COVID-19 RECOVERY SERIES: Next Steps in Our Post-COVID Political World: A Blueprint for Blue-State Organizations

April 1, 2021

By Charles Douglas III and David Domke

To whom much is given, much is required. That’s a lesson often taught in Black communities like the neighborhood that one of us, Charles, grew up in. His father, a former Black Panther, made sure that his children understood that we all must pay forward the time and resources invested in us, to elevate everyone in the community. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”

Dr. King’s words are a lesson for political organizations based in blue states to follow.

In 2018, we founded Common Power, a hybrid PAC and 501c3, focused on the most basic power that citizens are supposed to have in a democracy: to vote. We register and mobilize voters as essential steps toward achieving genuine common power. We are based in Seattle, with volunteers increasingly from all over the country.

We believe in our post-COVID, post-Election 2020 world, political organizations headquartered in blue states owe it to fellow citizens to invest in red states and purple states. Informed by Civil Rights Movement strategies, and in our work in more than two dozen states across every region of the country over three intensive election cycles, we’ve developed a model for how to use this strategy with intentionality, impact, and integrity.

This is the way.

  1. Dedicate money AND time. Too often “liberal elites” on the coasts -- and Seattle certainly has many such folks -- only exercise their political support by donating dollars. This feels good and has positive impacts, but it comfortably enables donors to stand separate, apart from the candidates, campaigns, and communities whose livelihoods are truly on the line. Their fight to gain and to exercise their votes are personal. At Common Power, we ask our community of volunteers to donate both time and treasure. In the 1960s, civil rights foot soldiers put their bodies on the line time after time. With voting rights again under assault today, our human power investment must be as genuine as our capital. To be clear, donors are essential for civic organizations; but at the end of the day common power requires joining the work -- the labor -- in purple and red states of making phone calls, texting, writing postcards, and knocking on doors. ‘Further Together’ is a guiding motto.

  2. Partner with in-state organizations. The fight for democracy, for voting rights, and for equity for Black and brown communities has been ongoing for generations. Blue-Staters should not seek to reinvent the wheel, nor feel entitled to push liberal-bubble strategies or even data upon the people and organizations who’ve been working for years. At Common Power we only work with and through local partner organizations or candidates. We follow their plans, we call their phone lists, we walk their turf sheets, and we wear their t-shirts. We bring our capacity, not our opinions. In Freedom Summer in 1964, Northerners -- often white -- traveled to Mississippi to help register voters, but they were welcomed in the work only if they committed to following the lead of local, Black Mississippians. That’s our North Star partnership principle, because it’s these red-state and purple-state groups and the people they serve who live first hand with the consequences of fighting for democracy in their communities.

  3. Show up for election years, and every year in between. It’s long been a critique by community organizations that the Democratic Party only shows up when they want folks to vote in big elections, and never in between. Across the states where we’ve done in-person or remote work, we’ve heard this critique of the Democrats often, and our Seattle-rooted organization is rightly met with initial skepticism. An approach of ‘show-up-every-four-years’ has resulted in profound damage: distrust of organized political leadership undermines creativity and execution, sinking good candidates and/or marginalizing Black and brown organizations in the process. Folks hailing from blue-state-based organizations must continue supporting important elections AND show up in red and purple America for voter registration efforts, help with community petitions, to recruit local volunteers for partner organizations, and to support and provide platforms for up-and-coming candidates. Common Power has a decade-long plan to show up in key states during large election cycles and for small capacity-building community efforts. The Selma Voting Rights Campaign changed America in the 1960s, but it took root with the Dallas County Voters League in the 1920s. We have an ethical and democratic responsibility to travel the whole way, not only the final steps.

  4. Educate as a catalyst for civic engagement. One thing we’ve learned beyond a doubt at Common Power is that education is a catalyst for motivating people to want to work for political change in this country. Our very first cohort of volunteers was activated by attending lectures over a couple years on the history and present-day realities of voting rights in America, and our organization continues to on-ramp callers, texters, and door knockers by providing public opportunities for people to learn about our country’s history and its roots in male dominant white supremacy. From the Highlander Folk School to the Citizenship Education Program to Freedom Schools to mass meetings, the civil rights generation put education front and center in empowering citizens -- of all races and ages -- to know better and to do better. At Common Power we provide in-person (soon again!) and online events, lectures, classes, and learning tours around the country to catalyze us to take action. For blue-staters, such education bursts our liberal bubbles, forces us to unlearn incomplete and inaccurate pictures of America, and catalyzes us to do the work of pursuing a more just and inclusive democracy for all of us.

  5. Invest in the next generation. It’s going to be a long fight. With the elections of 2008, too many progressives thought we arrived at the promised land. But political power is never permanent; we must always be preparing for what comes next. In order to build a firm progressive base, and to continue in strength far into the future, we MUST invest tangibly in the next generation of leaders and volunteers. We do this in two ways: (1) By building an organization that prioritizes and amplifies diverse, next-generation leadership in working around the nation to effect progressive change, and (2) by supporting next-generation candidates who bring new perspectives, creativity, and communities to campaigns that range from local to national offices. In particular, blue-staters need to devote more time to purple-state legislatures (see North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, and Iowa for starters). Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam’s book about the Nashville Nonviolence Movement of the late 1950s was titled The Children to honor, not deride, a rising generation -- so many under 25 -- who sat in, rode buses, faced fire hoses and police dogs, marched, and compelled civil rights advances. At Common Power we devote 80% of our funding to employing, training, and supporting next-generation staff, leaders, and volunteers. Our staff is two-thirds people of color and three-fourths women. Such intentionality assures that our civic arena becomes not only more democratic now, but also more just and inclusive.

It is a reality that political leadership opportunities in America have long been created by and for people of certain economic, racial, and educational means. Family and institutional connections open doors; career opportunities are too often dictated by educational or regional pedigree; expectations of particular knowledge and cultural comfort signal who belongs and who does not; and positions of leadership are often tied to certain financial standing. These realities ensure that opportunities flow toward certain people and communities. We are committed to building a new cycle.

We must build genuine common power.

In the past year an engaged citizenry proved that democracy could be elevated in spite of a global pandemic, a demagogue in the White House, and intentional voter suppression. We now have a President and Vice President who act based on science, are committed to equity across race and gender, and are investing in our future as a democratic society. But the cost along the way has been high; it has been heartbreaking and infuriating. We must act with intention for the good of all over the ego of one. At Common Power, we believe that all of us, especially organizations located in states with an abundance of progressive resources, must contribute to the greater good. To whom much is given, much is required.


About the Authors:


Charles Douglas III lives in Seattle and is a co-founder of Common Power. Douglas worked 13 years at Starbucks, finishing his time heading its largest e-commerce site.


David Domke lives in Seattle and is a co-founder of Common Power. Domke has spent 21 years on the faculty at the University of Washington, and is the author of two books on religion, race, and American politics.




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