How Progressives Win: Disrupt DC’s Ruling Class And Empower A Diverse Grassroots Coalition

It is Time to Build a Movement Responsive to a Diverse Electorate

Millions of young people sat home or cast a protest vote in November’s elections, no doubt a factor in the surprising election of Donald Trump as President. But we shouldn’t have been so surprised. The homogeneous DC consultant class—a small, elite group of mostly white men who’ve been using the same tired set of tools for years, if not decades—chose not to speak authentically to our growing diverse electorate. Rather than finding new ways to engage with communities who felt disconnected from our polarized political process, they took these votes for granted, certain that Trump’s very Trump-ness would be enough of a motivating reason to vote, and to vote for Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t.

Yet in the days, weeks and months since the election, we’ve seen tremendous grassroots energy and growing resistance against the Trump Administration. Americans of all stripes are engaged in the civic process—calling their Members of Congress, marching in the streets, signing petitions, and organizing new groups at a level not seen since the civil rights movement. Even more exciting, these fledgling groups have been led overwhelmingly by women, people of color, and young people—breathing new life into a political process that sorely needs it.

This is, clearly, a positive development. But there are hundreds of resistance groups, some gaining national acclaim and some decidedly local. How do we ensure these new groups are working together for maximum impact? What’s the right way to build a cohesive, unified movement that brings diversity and inclusivity to the forefront of the political discussion? And most critically, how do we ensure that the post-election energy and current momentum endures as a thriving and durable progressive ecosystem?

The Resistance Summit: Energized and Excited

To start that conversation, on Thursday, April 6th, Civic Engagement Fund co-hosted From the Ground Up: The Progressive Path to Political Leadership at Harvard Law School with the law school’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute For Race & Justice.

We hosted three panels of diverse speakers who are all making incredible strides in engaging voters across the country, including Rashad Robinson of Color Of Change, Debra Cleaver of vote.org, Ximena Hartsock of Phone2Action, and Ashley Allison former Deputy Director and Senior Policy Advisor for The White House Office of Public Engagement. (Click here for a complete list.) Our inspiring speakers energized the audience and solidified in us the knowledge that by bringing diverse organizations together in a unified coalition, we have the ability to change the political landscape to reflect an increasingly progressive and culturally diverse America.

Civic Engagement Fund was founded with the idea that to make lasting progressive change, we must align these groups, then serve as an accelerator for underfunded but effective grassroots organizations—allowing them to scale their ability for nationwide impact.

But how? Our conference offered three clear guideposts for next steps:

Choose Progressive Values Over Party Affiliation

While concerns around President Trump and the Democratic Party’s shortcomings were frequently discussed at From the Ground Up, the day’s uniting theme was not party affiliation. Throughout the day, the phrase “shared progressive values” became a rallying cry. We discussed wholeheartedly the importance of defending the values of equality, diversity, and inclusion while actively rejecting the forces of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and suppression. Our democracy is not healthy when it is characterized by low voter turnout, rampant misinformation, and laws that obstruct the ability for countless voters to cast ballots.

As citizens begin to shift their focus committing their support to a separate, progressive belief system. Americans are beginning to show unity around supporting the values of an open and free society, and we fully believe that democracy will thrive only when it is representative of its people (with regards to both racial diversity and values) and responsive to the communities it represents.

Disrupt and Unify Through Diversity

One of the striking takeaways from this group of leaders was its composition. Diverse across race and gender (there wasn’t a single white male featured on the tech panel!), it presented a new face representative of a multi-cultural movement. Frequently discussed on our diverse panels was the sentiment that as the American electorate grows in diversity, there is a lag in seeing representative diversity across positions of power.

One of DC’s worst kept secrets is the alarming homogeneity across its political organizations. Speaking frankly, the industry is dominated by white males who lack the cultural competency to communicate effectively to an increasingly diverse electorate. Yet regardless of their outcomes, the same few consultants are rehired every cycle to enormous contracts. As a result, there is little market pressure for them to perform or innovate and this lack of competition leads to stagnation and a setting ripe for disruption.

Juxtaposing the homogeneity of DC’s “ruling elite” with the speakers at this summit, it was clear that the time for disruption is now. Our panels featured a wide assortment of genders, races, and sexual orientations, and for once the only requirement was talent. By marrying innovative technology with cultural diversity and a grassroots bottom-up approach, we have the opportunity to drive significantly higher impact than the current, traditional strategies of voter engagement.

Organize The Resistance

Bringing disparate groups into the same room is a start. The second phase is incentivizing collaborative strategic alliances among diverse grassroots organizations. The progressive movement will never be a tight command and control structure, but as the resistance evolves to begin impacting future elections, thoughtful collaboration across these still nascent organizations is critical to maximizing the impact on civic engagement.

Now Is The Time For Optimism and Hope

An overarching theme of hope emerged from the day. Our panelists were energized and optimistic that their efforts would result in a more progressive vision of America that is better aligned with the relevance of their daily lives. Despite the challenges ahead, our leaders were as determined as ever. The arc of American progress is one of increasing diversity and acceptance and we believe that by energizing voters, enabling fresh candidates, and holding representatives accountable we will build the political promise of a rising progressive majority, and we’re excited to dive in and help make this vision possible.

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