Fran Rodgers did a beautiful job laying out the themes of our two-day virtual conference last week, and her metaphor of a mosaic, where the whole is much more than the sum of its parts, will stay with me. I want to bring us forward with a quick look back at what we’ve experienced together.
I’m left, as I so often am, with an overall feeling of hope. We face enormous challenges, of course, in preserving our democracy, saving the planet, making the economy work for everyone, and protecting the basic human rights that are under assault from the right to breathe free of police violence to the right to determine whether and when to bear a child. I don’t want to understate those challenges.
But my optimism is grounded in the young and diverse leaders who are forging the way, a number of whom shared their valuable time to talk with us during the conference – like Ricky Hurtado, the first Latino member of the North Carolina House of Representatives, who spoke with our own Roger Kim about climate and jobs; Rinku Sen of the Narrative Initiative, who talked with Bobby Clark of the Rural Democracy Initative about how to speak to voters in plain language, not the inaccessible babble of the faculty lounge; and Nse Ufot of New Georgia Project and Tomas Robles of LUCHA in Arizona, two amazing leaders of organizations supported by our New American Majority Fund, who spoke bluntly about what is needed to advance democracy and justice in their states – and everywhere. Dreama Caldwell, Courtenay Brown, Janeen Camenote, Maurice Mitchell, Kayla Reed, Aramis Ayala, Stephanie Valencia – as I move into a different phase of my professional life I am thrilled to follow these passionate, visionary leaders and to live in the world they are shaping.
As you know, this was my last conference as DA’s President, a position I have been privileged to hold since 2013. This is not a goodbye – I’ll be around the rest of this month as the search for my successor draws to a close, and I hope you’ll all come to the sendoff DA is giving me on June 16. But I do want to take the privilege to conclude, as I have from time to time in the past, by reminding us of what is signified by the two words of our name – the Democracy Alliance – together, and separately, and why they are so especially meaningful today.
I’m not sure how deliberate the founders of the DA were in leading with the word “Democracy,” but I’m pretty sure they did not anticipate, only 15 years ago, that in the second decade of the twenty-first century we could no longer take our democracy for granted, if we ever could. Of course democracy never worked for everyone in this country, and it’s taken much bravery over two centuries for those left out of the democratic compact to fight their way into it. All that is at stake yet again as the spirit and even the letter of Jim Crow laws is reborn in waves of voter suppression measures. But today a minority party saddled with unpopular policies fights for survival by working as its number one priority to rig democracy by installing exclusionary voting practices, perpetuating anti-democratic vestiges like the filibuster, blatant gerrymandering, and packing courts that will preserve minority rule no matter what. We dodged a bullet in the 2020 election, but we are frighteningly close to the kind of illiberal “democracy” that has taken root in other countries.
So we fight for democracy as our central goal. We are getting dead serious about power, in the way our opponents are. And we recognize that no democracy can function without an economy that works for everyone, with strong labor unions at its core, and with the elimination of white supremacy and patriarchy in every sphere, from criminal justice to education to housing. The speakers you heard during this spring conference, and the strategic giving recommendations your partner-led Investment Committee has put forth, provide the roadmap we need.
2020 reminded us that elections, even national elections, are won in the states, so investing Power Funds—Climate Equity, New American Majority and the Strategic Victory Fund, is critical. Many DA Partners are leading for democracy reform, with particular interest in the federal legislation, however we know that legislation depends on state based advocacy capacity, and we also know the assault on voting rights and election security will continue in our states, directly threatening our path to success in 2022 and 2024 if we don’t build capacity in communities of color and other key demographics, including rural and women voters.
In fact all the policy reforms we are hopeful about with the new Administration depend on robust state engagement, state voices, and broad civic engagement. That’s why we closed our 15th annual DA Spring Conference with a call to invest now in the work in battleground and swing states, and in places like West Virginia, where Senate influence matters.
Finally, “alliance.” If “democracy” is what we are about, then “alliance” is how we achieve it. Rob Stein, our founder, had a moment of simple genius when he realized that changing this country was not just about having a plan, but about building a community to move it forward. Our strategic giving has had enormous impact over the years, and continues to at this moment. But the relationships we have steadily built undergird that impact, and sustain us through good times and bad. They are what is making it possible now, in the donor community, with our friends and colleagues who are activist movement leaders — and yes, the many allies and movement leaders we now have throughout the Biden-Harris administration – for the progressive movement to be as unified behind a bold governing agenda as we have ever been. We built that together.
The pandemic has strained us all, and we can’t wait for the day – not far off in the fall – when we can greet each other, hug one another, catch up and scheme over coffee, drinks or meals. I may not be there, but one of the great privileges of my life has been getting to know and work with all of you, and I look forward to many years of talks and hugs in whatever city we find one another, in whatever common enterprise we share.
Deep thanks to the DA staff and board members who worked so hard to bring it to us, let’s vow to preserve our democracy through our alliance, now and always.