Strengthening Democracy

July 5, 2013

What could be more fundamental than the right of every American to vote?

Yet we know the goal of a fully inclusive democracy is far from our grasp. The lines at the polls are too long, voting rights are too limited, and the doors for decision makers are too often shut to the rest of us.

Across the country, the work for a stronger democracy is championed by State Voices. They empower state networks, or “tables,” of civic engagement groups with the resources, trainings, and capacity-building skills they need to engage more Americans in our democratic process.

Matt Brix, Director of Strategic Capacity Building at State Voices, describes it this way: “Our network is comprised of state tables – networks of grassroots organizations in the states that come together to plan their nonpartisan civic engagement work, support each other, and share ideas, tools and resources. They embody the notion of “power in numbers” and also the power of permanency.”

Over the last several years, Wellstone Action has crisscrossed the country to lead trainings and facilitate dialogues with these state tables. These permanent state collaboratives work year-round to strengthen our democracy, and we work tirelessly along with them to build community capacity and empower new leaders. No matter the state, our theme is the same: working together to empower our partners to strengthen democracy – and always with an eye toward the Wellstone Triangle.

Over many years, the partnership between Wellstone Action and state voices has grown increasingly strong, “It’s a very close relationship,” explains Brix, “Together, we are always thinking about how we collaborate and integrate our work and how we do it from a place of values.”

Voices from Texas

Our work with the Texas Civic Engagement Table during the 2012 election is just one example of our broader nationwide collaboration with State Voices. Texas in 2012, like a lot of the nation, was undergoing a colossal demographic shift. The second-largest state (by square miles and by population), working in Texas meant working across regions and across languages to strengthen democratic participation amongst new and old residents.

Throughout the election, we partnered with the Texas Civic Engagement Table for two large-scale trainings. First, we went to Houston for a training focused on the messages and organizing strategies that would promote broader voter engagement. We talked about canvassing, effective one-on-one conversations, and building an effective communications plan. In total, dozens of partner organizations, from student groups, immigrant rights organizations, and civic engagement foundations, joined us in Houston.

The second training, along the border, just outside of the McAllen–Edinburg–Mission, was particularly impactful. Wellstone Action delivered the training in Spanish for over 150 community members from across the region. This was a community that was already active locally, fighting to get more street lights in neighborhoods. And our work gave them the tools to engage with civic decisions and democratic processes at a state and national level. Adriana Barboza, our Senior Trainer and Partnership Manager explains why this was so important:

No one is focusing on training and empowering these growing communities along America’s border with Mexico. So our training engaged folks further to take ownership of the process and democratize their community. It was needed. It was appreciated. It was very successful. And it was just one step to a stronger democracy for Texas and for the country.

The end result of this work in Texas was two-fold: first, we empowered existing community leaders to engage more members of their community in the democratic process. Second, we gave new leaders the skills they needed to turn out their neighbors, friends, and families to vote and have their voices heard. Our work is helping to make sure that election turnout in Texas reflects the diversity of Texas’ population.

It’s a people-centered leadership development that’s at the heart of everything we do at Wellstone Action, and it also happens to be the only kind of leadership development with staying power over the long-haul.

Voices from Everywhere

Today, State Voices and Wellstone Action have a nationwide partnership that is built on a deep mutual respect for the work being done by both organizations:

“Soup to nuts, Wellstone Action is doing great things. They produce wonderful trainings, and people who come out of them are very successful. I’m not just saying that, you can objectively test against that; work that comes out of Wellstone Action is successful, usable, and practical, and you can prove that with the people who come out of their trainings - people have the skills that are the heart of being successful organizational and community leaders.” – Matt Brix

Want another example of how State Voices and Wellstone Action are transforming the civic engagement landscape? How about several:

  • In Pennsylvania, the epicenter of Voter ID laws that seek to disenfranchise countless voters, we led strategic planning discussions with a State Voices coalition working to fight back and expand Pennsylvanians’ access to democracy.
  • In San Diego, the majority of the residents are people of color or immigrants, yet community organizations had little experience and no infrastructure to engage all members of the quickly diversifying community. We worked with the area’s table to train community members to empower more voices in the democratic process. And we’re part of a sea-change in the region to support a more representative democracy.
  • In New Mexico , a state we’ve returned to many times over our ten-year history, we work with the frontline groups that make up the state table to equip them the with tools and skills to engage underrepresented communities, helping local leaders become changemakers on key issues across the state.

There are several key states where Wellstone Action is growing a culture of civic engagement. But when it comes to our work with State Voices, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. State by state, training after training, we’re building a movement to strengthen our democracy. And there’s nothing more fundamental to our nation’s future then that.