Earlier this month, Stanford in Government (SIG) — the Haas Center-affiliated, non-partisan organization that is one of the largest student groups on campus — named economics major Olivia Martin ’19 as its chair for the 2018-19 school year. The Daily sat down with Martin to discuss her history in SIG, her goals for the organization and its role in Stanford’s political climate.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you get involved in Stanford in Government, and what has been your experience with it over the years?
Olivia Martin (OM): I’ve always been interested in policy, and I was getting the feeling that in my freshman dorm I wouldn’t be able to have the kind of policy conversations that I was hoping to have. Then, I swung by SIG one of the first weeks and I instantly found that one, this is such a huge community, and two, it was a legitimately nonpartisan organization. I’d gone to Admit Weekend at other schools and all I’d found were these hyper-political debate organizations, but I’d never seen anything that was like SIG.
My freshman year, I was on the brand-new committee of community service, which Alexis Kallen ’18, the current SIG chair, started. I was interested in that because I’d done a lot of community service in high school. I saw a lot of gaps in policy that were filled in by non-profits, but I was really interested in the relationship between the two.
My sophomore year, I took over for that group in SIG, becoming the Director of Community Service. But that year was also the 2016 presidential election, and there was no official committee in SIG for voter services or voter registration. So it ended up being the Community Service Committee that led all of SIG’s voter registration activities.
TSD: Is there a project or event in particular that pushed you to take on this leadership role as chair?
OM: Sophomore year, I was helping SIG’s Get Out the Vote efforts. That was when Libby Scholz ’17 was chair, and she was my mentor in a lot of ways. She was really the one who inspired me to see the issues there were with student voting, and she was the one who pushed me to take on a role that was bigger than just my assigned role and lead those efforts. That was really an exciting and tumultuous time in SIG, and I learned a lot about students who were not in SIG and what their attitudes towards voting and politics were through lots of conversation and tabling and going from dorm to dorm.
I also learned a lot about how many barriers there are to student voting that I want to address with SIG. For example, for many states it is a huge process just to request an absentee ballot, and to send in your absentee ballot you need to have a notary present to sign and swear an oath that the process was legitimate. So I think that opened up the idea for me that SIG can do a lot more to support student voters.
TSD: Is that something that you’re looking forward to implementing more in SIG next year?
OM: Yes, definitely. Right now I’m the director of general events, but as chair, the midterm elections this fall is definitely a huge thing I have on my mind as something for SIG to work on and for SIG to be a leading force on campus.
TSD: You’ve talked about coming into Stanford and wanting to do humanities and you also worked at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR). Do you think SIG has changed your academic path?
OM: Yes, I think that SIG definitely did change that. Especially because it gave me the opportunity to have my first policy experience. The summer after freshman year I did a SIG fellowship at the California Department of Education, and that was a huge experience for me. I was working hands-on in policy in the room where they were making huge policy decisions for 10 million students. I think that getting a taste of that hands-on experience made me realize that policy is what I wanted to do, both at Stanford and after Stanford.
TSD: Fellowships and stipends are a core part of SIG – what are some of the best opportunities you’ve seen students take advantage of and what are some of your ideas for the future?
OM: [The] Fellowships [team] is doing extraordinary work – we are almost offered more fellowships than we have the manpower to maintain. Just this year, I was helping to interview applicants for two fellowships: the Office of Management and Budget and the Council of Economic Advisors, two new fellowships. We are adding new fellowships, and we offer some of the most substantive experiences in fellowships and stipends. But I do think one area we can continue to improve is to make sure our fellowships are getting out to more of campus.
One thing I am hoping to work on is increasing the diversity of our fellowships. For example, we’re hoping to partner with CS+Social Good to add one or two more tech policy fellowships and engage more of the STEM part of campus with policy. Getting people who are so bright and who have these technical skills interested in policy is something that I would love for SIG to take on next year.
TSD: Something that you touched on is how people outside of SIG view SIG. Do you see issues or places for improvement with the group’s perception?
OM: I think different groups have different views of SIG. In terms of STEM groups, maybe they see SIG as a place for just political science majors who just want to have bickering, political debates, which I think is pretty inaccurate. Just this quarter I hosted an event with SUAVE (Stanford Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Enthusiasts, Engineers and Entrepreneurs) about drone policy, and we had a panel of five experts.
In terms of the political spectrum, I’m sure that people on the left think that we are bland and centrist, and people on the right probably think we are liberals pretending to be nonpartisan. So that might be the view from different sides of campus.
TSD: That was something that was brought up by SIG at the beginning of the year, about being more nonpartisan. Do you foresee any improvements on that end?
OM: Definitely. Something that I am most excited about has been Public Policy Forum’s efforts to start on-campus debates. I’ve talked to people in College Republicans and Democrats, and it seems that these debates are one avenue for SIG to start encouraging civil discourse on campus. In particular, I attended the tax policy debate and I thought that was a really refreshing and constructive conversation, and I would love for SIG to be the center of more conversations like that.
I think there are new, innovative events that we are trying out. For example, this weekend, we have partnered up with SIEPR to bring the [California housing crisis] Policy Hackathon. And I think that is nonpartisan, there is no right way to solve this issue, and people from any side of the spectrum can come and present their idea, and what we want is the best one. I think that having these creative approaches to conversation and solution-making are ways that SIG can continue to improve being nonpartisan, a center for civil discourse, and just a more impactful organization on campus.
TSD: As far as your vision with SIG, is there anything else that you foresee SIG accomplishing next year?
OM: I think the main areas of focus are continuing to search for creative ways that we can be a center of civil discourse on campus, and also just being more innovative about how we harness more of the energy on campus. There is a lot of energy about activism on campus and SIG has started to try and tap into that more. For example, we were at the gun control rally trying to register voters. Or another example, this spring, Special Events is doing an amazing event with Alicia Garza, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. So that is another area of improvement: trying to engage the question of what is the intersection between activism and policy, and how can SIG help engage with that idea and inform students?
TSD: How would you describe SIG’s impact both on campus as a whole and to people that you know?
OM: It’s several things. One, in terms of providing really career-driven service opportunities, I think SIG is one of the leading places on campus. We have over 80 fellowships and stipends we are giving out this year, so many of those students would not have been able to take those positions had they not received funding through SIG or through Haas. Making real-world public service experience accessible to students and taking away any financial barriers to that is a long-lasting impact that SIG has on students.
I think the second thing is internal; SIG is an amazing community. When people graduate they are still helping out people who are currently in SIG. My mentor still texts me and calls me even though she graduated, and that reflects the invaluable community in SIG.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.
Contact Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.