Welcome to SPN’s interview series where we connect with leaders from state think tanks to share their stories and learn how their insights might inspire our work.
In this interview, we chat with Sutherland Institute‘s president, Rick Larsen. Larsen joined the Institute last year, coming from United Way of Salt Lake. His previous experiences span everything from fundraising to management to communications and media, including interviewing Ronald Reagan! Intrigued?
Here is what he had to say:
SPN: How did you first get involved in the freedom movement?
Rick: There were three consequential steps. First, as a high school senior I traveled to Washington, DC, with a school group. It was the first time I “touched” the history of this nation and it awakened me; it changed my reading habits and my conscious appreciation of freedom.
The second came years later while working on a gubernatorial campaign. As the media producer, I was tasked with creating an endorsement spot for the candidate, Ronald Reagan. Due to some equipment problems, our half-hour interview turned into a two-hour conversation that left an indelible impression.
A few years after that, my career shifted to the nonprofit sector, and I came face-to-face with the most difficult challenges facing mankind, as well as the most consistent barriers to change. Once you shift mindsets from social service to social solutions, you realize that we need a different model and it must involve policy. The reality is that there are communities, regions, and even nations that maintain control through inequality and even poverty. Freedom is the solution.
SPN: Was there a moment or a role model that inspired you to choose work that’s dedicated to the cause of freedom and human flourishing?
Rick: My historical role model is Abraham Lincoln. My contemporary role model is Ronald Reagan.
SPN: Based on your observations, what do you think is the next big opportunity for the freedom movement?
Rick: It may sound deceptively simple—even naïve—but we need a return to civil dialogue. Our nation and political conversations have become so polarized and toxic that solutions are neither possible nor are they the main objective. We must seek out areas of agreement and focus on progress around that agreement. There is a difference between surrender and principled compromise, and in a diverse and changing landscape, the focus must shift to our founding principles and virtues.
SPN: What do you enjoy most about being a part of a network working to promote freedom?
Rick: The association offers hope. The State Policy Network’s vision is contagious and to be part of the network is to elevate one’s thinking and dialogue.
SPN: How did you wind up at your current organization?
Rick: I was enjoying my role as chief development officer at United Way of Salt Lake, when I was invited to accompany a Sutherland Institute group to visit Reagan Ranch. Based on my prior answer, this was not a stand-alone experience for me; it was a bookend and the revival of a desire to make real change. I joined Sutherland within three months of that trip, and six months later I was named president.
SPN: Where do you think the Sutherland Institute is making the biggest difference in people’s lives?
Rick: Our value proposition is the combination of conservative and thoughtful research, delivered with a commitment to civil dialogue. It is a privilege to revive this concept: whatever a person may decide—in the voting booth or in their lives—they should always consider the pros, the cons, and the principle underlying each policy decision. How Sutherland chooses to engage is as important as the issues we research.
SPN: In hindsight, is there anything you wish you had known before taking this job?
Rick: More than anything, I am grateful for a diverse career in media, communications, management, fundraising, and social change that prepared me for the role. My job now is to translate each of those experiences—as fast as possible!
SPN: What has been the most memorable moment since you joined Sutherland?
Rick: The best is yet to come, but the Sutherland Annual Gala last fall was a highlight. It featured Bill Kristol and awards were presented to Matthew Holland and Sheri Dew. We recognized the strong military community in Utah and tripled the size of previous audiences. It was a moment of clarity that demonstrated the importance of the issues we are working on and of gathering in celebration.
SPN: What resources and sources of information do you find the most helpful for your work?
Rick: I look to State Policy Network partners—the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation and Atlas Network are continual sources. I also look to communities. Only people know what is most important to them. Sutherland—and I—have learned time and time again, decisions should be made at the local level and to support that notion you need to speak to the people.
SPN: What State Policy Network staff member, training, or resource has had the greatest impact on your work?
Rick: I am still relatively new to the network but can state, even my early attempts to connect and participate are productive. The State Policy Network is making a difference—it is up to the membership to take full advantage of the resources.
SPN: What current issue or policy is nearest and dearest to your heart?
Rick: I am concerned with trend and tone in the area of religious liberty. I see emerging double standards in discussions around freedom of religion—or the freedom to have no religion. These complex conversations cross unprecedented lines in society. I have a commitment not only to the wisdom of our founding fathers, but to the necessity of our founding virtues. Thus, policy in this area will impact families and communities in profound ways.
SPN: If you had one piece of advice for others considering a career like yours, what would it be?
Rick: Leave your mind open to possibilities. The world needs educated and open minds.
SPN: When you’re not improving the world at work, where are you likely to be found?
Rick: After work, I am most likely to be found reading and preparing for a project back at the office that may improve the world. I am not particularly proud of that or endorsing the myopia, but it’s the truth.
SPN: Tell us about your favorite hobbies and pastimes.
Rick: My wife and I love travel that reveals history. Reading, of course. And as a one-time garage band guitar player, I also love classic rock.
SPN: Who are a few of your favorite authors, blogs, etc?
Rick: Arthur Brooks, Charles Murray, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and David McCullough. As far as blogs, I really like Simon Sinek.
Interested in learning more about the Sutherland Institute? Check out our recent interview about the work they’re doing in Utah.