Executive Summary

Civic engagement is important for healthy democracies and healthy communities. For communities that have been historically excluded from political processes, building power can be particularly transformative. Examining ballot initiative organizing ecosystems helps to illuminate insights that can support civic engagement and power-building. This study offers an analysis of the conditions and strategies that can both help and hinder power-building, based on three ballot initiative issues that each have the potential to improve community health outcomes: Affordable Housing, Medicaid Expansion, Criminal Justice Reform

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Research Design & Methodology

This study was designed as a comparison of six cases of organizing ecosystems to understand how and under what conditions they build power. We deliberately chose cases with points of convergence and divergence with regards to demographics, historical and socio-cultural context, politics, and organizing infrastructure to examine the varied paths to power-building. We focused on three distinct issues in three unique regional sites: criminal justice reform in the South: Florida and Louisiana; affordable housing in the West: the Portland metro area, Oregon and Oakland, California; and Medicaid expansion in the Great Plains Region: Montana and Nebraska. Each of the six ballot initiatives, measures, or amendments took place during the 2018 midterm elections. Five campaigns were successful in passing the initiatives (Amendment 2 now requires unanimous jury verdicts for felony trials in Louisiana; Amendment 4 re-enfranchised people with prior felony convictions in Florida; Measure Y closed a just cause eviction loophole in Oakland; Measure 26–199 passed an affordable housing bond in the Portland metro area; and Initiative 427 expanded access to Medicaid in Nebraska) and one failed at the ballot (Initiative 185 sought to extend Medicaid expansion and raise the tobacco tax in Montana).

Key Takeaways

While measuring power building involves an in-depth exploration of context, strategy, procedure, and outcomes than a more surface-level analysis of electoral results, our research shows that it can be done and offer helpful insights in the process. The six case studies present compelling evidence to 1) broaden our understanding of the utility of ballot initiatives to include the role they can play in forming connective tissue between previously disparate organizations or individuals, and 2) build community and consciousness in addition to any policy change that results from their electoral success.

Policy reforms have the potential to be meaningful and important, but in the arc toward liberation, shifting who holds power is what truly matters.

Our approach to measuring how much power was built incorporated qualitative and quantitative metrics that aimed to capture the full spectrum of connection, growth, and movement that built power. By including both procedural and outcomes-based indicators such as whether campaigns activated new organizers, registered voters, created new organizations or coalitions, adopted new frameworks or organizing models, or shifted who has leadership in the ecosystem, we believe we offer a more comprehensive picture of how and why certain campaigns built power while others did not.

The Top Five Lessons

  1. For many organizations, elections and ballot initiatives are one tool in a larger strategy for liberation.
  2. Campaigns that followed the leadership of directly impacted people and Black and Brown women built power.
  3. Prioritizing transformative change over short-term wins built more power.
  4. Trusting local leaders on strategy led to greater mobilization.
  5. Reaching unlikely allies helped to win campaigns.

Recommendations for Philanthropy

Develop relationships closer to the ground with people who are most impacted by the issues.
See trusted messengers as trusted leaders.
Resource organizations to choose their own consultants.
Have processes in place to move money quickly, early, and often.
Take a long-term view and prioritize power building over short-term wins.
Let BIPOC organizers lead and avoid tokenizing their stories. 
Give general operating support.
Support new and emerging strategies and be willing to fund the unknown.
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Healthy communities require policies, infrastructure, and resources that support our collective well-being. As we reel from the devastation from COVID-19 and see how policymakers’ decisions are not always in our best interest, there seems to be growing interest in new forms of leadership and direct democracy. This study 1) highlights the need for political strategies that build power, and 2) explores the role that ballot initiatives can play in this process. Ultimately, our findings point to the need to trust people on the ground to know what is best for them and to then resource them to do the work. By deepening our understanding of power-building ecosystems and sharing the lessons from these campaigns, we hope to create strong foundations for future efforts to leverage ballot initiatives as tools for creating and sustaining community power. Following the leadership of people who have traditionally been excluded from political processes and focusing on building long-term power could radically shift the balance of power and usher in a new world where we all have access to the conditions that will allow us to thrive.

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