The Changing Present

July 3, 2013

                                 (photo credit: New American Leaders Project)

The demographics of the United States are changing: Today, 30% of Americans identify as a minority and by 2050, we’ll be a majority-minority country. Today, 25% of kids under 5 are Hispanic; by 2050, that number will be 40% of kids. Between 1990 and 2005, first- and second-generation immigrants started one out of every four venture-backed public companies. With every passing year, the face of America is growing more diverse, and with that change comes a stronger economy and, undoubtedly, a new electoral reality.

Such profound demographic changes bring the promise of a progressive resurgence at the polls. We hear all the time how candidates are seeking the “Latino vote”, or the “Asian vote”, and increasingly, communities of color are commanding the margins and deciding election outcomes. But all too often after election day, underrepresented communities are left out of the decision-making process altogether – important enough to get someone elected, not important enough to be a true partner in governing, and not organized or powerful enough to hold politicians accountable to the promises they made before election day.

At Wellstone Action, we, and many of our partners across the country, are working to change the face of politics – and the faces of politicians. As our senior trainer and partnership manager, Adriana Barboza, states, “We are now entering into an era where there is a real interest in developing leaders from immigrant communities to run for office themselves. Elections don’t have to be about voting for ‘the lesser of two evils’, where immigrants and other underrepresented groups are forced to choose the candidate who they hope will do a better job of understanding the issues that really matter to the community; someone running for office who is of the community, who is an immigrant herself or himself, is becoming more real, more within reach, more possible that ever before.”

Enter the New American Leaders Project

For our movement to be whole, any “progressive resurgence” must build up the leadership of every community. People who have been underrepresented, marginalized, or only peripherally paid attention to in the days before Election Day must themselves be equipped to run – and win – campaigns and candidacies, gaining the power to effect positive change directly for our communities and our country.

To win this change, Wellstone Action joined forces with the New American Leaders Project (NALP), the nation’s only organization focused on preparing first- and second-generation immigrants for civic leadership, and especially running for elected office. Since its start three years ago, NALP has held a dozen full-scale trainings and Wellstone Action has been a major part of every one of them.

Sayu Bhojwani started NALP three years ago, and says partnering with Wellstone was a natural and important fit. “The partnership let us ramp up much faster”, says Sayu.

“There were certain aspects of what we wanted to do that didn’t need to involve reinventing the wheel because the Wellstone trainings modules were so strong. So a curriculum evolved that met the needs and culture of our specific immigrant communities and that maintained Wellstone’s effective lessons and strategies for success.”

For ten years, Wellstone Action has developed curricula rooted in the Wellstone Triangle – the idea that change happens only when we combine electoral politics, grassroots organizing, and public policy to grow the next generation of progressive leaders. Everything we teach at Wellstone Action comes back to that time-tested theory of change. So when it came to working with NALP, we would combine our road-tested candidate and campaign curriculum that has already propelled more than 600 Wellstone alumni into elected office with our commitment to NALP’s values, and our shared goal of changing the face of government as we know it.

Growing Immigrant Power

Our partnership with NALP acknowledges a basic, if truly unfair, truth: that first- and second- generation immigrants face unique challenges when they decide to run for office. As an example: recently, a NALP alumna and candidate in Arizona was forced to bring her birth certificate to court to prove her citizenship before her name would be put on the ballot. Our trainings with NALP anticipate these challenges, teach prospective candidates how to face them head on, and work towards a country where future generations never have to face such injustices. It’s an immigrant-specific, skill-development program unlike anything that’s been done before.

The candidate development training we do with NALP has a wide breath, from effective messaging to governing with conviction. One good example of how we took our proven Wellstone Action curriculum and customized it to meet the needs of NALP is with how we teach fundraising. Says Sayu, “We talk a lot about how immigrants are seen as under-resourced and poor. People don’t go to those grassroots communities, their own communities, for financial support. We do specific training work about how to approach your community because it’s important to engage them in every part of your campaign, including fundraising, whether it’s $5 or $250.”

Since the start, our collaboration has empowered hundreds of immigrants to get in involved in their community, city hall, and the Capitol. This work with NALP is at the heart of Wellstone Action’s mission, “We are building leaders in communities that no one else is paying attention to,” explains Adriana, “especially at a time when national immigration reform is being considered, this is the Wellstone Triangle at work. We’re impacting electoral politics and grassroots organizing as a way to effect good public policy.”

 In the last three years, we’ve been all over the country with NALP, from Miami to Phoenix, Los Angeles. to Chicago, and many stops in-between. In every state, our work is making a difference. Says Sayu:

“As I was starting NALP, I looked at a lot of leadership development organizations. But with Wellstone Action, I found a partnership that was absolutely the right fit for the kind of values-based curriculum we wanted to build for immigrants, by immigrants. Our partnership has been flexible and nimble to meet our specific goals at NALP. It’s been forward looking, it’s been incredibly collaborative, and it’s been a fantastic partnership, it just clicked.”

What Comes Next

In politics, they say, demographics are destiny. And that might be true when it comes to the turning of a progressive tide in America. But if that tide does not reflect the rich diversity and changing makeup of our country, than it will be incomplete movement. So our work with NALP will continue. “I’m excited for what comes next”, says Sayu. “I look forward to us working together in a new, even stronger phase of our partnership. As our organization matures, we are shifting, along with the demographics of our country, and will have a growingly profound effect on elections across the country thanks to our work with Wellstone.”

Relying on demographic shifts alone to change the face of government won’t have the impact we want, or move forward the values we hold. It will take the proactive work of NALP and Wellstone Action to shape a new generation of progressive victories that reflects our changing communities and empowers new Americans to play a central role in charting a progressive future for our country.