A white woman in her 60s wearing glasses smiles while seated near a piano
Brooke Joseph

Q&A: Brooke Joseph talks getting teens to vote and the making of a U.S. president

Some might view Brooke Joseph as a political junkie who has spent her professional life on election campaigns. But to the 61-year-old San Mateo resident, it’s all about public service.

Joseph began her career in Washington, D.C., as a campaign team member in Walter Mondale’s 1984 run for president and in Michael Dukakis’ 1988 bid for the White House. She worked for Sens. Bill Bradley and John Kerry when they sought higher office, and later for Barack Obama. She admits that after a string of losses, “With Obama I caught my ideal candidate.”

And though she still does some political consulting for congressional campaigns around the country, these days Joseph devotes much of her efforts to the nonprofit world. She serves on the board of the San Francisco Community Music Center and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and she is building Commit the Vote, a nonpartisan organization designed to encourage 17- and 18-year-olds to become lifelong voters.

J.: What sparked your interest in public service?

Brooke Joseph: Probably my folks and my extended family. My dad founded a nonprofit, Jazz Voices of Poetry. My mom didn’t work outside the home but she did a ton of community service. It was how we were brought up. It was part of our Jewish faith that we give back.

What was it like growing up as a Jew in Salt Lake City?

The Jewish community was lovely: It was small but very close-knit, and big enough to have some diversity. It was interesting — there was Orthodox and Reform and in-between. Salt Lake was a little bit of a difficult place overall. There wasn’t a lot of culture, especially in the ’60s and early ’70s. I still go back a few times a year, but it’s a much more interesting place now.

How did you get into politics?

I went to a very small women’s college in Washington, D.C., and was able to take classes at American, George Washington and Catholic universities. … That’s where I caught the bug.

You worked on two failed presidential campaigns in the 1980s. How tough was that?

It was devastating. When you’re young, in your 20s, and you give everything you’ve got, you think there’s a chance you’re going to win.

Brooke Joseph with then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008
Brooke Joseph with then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008

What was it like working for President Obama?

It was just fantastic. I loved it. I didn’t go to the White House — I was bringing up my kids at that time. I was Northern California finance director for the first campaign, then I did advance work nationwide during the Obama administration.

Tell me about Commit the Vote.

I am starting it slowly. We go into high schools — it’s a two- or three-week program. We tell students, for the first time in your life you’ll be making choices, and you need to own the choices. We look at issues they’re interested in and investigate them. A lot of young people are concerned about the environment, about guns. … They’re very turned on about the concept of making a choice. Some are turned off, but what I find more is kind of an anger — look at what you adults have left us!

Are you ever disheartened by today’s politics?

Sometimes I need to just put out a tweet to my friends that I’m signing out for a few days. And then I’ll go back and jump right in. I think we’re really in a difficult situation.

What drew you to the S.F. Community Music Center?

My dad is a musician and served on the board, my oldest son is a musician and I play the violin. This organization is amazing. It’s 100 years old. It serves adults and kids — nobody is turned away because of financial ability. I’ve seen a lot of kids go through there who are kind of lost and get a purpose. These are kids who never thought they could afford an instrument or lessons, or voice lessons. … They do a lot of community events. It’s a very exciting place. We’re now in a capital campaign to raise funds for campus expansion.

Do you do other volunteer work?

I make life circles with young people. It’s a two- to eight-hour process. They put themselves in the center and go out from there — to anything they want to do in life. It’s a really fun process. I made it up, I think.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.