Updated: Jul 23, 2022
By Claire Shang
If you stand outside a certain nondescript office building in Dumbo, you’ll see a free-standing whiteboard, just visible through the glass wall, that reads “Gravel Institute 1st Anniversary!” And if you’re lucky, as I was, you’ll shortly thereafter see Henry Magowan, CC ’22, jogging to unlock the door of his months-old headquarters, brushing past the height-adjustable conference tables sourced from Facebook Marketplace, and the “sweaty towels” wall sign left over from the space’s last life as a pilates gym, and the electric bike parked in the entrance, which he rides down from Morningside Heights twice a week. Of all things, the bike is what he explained to me first: “The fun is the speed.”
This description is also applicable to the Institute itself, which, in a nutshell, is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that releases political “explainer” videos around twice a month. Since last September, it’s amassed 300,000 Youtube subscribers, 360,000 followers on Twitter, and 75,000 on Instagram; its most-viewed videos are “Why America Sucks at Everything,” narrated by David Cross, and “What They Didn’t Teach You About the Civil War.”
But understanding the Institute is impossible without understanding what came before it. In March 2019, 88-year-old former Alaskan senator Mike Gravel, GS ’56, launched a bid for the Democratic nomination for president. Or, more accurately, it was launched on Gravel’s behalf by Henry Williams, CC ’23, and David Oks, now at Oxford but then in high school.
Gravel, who passed away in June 2021, was best known for reading the Pentagon Papers into the public record in 1971. His staunch anti-war, anti-establishment bent characterized his unsuccessful presidential run in 2008. During the debates, Gravel stood at the end of the stage, among Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama. “And he goes after all of them for being, for lack of a better word, stooges of the military-industrial complex,” Magowan remembered happily.
Mostly, Gravel’s campaign staff did not want him to win the nomination. But Williams and Oks hoped that Gravel—as a symbol for a radical, steely progressivism—could push the eventual nominee to take more progressive stances, like decriminalizing sex work. They also worked to achieve this goal of Gravel as gadfly by frequently deploying acerbic tweets personally attacking fellow candidates.
Magowan met Williams through their freshman fall stint as partners on Columbia Debate Society, and soon joined the campaign to head its finances. In a flurry of slightly puzzled press coverage, the trio was christened the “Gravel Teens.” With his experience as treasurer for the Boulder County Young Democrats and his knowledge of campaign finance law, Magowan was at first “instrumental in preventing us from getting sued,” said Williams. By the time the campaign dropped out in August, as Magowan’s sophomore year was starting, he had achieved its one main financial objective: meeting the 65,000 donor threshold to qualify for the debate stage. “It ended up being, like, 71,365 people,” said Magowan. Off the top of his head, he added that three-quarters were younger than 36.
The campaign was always intended to be about more than just one election. At the summer’s end, the Teens flew to visit Gravel in California. Together, they identified a “vacuum in one part of the left”: its inability to address the “huge problem on the right” of political propaganda, especially in the form of innocuous-seeming Youtube videos. The Gravel Institute, then, would directly counter decade-old PragerU, not an educational institution but a media hegemon releasing multiple videos a week—like “Fossil Fuels: The Greenest Energy” and “Where Are the Moderate Muslims?”—to its three million Youtube subscribers. PragerU’s flashy animations are bolstered by an annual marketing budget of at least $10 million. What else was there to do as a college junior during a pandemic?
Despite his title as co-founder and CFO, Magowan is employed as an independent contractor because of his part-time status—no different from his co-founders, the “fleet of animators,” the set designer, and the many other nodes in the Institute’s global web. The Institute technically has just one employee—Tymon Brown, who oversees video production and happened to stumble into our interview. As soon as he stepped into the office, Magowan said, by way of greeting, “You have to see this, holy shit!” The two ducked into the filming studio in the back.
This studio was the reason for establishing a headquarters this summer. Renting filming space in New York every month was unsustainable—over $10,000 for three days, said Magowan—and now the team can shoot more frequently. He envisions the office becoming an event space for leftist organizations across the city, so they went to Best Buy and got the biggest TV they could find on sale. One of the interior rooms is, for now, only occupied by a ping-pong table.
