11/06/2012 07:36 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

How to Become an Activist

Emily Sussman, Executive Director of Young Democrats of America, was someone who didn't think she could make a big impact on the world. Then she became a critical player in the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Emily talks about buying lamps, identifying what she saw as real societal need and wearing pant suits to the Pentagon.

Were you from a political family?

No, not at all. I wanted to fix justice in the world, but I wasn't political at all.

How were you going to fix justice?

Well, I didn't know. I had never been very successful in school before. I was kicked out of my major twice in college for not doing work. The scope of what I could achieve was lower. If I wanted to have a big impact on the world, I needed to think in a more moderated way. I would never be one of those people to have large-scale impact. They were all lawyers, I was sure of it.

But then you became a lawyer.

I stopped thinking you had to be brainy to go to law school. I met enough lawyers who weren't.

So what was LS like?

I was very intimidated. I went into every single class, every single day, feeling like I was going to throw up. And I cried every single day from the beginning, then every other day. Then I started buying lamps and kept buying lamps.

How many lamps did you buy?

I must have had fifteen by the end. My roommate said I was like a mad professor because I would circle the lamps around me so they were all shining down on the desk. I had really never studied before and didn't know how to be good at it. So I studied all the time to make sure. All the time. So I actually ended up doing pretty well in law school, but it was mostly motivated by fear. I felt like I had to understand everything or I understood nothing. I actually still feel that way.

When did the politics come in?

While I was in law school, one of my closest friends was starting to run for Congress in the 2006 election. I was very proud of him and wanted to support him, so I tried to get my friends involved. I sent the most passionate fundraising email that's ever been written in the history of time. "Hey guys, He's this young guy! He's awesome! We all have to get behind him!" I raised zero dollars. I thought I must be doomed. Nobody cares.

But then I thought, I must be doing this wrong. I thought about it more. I talked to a friend and we decided to start this organization called Think Blue, which was to help move people from caring about social issues to seeing the connection to electoral politics. Won't it be much easier for all these issues we care about if we get people into office who are sympathetic to our views? So we worked on that during the second and third years of law school.

How did you get involved in LGBT issues?

I went to law school to be an advocate and very quickly I realized that most of the communities I really wanted to be advocating for had an underpinning in law, and it was all about enforcing or amping up that law. But the one community that had no legal underpinning was the LGBT community. In my last semester of law school, I wrote a comparison of how different countries had responded to having openly gay people in their militaries, which eventually led to my later job.

What'd you do right after law school?

My friend who was running for Congress in 2006 had won, and he had just taken over as the lead sponsor of the Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal bill. That's the friend I raised no money for, but he forgave me. He said I think you should work on this issue, given your background. So he called the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. He said I know you don't have any positions open, but I'd like you to give my friend a try. They started me in the legislation department as an unpaid legislative assistant. They said they'd give me a couple months trial. Then I forced my way in.

There were so many lamps in your office.

Mostly fans, actually, because there was terrible circulation in there. By the time we got DADT repealed I was Co-director of Government Affairs. The Pentagon policy team was putting together the largest, comprehensive report on personnel that's ever been done. The servicemembers couldn't speak for themselves because if they did they'd get kicked out. There was no legal protection for them. We'd asked and they wouldn't give them. So I was representing their policy interests on behalf of them to the Pentagon.

Was that exciting?

Oh my god! I never thought I would be sitting in the Pentagon with all these generals. Oh my god, how did I get here? But I also felt like whatever I was feeling had to be secondary to my responsibility toward our clients, our constituents. There was no opportunity for me to be nervous and not speak because there may not be another opportunity for this issue to get raised, or this concern.

That's far from thinking you weren't good enough at school to be in charge.

It was quite shocking. How did I get to where I'm wearing all these pants suits? I definitely felt like I was faking it all the time. I guess we all feel like we're faking it a little bit all the time.

How was it when the bill passed?

In the end, the defense bill failed twice and was going to come up for a vote the third time. There is very arcane senate law about how long a bill can be bought up for before it can be voted on and there was only time for one bill left. So they found this bill -- I think it was healthcare for small business -- that had already been passed by both Houses that the President had not yet signed into law. They went to the House Rules Committee, stripped out all the language, added in the DADT repeal language, voted on it that day, and sent it over to the Senate. That's actually how the bill was passed because there was no time for it.

How did that feel?

It was the most unbelievable... It was amazing. And actually, there's a documentary. It's called The Strange History of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and they followed us for two years. I feel really lucky that I had this experience to work with a community that I care very deeply about, but then to watch it on a well-produced video is extra amazing. When I watch the documentary, I get anxious, because I feel like I did during those months. That's when we knew it was all over and like people's lives were going to be so much better because of this.