Democracy Initiative Update 04.20.20

Monday, April 20, 2020
Our highlighted issues and actions from the democracy movement in this moment of crisis—please share widely.


The Democracy Initiative is thrilled to welcome three inspiring and visionary leaders to our Board of Directors: K. Sabeel Rahman, President of Demos; Virginia Kase, CEO of the League of Women Voters of the United States; and Ray Curry, Secretary-Treasurer of the United Auto Workers. These leaders join co-chairs Karen Hobert Flynn, President of Common Cause and Tefere Gebre, Executive Vice President, AFL-CIO, and existing board members Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP, Erich Pica, President of Friends of the Earth, and Gustavo Torres, Executive Director of CASA.

DI Executive Director Wendy Fields welcomed the new board members with this statement:

“Sabeel, Virginia, and Ray are experienced, proven leaders who practice the race-class analysis and the bottom-up approach to organizing that is crucial to our work. Each of them understands what it takes to organize and mobilize people for a democracy that works for all - especially Black, Brown and vulnerable communities who have been, and continue to be, the target of voter suppression and disenfranchisement.

Organizationally, we are delighted to have Demos, the League of Women Voters and the United Auto Workers stepping up their engagement with the DI and joining our group of anchor partners who help to lead and shape the DI’s work. The thought leadership and policy expertise of Demos, the historic leadership role and organizing infrastructure of the League, and the front-line workers’ experience and organizing savvy of the UAW will make the DI stronger at a time when the need for solidarity and collective action on behalf of our democracy has never been greater.”

K. Sabeel Rahman

“Our democracy is in crisis—and for Black and brown communities in particular, the reality is that our political institutions have consistently failed to reflect and respond to our communities for decades. In this moment of extreme political and economic turmoil, it is critical to reinvent our democratic institutions in ways that put racial equity and inclusive democratic participation and accountability at the core. The Democracy Initiative is crucial to building the coalition, the ideas, and the strategies we need to make democracy a reality.”

K. Sabeel Rahman is the President of Demos, a dynamic think-and-do tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy. Sabeel is also an Associate Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and the co-author most recently of Civic Power (Cambridge University Press, 2019), which looks at how to build a more inclusive and empowered bottom-up democracy.His first book, Democracy Against Domination (Oxford University Press, 2017), won the Dahl Prize for scholarship on the subject of democracy. His academic research focuses on issues of democracy, economic power, law, and inequality. He has worked extensively with a range of think tanks, advocacy organizations, and foundations to develop novel approaches to addressing these issues in practice. His popular writings have appeared in venues like The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Boston Review, Dissent, and The Washington Post. He earned his law degree and doctorate at Harvard University, and his Masters degrees at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.

Virginia Kase

“As the head of an organization focused on empowering voters and defending democracy, I’m honored to join the board of directors of the Democracy Initiative. In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s is more important than ever that we stand together to ensure that all voters are able to fully and safely participate in 2020 elections, especially communities of color, people with disabilities, Native Americans, low-wage earners, and other underrepresented communities. The Democracy Initiative draws strength from the diversity of organizations uniting to face this uniquely challenging time. Together as leaders, we will work to protect and preserve our most sacred democratic values of freedom and equality.”

Virginia Kase is the CEO of the League of Women Voters of the United States where she is leading the organization through transformation and growth, focused on building power centered around issues of voting rights and democracy reform. Prior to joining the League in 2018, she served as COO of CASA, an organization at the forefront of the immigrant rights movement. Earlier in her career, Virginia spent eight years serving as the National Technical Assistance and Training Manager at the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE) in Washington, DC addressing issues of urban violence, economic, racial and social inequality.

Virginia has more than 20 years’ experience working in the non-profit sector and is a passionate activist and advocate for social justice. She has appeared on various television news programs, published multiple opinion pieces for The Hill newspaper, and been quoted in news articles including The New York Times, Time Magazine, and Glamour.

Ray Curry

“I am honored to be part of this broad coalition and the efforts to advance democracy initiatives for every voice to be heard across the nation.”

Ray Curry was elected UAW secretary-treasurer at the UAW 37th Constitutional Convention in June 2018. He was first elected director of UAW Region 8 in June 2014 after having served four years as the region’s assistant director.

