Anna Koppelman

The Badass Way My Brother Is Taking On The Trump Administration

I interviewed him about pizza, working for Hillary Clinton, and how he’s standing up on Inauguration Day

There was a point when I was younger at which it became clear that I had a serious issue. It was an addiction, almost — my incessant bragging about my older brother.

In all fairness, everything I said was grounded in fact. My older brother has always been the kindest, funniest, and most entertaining person I know. In my eyes, nobody could even come close to being as magical as him.

As a teenager, he was a politics blogger for The Huffington Post. When he was a senior in high school, he was both the student president and the editor-in-chief of the high school newspaper. Around this time, all his friends started to develop incredibly sparkly eyes, and he had just begun learning how to talk to girls. It was an exciting time to be Sammy’s little sister. So I spoke about it a lot and assumed that other people were just as interested in the wonders of Sammy Koppelman as I was.

Anna Koppelman

Me and Sammy.

Eventually, though, it became pretty clear that fun facts about my older brother were only really fun to me, so by mid–eighth grade I made some sort of resolution that I would put a bit of a cap on all the S-Kopp fan clubbing. But as time went on, my older brother just kept getting cooler. So I have decided to once again bring out my middle-school bragging skills to tell you about him and how he never stops working to achieve good.

This Inauguration Day, my brother is helping organize the Love-a-thon. The Lova-a-thon is a Facebook Live event that will stream from Upworthy’s Facebook page to raise money for the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Earthjustice. They’ve already received support from celebrities like Chelsea Handler, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rashida Jones, Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen, and many others. They are accepting donations at donatetolove.com and are offering early donors the chance to FaceTime in to the broadcast.

I interviewed Sammy about this project and his life in general over a slice of his favorite pizza (which I bought him [dances in endless little sister points]). I hope you enjoy this peek into our relationship, and come away from it wanting to brag a little bit about my brother, too.

First off, in case anybody who’s not a New Yorker is reading and wants to know where to find the best slice in New York, I’m going to throw this to Sam.

Sammy: While Pizza Pete’s may not technically be the best New York pizza — it’s not a neapolitan pie à la Motorino or Kesté and it’s not a New York slice in the vein of Joe’s or NY Pizza Suprema — fresh mozzarella from Pizza Pete’s is the slice that best captures the essence of New York City.

Would you say that if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, you’d be a food critic?

Sammy: I may still become a food critic.

Why don’t you tell me about the event you’re working on in the meantime?

Sammy: As you already know, because you’ve seen me pacing around frantically for the past two weeks, I, along with some buddies, am planning the Love-a-thon — the first-ever Facebook Live telethon in support of the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Earthjustice.

Inauguration Day is gonna be a tough time for much of America. It’s going to be anxiety-inducing and it’s going to instill a lot of fear in a lot of people about what’s going to happen to the country over the next four years. But we wanted to use that day to start fighting back, to channel that anxiety into positive good.

That’s what the Love-a-thon is all about. With the help of celebrities, Facebook Live, and our distribution partnership with Upworthy, we’re going to reach millions of people at the moment they most want to help out and make the country better for the communities that are going to be most marginalized over the next four years.

How does the Love-a-thon actually work? What’s the day going to look like?

Sammy: At noon ET, as per the Constitution of the United States, Donald Trump will take the oath of office. At 12:30 p.m. ET, we are going to launch our stream live from New York City and we’re going to be on the air for the next three hours.

We’re going to have Judah Friedlander hosting live in-studio, along with some excellent studio guests ranging from the ACLU’s Dale Ho to the hilarious Marina Franklin to a bunch of guests that we are keeping a surprise.

We are also going to weave in original celebrity videos in support of these charities, including Martin Sheen essentially doing an impression of President Bartlet in support of the ACLU and George Takei tracing his childhood experiences in Japanese internment camps to talk of a Muslim registry.

The whole thing will be super interactive. Donors will even have the chance to FaceTime in to the show with Judah and the rest of our in-studio crowd.

I don’t want to give too much away, because you’ve gotta tune in on Friday between 12:30 and 3 p.m. ET.

If you can’t participate directly — if you’re a teen who doesn’t have money to give to these charities — what are other ways you can be involved?

Sammy: Most importantly, you can tune in to the broadcast and learn about these incredible organizations from the people who work with them every day. You can follow their instructions to call your congressmen, you can educate your friends about these causes and organizations, and you can go to their websites to see how you can volunteer.

But I don’t want to prescribe specific tasks because I think the main advice I have is to try to do something different. Collective action that stretches across the country is incredibly meaningful, but try to start something new, in addition to latching on to the movements already taking place.

Just try to think of something you and your friends can do to support these charities that nobody else has done before. Because if you do something different, people will pay attention. And you’ll make a difference. And maybe, just maybe, people from across the country will start doing it, too.

At least that worked for the mannequin challenge ...

What’s next after the Love-a-thon? How are you going to keep this momentum going?

Sammy: Well, first and most importantly, over the course of the next week we are going to continue to use the content we acquire through the Love-a-thon — the in-studio segments, the prerecorded stuff, etc. — to raise money for these charities. So if you come across an article on something that happened on-air at the Love-a-thon, send it to your friends and share it to your pages.

