17: Civic Engagement

The foundation strongly believes that the work of its grantees has “moved the needle” of social change, but measuring that movement, capturing it numerically, is difficult. Still, in the area of civic engagement, an independent study has quantified grantees’ success in nonpartisan voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in communities of color.

The story of that success began at a bitter time on Long Island, when Levy regularly used his power as county executive to vilify immigrants. Just as the foundation’s reaction to Levy’s hateful rhetoric had led to the creation of Long Island Wins, it also spurred Sandow to think about the need for voter engagement in Long Island’s Latino communities.

“We just wanted to collectively create a brick wall through which the Steve Levys of Long Island would have to run in order to have success,” Sandow said. To make that brick wall as strong as possible, however, the civic engagement strategy would need to include other communities of color, primarily African-Americans, in addition to Latinos. It would need to focus on coalition-building among different communities of color in order to achieve real results.

Sandow also realized that the foundation’s early efforts on civic engagement had fallen into a practice that critics described as wrongheaded: funding that work only during election years. He decided that he didn’t want to invest any more money in it without a carefully crafted plan. What the foundation needed was a good consultant to do an on-the-ground assessment, then recommend how to start a civic engagement program on Long Island. So Sandow discussed it with Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, based in Washington, D.C.

“I said, ‘Deepak, I want to learn about civic engagement.’ He was skeptical at first, and then I said, ‘I’m going to make an eight-year commitment to it.’ And he said, ‘Now we’re talking.’ ”

With a planning grant from the foundation, the Center for Community Change sent in a consultant to examine the scene and come up with some recommendations. Out of that process emerged the broad outlines for what became the Long Island Civic Engagement Table (LICET).

One of the table’s principal organizations was Make the Road New York, which had been working with immigrants in the City of New York and was looking to expand its work elsewhere in the state. It was funding from Hagedorn that brought Make the Road to Long Island to do what its mission statement proclaims as its goals: “Make the Road New York (MRNY) builds the power of Latino and working class communities to achieve dignity and justice through organizing, policy innovation, transformative education, and survival services.”

Another leg of the table was New York Communities for Change, one of the groups that Sandow had funded for the early civic engagement work on Long Island, before he had hired Dunn. The table also included CARECEN, the Central American Refugee Center. Its legal staff knew the ins and outs of immigration law. Its expertise in naturalization was a core component of civic engagement. Obviously, before immigrants could register to vote they had to be citizens.

Though Sandow had funded civic engagement work before, the establishment of LICET took it to a new level, harnessing the work of multiple organizations together.

“By the time I was there, canvassing had already begun in 2011 and had included both the African-American and the Latino communities,” said Daniel Altschuler, the first long-term coordinator of LICET. That inclusive scope of work was strategically important, given the unfortunate history of efforts to divide these two communities. To succeed, LICET had to highlight and reinforce their shared interests. “Part of what the anti-immigrant right had done for a very long time had been to, for instance, try to pit low-income African-American folks, or working-class African-Americans, against immigrants, and vice-versa,” Altschuler said. So the organizing work meant breaking down barriers that were dividing people.

The early work of LICET also required finding ways to get the anchor organizations to form a working partnership. While CARECEN’s role was naturalization, the nonpartisan voter registration, get-out-the-vote work, and community organizing were the responsibilities of Make the Road New York and New York Communities for Change.

“The organizations had begun doing work associated with the project, get-out-the-vote canvasses and naturalization work, but it hadn’t been convened under one umbrella,” Altschuler said. “I think the core organizations were all very much committed to doing the work that they had said they were going to do. Folks were in place and committed. The work that we all did together in those early stages was about then convening a broader group of organizations who shared the goal of increasing civic participation among immigrant communities and working-class communities of color.”

At the start of November 2011, the race for county executive in Suffolk County, to succeed Levy, provided the occasion for what turned out to be an encouraging event, a candidate forum called “Growing a Diverse Long Island.” LICET hosted it, along with Long Island Wins and the Long Island Spanish-language newspaper Noticia.

That night, before a large crowd at Central Islip High School, the Democratic candidate, Steve Bellone, and the Republican, Angie Carpenter, had to answer questions on issues such as the availability of government documents and services in languages other than English and the state of police relations with communities of color and immigrant communities. Bellone pledged to support language access. A year later, as county executive, he signed an executive order that required Suffolk County agencies to help residents with limited English proficiency by translating key documents and providing interpreters for speakers of the languages most common in the county: Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole. That order represented an early and significant achievement for LICET and its partner organizations, such as the Long Island Language Advocates Coalition.

