Fellow Spotlight

Jason Escareno

Please describe your current role. Where do you work and what are your responsibilities?

I work in Lansing for the Michigan League for Public Policy. It is one of the oldest nonprofits in the State. I am responsible for advocating for a more equitable tax policy, which means a fair share of demand-side economics. I research public policy and economic policy and influence legislation accordingly—at least I try to influence legislation. Tax policy is a modern civil war. Income tax, sales tax, refundable credits, business taxation, and abatements—those are my bread and butter. I attend State House and Senate finance and taxation committees every week and present policy recommendations to legislators. My work is informed and driven by the mission of my organization, which is to promote economic opportunity for the underserved. So, yes, I am a lobbyist, but don’t worry, I am one of the good ones.

What did you study at Grand Valley State University?

I started out with every intention of becoming a journalist. I am a writer to the core, and I am consumed by politics, so it seemed natural to merge the two. That never happened for a number of reasons. First off, I remember attending a speaking event where a woman, whose name I can’t remember, spoke about the things one could accomplish with a public administration degree. Public administration, what’s that? You could start a nonprofit, direct a hospital, or run a city, along with a million other possibilities. It’s really such a dynamic discipline, but it wasn’t until my internship experience that I knew this was something I could do well, and also something that would be immensely rewarding.

What is your favorite memory from your time in the Cook Leadership Academy?

I will never forget it. I had just finished moderating a political debate between two GVSU professors and was talking to some CLA members when a stranger approached to quiz us about the U.S. Constitution. He wanted to know if any of us knew what the 17th Amendment was, and why, in his opinion, it ruined our country. None of us knew, and, after some haranguing, he gave us each a copy of the Constitution. I don’t know why he did it, but it has stuck with me, and I read the copy he gave me at least once a week because I am convinced I will see him again somewhere. I won’t be fooled twice.

Who is one of your personal heroes? Why?

I have a million heroes. Most are fictional. But I really admire Robert McNamara, who passed away a few years ago. If you don’t know, he was the secretary of defense for both President Kennedy and President Johnson. He was also the president of the World Bank. He was one of the first to think in terms of systems. He saved Ford—not the president, the car manufacturer. What I admire most is that he was always the most prepared person in the room.

How has the Cook Leadership Academy made a difference in your college/grad school experience (or beyond)?

There is just no doubt that the CLA has marked me with the Hauenstein brand. In many ways the CLA helped me—for lack of a better phrase- get over myself. I am not afraid to make a mistake, or to be human. I notice this when I am in a networking situation especially. I am always the clumsiest person in these situations. I forget names, I ask the wrong questions, I laugh at the wrong things. I don’t possess a ton of social grace but I am armed with the CLA confidence to assert myself. To be prepared, but to not overthink things like public speaking.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

I read boring books—which probably explains more than I would like about my personality. I am a classic literature junkie. How many people do you know who have read The City of God? I love theology. I have a strange affinity for British poetry, German playwrights, and anything else you might find in a dusty corner of a used bookstore.

What is one leadership lesson/trait you remember most? Why?

Everything Gleaves talks about resonates with me. He gave a great lecture on Russell Kirk as well as a phenomenal leadership lesson on George Washington. He explained the ways in which Washington inspired through his humility. It taught me that it’s okay to doubt. Just because you’re the only person in the room to publicly admit your flaws, doesn’t mean that you’re the only one with flaws. Several years ago, one of my friends made an off-the-cuff remark that I was a follower, not a leader. He probably doesn’t even remember saying it, but it bothered me at the time. What we often don’t realize is that everyone is following someone, and that the person following you, is likely also leading others. No one is incapable of being a leader. You are supposed to be here, right here, at this moment—don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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