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4), respectively, without knowing how to run a nonprofit or fundraise to make it sustainable. This did not stop them, though.
"That first year, there was a moment where I thought I might quit," Fenberg says, "but once we made the decision to become what we thought we should, not focus on all these expectations others had for us, that all changed. Our main goal has always been not to make politics fun, but to make fun political. It can't be this old boys' club."
The most common misconceptions about New Era concern its size: Most people mistake it for either a student group or a local branch of a national organization, Fenberg says. Managed by two boards of directors, many of whom are former employees, New Era takes on three cycles of interns a year and has registered 35,000 Colorado voters on its own during its six-year history. In 2008, 90 percent of those people actually turned up at the polls. This year, organizers hope to register 20,000 young people. To reach these numbers, New Era has made a creative name for itself in local political outreach through annual trick-or-vote parties, MTV Cribs-style educational videos and other inventive efforts.
"We don't see ourselves competing with other campaigns or orgs to get attention from youth," Fenberg says. "We see ourselves competing with Xbox and concerts."
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From its original location at Colfax and York, New Era moved a handful of times before settling into its current space on Humboldt downtown. Organizers follow a literal open-door policy: In a two-story building decorated with action fliers and inspirational white boards, both constituents and stray cats stop in throughout the day. As the forthcoming presidential election approaches, the number of employees inside the building will expand to approximately twelve people, double its usual six.
Inside the headquarters' front conference room, behind a Mac laptop covered in stickers, Fenberg recounts some of New Era's greatest accomplishments to date: In 2010, one of New Era's intern classes drafted and passed a bill to facilitate online voter registration. In the less than two years since, 200,000 people have been registered to vote through the possibilities it enabled, Fenberg estimates. In 2011, the group came ahead by 200 votes in a Boulder campaign against Xcel energy to create a publicly run utility program.
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Today, former employees and interns work for members of Congress in Washington, D.C. and for senators at the national and state levels. They're running for offices of their own. In the near future, New Era will branch from its Boulder and Denver hubs into Greeley, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Durango. In five years, Fenberg hopes the organization will have worked to cement a cohesive and user-friendly model for voter registration across the state.
But Fenberg's first year in business, still uncertain and unprepared, created his favorite memory of New Era to date: During the organization's annual retreat in the mountains, staff members asked interns if they had ever done anything political before (no) before eliciting their reasons for volunteering (because they had been asked). "Here were these people who had never done anything political in their entire lives, and the reason they started now was because we had asked them," Fenberg recalls. "We hear all this talk about how youth cannot be depended on at the polls, but all we have to do is ask."
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More from our Politics archive: "Eleanor Dewey of Colorado Anti-Violence Program on the power of the (young) people."