New Report Offers Lessons on Growing Civic Engagement in Communities of Color

Seven weeks from today, on June 7, Californians will cast their ballots in an important state primary. Those who go to the polls will vote on U.S. presidential and U.S. Senate candidates, as well as many other important local and state races. But the group of people who make these decisions will look very different from California’s population as a whole if past voting trends continue to map forward.

While California is rich with diversity — racial, ethnic, economic, and more — we still have a long way to go to ensure that all those different perspectives and voices contribute to the policies and institutions that shape our lives.

People of color are now a majority of California’s population, yet they are underrepresented at the polls and in other measures of civic engagement. Low-income Californians are similarly less visible at the ballot box and in public policy priorities.

For example, according to the Public Policy Institute of California’s (PPIC) March 2016 report, “California’s Exclusive Electorate: Who Votes and Why it Matters,” 60 percent of California likely voters are white and only 18 percent are Latino. But California’s adult population is only 42 percent white, and Latinos now make up 39 percent of California’s population.

“In a state that increasingly relies on the ballot box to make major policy decisions, a more engaged and representative electorate would be a source of long-term stability in California,” said the report’s author, Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO.

The James Irvine Foundation has a longstanding commitment to ensuring that all Californians have the opportunity to fully participate in the political process. That’s why the Irvine Foundation is honored to have been a founding member of the California Civic Participation Funders, working to boost civic participation among politically underrepresented communities.

This philanthropic collaboration produced a 2011 report on its early efforts, and, on April 12, released its newest report. “Bolder Together 2: Lessons for Philanthropy from a California Initiative to Build Grassroots Movements for Change” offers important lessons and tangible results from its work with local organizations in four counties seeing dramatic demographic shifts: Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.

Although community members rely heavily upon the nonprofit sector in these regions for a variety of services, many nonprofits are constrained by their size and limited resources to engage communities more broadly on issues impacting their lives, according to a 2015 survey from Nonprofit Finance Fund.

Despite these challenges, the nonprofits in the counties supported by this initiative are demonstrating the power of mobilizing underrepresented communities as a force for positive social change.

For example, in 2014 voter turnout in growing Latino and Asian communities in Anaheim, which is typically low across all types of people in a mid-term election cycle, actually increased 26 percent. This increased engagement has driven policy change across a number of issues, including the creation of local district elections and two additional councilmember seats.

In addition, a multi-racial coalition of Orange County organizations successfully advocated for an Anaheim district map that was more representative of immigrant and people of color communities. Ultimately they believe this will lead to a more diverse candidate pool that reflects the local community, which will also contribute to increased voter turnout.

What’s driving these successes? One of the report’s key takeaways is that local community members and experts on the ground must play a central role in defining and leading the work – a core principle that also drives Irvine’s approach to civic participation grantmaking. This approach allows priorities and strategies most relevant for a given place to emerge from the groups that are working together in these communities but also relies on involvement from funders to help design and resource solutions collaboratively and to identify opportunities for replicating and scaling what works.

We’re encouraged by this progress and hope that as communities across the nation experience similar demographic shifts, they’ll find valuable lessons from California Civic Participation Funders on how philanthropy can partner with local communities to build winning movements. The future of our democracy depends on it.

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