Liberal Studies at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (feat. Aaron Eisenberg)
Alumni Aloud Episode 79
Aaron Eisenberg received his Master’s in Liberal Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently a Project Manager focused on North America and the United Nations at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Aaron talks to us about his journey working across the world, the impact of progressive nonprofit institutions, and how the CUNY Graduate Center shaped his research on climate change.
VOICEOVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with the GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
JACK DEVINE, HOST: Welcome to another edition of Alumni Aloud. We are here with Aaron Eisenberg who is a Project Manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Thank you so much for joining us, Aaron.
AARON EISENBERG, GUEST: Thank you so much for having me, Jack.
DEVINE: So we just want to get started by asking you about your research interests since you’ve pursued a career in researching potential solutions to climate change. What questions drive your research?
EISENBERG: Sure, that’s a great question. So I worked at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. First off, I’ll just explain what the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation is because some of your listeners may not know it. The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York Office is a New York chapter of an internationally operating progressive non-profit organization. We are located in something like twenty-seven countries and we are independent of but have the same political ideology as Die Linke, the left party in Germany. And so we, in Germany the way it works, so each party as long as it has over 5% in consecutive elections has a foundation to promote their civic education ideals. And this came out of, after the postwar period, and so the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is promoting left ideals, progressive, democratic socialist ideas around the world to support Germany and to support the left party in Germany so Germany never goes in the same way it did in the 1930s and 40s where its a pariah to world. It will have connections to all the world. And there are the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Konrad Adenauer Foundation. The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is just one in this batch of the different foundations.
My research interests, what I do at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, and I apologize for the banging behind me. I have steam pipes in New York in the winter. But, I work as a Project Manager covering climate change, trade, and labor. And basically our work we have special consultative status to the UN Economic and Social Affairs Consul (ECOSOC). And so cover the UN processes on climate and also part of our work is to maintain ties between the North American left and the European and more specifically the German left. And so building ties between the Green New Deal actors in North America and Europe. Building ties between movements, social movements in the US, Canada, and Europe. And we have a Mexico City office that works on Mexico. And so my research and what drives it is around climate. How do we build the mass movement to evade the worst of the climate crisis, to overcome the worst of the climate crisis, to build the Green New Deal world that we need. A world that is 100% renewable. A democratic world that rids ourselves of some of the ills of the current world. And so working with movement all over the world, working with colleagues all over the world, that’s what guides the overall work. My background at the Grad Center specifically helped guide that. I did a Master’s in Liberal Studies at the Grad Center. My Master’s let me do a bunch of courses on climate and climate related issues. Specifically my thesis was on, I was in a program that no longer exists anymore, Migration and Global Cities, I shifted that to be Migration, Cities, and Climate and focused on the Green transformation and what that looks like around the world. Specifically focusing on Southeast Asia and the Mei Kong River Delta.
DEVINE: So you’re just hitting on how you’re working for an institution that is committed to an internationalist and democratic vision to confronting many of the issues of today, such as climate change which threatens humanity as a whole. When did you first make the decision to pursue working at a non-profit institution for civic education? What steps did you take along the path to end up at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation?
EISENBERG: Sure. So I did my undergraduate at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. In that time I studied abroad twice. I first went to Venice, Italy and did a program on globalization and the interchange of ideas with students from all over the world. And then I interned at the European Parliament. Coming out of undergrad, I really knew that I wanted to work in the international realm. Potentially working for an NGO, working for a nonprofit, and I sent out tons of applications and I ended up working at this place called Cultural Vistas processing visa applications at first and then working my way up in that organization, which was a cultural exchange nonprofit organization, to work on their Southeast Programming. Specifically their Program Development. I was a Program Development Officer and a Senior Program Development Officer at Cultural Vistas where I ran our Southeast Asia programming which was really youth programming, youth leadership programming, and environmental programming. That was like my job for a while. I was there for six and a half years.
