Committing to Racial Equity at Progressive Turnout Project

About Us: Progressive Turnout Project is the largest voter contact organization in the country, specifically dedicated to mobilizing the Democratic Party and defending democracy. Our mission: rally Democrats to vote. 

For the past five months, our team has been engaged in ongoing training and dialogue sessions dedicated to building racial equity at Progressive Turnout Project. Our goal is to build sustainable change into every part of our culture and policies, equip our teams with what they need to continue this lifelong process, and better reflect and serve every part of the Democratic coalition. 

To facilitate that work, we brought on the team at Full Circle Strategies, following their HEARTspeak curriculum to get foundational training and begin to practice authentic dialogue. 

As we move into the next phase of this work, we wanted to take the opportunity to share with our supporters why this is a priority for our organization, what changes we’ll make, and what comes next.

Living Our Values

Progressive organizations are not immune to white supremacist systems.

It’s true that we all work here because we share the same values, including an understanding that antiracism is important — as a Full Circle survey of our staff showed. But that survey also showed that many of us weren’t regularly speaking openly about racial equity, and that most of us never or rarely saw the culture of whiteness discussed during meetings.

So among the first questions we needed to answer: How do we move from naming our shared values to acting on them and living them?

We also asked:

  • How can a white-led organization build trust with the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities we work closely with?
  • How do we create spaces for uncomfortable conversations without causing harm to BIPOC staff or putting the work on them?
  • How do we sustain change with strong policies and strong culture, so we don’t backslide between election cycles?

As that last question suggests, there are other challenges here specific to working in electoral politics. Because elections come in cycles, field-focused groups like Progressive Turnout Project have a much larger staff during election years, then a smaller group of permanent employees between elections. 

Our Executive Director, Alex Morgan, said that necessitated a comprehensive, all-staff effort. “We need the permanent staff to own this work, to be empowered so they can’t say ‘that’s not my area, that’s not my policy.'”

It’s doubly necessary, Alex said, due to the growth of our organization: from one program in one congressional district in 2015, to a nationwide organization with many teams in many different states, and upward of 1,000 people on the payroll this year. 

We needed every member of the team invested in this process.

There are many groups offering consulting in race, equity, and inclusion, but it’s clear a one-and-done seminar or check-the-box approach can’t cut it. Full Circle stood out for their emphasis on long-term plans for spaces dedicated to sustained conversations and authentic connections.

As a longtime HR professional, Rebecca, our Human Resources Director, has seen DEI programs fall short when they focus only on “awareness” but don’t teach antiracism skills or acknowledge anti-Black bias. And Dr. Kenya Minott, founder and co-owner of Full Circle, has seen other programs that last two and a half days — and then just end.

Our goals require a longer-term, holistic approach. We need to develop leaders throughout Progressive Turnout Project who can hold us accountable to continued progress on racial equity. We need to build skills and spaces to have uncomfortable conversations. And we need to better reflect the party we were founded to support.

Building Up the Party

Our mission is to rally Democrats to vote — so to do that work well, we need a diverse staff that reflects the party as a whole and can capably reach out to every part of the coalition.  

Pew Research Center: Nonwhite voters make up more than 40% of the Democratic coalition, and growing

The pipeline problem in Democratic politics is well-known. There’s a shortage of paid roles where people can get their start in campaigns, so many people enter this field through volunteer work or unpaid internships — which privileges white, affluent staffers. And when non-white organizers are shut out of entry-level roles, there are fewer pathways to leadership roles. 

As Rebecca put it: we already know that “color blindness” isn’t a solution to this kind of structural problem. We need to be aware of our own blind spots and proactively seek opportunities to reach more voters (and create more paid opportunities — more on that below).

Kenya, co-founder of Full Circle, saw the shortcomings of old approaches to politics first-hand in 2008. 

That’s when she jumped into electoral politics for the first time. After seeing Barack Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, she said she’d quit and move to Chicago if he ever ran for President. Instead, she was in Nevada in 2008, doing outreach to African-American voters there. 

It gave her insight into the lack of trust Black voters felt for groups showing up at their doors every two or four years. She said she was struck by the lack of diversity in the political sphere and the stale, simplistic ideas for outreach. 

(In 2020, white voters were more likely than any other group to have been contacted by a campaign, underscoring the work needed to reach every voter. Democracy In Color’s 2020 report cards called on organizations to reach out to a broader coalition of voters. Our report card was encouraging about our current priorities but also called for a stronger emphasis on reaching Black voters specifically.) 

Kenya began her career in social work as an undergraduate. “It brought me to who I am today,” she said, and becoming a sociology professor “solidified that this is my calling.” 

After starting antiracism training in 2005, Kenya got experience facilitating conversations, but realized that giving folks just a couple of days of training was not enough. Along with her sister, Dr. Kim Baker, Kenya founded Full Circle in 2017, bringing to life an idea they’d been discussing for years.

As they’ve worked with other political organizations, Kenya said Full Circle’s found one common thread: a growing recognition of the harm done and the need to fix broken approaches to voter outreach. Groups know they need to improve hiring practices and diversify their teams, but don’t know what to do after that — and that means BIPOC staff come into hostile workplaces where they can easily burn out.

We can’t lose their talent.

Sustaining Change at Progressive Turnout Project

One repeated theme in our sessions with Full Circle was impatience. Many of us voiced an appetite for moving quickly from an understanding of racism to concrete steps we would take.

That urgency isn’t unwarranted. But our facilitators urged us to move with a sense of purpose, not urgency. It’s a way to avoid causing harm, build up our skills, and keep from falling back into old patterns. After all, we were exercising muscles we weren’t necessarily used to using in our day-to-day work. Many of us needed time and practice to accept discomfort and growth.

“We have to normalize that this is a little weird for everybody,” Kenya said. From the staff survey, we knew that there was a strong desire among our team members to get to know each other better, to share and support one another, even if it was across a computer screen.

Now, with our regularly scheduled trainings and dialogue sessions wrapping up, we’re equipped with the shared language and understanding to name problems when we see them, identify barriers to practicing equity, and keep that growth happening for years to come.

The next major step we’ll take is the formation of a Change Team, facilitated by Full Circle. This self-selected group will regularly meet to address inequities, bring proposed changes to Progressive Turnout Project leadership, and report back to the organization as a whole.

We also know that each of us as individuals need to continue these conversations and feel empowered to speak up in any meeting we’re a part of, not leaving everything to the Change Team. 

“It’s just so easy to slip back into a comfort zone of ‘we’re not racist’,” Rebecca said, emphasizing that each of us needs to keep equity top of mind in our personal goals, in hiring, and every step of the way. With no one person involved in every single hire, with managers spread out across the country, it’s important for every single person on the team to have this training.

We’re continuing to explore new ways to create paid opportunities for political work to help fix the pipeline problem and strengthen the Democratic party. That includes our Campaign Fellows program, our Community Mobilizers program, and a new Distributed Organizing model for canvassing that we’ll pilot this year.

And everyone we hire for the programs above will join our Alumni Network — 2,000 strong and growing! — where we’re continuing to build connections and support our alums continuing their careers in politics or elsewhere.

Our Call to Action

We’ll have more to share with our supporters as our Change Team begins its work.

We also want to invite other organizations, inside and outside the Democratic party, to commit to prioritizing racial equity. Your workload, your size, and even your budget shouldn’t be barriers to making change. Even if you can’t afford to hire facilitators, explore other options within your budget or find public resources to get started. No matter your situation, there’s always a step you can take.

This work isn’t easy, but it’s also not optional.

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