2009 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Majors: Political Science and History
Age: 34 | Brooklyn, NY
Founder and Director, Progressive Voter Network
"We don't have to be just spectators. We can be active participants and even forceful drivers on issues we care about."
Clayt Freed's unofficial residence from 1993 to 1997 was listed as 800 Langdon Street. To most UW alumni, the building sitting atop that site is the Memorial Union, a casual spot to escape the daily grind of a UW semester.
But to Freed, it was much more. It's where he not only socialized, but also worked, organized events, and found the inspiration to increase citizen political participation as founder and director of the Progressive Voter Network.
"Physically, the Union was my home away from home," he says. "Symbolically, though, the Union stood for even more. To me, the Union represented and continues to represent the University of Wisconsin's long history of shared governance."
If you've had a part in the Associated Students of Madison or have benefited from it, Freed is one of the people you should thank. During his freshman year in 1993, Freed attended a meeting for students interested in creating a new student government, the university's previous governing body (the Wisconsin Student Association) having been recently disbanded. After helping to write a constitution for the group with more than twenty other students, Freed and his classmates collected 6,000 signatures in three days to place the constitution on the student ballot. And in February 1994, students voted by a two-to-one margin to establish what's now known as ASM. Freed led numerous ASM initiatives, including an inaugural volunteer recruitment drive and a successful 1995 campaign lobbying against a substantial tuition increase in the state budget.
Following graduation, Freed spent seven years with the state Public Interest Research Group, a nationwide network of state-based organizations working on public interest issues, and one year with the Minnesota State University Student Association. While there, Freed ran a campaign to keep education affordable, reversing a four-year trend in budget cuts.
In 2005, Freed launched the Progressive Voter Network (PVN), a national volunteer organization designed to provide a grassroots support base to various political, social, and environmental groups.
As director of PVN, Freed works with a team of organizers to create a model of ongoing citizen engagement with national decision-makers, providing a way for citizens to get engaged and stay engaged with issues they believe in. PVN provides professional organizers to help with things such as running news conferences or employing effective lobbying techniques. Since starting PVN, Freed and his staff have helped train volunteers to run numerous public interest campaigns on issues including renewable energy standards and global warming emissions.
"I wanted a vehicle that would harness people's desire to tackle pressing problems in the world, and focus that desire to accomplish real change," he says.
Entering its third year, PVN is expanding, reaching more groups in more parts of the country, with Freed leading the charge. Currently, PVN has teamed up with Environment America on issues surrounding renewable energy and the economy, working on their campaign to use clean energy to effect both positive environmental and economic change.
"The Progressive Voter Network makes people aware that we don't have to be just spectators," says Freed. "We can be active participants and even forceful drivers on issues we care about."