What Makes Arena Academy Different

July 08, 2019

In November of last year, shortly after the midterm elections, we announced a new program, Arena Academy, aimed at training 1,000 campaign staffers for 2020.

We’ve held two academies and trained nearly 350 graduates so far. Those graduates represent 37 states plus D.C., and the majority identify as women and people of color. They are aspiring Campaign Managers, Organizing Directors, Digital Directors, Data Directors, Finance Directors, Communications Directors, and Organizers. Many have already landed jobs on campaigns, and hundreds more will get trained and join races this fall.

We had 1,048 applicants to the first two Academies. As Academy graduates join campaigns across the country and we open space for hundreds more applicants, we thought it would be helpful to share a bit about what makes our program different.

Here are the four key tenets of our approach: 

1. Empower leaders. 

For far too long, we have failed to treat being a campaign staffer as a “real job.” We dismiss campaign staff as people who should work long hours for little pay, with very little professional support. The effort to maximize every dollar raised has been used as an excuse for this approach. As a result, staffers typically complete one or maybe two cycles, before leaving campaign work for a “real career.” The brain drain perpetuates a cycle in which institutional knowledge is lost and expertise is centralized in a very small pool of consultants. Staff continue to simply take marching orders, because no one has invested in their continued professional development (unless they happen to get lucky enough to find a mentor along the way, as I did). But at the end of the day, it is the Campaign Managers and their leadership teams who are responsible for managing a campaign’s budget and executing a strategy to win. At Arena, we believe they should also be empowered to write it.

That’s why we are building a training program that focuses on developing leaders who will assume senior roles and put their skills to use not just in 2020, but for election cycles to come.

It’s also why, regardless of the role for which they are training, all participants at Arena Academy receive training in unconscious bias, management, and emerging insights from political science. We believe effective leaders set the tone, create culture, unlock the potential of their teams, and make data-informed decisions. There is a saying that goes, “How we do anything is how we do everything.” And at Academy, we train by that principle.

We’re not just training foot soldiers who will execute on a plan; we are training strategists and leaders who will build the teams that bring those plans to life.

At the first Arena Academy in Des Moines, our 2018 candidates, including Lauren Underwood and Lina Hidalgo, spoke with attendees about Running to Win.

2. Be inclusive.

The Democratic Party is diverse—we are comprised of people from various educational backgrounds, ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, ages, religious faiths, geographic locations, cultures, abilities, and incomes. Our diversity is a tremendous strength. With diversity comes more empathy, creativity, wisdom, and power. But historically, campaign staffers have not reflected this diversity.

The ubiquitous use of the unpaid internship as the primary entry-point for a career in politics, coupled with the low salaries, long hours, and the implicit biases of hiring managers, have exacerbated the reality of a profession that has been largely white and male for decades.

At Arena, we cannot solve for all of these challenges, but we can begin to steer the ship by (1) offering staff training that is inclusive and accessible, and (2) training the next generation of campaign leaders to do things differently.

The full cost of registration for our five-day Academy is $300, which is hundreds and even thousands of dollars less than other comparable programs. It does not cover for the actual cost-per-trainee to Arena, but it does offset our overall investment in the Academy program and helps to cover our venue costs. Perhaps more importantly, we have offered need-based scholarships to 48% of our trainees to date. Those scholarships vary depending on need, but the full scholarships include waving the registration fee and paying for travel and lodging. So far, 77% of our scholarship recipients have identified as people of color. For our next Academy, we’re increasing our scholarship program by $15,000. 

Full scholarships cover hotel, travel, and registration. The participant pays $0 to attend the Academy. Partial scholarships cover hotel and registration.

When it comes to our curriculum, nearly a full day is focused on inclusive and equitable hiring and management practices (shout out to our partners at The Management Action Center), and our fall Academies will include a new session on running campaigns with progressive values, in which we explore topics like disability inclusion, developing strong sexual harassment policies, and creating safe work environments.

Dr. Kira Banks leads a training on implicit bias at the Des Moines Academy.

3. Learn by doing.

It might sound obvious, but we are sick and tired of trainings that talk at you. We know that people learn the most through experience, practice, observation, and immersion. So while we have plenty of theory for Arena Academy trainees, our focus is largely on practical application and adaptation of key concepts.

We create conditions for learning through collective problem-solving and teamwork. While we strive to make every training session as experiential as possible, there is no better example than the Arena Cup, a 24-hour competition at the culmination of Arena Academy. In this simulation, trainees are assigned to interdisciplinary teams with one representative from each track. They are given a fictional candidate, a real district, and a district profile with real data. Then, they have one day to come up with a campaign plan that they will present before a group of their peers and a panel of expert judges on the final day of the Academy. The teams are scored in four key areas: strategy, creativity, alignment, team work. They are also assessed on how well they integrate data and digital and how effectively they leverage emerging insights from research. We have seen amazing things from our participants so far. You can read more about one graduate’s experience here, and hear from the team that won the Charleston Arena Cup here.

4. Foster creativity. 

Finally, for the least-talked-about-thing-in-politics…creativity. This matters so much, and yet we acknowledge its importance so infrequently. Campaigns take place in noisy environments. Everyday, voters are inundated with messages in their inboxes, mailboxes, on social media, and on TV. Most of what campaigns spend their money on just contributes to the din. Moreover, it has negligible effects on who votes and for whom voters cast their ballots. This is particularly true for presidential elections

If we want to win in 2020, we need to design campaigns to be the signal in the noise. We need creative, fresh approaches to reaching, engaging, and persuading voters. We need to re-examine the act of campaigning not as marketing, but as the craft of building and scaling relationships. We need practitioners to know the science, so they can build on what works, throw out what doesn’t, and pilot new, more innovative approaches. This is the only way we will learn and improve.

The best candidate with all the money in the world, all the right tools, and all the right technologies cannot win alone. It takes people. It’s time we invested in them. 

We’re reimagining the way campaigns are run. We hope you’ll join us in this work. Apply to our next AcademyDonate. Or help us spread the word.