This project is part of Democracy Day, a national effort to engage communities in conversations about democracy.
Nonprofits pitch in to bolster American democracy
Bay Area residents, like most Americans, may sometimes feel overwhelmed by the unrelenting stream of troubling news related to politics and democracy today — from the Jan. 6 insurrection to the effort to change state election laws to questions about whether the President of the United States is above the law.
But there are silver linings, and one largely unremarked piece of good news is that scores of nonprofits have joined the battle to keep democracy alive and well.
To explore this work, Bay City News has asked national and local nonprofits for their views on the state of our democracy – what is working, what is not and what we all should be considering as we approach the November midterm elections in a time of great division among Americans and the American electorate.
(Responses were provided in writing and in some cases have been edited for clarity and brevity).
Executive Director Kimi Lee
Bay Rising is an alliance of community-led organizations that organizes working class people and people of color as voters.
What are your organization’s biggest accomplishments?
- Since our founding, we have published voter guides for every regional election.
- We don’t just make endorsements, but also have face-to-face conversations with Black, Chinese, and Latino working people year-round about issues that affect them and issues that may be on the ballot. For example, in 2016, Bay Rising anchor organizations collectively ran the largest field campaigns in each of their cities – Oakland, San Francisco & San Jose – reaching 189,000 voters. We’ve only deepened our outreach since then.
- After the 2016 presidential election, Bay Rising helped convene the rapid response network Bay Resistance. Bay Resistance was a mass mobilization vehicle focused on capturing the energy of the many communities across the Bay Area who wanted to fight back against the policies of the Trump administration. Using this energy, Bay Resistance bolstered the long-term organizing efforts of existing grassroots organizations. At the peak of its activity, Bay Resistance had a 16,000-person rapid response text program and trained thousands of people in direct action, campaign development and civic engagement. In 2020, the network organized “How to Stop a Coup” workshops to prepare for attacks on the integrity of our elections and held a “Count Every Vote” event that brought people together during a difficult time.
- In 2019 and 2020, we coordinated a massive Census outreach strategy that reached over 500,000 people in eight languages across five counties (Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo), involving 15 partner organizations and nearly 50 organizers.
- We provided over 250,000 people with critical information on COVID-19 safety and vaccination through door-knocking, texting, emails, and phone banking in 2020. We also launched Masks for the Movement – a project that addressed the need for masks at the beginning of the COVID shut down when masks were unavailable and paid unemployed members to sew over 10,000 masks to sell to community members and provide masks to gig workers at no cost.
- In response to the pandemic, we supported members to adapt voter outreach to COVID-19 limitations through digital organizing, new canvassing protocols and strategies, and knowledge of the all-mail ballot system. We also started the Digital Organizing Training and Strategy (DOTS) Fellowship, now in its second year, to develop digital organizing skills in young organizers and deepen the digital organizing capacity of our partner groups.
What are the biggest challenges and what can be done?
Big money in politics creates a barrier for engagement and participation from our communities. The people of the Bay Area deserve a local government where our representatives represent all of us – where candidates and elected officials can focus on what our communities need, not what big-money donors and special interests want. If we want to see change on issues like affordable housing, community safety, and quality schools, we need more transparency about the outside groups that are spending millions to influence our elections and we need a more responsive city government. The Oakland Fair Elections Act is a great example of a set of solutions that will get us much-needed accountability in local government and make it possible for all Oaklanders to support candidates who will best represent them, no matter what neighborhood they live in, the color of their skin, or how much money they make. Learn more about the initiative here.
- Misinformation. Related to the influence of big donors, we are seeing a lot of misinformation and cherry-picked stories that make people scared to join together across their differences and act for the collective good – whether it’s about safety, or trust in government, or anything else. Bay Rising specializes in supporting our member groups with communications and messaging for this very reason. We need to counteract misinformation and shift the messages people are getting in order to build a stronger democracy where everyone participates.
- Challenges with voter engagement and turnout. We need to show respect for voters by talking to people in their own languages, one-on-one, and making sure regular people have real input on what, and who, is on the ballot from the very beginning. We need to make sure that more people, especially working-class people, Black, Latino, and Asian people, and trans and queer people have the opportunity to successfully run for office representing the values and interests of their communities. Some ways we can do that: move mayoral elections to presidential years, create “democracy dollars” programs (a model used in Seattle, which is also part of the Oakland Fair Elections Act mentioned above), and double down on the implementation of expanded voting rights that have already been approved – youth voting for 16-17 year olds, non-citizen voting in local elections, and restoration of voting rights for people with criminal histories. Let’s make sure people know their rights and use them.
How healthy is democracy in the Bay Area?
While some may say we have a healthy democracy here, our elections are really influenced by big money. Corporations and other groups like law enforcement associations are funneling money into our local elections and it makes it hard for regular people to run for office. In addition, and I’ll say this with my Bay Rising Action hat on, the two-party system is failing us. Many Democrats claim to be “progressive” but are actually more moderate; some are even conservative and side with Republicans on many issues. The progressive left needs to do more to combat the corporate agenda, and we need more ways to rein in big money.
What can be fixed and how?
There’s a lot we can do. Programs that make it easier for candidates who meet certain requirements to raise money from everyday voters, like matching funds or “democracy dollars,” and limits to corporate donations to candidates are a start. To address the two-party system, Bay Rising Action has helped to bring the Working Families Party to California and the Bay Area. We hope having a strong progressive political home will help to define progressive values better and help voters see that corporate Democrats are not aligned with our values.