Zephyr Rain Teachout J.D. '99, A.M. '99, Accidental Internet Guru

Writer: 
November 30, 2007

Les Todd

"I have had a sort of peripatetic life," says Zephyr Rain Teachout. This turns out to be no mild understatement.

In the span of her career, Teachout has held jobs as a waitress, campaign volunteer, textbook translator, founder of a nonprofit legal center, Internet guru, and law professor. Somewhere along the way, she also managed to change the role of technology in electoral politics.

After graduating from Yale University in 1993, Teachout held a series of odd jobs. It wasn't until she shared a fortuitous elevator ride with Howard Dean's chief of staff in 1994 that she found herself in politics.

Dean was launching his gubernatorial campaign, and Teachout became his operations director, a title she earned because she answered the phone when someone asked to speak to the operations director. Other than volunteers, there were only three people on the campaign, which, combined with Dean's overwhelming popularity in Vermont, put Teachout on the fast track to the campaign's inner circle.

After Dean won the election, Teachout traveled and worked in Morocco on a database of English textbooks. She returned to the U.S. in the mid-'90s and became an assistant to Georgia Shreve, an Upper East Side writer in New York. She also applied to Duke Law School and was accepted into a joint degree program in political science.

"At Duke, I learned the joy of really being a good student, of reading closely and paying attention," she says.  She became the editor in chief of Duke's law journal and graduated summa cum laude.

After a year spent clerking for Chief Judge Edward R. Becker, U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, she decided to return to Durham to help launch and operate a nonprofit legal center with some friends. Called the Fair Trial Initiative, the center was founded with the mission of providing representation for those accused of capital crimes. The center hired young law-school graduates to work on death-penalty cases.

But soon another campaign beckoned. Dean was running for president, and Teachout moved back to Vermont to volunteer for his staff. She worked her way up to director of online organizing, despite the fact, she says, that she was not computer savvy.

Even so, she began using online social networking tools, such as chat rooms and electronic mailing lists, to help Dean supporters mobilize their resources. Her idea was to create Internet resources for supporters to meet one another electronically in order to plan for and engage in political work in their communities.

The idea took off, and she became the cyber brains behind Dean's successful online campaign, which is credited with revolutionizing online political organizing and creating a new model for modern-day activism.

Although she still describes herself as an "accidental Internet guru," after the campaign ended, Teachout became a recognized authority on how to use the Web to organize and motivate supporters and engage citizens more actively in the political process. She plans to continue to study the relationship between the Internet and governance in her new post as a visiting assistant professor at Duke Law School.

Even now, Teachout says she cares about the Internet only to the extent that it seriously engages citizens in the political process—so that they become more than what she describes as "virtual stamp lickers and door knockers."

Online political participation has made it easy for people from a wide variety of backgrounds to become as politically active as they choose to be, she says. "It's hard to use the Internet successfully in a way that is not just a little bit democratizing."