Democracy Alliance Blog / From The President / May 8, 2023

DA Spring Conference Opening Remarks from Pamela Shifman

Democracy Alliance Spring Conference Opening Remarks
Pamela Shifman, Democracy Alliance President
Charlotte, North Carolina—May 8, 2023

I’d like to begin by telling you a story about an incredible woman. Someone who showed up for democracy – almost 70 years ago. The year was 1955. The city was Montgomery, Alabama.  A bus boycott was about to launch –a boycott that would capture the attention of the country.

A woman fed up with the racist indignities that were a daily fact of life for Black people stepped up and changed the course of history. 

But … I’m not talking about Rosa Parks. I’m talking about Georgia Gilmore. 

Georgia Gilmore was a Black woman, a Montgomery resident, and a cook. And she decided to use her talent to feed – and fund – what history would come to know as the Montgomery bus boycott. 

Ms. Gilmore organized other Black women to form the Club From Nowhere, and together they prepared sandwiches and cakes and pies. They sold this food at beauty salons, and laundromats, and out of their homes and at protest meetings. 

The Montgomery bus boycott lasted 381 days. Brilliantly strategic, it involved an intricate carpool system led by domestic workers. Ms. Gilmore and the Club from Nowhere secretly nourished and sustained all of it. They fed and they funded the boycott.

Fast forward a decade. A performer in New York City receives an urgent phone call from a SNCC leader. Without the present-day equivalent of $500,000, the student voter registration drive in Mississippi would grind to a halt.  

The recipient of that phone call– along with his wife – got to work. They called all their friends and hosted fundraisers to raise the cash. Soon, they collected the equivalent of $700,000. But they needed to deliver it – fast. 

So the recipient of that phone call – the amazing Harry Belafante, who died a few weeks ago at 96 – calls his best friend, Sidney Poitier, and the two board a small Cessna to sneak a suitcase with the cash into Greenwood, Mississippi. 

The trip was successful. Voter registration continued. 

Movement moments sometimes look like they come out of nowhere. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat. Colin Kapernick taking a knee. Marsha P. Johnson at a bar called Stonewall.

And moments led by people you are about to meet right here at our conference…..

Amanda Jones, a librarian in Louisiana, who bravely spoke out against book banning and faced death threats–but did not stop. Amanda is here with us.

Or Andrew Warren, a Florida prosecutor who refused to act on Florida’s cruel bans on abortion and gender affirming care and was removed from office by Governor DeSantis. Andrew is also here.

Or Reverend Erika Ferguson who risks arrest every day by aiding and abetting a crime–the crime of helping people leave Texas to seek reproductive health care

Or Fox Rich, who fought for two decades to free her husband from Louisiana’s cruel, so-called ‘justice system’ and a 60-year sentence. You are in for a treat: Fox Rich and her husband Rob are also with us. 

These moments  of courage propel our movements – and our democracy – forward. They involve great personal risk. The outcome is never certain.

But that is exactly when we all must show up. 

Behind every movement moment is a community of people who were called to show up–and who do. In different ways, with different roles.

And one of those roles is this: To fund the work that moves us one step closer to a true democracy.  Like Georgia Gilmore and Harry Belafonte.   Like so many of you every day….

In philanthropy we talk a lot about risk: the risk of investing in efforts that aren’t guaranteed or even likely to succeed. But the reality is this: the real risk is NOT investing in the people, the organizers who are literally saving our democracy. Not investing in our people like we want them to win.

In 2023 and in 2024, we are being called to show up for democracy in big ways.  

When the DA Board chose to host our conference in North Carolina, we couldn’t have known everything that would happen over the last few weeks.

A Democrat switching parties to create a Republican supermajority. A state supreme court giving Republicans free rein to dismantle democracy. A cruel abortion ban. 

Over the next few days, we get to meet some of North Carolina’s incredible progressive leaders. We will learn how innovative organizing is crossing race and place and gender and geography to win big. 

But we will also hear about the rising threats. This landscape of threats and opportunities mirrors what we face across the country.

Nearly half the states have banned abortion or are about to. More than 500 bills are targeting LGBTQ rights across the country. We are literally debating the merits of child labor, thanks to Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

And yet…momentum is on our side.

We defied all expectations in last year’s midterm elections. We did it again this year, when Brandon Johnson became the next mayor of Chicago, and I am thrilled we will welcome him tomorrow. Judge Janet Protasiewicz surged to a win in the Wisconsin Supreme Court–fueled by so many of you–and powered by young people on the ground who believe in reproductive freedom and democracy.  

And we are seeing the impact of our wins with life changing policies. Like ending the so-called “right to work” law in Michigan. Enshrining child care in the New Mexico State constitution. Billions of dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act are about to flow into our communities.

With so much momentum – it’s time to go on offense. Thanks to each of you, at the DA we have a ten-year plan to win. And you’ll see it woven through every session over the next few days.

We will invest in the power of organized workers and a labor movement on the rise. We are going to invest in our most visionary leaders, often women and women of color, who are doing the hard work of democracy unrecognized and under-resourced. We will lift up our youth who are unapologetically transforming our future; 

We’re going to unrig the rules of our democracy, so the right can’t cheat themselves into power anymore. We’re going to expand the political map as we know it.  We cannot be one election away from catastrophe every 4 years. 

And to do this: we will grow the pie of resources for democracy—bringing more donors and more money to the field, including a wave of next generation donors.  We will practice radical collaboration. 

This is a long-term plan, but it starts right now. 2023 is not an off year. We’ve got critical elections in Virginia and Pennsylvania.  Ohio needs our resources now to win in 2024 and beyond. 

We must also build muscle in blue states like New York and California where the road to the House lies. 

All across the South—and Southwest from North Carolina to Tennessee to Georgia to Mississippi, and Arizona—there is nothing but opportunity.  We must invest deeply and collaboratively  in the current battlegrounds, but we cannot stop there.  We simply cannot. 

The work we do right now will lay the groundwork for 2024—and far beyond. When movement moments break through in communities all across our country, we will be there to answer the call. Like Georgia Gilmore. Like Harry Belafonte. And like all of you.

Thank you all so much for being here—and for showing up for the work ahead.