As the country faces a crisis of trust, there are leaders across the U.S. who are working to fix broken systems and strengthen our democracy. In 2019, national venture philanthropy organization New Profit identified seven democracy entrepreneurs who are using innovative models of organizing, supporting a new generation of leaders, and shaping a narrative that promotes unity. This multi-part series features interviews with these democracy entrepreneurs. Learn more about New Profit’s Civic Lab initiative.
Building on the success of Voters Not Politicians which mobilized 14,000 people in Michigan to end partisan gerrymandering, The People brings Americans together to engage in civil discourse, identify shared concern within their community, and establish and carry out nonpartisan governmental reforms.
Executive Director Katie Fahey recently shared her insights with Giving Compass. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to launch The People?
I had a really meaningful experience in Michigan, but we had to learn everything about bringing frustration to action from scratch. Throughout that process, we -- voters, not politicians -- had to write constitutional language and gather more than 350,000 registered Michigan voters' signatures. Then, we had to bring it to the people of our state to vote on whether they wanted that change to happen. Everybody told us regular people couldn’t do it.
We did things in a really innovative way because we weren't from the political system. We were just regular citizens trying to look at our ability to make change. We got a lot of press and suddenly there were people from across the country reaching out and saying "there are plenty of things that keep me up at night, but I never knew I was allowed to do something about it." It always always stuck out to me how many people needed that new way of thinking.
With The People, we wanted to see if we could take some of the lessons that we learned, the infrastructure that we built, some of the connections that we made, and pay it forward to the rest of the country and help folks be able to take on other systemic good governance reform issues. We wanted to see how our experience could continue to help inspire others. We hope to create a stronger support system for citizens getting involved with their democracy.
You touched on this a bit, but can you expand on how The People is helping to create a more robust democracy in the U.S.?
We're really trying to invigorate and engage the American people. We're really focused on evaluating the rules and systemic barriers that are holding the problem in place. We’re using a crowdsourcing model to empower people. How do we connect folks and help them champion the changes they want to make. This ground-up approach is key to organizing a more robust democracy, rebuilding the muscles of citizenship, and learning to fully participate so that we are monitoring our government.
Our democracy only works when citizens play an active role in the system. No longer will we allow big monied interests to dictate the direction of our country. In Michigan we raised nearly $16 million dollars from over 15,000 individuals. This was possible because we allowed regular people buy in into the political process, which is usually done behind closed doors. Michiganders were invested in seeing a win and were willing to devote their time and money into ending partisan gerrymandering.
Taking our grassroots funding approach national means we are asking the citizens of this country to support us in fixing the system and get involved in our movement. By engaging with The People everyday citizens are exposed to the power of standing together and working against corruption to fix the country and make it work for us regular people again.
What does it mean to you to be a democracy entrepreneur? Why do you think entrepreneurship is needed in this space?
When we were working on gerrymandering, I quickly realized that how we were running the campaign -- being transparent, using a democratic process for making decisions, and being true to our principles -- actually mattered just as much, if not more than the issue itself. I also realized people were hungry to engage in an organization like this.
Right now in our government we have actors who are working in their own best interests. What's been lost in that is the American people can organize in a way that delivers better results for our communities. If we continue to just look at the traditional models that have gotten us here, it'll be a self-perpetuating cycle unless we have innovation. The People introduces a new model into space and disrupts the status quo. We are advocating by the people of this country and for the people of this country,
Institutions like our government are often slow to change and adapt. I’m a millennial and I really worry about how much harder it will feel for younger generations to be able to interact with our government. Our system is outdated, lacks innovation and creativity, and has failed to utilize the evolving technology which helps our daily lives. There are alternatives which can help our country make more informed and data-driven decisions. Without entrepreneurship and changing the way we look at problem-solving, we'll just continue to get more of the same which is not working for everyday Americans.
What are you hopeful about? Where do you see bright spots?
A lot of the narrative that gets told about Americans is that they don't care or can’t be bothered with politics. Through our work we see the complete opposite. We see caring Americans who are very concerned and have thoughtful opinions working across party lines for the betterment of our country. The gap is people understanding what they can do about it as one person. But, we've seen lots of people who completely change their attitude and feel empowered to make the change themselves.
People have more in common than we realize. We took 100 people who matched the demographics of the country and at least two from each state and highlighted their shared concerns and hopes. It's extremely inspiring to see how much common ground we really do have.
How can philanthropists better support democracy entrepreneurs and civic leaders in the U.S.?
The first step is to recognize that the American people must play a role in this system. We need to focus on helping more people get access to tools, resources, and opportunities for making change. Philanthropists can financially support organizations led by entrepreneurs who have different models with success records. Innovation is coming from people in communities experiencing the most dire consequences from the lack of a working government. Be open to hearing about how democracy entrepreneurs are tracking success and what that looks like. In Michigan, since we had little outside help, we were forced to build everything from the ground up. Philanthropists can also support democracy entrepreneurs and civic leaders through resource sharing. The biggest innovation will come from traditional and new models and people coming together to share best practices and figuring out how to work in collaboration, not competition.
What can everyday citizens do to rebuild trust in our communities and strengthen our democracy?
Look at a problem, find your issue, and jump in. You don't need to be the expert and no one person is ever going to be the expert on how exactly something should be solved. Know that you should ask for help and that there are other people you can invite into the process.
Go in without preconceived judgments. We can't heal or create a better future if we're terrified of each other or treating each other like enemies when we all have a goal of seeing our country and government succeed. Create an environment where you are listening and not just waiting for somebody to not meet your expectations.
Look at the systemic barriers that are keeping more people from participating. This is a very complex system and there's no silver bullet. Ask the hard questions around driving change and measurement.