Democracy Initiative Weekly Update 01.31.20

Friday, January 31, 2020
Our highlighted issues, actions, and events in the democracy movement this week—please share widely.


This year, the Democracy Initiative is launching the Bayard Rustin Fellowship program to support and advance long-term leaders of color in the democracy field and expand the movement’s ability to organize marginalized and oppressed communities. The fellowship is designed to bridge the opportunity gap experienced by Black, Brown and LGBTQ leaders who are on the front lines of social justice work and develop innovative, culturally based ways to address that challenge.

Bayard Rustin believed those who suffer the most from inequity and hate when democracy is deferred are the game-changers in increasing our success on reform. This new program seeks to ensure that our movement is rooted in, and reflective of, the authentic experiences and contributions of those who have been segregated and excluded from leadership.

A core element of this new program is mentorship. We are currently seeking qualified individuals who will dedicate a maximum of five hours a month for a year to mentor organizers and staffers of color.

Qualified mentors have:

  • 5-7 years of movement experience
  • Worked a minimum of two electoral or legislative cycles (if field)
  • Ability to connect and engage with diverse individuals
  • Desire to provide professional and emotional support to organizers and staffers navigating movement spaces

Mentors will be matched with mentees based on skill level, growth goals, and focus of work: Organizing, policy, and communications. The goal is to provide organizers and staffers with the neutral council they may need when faced with professional and personal struggles while doing movement work.

We recognize that unconscious bias, discrimination, and cultural differences are all roadblocks for Black and Brown staffers and organizers seeking guidance in movement spaces. In order to combat these obstacles, mitigate burnout and retain brilliant staffers that have the potential to be future leaders, we are recruiting an initial cadre of mentors by the end of February 2020.

Anyone interested in mentoring the next generation of leaders in the movement or recommending individuals in need of mentoring can fill out a statement of interest form here. For more information or questions, contact our Training and Movement Building Coordinator, Brittny Baxter at


Over the last couple weeks, important pieces of legislation supporting key democracy reforms such as Vote by Mail/Vote at Home, Early Voting, automatic and same-day voter registration. Most recently, in an important step toward instituting Vote at Home, the Virginia House and Senate both passed their own versions of no excuse absentee vote by mail on Thursday, January 30.

DI partner National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) is planning a patch-through call-in day of action that will be available to DI partners and allies with members in Virginia. If you have members in Virginia, please help demonstrate the grassroots demand for meaningful democracy reforms to will expand voter access and help achieve the DI’s vision of 75% voter participation in elections! DI partner ReThink Media is developing a social media toolkit for organizations with Virginia membership to demonstrate their support for democracy reform in Virginia. Stay tuned for more information on a Twitter Storm date.

If your organization is interested in engaging your Virginia membership on expanding access to the ballot through the patch-through call-in campaign and/or social media amplification, please reach out to DI National Field Manager Getachew Kassa at


The Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, which began last week on January 22, has put the dysfunction of today’s Senate on display for all to see. Former Obama aide David Litt writes in the Washington Post that, though it was once considered “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” the Senate “has become a threat to our democracy itself.”

America faces a number of crises:

  • Monied corrosion of the basic tenets of our democracy, leaving government in the clutches of powerful corporations and wealthy elites;
  • an economy that no longer creates opportunity or upward mobility for most, with surging costs and raging income inequality;
  • an epidemic of gun violence;
  • a runaway climate crisis;
  • a crippling lack of investment in basic infrastructure; and
  • criminal justice, economic, and immigration policies built on rotten foundations of racism.

The 2020 elections are expected cost more than $6 billion, much of it from wealthy donors and corporate interests that oppose progress on these issues. Even if Democrats take back the Senate, they will face a system of outdated, undemocratic, and rigged rules that let a small group of Senators, representing as few as 11% of the American people, block votes and bury virtually any bill or amendment, except those favored by the privileged elite—like tax cuts for the rich.

