Meet the Roosevelters: Niko Lusiani
November 17, 2021
Our new “Meet the Roosevelters” blog series seeks to give fresh insight into the people behind the Roosevelt Institute: our research interests, personal stories, and what drives us in our work.
Our series kicks off with Niko Lusiani, who joined the Roosevelt Institute in August 2021. As Director of Corporate Power, Niko develops cutting-edge research on how firms, executives, and shareholders wield outsized power in our economy and politics, and advances policies that promote shared prosperity, structural equality, and power for workers and the public.
Niko brings to Roosevelt more than 15 years of research and advocacy experience lifting up alternative economic policies and human rights in the US and around the world.
Niko, what brought you to Roosevelt in this moment?
NL: We are in a time of great transition as a nation, and as a planet—one that presents many risks as the consolidation of power in large private institutions quickens and deepens. From climate to COVID, white supremacy and patriarchy, nativism and the entrenchment of concentrated economic and political privilege, our calling is to figure out a new, more coherent economic “common sense” that can transform these threats into strategic opportunities for a more progressive, more democratic, and ultimately more vibrant economy for all.
I was drawn to the Roosevelt Institute because of the team’s phenomenal track record deploying the right ideas at the right time with the right people to help shape an emerging new economic paradigm toward that aim. I am also truly honored to join the Rooseveltian tradition, which despite its many historical faults, provides an important historical precedent and grounding for efforts to reshape our economy to serve the interests of human rights and a thriving multiracial democracy.
What inspired you to focus your research on corporate power?
Over the past 15 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with advocates around the world on campaigns to curb abusive corporate behavior. From grassroots efforts defending against the encroachment of oil companies into the Amazon, to proxy shareholder vote battles on political lobbying and CEO pay, to UN negotiations over global norms governing business, I’ve seen many sides of corporate America. As a result, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with putting my experience and academic training to service, to better understand the mechanisms by which firms, executives, and shareholders have gained, retained, and wielded outsized and just plain unfair power in our economy and in our politics. I’ve also become convinced that in parallel to researching the harms and contradictions of the business model governing dominant American corporations today, we need to devote much more time and energy to research alternatives that can better explain the evidence and give a solid underpinning for an emerging “common-sense” worldview of the economy, and the role of business within it.
Addressing racial, gender, and economic inequality and upholding human rights in the US and around the world have been central to your work. How do you center equity in your research?
Through her example more than anything, my mother taught me very early on to see the world through how unequal it is, and to recognize my immense privilege as a white, male, middle-class, American citizen. I grappled a lot as a kid with why so many other kids my age had such different life experiences. That basic injustice of structural racism sat with me, buried into me. I guess looking back I’ve been driven in so much of what I’ve pursued by that fundamental question of why we live so unequally, and what needs to be done to redistribute power in ways that undercut structural inequality. I carry this into every bit of my current research and strategy work today.
How have your family, community, and upbringing shaped your professional and personal choices?
My amazing mother was a public school teacher in a Spanish immersion program in Northern California, and I drew so many lessons being a part of that world—the value of hard work, the value of learning across cultures, and for sure, the value of public education. My mom was also a strong single mother, and I have come to recognize as a parent now myself how much I learned through her about the immense value of care and an intersectional feminist perspective.
I’ve also been really blessed with the opportunity to live, grow, and work in different languages and different cultures. Each one has its own philosophy, its own unique way of seeing the world and engaging with the world. Besides how fun it is to be able to really connect with many different types of people, being multilingual has given me the gift of never taking as given one way of doing things or seeing things. Living across cultures helps remind me that much of what we take for granted is actually historically and culturally contingent, and this provides breathing space for the type of creative imagination I think is so critical to envisioning the new world the next generations deserve.
What book should policymakers be reading right now?
If only policymakers had time to read books!
Kidding aside, there are so many great reads right now that speak to the moment, it’s hard to peg one. I try to read as much history and literature as I can, as I think both genres provide gateways into what can be done differently in the real world here and now.
So, I’d offer two. Richard Powers’s The Overstory: a tremendous reminder of our intimate and interdependent relationship with the natural world precisely when it is most at threat. And Ira Katznelson’s history of the New Deal, Fear Itself, just breathes insight and lessons for our current political moment.
Looking ahead to the policy landscape of 2022, what opportunities and threats do you see on the horizon?
To remix Dickens, it really is the worst of times and the best of times.
On the one hand, the existential threats of white supremacy, patriarchy, authoritarianism, and climate catastrophe have not gone away by any means, and I fear are only strengthening. Our legislature is stagnant, structurally biased, warped by special interests, and ironically, is serving as a check on the will of the people to enact policies and programs that would improve well-being.
At the same time, there are more creative, dedicated, and capable people (including a number of former Roosevelters!) in government now than ever, working to build a new spirit of public purpose to replace the failed governing rationale of the past 40 years—call it neoliberalism, market fundamentalism. This could be the foundation for a new progressivism in tax policy, corporate governance, and antitrust, as just three examples.
What gives you hope?
Despite how some elected officials vote, most Americans are ready for the progressive agenda after 40 years of failures. The youth climate justice movements across the country give me joy and show a light just around the corner. Ultimately, hope is a critical resource at the heart of system-change work. Hopelessness has been called the enemy of justice, and it’s true. Without intentionally cultivating and renewing a sense of hope, it becomes all too easy to fall victim to despair and defeatism. While clear-eyed at the enormous challenges in front of us, I choose hope.