In mid-October, the studio was beginning to come together. Magowan had largely negotiated the office’s two-year lease on his own, and is now overseeing renovations. Standing in the corner, we looked up at the newly installed steel grid system, the latticed pipes on the ceiling constituting a professional-grade lighting system. He stepped back, swept his arm across the empty room. Next to be installed, he narrated matter-of-factly, would be a cyclorama, a 25-by-15-foot curved white wall that will backdrop videos and give the impression of boundlessness: an infinite expanse.
“We’re run by, basically, two 21-year-olds and one 20-year old,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re doing, so [Brown’s] the adult in the room.” But this demarcation was certainly a self-discrediting, a dismissal of the sense of boundless possibility that furnishes the office.
Before the office space existed as a tangible marker of the Gravel project, “reaching out to people online [was] the story.” Its moral, then, was that while there will always be more qualified people than you, there might not be any with as much gumption. After all, Oks and Williams had first tracked down Gravel’s email on a defunct website, a natural beginning to the campaign Magowan characterized as a “viral political marketing strategy.” And when the trio sought funding for their transition from campaign to Institute, they cross-referenced their Twitter following with LinkedIn. They found a Columbia alum who had worked at Tumblr in its earliest days; at a dinner party he hosted for the nascent Institute, Magowan, a glass of wine in, was fully “in pitch mode.” Soon, he realized he was handing his phone to David Karp, founder of Tumblr, who went on to contribute $25,000.
After Karp’s seed funding, the Institute has been successfully crowdfunded through Patreon: three or four thousand donors a month, averaging “$8.17, the last time I checked.” This effortless precision underpinned Magowan’s conversation; even when he spoke of his dreams, it was with a conviction that suggested he knows he can make them happen. As Williams described, he’s “ruthlessly, very effectively pragmatic.”
Next for the Institute is establishing a 501(c)(3) charity—the Gravel Institute Foundation, or “TGIF,” Magowan pointed out, smiling before he even got the letters out. In high school, a bulk of Magowan’s political work was spent registering young people to vote, and his obsession with sustainable political actions continues to this day. The projection is that tax-deductible charitable donations will allow the Institute to scale up its video-making capacity. Ambitiously, Magowan wants to release 100 videos this year. Or, “at the very least, one video a week.”
The Institute has started releasing short documentaries alongside their animated explainers. In April, the three co-founders went to Quito for eight days, bringing one sound guy and a professional documentarian. It was finals week; it was also the Ecuadorian presidential election. Progressive International, the group that invited them, assembled an election-observing team, and Magowan found himself effectively embedded into the headquarters of Andrés Arauz, the socialist candidate. He taught himself how to use a camera to avoid having to bring another contractor on the trip, and practiced the Spanish he grew up speaking with his Nicaraguan mother.
Now, he wants to travel more: to Spain, to film a video on Mondragón, the world’s largest co-op, as “a different way of life to the financialized industrial capitalism that we experience today”; to Portugal, to document the country’s campaign to legalize all drugs, which was a Gravel campaign policy. One day, he wants to retrace Che Guevara’s solo motorbike trip from Argentina to Peru—he already has the bike, after all.
“I always have stuff going on in the background,” he said at one point, ever the “entrepreneur.” And Gravel himself largely understood this. “He recognized that there was some sort of transaction going on, where he was getting one last hurrah and we were getting to use his name,” said Magowan. But at the same time, “it wasn’t that simple.” After two years of collaboration, Williams referred to Gravel as a “surrogate grandpa.” Magowan described him as a mentor, a friend, and, most of all, a genuine hero.
His hands remained in front of his body, fingers interlocked, for much of our two-hour conversation. By his side sat his water bottle, adorned with just two stickers: a Columbia crown and a fading Gravel Institute logo. “All I’ve ever known is doing both at the same time,” he said, when I attempted to suggest that the campaign and Institute had monopolized his college experience.
It’s easy to be startled by all Magowan has already done, but from the start, he’s been thinking of all that he has yet to do. He has a tattoo on his arm with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. He got it with two of his high school English teachers when he went home for his first winter break; they were in a book club together. The line is delivered by Billy’s mom, bedridden with pneumonia, who asks in a moment of rare self-awareness, “How did I get so old?” But for Magowan, far from regretful, the quote is a permanent reminder that he will never stop moving.