Wealthy and powerful corporations promote and benefit from this selective paralysis. And we know with certainty that it will continue unless the rules are changed.

Inaction and gridlock breed voter cynicism and contempt toward government. People grow apathetic and don’t believe their votes matter. They have heard too many promises and experienced too few results.

There is strong public support for our values of inclusion and justice and opportunity for all. Policies built on those values can meet the challenges we face. Senate rules must ensure that Senators can vote on those policies so America can rise to this moment.


Democracy Initiative is excited to welcome Folabi Olagbaju as DI partner Greenpeace USA’s newest Democracy Campaign Director. We recognize his long, impressive career as an accomplished and dedicated advocate for the grassroots and social justice, and we look forward to continuing the important work of building a truly inclusive, representative and just democracy with him.

FOLABI OLAGBAJU is a dedicated human rights advocate and recognized leader in the global social justice movement. He most recently served at the Founding Director for Outreach with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) where he built the organization’s grassroots mobilization program and engaged constituents on priority advocacy issues. Prior to joining LIRS, Folabi held several senior leadership positions with Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) as its Director of Just Earth! a cutting edge environmental justice program and as the Mid-Atlantic Regional Director where he managed the regional field program work and translated AIUSA’s human rights agenda into grassroots membership organizing plan and transformative human rights victories. Prior to joining Amnesty International, was with US labor movement as a Research Organizer with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) where he helped low wage, recent immigrant workers organize Unions and negotiate collective bargaining agreements. A native of Nigeria, Folabi holds a doctorate in political science from the George Washington University.


In an important victory for fair elections in the state of Maryland, Baltimore Mayor “Jack” Young signed the Baltimore Fair Election Fund administration bill into law on Monday, January 27. Set to become available in the 2024 election cycle, participating candidates for local office will forgo receiving donations larger than $150 or any funds from corporations or PACs. Instead, they will receive matching donations from a city-wide fund based on contributions from small donors.

We want to recognize the hard work of the 2019 Democracy Champions Award-winning Fair Elections Baltimore Coalition and our DI partners and allies Baltimore Teachers Union, Clean Water Action Maryland, Common Cause Maryland, Demos, Get Money Out of MD, Jews United for Justice, Food & Water Watch Maryland, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, League of Women Voters of Maryland, Maryland PIRG, NAACP Baltimore City, Represent Maryland, and others over the last few years, fighting for fair, clean elections for all Baltimoreans.

Baltimore City residents overwhelmingly supported in the 2018 midterm elections the creation of a small-donor public campaign financing program as an alternative to corporate, outside money-oriented campaigning of the past. Now that the Fair Elections program has become a reality, Baltimoreans have a real opportunity to elect local leaders that are accountable to the people and not outside donors.

Key portions of a 2018 law that increased the difficulty of gathering signatures for ballot proposals were struck down Tuesday, January 28 by the Michigan Court of Appeals. DI partner League of Women Voters of Michigan, alongside three voters, brought the suit against the law, which was passed by a 2018 Republican-led lame duck session and signed by former Governor Rick Snyder a month after two pro-democracy ballot measures passed in the 2018 midterm elections.

In their ruling, the two judges in the majority argued that the law’s requirement that no more than 15% of signatures can come from a single district “serves to take power out of the hands of the people,” and that the periodic redrawing of districts will serve to further complicate the process should the limit remain in place.

Read more here.

On Monday, January 27, a federal appeals court ruled that the Arizona law against the collection and delivery of other voters’ ballots during elections violates the Voting Rights Act.

The majority ruled that the law disproportionately infringes on the right to vote of Native American and Black voters who rely on the practice, and that the intent behind the law was suppress turnout of voters from marginalized communities. Evidence submitted to the court demonstrated that Native American voters in particular have difficulty voting by mail ballot—only 18% of Native American voters in the state have home mail service, and many lack access to reliable transportation.

Read more here.

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