This is a multi-entry blog about the American Rising Electorate, authored by a Sr. Advisor, Analyst, and Strategist (#PoppingTheCLUTCH).
By Kirk Clay
Evidence based civic engagement is a fairly nascent field. In fact, up until 20 years ago what people now think of as civic engagement for “people of color” was characterized naively as just minority outreach. Therefore, it’s no wonder that many organizations and efforts struggle to identify what an effective civic engagement plan is and by what method to execute one successfully. First, it’s tough to pinpoint a distinct all-encompassing explanation of what civic engagement is. Second, it’s equally as difficult to find an all-inclusive formula for putting together a viable program. Lastly, the moment an approach is successful it’s dismissed as predictable or characterized as a chance occurrence so we can’t learn anything new from those experiences.
This line of thinking is incorrect. On the contrary, civic engagement is the act of balancing priorities and tactics while executing an intentional plan in places where you intend to score a victory. An effort can give rise to a “balanced viable plan” by designing and cherry-picking a unique suite of tactics to capture the attention of people who are ready to take action. As a result, true civic engagement calls for connecting and supporting clusters of people who have broad networks of their own.
Additionally, true civic engagement calls for assembling platforms of engagement around those communities of shared interests. In a nutshell, civic engagement is opportunity. In fact, true civic engagement is a multicultural effort that intentionally creates value for those communities in an attempt to generate opportunity for all involved.
Creating opportunity is a difficult task. The concept of “opportunity” itself may run counter to an organization’s short term aspirations. From our stand point, a great deal of organizations and efforts are too unintentional in creating opportunity when creating their plans. They start with good intentions and after a few bumps in the road or after a small set back they lose conviction. Furthermore, the leader of an effort may become overwhelmed with “urgent but not important” issues and set aside what’s really important for the organization. Sometimes it seems as though these leaders are awe-struck when presented with a flurry small short-term fires and respond by abandoning thoughtful long-term opportunity building work.
Too many organizations and efforts deal with this problem by using “ineffectual methods” as a substitute for creating opportunity, For example, when they first set out to engage communities of color they define civic engagement as an aspiration. Aspirations are the building blocks of a good civic engagement plan however that’s not all there is. Then the organization doesn’t put forward a “viable model” or of a clear path forward. If they do put forward a vision it’s usually an outline and it does not take into account the aspirations of the diverse communities and geographies the organization intends to score a victory with. Meanwhile, there certainly is not enough attention paid to what creates opportunity for those communities of interest.
Let’s look at how this plays out in an organization with a goal of increasing people of color civic representation.
- Immediately following the Civil War over 600 African Americans occupied various elected offices across the nation.
- By 1965, only 300 African Americans occupied elected offices.
- In 1970 there were about 1,500 African American elected officials.
- In 2000 the number of African Americans in elected offices had reached about 9,000.
Based on the number of elected officials reported by the Census Bureau in 1992 – 513,200 – in 2000 African American elected officials were 2% of all elected officials. African Americans were 12.3 % of the population. Overall, that number has declined in most categories for every election since 2000.
This kind of analysis is critical for connecting with communities of color. What these communities want and need is an opportunity to grow. To tap into the power of the “Rising American Electorate” you have to have a comprehensive strategy that spells out everything your organization will do to create that opportunity and where you will do it. A balanced viable plan can be the foundation of a successful effort if it’s rooted in evidence based data.
The demographics in America are changing so rapidly that it’s unfeasible to assume that business as usual will win the day. Instead, it’s the organizations and leaders that learn to embrace these changes that will succeed. Also, they will be the best equipped to capitalize on new opportunities for engaging communities that share the same interests.
Kirk Clay is a partner at Capitol View Advisors — a collaborative acting on its values in creative and strategic ways to connect communities with the information and resources they need to support and further their aspirations.