In that time, I think about three and a half, four years into it, I realized I wanted to do something more. I needed to push myself a little bit. That was when I applied and got into the Grad Center and started going to the Grad Center part-time. I did the MALS program over the next two and a half years while working full-time in that job I was traveling to and from Southeast Asia, about three to four times a year, my job was writing grant proposals then going in implementing these programs and projects, these conferences and workshops. In doing so I realized I wanted to do more. I came to the Grad Center. I took some great classes, meet some great people, some people who I’m still in touch with today, including former professors who are now friends. After that my old job two thousand dollars a year extra as long as I stayed on for another year so I stayed on for another year. I worked there for another year and then I realized that my old job had a lot of leeway. There was a lot of funding under the Obama Administration towards cultural exchange activities. Once Trump became president there was still a lot of leeway because there were fewer people in offices. A lot of people had quit. But there was not really the same opportunities to push my values, which are left, progressive values, in my programming. The set of projects being around youth education, civic education, indigenous education. Funding was for economic opportunities, for building or expanding markets which didn’t really align with my personal beliefs. At that time I started looking for a new job and I applied to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. I had read a bunch of their reports and read a lot of their publications previously. I was lucky enough, I applied kind of blindly, I was lucky enough to get an interview and I was lucky enough the get the job. Now I’ve been here for about three years. My trajectory, I always knew I wanted to work in the NGO-left sphere, work in supporting social change. My trajectory was one of building upon first my work experience and my graduate experience at the Grad Center to be able to parlay it into my current position and what I’m doing now.
DEVINE: You say you’ve always wanted to work in the NGO-left space and places that are pushing for social change. Were there any other career options that you considered?
EISENBERG: Yeah. For the first couple years, when I was working my old job, I remember I was traveling to and from Southeast Asia a lot for work. Working with embassies and meeting people at embassies, meeting people working at the cultural section of these embassies. I remember I thought I had to take the Foreign Service Exam to work in this space but I was kind of jaded to that the life, the idea of traveling and moving every two years. Working for the government in that kind of capacity was not as exciting and then there was the thought of pursuing further academia. The MALS was really nice in that way to see if that was something that I wanted to do. After my MALS program I did adjunct at Brooklyn College actually for a year. It was a great experience, but it also showed me that it was not the kind of life I wanted to seek out. I’m lucky enough to work in a space that’s academic and non-academic, movement and non-movement, it kind of bridges a lot these divides and promoting these civic ideals, these civic education ideals where I get to work with a lot of academics. I get to engage with scholarly material, but also ones that are less abstract and more focused on supporting social movements. It’s really the best of both worlds for me.
DEVINE: You’ve hit on this already with discussing the friendships that you developed with some professors and your master’s thesis focused on climate migration. What role did the Grad Center have in your intellectual development. How have your experiences at the Graduate Center transformed you into the worker that you are today?
EISENBERG: Yeah for sure. I think I kind of remember this vividly. My first semester, and it’s actually apropos right now, because there was a lot of remembrance of him over the last few months, but I took three or four class during my time at the Grad Center with Stanley Aronowitz. Stanley was really formative in my intellectual development. My classes with Stanley were very small. The largest one we had was 10-15 people and the smallest was four of us. This was near the end of Stanley’s career and friend and comrade Andrew Anastasi published a really beautiful piece about a course I was in recently, I believe on the Verso Blog remembering Stanley. These courses were really stimulating. Stanley was at the end of his career and a lot of the ideas he had were fully formed and pushing on a lot of preconceived notions and preconceived ideas and Stanley was always open to learning more too. There was, the first course was on climate crisis because he wanted to learn more. He had us reading Horkheimer and Adorno to start out the course and reading Dialectics of the Enlightenment and he thought that was what the climate crisis was from the start. It was always starting at that. Then you got into course I had with him on the Grundrisse, Marx’s Grundrisse, and he was like this is all climate right here. Take a look at this and talking about technological fixes and the segment on machines and I really loved those courses because it wasn’t just Stanley being provocative in these ways, but it was a lot of us thinking about whether these abstract intellectual theories, well really not so abstract, really intense theory can guide where we are today and build it into praxis.
And then like the courses else that I took were with now my good friend Mike Menser, who was my thesis advisor. He taught a course with Omar Dahbord that I took that was on philosophy and ecology. I mean a philosophy of ecology course. We read through the lens of Aristotle or through the lens of some of these great intellectual thinkers, thinking about the climate crisis and thinking the way through. All of that has kind of geared me towards me to how I view some of this stuff now and how I engage new literature on the climate crisis that comes out continually which sometimes mixes academic theory, which sometimes does not. It also guides the work that we publish on the climate at Rosa Lux. All that was formative and stuff I never engaged with before I had gone to the Grad Center so it’s definitely certainly helpful in that way.
