Alumni Spotlight

Max Clermont: Speaking Up for Political Change

 

Steppingstone, Class of 2001

Boston Latin Academy, Class of 2007

Brown University School of Public Health, Class of 2012

 

“How can we get a new generation of leaders to think about new solutions to intractable problems?”

For Max Clermont, that’s one of the questions of the moment. He pauses and lets the thought hang in the air. As he reflects on his life’s path, the story that unfolds provides a very personal answer.

Whether guiding grassroots campaigns or community health initiatives or technology movements, promoting equity and expanding who’s at the table have been through lines of his career.

Now deep in the midst of managing a run for Congress by a longtime friend, Mayor Alex Morse of Holyoke, “we need new people in power,” he says.

When Max signed on, he never imagined that they’d be campaigning in the midst of a global pandemic. Even though he’d studied public health at Brown, “it’s something you read about in textbooks.”

“We have to be creative and agile in how we get our message out,” he says. “Every day is different.” He snuck in a conversation with Steppingstone right after pulling together a last-minute press conference to respond to breaking news from Washington.

Change is in the air. The national conversations on racial justice have only intensified the issues of equity brought to light by the impact of COVID-19 on historically marginalized communities.

As privileged as Max feels, he can’t forget what it means to be “a Black man living in America.” No matter his degrees or credentials, “sometimes I’m just seen as a Black man and nothing else.”

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

He entered Brown with dreams of being a doctor. In pre-med classes, though, he remembers finding himself asking very different questions from his peers. When he encountered hospital patients battling significant health issues, he wanted to understand why so many “looked like me.”

One lesson that he’s carried with him from his Steppingstone years is never to be afraid “to do things that activated my core.”

After graduating with his M.P.H. in 2012, Max dropped everything and moved to Florida to work as a regional field director for the Obama campaign, lured by the excitement of the presidential run. After victory in November, he went to work for the inauguration committee in D.C.

Recounting the experience in a TSF alumni note at the time, he wrote presciently, “I’ve found that my most important life skills have developed when I’ve gone somewhere I’d never gone before, done something I’ve never done before.”

Max kept a hand in the world of campaigns as a consultant for 270 Strategies, a political and public engagement firm, first in Chicago and then San Francisco. There, he focused on “helping leaders and organizations…find better ways to encourage meaningful action.”

In 2017, Max took “my first public health job,” as he puts it. A mentor convinced him to join him at University of Chicago Medicine as chief of staff for a new trauma center. Engaging the community in building a program from the ground up proved to be very political.

At the same time, an ongoing conversation with friends about issues at the intersection of technology, race, and public policy led to founding an organization of their own, Data for Black Lives. As head of policy, he dug out his “political Rolodex” and went to work again building relationships on the Hill and educating lawmakers.

Now, as a society, we’ve reached “an inflection point,” Max reflects. Change will demand new kinds of leadership, those who are “closer to the ground, in touch with real people and their lived experience,” with the courage and tools to get things done.

In working for change, he strives to “never ever forget where I came from” and to stay connected to family no matter the physical distance.

He literally carries with him his own words to live by, folded and tucked in his wallet. They hail from Proverbs 31, verses 8-9.

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

“Everything that I do is focused on that,” he concludes.