Understanding Power-Building Ecosystems:

Case Studies in Civic Engagement and Power-Building Through Ballot Initiatives

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Research report Summary

Civic engagement is a cornerstone of healthy democracies and communities. For communities that are currently or have been historically disenfranchised, underserved, or oppressed, building power is vital for civic engagement and positive health outcomes. Mapping the landscapes and tracing the dynamics of power-building ecosystems of ballot initiatives enabled us to unearth insights that support civic engagement and build power.

This study offers analysis of the conditions and strategies that enhance or stymie power-building around three ballot initiative issues, each of which has the potential to improve community health outcomes: Affordable Housing, Medicaid Expansion, Criminal Justice Reform.

Ballot Initiative Case Studies

To provide a clear picture of how the power-building ecosystems supporting ballot initiatives drive community members to become civically engaged, we examined six cases. We analyzed two referred local ballot measures addressing affordable housing in the West: Oakland, California and the Portland metro area, Oregon; two Medicaid expansion ballot initiatives in the Great Plains region: Montana and Nebraska; and two criminal justice reform, state constitutional amendments in the South; Florida and Louisiana.

The flat silhouette of California, Oregon, Montana, Louisiana, Florida, and Nebraska

Affordable Housing

Through our research, we established that an electoral win is not necessarily the most important metric for building power.
Alexis Anderson-Reed
Executive Director of State Voices

The Oakland and Portland case study on affordable housing offers a lens into liberal cities in which local government or elected officials referred affordable housing measures to voters.

Despite the fact that all three of the issues these campaigns focused on—health care, housing, and criminal justice reform—disproportionately affect BIPOC, the consultants brought in to work on these campaigns overwhelmingly tend to be white.

Medicaid Expansion

The expert comes in, identifies the problem, works behind the scenes to fix it, and fixes the law. But I would not say that that is a particularly empowering method.
Leah Simon-Weisberg

In the Nebraska and Montana case study Medicaid expansion was an issue that had been attempted through the legislature. The approach taken to pass this initiative resulted in moderate increases in power-building and civic engagement.

An intersectional analysis privileges the critical insight that race, class, gender, and more operate in reciprocal, related ways, and not as mutually exclusive entities.

Criminal Justice Reform

Those that are closest to the pain are often those that are closest to the solution.
Desmond Meade

In the Louisiana and Florida case study, directly impacted individuals initiated the movements for criminal justice reform years prior to the amendment campaigns. This strategy resulted in the greatest levels of new civic engagement and power building.


Esperanza Tervalon-Garrett

Project Lead
Dancing Hearts Consulting

Nicole Arlette Hirsch, Ph.D.

Research Lead
University of California, Berkeley

Ashley Wagner

Assistant Researcher
University of California, Berkeley

Thank You!

Our heartfelt gratitude to all of the organizers who participated in this research project. Your dedication and brilliance gives us hope for a future democracy that is equitable and just. We especially want to thank the participants in this research for sharing honest reflections on race, power, and funding. From your wisdom and experiences, we hope to support better communication, consideration and connection between organizations and philanthropy.

Thank you to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for underwriting this important and critical research.

Finally, we would like to thank the team who carried out this project. Thank you to Precious Edmonds and Joi Henderson for your outreach, coordination, and scheduling. Thank you to Teaspoon & Pound Media for producing the impactful videos and conducting the interviews.  Specifically, Director and producer Tatiana Bacchus, Production Manager Danielle Lewis, Production Coordinator Jenniver Dowe, Editor Les Rivera, Post-production Sound Engineer Ben Wong, Archival Research Assistant, Destiny Boynton, Cinematographers: Jim Abel, Zuri Obi, CB Smith Dahl, Christian Harris, Riccardo Solorzano, Sharonda Harris-Marshall, Inaya Graciana Yusuf, TruPixel, and Sound Recordists, Derek Roque and Seth Mooney.

Thank you to Jordan Beltran Gonzales for the copy edits, and to Charity Tooze for organizing content and art directing the design team at SQGLZ who created the website and designed this report: Deacon Rodda, Katie Andrews, and Drew Hornbein. Special thanks to Jenay Elder for her dedication and support with website and report updates and social media. 

Support for this research was provided in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

Movements don’t happen overnight. Those that are going to be most willing to do [the work] are people whose life depends on it the most or people who are closest to the pain.
Desmond Meade
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