Former organizers drive change as elected officials

The lesson for donors is that funding community organizing creates change now and for decades to come.

Written by: Aaron Dorfman

Date: July 31, 2020

In a week that started with servant-leader John Lewis receiving a state viewing on Capitol Hill, it was fitting to see Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal hold Attorney General Bill Barr accountable about the administration’s arguably unconstitutional abuse of force against Black Lives Matters protesters in Washington, DC, Portland and other cities. Her advocacy was spot on, as she and other pointed out the flat-out discrimination of federal officials’ aggressive tactics on these protestors, as compared to their neutral position when confronting gun toting, pro-Trump, anti-mask groups in places like Michigan and Kentucky.

Like Rep. Jayapal, Rep. John Lewis’s career as a public servant began not in the halls of government, but as a key figure organizing others on the frontlines of the civil rights movement. Today, hundreds of former community organizers continue that legacy, serving as elected officials in every state and at all levels of government.

The story of community organizers holding elected office is not new. However, it’s worth repeating in this pivotal election year, when battles for the future of our nation are being fought in the streets, in the halls of Congress and at the ballot box.

There are also clear lessons for philanthropy. Donors are increasingly aware of the tremendous return on investment funding advocacy and community organizing provides. A rigorous NCRP study shows that for every dollar funders invest in those strategies, families and communities see $115 in benefits.

But what funders might not realize is that the investments that foundations and other donors made in community organizing 5, 10 or even 30 years ago are still paying off. As these savvy leaders move into the political arena, they bring with them an organizer’s sensibilities in order to catalyze change from the inside. Funder support for community organizing helped these leaders hone their skills and laid the groundwork for their impact as elected officials.

Organizing in the Halls of Power 

The Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair and representative of  Washington’s 7th district, Rep. Jayapal founded the immigrants’ rights organization OneAmerica after 9/11. She led the organization until 2012 and served briefly in the Washington State Senate before coming to Capitol Hill in 2017.

During the years Jayapal ran the organization, OneAmerica won the first state law to reduce penalties for misdemeanor convictions, ensuring these convictions do not lead to deportations and family separations. Additionally, the group convinced the City of Seattle to establish the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, and they advocated for and won policies to ensure that city agencies do not inquire about immigration status.

“While my title has changed, my job as an organizer has not,” says Rep. Jayapal. “Congress is an incredible organizing platform and we need more people on the inside with an organizer’s mentality to drive the change that all our communities need to fully thrive.”

Top foundation funders of OneAmerica during the years Jayapal led the organization include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Open Society Foundations, NEO Philanthropy, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, and the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

Another member of Congress who was grilling the Attorney General this past week was Congresswoman Karen Bass. She’s been in the national news quite a bit lately as former Vice President Joe Biden considers her a possible running mate on the Democratic Party ticket this November. The current chair of the Congressional Black Caucus is serving her fifth term representing California’s 37th district. Prior to her election to Congress, she served in the state legislature in California and was the first Black woman elected as Speaker of the California Assembly.

Yet, before she entered electoral politics, Rep. Bass was a community organizer. She founded Community Coalition in 1990, serving as its executive director until 2003. During her tenure, the organization secured $153 million for repairs in overcrowded South LA schools, successfully campaigned to ensured that South Los Angeles was rebuilt with significantly fewer liquor stores after the 1992 uprising, and more.

Dozens of foundations supported the work of Community Coalition during the years Bass led the organization, including The California Endowment and the Liberty Hill, Marguerite Casey, James Irvine, California Wellness and Charles Stewart Mott foundations.

Bass told Time Magazine in 2018 that she grew up not wanting to be an elected official, but to just continue the legacy of community activists that she witnessed as a child. Her election to the California legislature gave her “an opportunity to apply community organizing strategies in a legislative context.” While the stage has shifted, she still sees herself as playing a role in building community power and the leadership pipeline that democracy needs to be inclusive and just.

“Now I’m in a position to assist the next generation of activists and I take great pride in promoting new leaders. If one is seriously committed to improving society, the focus should always be on expanding the ranks of leaders who are prepared to work for positive change and improved social and economic opportunities.

Of course, Congresswomen Bass and Jayapal aren’t the only elected officials with this story. When I posted queries on social media about former organizers who now hold elected office, I received more than 100 names in just a couple of days. What it suggests is that after fighting to open the political system, a growing cadre of grassroots leaders are deciding that an inclusive and equitable democracy depends on their perspective being directly represented at Committee meetings and government votes.

Adds Rep. Jayapal, “If politics is the art of the possible, then it’s our job as activists and organizers, regardless of where we sit, to push the boundaries of what is seen as possible. To seize the opportunity to bring in people that may not have been there before and to build the coalitions necessary to drive change.”

Supporting and Expanding the Leadership Pipeline 

Several nonprofits are actively helping organizers seek elected office. The New American Leaders Project trains first and second generation immigrants to run for office, and many of their alumni are former community organizers. The organization re:power (formerly Wellstone Action) has trained more than 100,000 candidates, campaign managers and organizers since its founding in 2003. Many of their alumni are also former community organizers now holding elected office.

Once in office, many former organizers are part of networks that help them successfully move a progressive policy agenda. Local Progress is a network for local elected officials interested in advancing a racial and economic justice agenda. Its chair is Brad Lander, a former community organizer who is now a New York City Council Member, and its vice-chair is Helen Gym, a Philadelphia City Council Member and also a former organizer.

Foundations and high net worth donors should know that their investments in community organizing today not only will pay off with policy wins in the next few years, but also create a pipeline of effective elected officials in the years to come.

Aaron Dorfman is President and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. He was a community organizer from 1992 to 2007.

Disclosures: Dorfman serves on the board of re:power, and the Center for Popular Democracy, which provides staffing for Local Progress. He also participated in a yearlong leadership program with Congresswoman Jayapal in 2010-2011, and she served on the board of NCRP before she became an elected official.