The Koch Associate Program (KAP) was not what James Bergman expected. “I thought I was going to be reading a lot of de Tocqueville and talking about political theory,” Bergman, who graduated from KAP in May 2020, said about his initial perceptions. “But during my interview, they asked me: What’s a problem that you see in society, and how would you fix it?”
For Bergman, a graduate of Furman University, that was just the right question to ask. During his time as a Koch associate, Bergman, who now works in development at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in Washington, got the time and space to consider the change he wants to effect, and he’s settled on a few answers—and a lot more questions.
We caught up with him recently to learn about his time as a Koch associate.
Tell me a little about yourself.
I am from Overland Park, Kansas, not far from Kansas City, and I grew up in a confluence of rural, suburban, and urban life. I ended up going to school in South Carolina, at Furman, and I went in expecting to do science or pre-med. But I took organic chemistry my first semester, and was not in love with it, to say the least! I ended up majoring in Latin and religion. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do after graduation, but I found out about KAP and applied after I got my job at ALEC.
Tell me about how you spent your days in the program.
We worked on a few things. Number one is Market Based Management®, which the Institute believes will be a useful paradigm for us as we move forward as leaders in social entrepreneurship. The second thing is helping us find our passion and self-actualize, to see where that fits into market opportunities and what your unique gifts and talents are. We’ve had guest speakers on policy and lessons on social entrepreneurship. Finally, there are also lots of sessions led by people at CKI who are focused on helping you self-actualize and find your passion.
So what did you find out?
I found out a little bit more about where I see myself working, and how I can see myself making positive change. I’m definitely starting to see that I want to create change through cultural and social and community-based organizations.
Another thing, I’ve always had this intense sense that I’m supposed to find my calling, or my vocation, and I was going to find it and be done. But I know that’s not how to do it. People change careers so frequently. You can keep finding things that interest you and where you can still make a difference. KAP did a very good job of giving the associates time and space to reflect and really evaluate where we are in life and what we think is important.
Have you had any experiences that influence your thinking?
I interacted to a considerable degree with state and local government in high school and college, not necessarily in a political sense. But when my family was starting a vineyard in Kansas, there were incredible regulatory hoops to jump through. And then in college, I got in a zoning battle with Greenville County, S.C., because we were told we had to move or get our fraternity house rezoned. Those kinds of things change your framework and focus you on where you think the barriers are to improving society.
You see libertarianism as a way to make positive change in society. Tell me about that.
Libertarianism is less about political affiliation and more about wanting to help people and doing it in a way that preserves individual liberty and helps people break barriers, rather than just giving them whatever they need. It’s about allowing people to lift themselves up. My dad is a small-government conservative and definitely influenced my thinking.
What kind of change do you see yourself wanting to effect?
To me, all positive change is cultural. The government very rarely will step in and effect positive change without cultural backing. So to me, first of all, I want to be more on the ground. I’m still figuring out exactly the types of change I want to make, but that was the basis of my KAP individual project. My interests in religious pluralism morphed into a group project about political polarization. But I think both of those concepts get at the same thing: I’m a mediator, and I help bring people together. And I think those are the types of changes I want to make. I want to be able to bring people who disagree together to have a productive conversation.
Learn more about the Koch Associate Program and apply today.