DEVINE: I think you mentioned what’s so special about the Graduate Center. That it’s a place that people who are coming there to deal with practical issues on the ground and something that’s a massive practical issue like climate change and how it ties into labor and more broadly migration. How that relates to grand philosophical ideas, how you can approach that through the lens of someone like Marx or other philosophical thinkers. This is just one of the things that makes the Grad Center an exceptional institution. What were some of the challenges that you encountered as you transitioned to working at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation?
EISENBERG: My previous organization had been a merger of two German, or of a German organization and of an American organization. And so somehow for over my entire professional career, which is now going on ten years, I’ve only worked at seemingly German organizations or ones that have German history. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork when it comes to German organizations and institutions and they all have their own way about it. It is definitely a cultural thing. Even throughout this pandemic period we’ve had to get original signed copies printed and mailed to us from anywhere in the world for anything. So there are a lot of bureaucratic elements about it that are just a transition. Each place does it their own way. Those are new. Other things that and also not speaking a word or lick of German myself has always been something. I think a challenge of my job but also a really exciting part of my job is we’re an operating foundation. What that means is that unlike a traditional foundation which gives granting money and then they write a report at the end or they do a project and then write a report which was kind of how my old job was based around and how I kind of how my job worked. This, as an operating foundation, means us, the project managers are partners are each project and they codesign and co-develop each project and then go and implement and make sure those projects are going off.
And so I took over the climate portfolio. I could get by on that. I knew that well. I took over the labor portfolio. I knew that less well, but I knew that okay. Then I took over the trade portfolio. And trade was not a subject that I knew well at all. I knew a very minimal amount about trade and I was thrust into replacing someone who was quite good on trade and knew a lot on trade. That’s who I replaced at the foundation. And luckily he was able to work with me for a little bit of overlap for a few months and guide me on that. Also I had to learn very quickly. I had to kind of get into the weeds of trade policy, learning trade policy, and now I think my lens towards that has influenced the way we’ve worked on trade. A new website we put out this past November called GreenNewTrade.org looks at trade through the lens of what climate activists need to know first. It was something that came out of me having to learn it on my own and what I wish that all climate activists had learned from the start, or knew from the start on these certain issues. It’s becoming abreast of these issues and learning these issues as someone who works at this place was like the key first challenge. And feeling up to the challenge of being able to work in a left internationalist space, being able to work in the UN agencies and learn the jargon and lingo of the UN, and be able to help impact and influence social change that way.
DEVINE: So it seems like some of the skills that you learned and the kind of research and analysis skills at a place like the Grad Center prepared you to transition to having to take on a role like understanding trade in a way that you hadn’t before or the studies that you had done with labor may have been helpful in breaking down in what you have to do at the Foundation. And so what would you recommend to current graduate students interested in pursuing a career at a progressive nonprofit institution?
EISENBERG: Yeah for sure. I mean I think it’s dependent. For the PhD students I don’t really want to get into advising you because I don’t really know what to advise you. I think it’s hard. I think academia is a really a pathway and then there are institutions like my own that are alternatives but I don’t have a PhD so I don’t really want to give advice to you all. But for the Master’s students what I would say is like, seek out the courses that seem perhaps out of your wheelhouse, or perhaps more difficult. I remember that many of the courses that I took were not the MALS courses. They were the PhD courses. You only have to take two or three MALS courses per your time. And I found the other courses had much smaller class sizes and much more intense reading. I was there to be a student and to do research and to learn. That’s what I took away from that place. I think specifically on that, that all prepares you for taking on new and exciting work that you may not be prepared for in certain ways. You’re thrown into the lion’s den and you kind of have to sink or swim.
DEVINE: I just want to thank you so much for joining us Aaron on Alumni Aloud. It’s been great having you and we look forward to paying attention to your research and your work that you’re doing at Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
EISENBERG: Thank you so much for having me, Jack. Always a pleasure. Take care.
DEVINE: Take care.
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