As Region 8 director, Curry was instrumental in securing new labor agreements with various heavy truck, aerospace, and independent parts suppliers. In July 2015, under his leadership, the region successfully organized their first gaming bargaining unit of table dealers at the Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, Maryland and in June 2018, the region won an election for representation of table dealers at MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, bringing 1,250 new members into the union.

Curry joined UAW Local 5285 in July 1992. His first involvement was on the local’s civil rights committee. From 1998 to 2004, he served in numerous leadership positions. In October 2004, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger appointed him as an International Representative.

A military veteran, Curry served three years on active duty in the U.S. Army and five years in the U.S. Army Reserve. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration / Finance and holds a Master of Business Administration, MBA, degree from the University of Alabama.

He is the recipient of numerous awards including the A. Philip Randolph Leon Lynch Lifetime Achievement Award. Curry is also a member of the NAACP National Board of Directors and numerous community organizations.


In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump and other leaders are seeking to deflect attention for their own mishandling of the crisis with an escalation of blame using racist and xenophobic rhetoric. As a result, the Asian American community is being targeted with hate speech, violence and vandalism. In response, the DI partnered with the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) to organize a letter to Congress signed by more than 450 organizations condemning racist attacks and discrimination against Asian American communities. Thank you to all DI partner and allied organizations who signed on to the letter. The letter also expresses support for H.Res. 908, introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY-6), and its Senate companion to be introduced by Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) condemning the anti-Asian racism and targeting resulting from COVID-19.

In a news release announcing the letter, the Democracy Initiative said:

“We are in the middle of a global pandemic and a national health and economic crisis. This moment calls for unity and solidarity. We reject any and all attempts to scapegoat the Asian American community to distract from the incompetent handling of this crisis. Our coalition representing labor, civil rights, environmental, and social justice organizations is proud to link arms in solidarity with our Asian American brothers and sisters at NCAPA and beyond. We applaud Representative Meng and Senators Harris, Duckworth and Hirono for standing up for unity and against hate.”

TAKE ACTION: We invite DI partners to share the letter with their networks and to amplify the letter and promote its message of solidarity with Asian and Pacific Americans against racism and xenophobia.

We've gathered a few sample social media posts and graphics to help you amplify this effort; you can find them here.

DI partners American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) are spearheading a unified campaign to secure emergency federal funds to support the Postal Service which has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.

  • Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mail revenues are down by at least 30%, creating a grave and rapidly deteriorating financial situation for the USPS and more than 600,000 postal workers.
  • The Post Office is an essential frontline service delivering social security checks, tax refunds, absentee ballots, and now COVID-19 stimulus checks to hundreds of millions of Americans.
  • During the 2020 Elections, when we need to massively expand voting by mail to ensure voters do not have to choose between their health and having a say in our democracy, the USPS has never been more essential.

APWU and NALC have set up an online action portal to help mobilize letters Congress and social media in support of the USPS. Learn more and TAKE ACTION here.


In a recent blog post, Greenpeace USA Democracy Campaign Director, Folabi Olagbaju, makes the essential connection between democracy and climate. As Folabi writes:

“A healthy democracy is a necessary precondition for a healthy environment. Indeed, a vibrant and functioning democracy is our greatest tool to address environmental degradation and climate emergency. We know that when we vote in large numbers, we increase our ability to fight back against corporate polluters and monied interests that have hijacked our democratic process.”

We could not agree more—there is an inextricable link between the existential crises presented by climate change and the assault on democracy. Now, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we find ourselves facing a dire and related third threat: the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The social and economic hardships borne by the COVID-19 crisis are immense and continue to mount.

  • Millions of Americans have lost their jobs while millions more must risk their own lives, including those who provide healthcare, deliver our mail, provide public transportation, and keep us fed—often without adequate support or protective equipment.
  • Immigrants lack access to the social safety net and the health and economic crisis is hitting Latino communities particularly hard.
  • Black people are dying at disproportionately higher rates of COVID-19.

COVID-19 has grave implications for democracy too. Most of us will never forget the Wisconsin voters who risked their lives to cast a ballot after the Governor’s efforts to safeguard the election were blocked by the GOP-led state legislature and conservative-dominated state and federal supreme courts with a penchant for voter suppression.