As far as keeping the momentum going, though, I think it’s important that we simultaneously stay aware of what is going on in Washington and keep our heads down.

No matter what specific policies get passed these next four years, there will be segments of America that are left behind and intentionally subjugated. And we need to start organizing on their behalf and building out the infrastructure we’ll need over the next four years now.

That may sound big-picture or difficult, but just take agency over that small task in your friend group: Can you get five of your friends to call your congressman every week? Can you get your five friends to donate $5 to the ACLU every month?

Then, of course, also be aware of developments in Washington and in state and local governments across the country. Don’t have “strategy lockdown,” as they’d say in Silicon Valley. Instead, be reactive and open to new information. Because liberal democracy dies by a thousand cuts, and we need to pay attention to every single one of them.

What made you start wanting to be involved in politics — to try to make change happen?

Sammy: Growing up in New York City, you really see huge swaths of America — you see people of all backgrounds, of all economic strata. And as segregated as the city is, as tragically segregated as most major American cities are, in New York, you get a sense of the disparities right in front of your eyes.

You grow up seeing that, and it’s impossible to explain or reconcile or justify. So, from a very young age, I started getting active, trying to close this gap. I campaigned for then-Senator Obama in 2008.

When you were 12 years old ...

Sammy: When I was 12 years old. I knew everything there was to know about him. I tried to fight for educational equality in high school. In college, I organized campus protests. Then I went to work for the Hillary campaign as a digital content strategist and writer.

Anna Koppelman

Sammy, on the Hillary Clinton campaign.

In the days following the election, a lot of people were not quite sure how to proceed and stay optimistic about the possibility of change. You got up the next morning and pretty much went back to work. How were you able to do that?

Sammy: The night of the election, I was completely distraught. But the next morning, I woke up and I realized that I was still white, I was still a man, I was still straight, and if I couldn’t start fighting back right away, then I was living too comfortably within my own privilege.

So I started getting involved in all the ways I could. I started working for my professor, Yascha Mounk, who is doing incredible research that I hope may one day motivate us all to save liberal democracy. And then I got a call from Alex Godin, the visionary behind the Love-a-thon, who said he wanted to plan a telethon on Inauguration Day.

How’d you react to that?

Sammy: I guess most people would have thought that idea sounded crazy or outlandish — Alex is a 23-year-old entrepreneur whiz kid. But I was ready to take a chance and wanted to do something.

So we got organizing — at first, just me and him and another great guy named Dan Shipper. Slowly but surely, our team started building. We got help from the incredible team at Crowdrise, we had help from Jesse Dylan’s team at Wondros. Jeff Tweedy signed on to do a video before almost anyone else.

Then the ACLU was incredible in bringing in celebrities of their own, and Planned Parenthood and Earthjustice [as well]. And that’s how we got to where we are this week.

Talk to me about the event. What were the steps you went through to make it a reality?

Sammy: We needed to sign on celebrities. We needed a studio and crew, which our friend Anthony was amazing at finding. We needed press, which our incredible friend Kara — and my inside connections to MTV’s Anna Koppelman — got us. It was a lot of learning on the fly and it’s been a whirlwind to finish.

But I should note that in the aftermath of hurricanes, the incredible people who organize telethons do it in under five days. And we’ve had a month. So we’re grateful.

Growing up, I always had these little-sister goggles on — when I looked at you, I always saw this high-achieving person who strived to do the impossible and then did the impossible. I mean, I saw you working hard, but I don’t think I was able to process the amount of stuff you were doing. Why don’t you talk to us about failure?

Sammy: I definitely made more safe decisions in high school. I worked as hard, if not harder, than anyone in my classes. I spent way too much time studying for tests. And I tried to avoid failure, at least academically. I edited my school’s newspaper, I was president of my high school class, etc. Now, if you were to ask me if I succeeded socially, I plead the fifth.

When I got to Harvard, I realized that I was not risking failure nearly enough. I was not taking the types of chances that you need to take to break out from the pack and accomplish meaningful change that protects vulnerable people. So I started an educational start-up, called Quixaro. I knew when I started it that 95 percent of start-ups fail, but I wanted to give it a shot. Even though Quixaro didn’t end up where I’d hoped it would be, the team I failed with are now some of the closest people in the world to me. So I realized from that experience that failure could breed a lot of positivity.

Anna Koppelman

Our family moving Sammy into his Harvard dorm.

I then decided to take the semester off to work for the Hillary campaign, which meant I wouldn’t graduate on time. And, of course, we lost that race as well, but I was doing the most meaningful work I had ever done in my life. I met a team of people who are some of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life. And I wouldn’t give that up for anything.

I think that risking failure and risking bottoming out is the only way to achieve a meaningful kind of success.

That’s a really good answer, Sammy. Thanks for being open with me.

Sammy: Imagine how long it took the people at Pizza Pete’s to learn how to make this pie. Imagine how much they must have failed.

I think it was probably a family recipe.

Tune in to the Love-a-thon on Inauguration Day this Friday, January 20. And stay on the lookout for Sammy. Kid’s got a bright future.

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