Showing its ability to work at small as well as large levels of government, LICET achieved another landmark in a school board election in Brentwood. Historically, the school board’s elected leaders did not look like the racial and ethnic diversity of the community. LICET did not back any specific candidate, but it did have a measurable impact on turnout, and people of color led the board after that election.

Given the historical background, getting more people involved in the political process was not easy. LICET was working in communities where participation had been extremely low, and residents had been ignored for a long time. That made overcoming apathy a key goal.

Another challenge has been changes in leadership. Altschuler had an opportunity to move from coordinating LICET to running Make the Road’s overall work on Long Island. Steve McFarland took his place at LICET, but McFarland also moved on. At the start of 2016, an attorney named Gabriela Castillo took over as coordinator, leaving behind the direct legal services that she had provided earlier in her career and plunging into the civic engagement work.

“There’s action happening,” Castillo said. “I see folks, especially in the immigrant community, who have now become citizens and are now taking that initial step into full civic participation.” Beyond voting, that can mean running for office, such as school boards. “I think real change has happened in the immigrant community.”

LICET has only two full-time staff, the coordinator and an organizer, but they get the work done. “Our voter registration program is primarily run through the summer with our summer fellows, through a program we call movement building organizers,” Castillo said. “It’s mostly young men and women, mostly college-age, who join us for about 12 weeks during the summer. We combine the voter registration component with trainings— leadership development training, organizing, political trainings—just to also make them aware of why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

In her first summer with this work, in 2016, the experience was uplifting. “The youth alone, in a matter of 12 weeks, registered over 2,000,” Castillo said. All told, adding the work LICET did with partner organizations to the youth efforts, the total registrations in 2016 came to about 8,000.

Despite those impressive numbers, knocking on doors isn’t easy work. Apathy makes it difficult, even in the high-visibility election of 2016.

“I think the polarizing political world we found ourselves in, and we continue to find ourselves in, made it a bit more challenging at the doors, where a lot of voters who for years have been neglected, who have not felt their needs have been answered or that their community’s needs have been answered, were at a point where many of them did not want to talk about the election, did not want to hear about it,” Castillo said.

Still, LICET persists. Not content to canvass a community only once, Castillo and her colleagues follow the wisdom of research that shows multiple visits are the most effective strategy. If the people they want to contact aren’t home the first time, they try again—twice, if necessary. “To make sure that we are covering the entire geographic area that we are canvassing in, we do a three-pass canvass,” Castillo said.

In the process, LICET knocks on doors that political campaigns don’t choose to go near. For politicians, the low-to-moderate propensity voters behind those doors look like a less-than-fruitful use of campaign time. For LICET, those voters are at the heart of the mission. The people they meet, who have not had much interaction with the political system, show some hesitation when LICET shows up. “But we also have had really wonderful experiences where they say, ‘No one’s ever really come to my door, or I didn’t even know about these elections,’ ” Castillo said. That often leads to conversations about issues that are coming up, for example, in the State Senate. “So it’s been really satisfying to have those encounters.”

Another satisfying element of LICET’s work is that it lends itself to quantification. In 2016, the foundation contracted with Tom K. Wong, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, to crunch the numbers and evaluate LICET’s work. At the outset, he spoke with Altschuler and Castillo, and he continued to work with her to gather the data that was the raw material for his evaluation.

In a memo describing his findings, Wong said: “The results of this evaluation show that LICET is having a measurable impact on voter turnout and is poised to make an even larger impact on Long Island’s political landscape.” The report itself went into detail. Here are some of its findings:

  • Since forming in 2011, LICET has helped 845 immigrants submit their citizenship applications, registered more than 15,000 new voters, and engaged nearly than 80,000 voters during elections.
  • LICET has consistently increased voter turnout among low-propensity voters by double digits during even-year elections.
  • LICET has also significantly increased voter turnout among low-propensity voters during odd-year elections, which are traditionally the most difficult types of elections in which to mobilize voters.
  • During the 2016 primary election, LICET made over 12,000 attempted voter engagements targeting nearly 5,000 unique voters.
  • LICET’s voter engagement efforts increased turnout among low-propensity voters by a robust 16.9 percent.

The study focused on quantitative analysis. It was not designed to examine the complex interactions of LICET’s core organizations—or what could be done to smooth out the sometimes tricky rough spots in its relationships with other agencies. That was a task for the foundation’s staff. Nor was Wong’s study tasked with examining the organizing work that LICET did beyond voter registration. Still, his report was a powerful affirmation of the value of nonpartisan civic engagement work.

“I think that work has demonstrated to the political class on Long Island that if you ignore the communities of color and immigrant communities, there’s a risk, and that these communities are going to work to make their voices heard,” Altschuler said. “That being said, obviously we know that there’s still a long way to go on Long Island.”

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