Another abuse of our democracy amidst COVID-19 is the corporations and wealthy interests using the health crisis as an opportunity to further enrich themselves by hijacking funds from emergency relief packages, coopting the urgently needed stimulus to line their own pockets at the expense of struggling Americans across the country. Look into any industry sector and you’re likely to see examples of lobbyists and insiders courting favors from the administration and GOP during the drafting process (we’ve covered the nursing home industry lobbying to avoid infectious disease safety requirements here).

One of the most dangerous and inexcusable instances of corporate greed with arguably some of the most toxic long-term consequences comes from the fossil fuel industry. In the “collaborative” spirit that has marked this administration from the start, corporate lobbyists, the Trump administration, and Republican senators have worked to block economic stimulus support for the growing clean energy sector at the request of the fossil fuel companies. They’ve also used the cover of the COVID-19 crisis to gut fuel economy standards, scale back enforcement of pollution regulations (a significant contributor to many of the preconditions that make Black and Brown Americans more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19), lease federal land for oil and gas development, and refuse to place restrictions on soot pollution.

This is not new. As DI Executive Director Wendy Fields pointed out in an essay following her October 2019 arrest at the first Fire Drill Friday with Jane Fonda:

The fossil fuel industry spent nearly $2 billion on lobbying to kill climate laws between 2000 and 2016. During that period, they also spent hundreds of millions more on congressional campaign donations and we will never know how much dark money they spent to influence elections. They win big with that investment. Researchers at the International Monetary Fund found that in 2015, U.S. government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry totaled $649 billion — exceeding the $599 billion spent by the Pentagon.

Our democracy has been deliberately broken. We will not succeed in moving to a renewable energy economy if we don’t win the fight for clean, fair elections, and a government that works for all of us. It will take all of us showing up for democracy to confront and prevail against this kind of power. It will require a bottom-up, grassroots demand from environmental, labor unions, civil rights, and social justice sectors, particularly those affected most: workers, marginalized communities of black and brown people, and those in urban and rural poverty.

Restoring the promise of our democracy means protecting and expanding voting rights to achieve at least 75 percent voter turnout in 2020 and in every election going forward. It means stopping the flow of corporate money and dark money into our political system. It means stopping the abuse of power in the Senate that enables the wealthy to get their tax cuts while critical priorities like immigration, gun control, worker’s rights, and more don’t even get a vote.

We can stand up and fight for our planet and our democracy, and it starts with ensuring all Americans can cast their ballots in this year’s pivotal elections. In the midst of COVID-19, that will require Governors and local election officials in most states to make some changes to ensure that people don’t have to risk their health to have a voice in governing. Those changes are estimated to cost between $2 and $4 billion. So far, Congress has only appropriated $400 million. State and local governments already have their hands full and budgets maxed out dealing with the health and economic crisis. They should not have to shoulder the financial burden of safeguarding our elections. That is the federal government’s responsibility.

Congress must step up and provide adequate funds to help states ensure all people have safe voting options this year including:

  • Expanding Vote by Mail and providing pre-paid postage
  • Safe In-Person Voting Options including Early Voting
  • Online, Automatic, and Same Day Registration
  • Voter Education

As Folabi says:

Wake up America! It’s moments like this one that can decide our fate. I, for one, am fighting for a democracy of the people for a better, healthier, more just planet. The elections are coming, and we have to make sure we’re prepared to make our voice heard. Safely.

TAKE ACTION: The DI has developed a COVID-19 Voting Social Media Toolkit to provide partners with assets to communicate to your organizers, leaders, members, and respective audiences across digital and social media channels. Feel free to use on your organization’s social media channels and distribute widely.


Fellowship Placements Postponed. All Mentoring Will take Place Virtually Until Further Notice

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we at the Democracy Initiative Education Fund have made the decision to postpone all in-person meetings, interviews and mentoring sessions related to the program. The fellowship placement selection process will also resume at a later date (TBD). All mentoring sessions will be virtual until further notice. Anyone interested in providing or receiving mentorship can apply here.

We hope that all are staying safe during these uncertain times. We recognize that everyone is not impacted equally in this moment of crisis. Our work of fighting for a fair and just democracy is more critical than ever. We will continue to press on through the uncertainty we are facing in the coming months as a collective. Be kind to each other, practice social distancing and stay inside as much as possible.

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