Did you start in politics by volunteering?
I’ve always been interested in politics and the impact it can have and how important politics is in our day to day lives and the role the government can play. That never manifested itself in more than casual interest in high school. But the one thing I knew when I was in college is that I really love San Francisco. It’s my favorite place to be. I always wanted to contribute back to the city and help make it better. I didn’t really know how I would do that. It’s just where my heart was at. When I was a senior in college, I was talking to Renita LiVolsi, the Admissions Director, and she mentioned she has a friend, Theo Ellington, who was an aspiring politician. I had coffee with him, and after I graduated, I reached out and asked if he needed any help on his campaign because I thought that would be an interesting world. As soon as I started volunteering there, I got hooked. I loved being out in the community and talking to people and being able to tackle the biggest issues facing the city. I volunteered for him, interning three days a week while I worked part-time. Did that for a few months, then eventually went full time on his campaign as the Field Director, in charge of all the other volunteers and making outreach plans on who we were going to talk to, what doors we were going to knock on, and what folks we were going to call. I did that through the 2018 election.
Then I wasn’t sure I was going to stay in politics but it was so fun, and the impact you are making on the world is so apparent. I joined another District Attorney race in 2019 for Lief Dautch. After that race, I wanted to get more involved in the progressive side of things. So, I reached out to Jim Stearns, another San Francisco Waldorf connection. He and I started working together on a ballot measure. It was spearheaded by Supervisor Aaron Peskin. It was called Neighbors for Small Business. That was all about addressing the vacant storefront crisis. We passed that measure, and I stayed on to help Supervisor Peskin with his re-election campaign and also worked for Jackie Fielder who was running for State Senate, doing financing and fundraising for both those candidates.
Did your San Francisco Waldorf High School education influence your trajectory?
I got started in politics from a connection at the school. It’s a great community. There are a lot of people there who are dedicated to making a difference in the world. A fair number of Waldorf graduates are now involved in the political sphere here in San Francisco. Just this past election there were six supervisorial seats up for election, and there were Waldorf grads working on three of those. Myself, Emma Stearns (class of 2015), and Ben Gurewitz (class of 2016).
Another fun connection is that when I was working with Dautch 2 years ago, we had an intern who I found out went to school in West Portal. It was Ewan Barker Plummer, who is now a sophomore at SFWHS, and he was just elected as a Board Member of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which is one of the prominent LGBTQ Dem clubs in the city. He is incredibly involved in politics at such a young age. There’s clearly something in the water that’s getting these SF Waldorf High School grads into politics.
What did you study at Vanderbilt? Was it something you had decided on while at the high school, and have your studies helped you in your political career?
My major was Human and Organizational Development, specific to Vanderbilt. It’s certainly come in handy in politics, and it’s really helpful with the work in teams I’ve had to do. The process of learning in that major was similar to learning at Waldorf. There was a lot of going out in the real world, interacting with the community, and the freedom to making the degree what you wanted. There was a lot of looking at how people worked together as a team and understanding different perspectives. I felt more at home in that major coming from Waldorf than in some of my other classes that required me to read the textbook, memorize the textbook, move on to the next textbook, which is something I never found fulfilling in any way. My time in Waldorf was most instrumental in that choice. It’s where I learned how to learn.
Did these studies build your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes?
I think the first thing is talking to different types of people. Being from a diverse city like San Francisco helps. I was born and raised in the Bay Area, but I went to college in Nashville, which provided a whole host of different perspectives. The second thing is having some theoretical framework to view them through. That’s where my college and high school education helped me. So here are all these people with all their different opinions but how can I make sense of them, how can I translate this data to do actionable things in my day-to-day life? At Waldorf, I had to think things through for myself and work things through as a group. This is the big advantage of the high school experience at SF Waldorf; because the classes are small, because you are doing things with the same group of people for so many years in a really tight-knit way, you can’t just go on to new friends if a disagreement arises. So you’re working through interpersonal conflicts and forming strong bonds because of it. It’s helpful in a professional context where you have to work together and you can’t just ignore people.
As a young adult in politics, you must have had the self-confidence and practice necessary to speak up, to have your own opinion, and fight for what you believe in. Where did that confidence come from?
The opportunities for leadership at the high school and being able to express yourself, whether that’s in a classic way in student council or as class president or by being able to start clubs if you’re interested in something and taking ownership of that, I think that instills entrepreneurial spirit, with is key for campaigns. It’s bootstrapping, very from the bottom up. It’s being able to take on a nebulous situation and make the most of it. Then get people in line and be an inspired leader. I think Waldorf does a good job of that. When you’re not studying just to get things right on the next test or when you’re not locked into a formulaic thought process, you expand and build your muscles in dealing with more chaotic situations where rules and outcomes are less clear. That’s campaigning. Things are always changing and going off the rails. I think my Waldorf education prepared me for adapting in unstructured situations.
Research has shown how creativity is general and transferable, a muscle that if exercised in the arts can be used in other contexts like STEM subjects, which seems to relate to your experience.
Totally. What you run into politics around policy is that people sit around and wait for a good idea to strike. There’s a quote I always think about from my time at the high school from Dr. Carini. I think it was some physics problem we were working on. We were discussing someone’s genius. These geniuses are so creative but it’s not just about them sitting around waiting for it to come. Creativity is about getting out there, trying things, working really hard, and doing a lot of things that don’t work until you have that lightbulb moment. This comes from getting your hands dirty. That’s something Waldorf stresses across disciplines, especially in the sciences. And it’s the way to make an effect in public policy. When we’re talking about creativity, we’re talking about problem solving, which means doing the work.
Can you tell us about your switch to consultancy and your new business?
After this November election, I started a consulting firm, Maier Anderson Fundraising, with my friend Noah Maier, who I met many campaigns ago, to help non-profits and political candidates who are stressed with the big scary problem of fundraising and tackle that problem to raise the money they need to make the change they are trying make in the world. I have never been and will never be the person who gets up on the soapbox to affect change. I know that my role is the person who can look at the systems that are unjust, like our finance system around politics, and ask: how can we shift these systems to make them work better for people? I saw there was a real lack in politics of people who are comfortable in the finance world. Noah and I are in sync with what we think our world needs and have complementary skill sets, so we wanted to work together. A fundamental part of it was that there are no elections in SF in 2021 so we knew we had to create something else to stay in the campaign world and keep helping people. We’re really excited so far and look forward to evolving as a firm.
What services do you offer?
We set up both a fundraising strategy and a finance plan. There is a lot of money in politics, but it’s about getting the money to the right place. There are a lot of details to it. At the end of the day, it is figuring out who to ask for money, then asking them. This is so hard for most people. A lot of what we do is coaching people through that process. People want to give, want to make a difference, and want their money to go somewhere that’s valuable. The hold-up is almost always on the asker's side. Working in politics on the ground teaches you how to ask for votes, and you develop a thick skin around rejection. That’s a great skill to have. That’s why I recommend that everyone volunteer on a political campaign. ~
Interview with Marketing Director, Samantha Cosentino Baker, recorded and transcribed on February 8, 2021