RISE Together Fund

10 Lessons Learned From 10 Years of RTF Grantmaking

Lesson 9: Deeper support for civic engagement is essential for empowering MASA communities over the long term

The RISE Together Fund (RTF) is celebrating 10 years of grantmaking in 2019!  Throughout 2019 we are sharing 10 lessons on what we’ve learned over the course of 10 years.

By Sheila Bapat (Program Officer, RISE Together Fund)

Last week, I attended the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP)’s annual convening in Detroit. Among the many excellent sessions was a plenary on Race and Power, moderated by Julie Fernandes of the Rockefeller Family Fund. Fernandes noted that persistent discriminatory practices by the state have led to distrust among communities of color, causing the act of voting to feel pointless to many in our country. “Our folks have not been getting what they need out of politics,” she stated “So how do we face these racist headwinds in fighting for our communities? How do we realize our vision for an inclusive democracy?”

Fernandes’s words ring true for Muslim, Arab and South Asian (MASA) communities. Surveillance practices, hate crimes, voter suppression tactics, and Islamophobic rhetoric among political candidates in recent years can discourage participation in the political process. Voting trends among segments of the MASA community show us that there is a need for deeper engagement. For example, according to a 2016 research study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), Muslim voter registration significantly trailed that of the broader American public in recent elections. ISPU research from 2017 shows younger Muslims lag behind their older counterparts, both in terms of voter registration and the propensity to vote.

Over the course of our work in the MASA field since 2008, a key lesson that RISE Together Fund (RTF) has learned is that funding for consistent civic engagement programming is essential. Despite many obstacles, our grantee partners are moving ahead with creative and innovative non-partisan voter engagement strategies. Georgia Muslim Voter Project (GAMVP) in Atlanta is building a peer-to-peer text program to engage new MASA voters, and they plan to experiment with platforms such as WhatsApp to engage immigrant voters as well. The Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA) is empowering refugee youth volunteers to lead voter registration and engagement programs that will reach thousands of MASA community members in the San Diego area. And Sikh Coalition has engaged 88 gurdwaras throughout the country to support voter registration efforts, in addition to the critical Know Your Rights programming that they undertake with Sikh community members.

MASA organizations are working hard — but they require far more resources in order to meet the need. RTF consistently hears from the MASA field that their civic engagement strategies are not well-resourced, nor do they always have access to the tools necessary to ensure effective nonpartisan voter outreach.

RISE Together Fund is committed to bolstering the civic engagement work being led by Muslim, Arab, and South Asian organizers so that our communities are fully engaged in our democracy beyond any particular election. One of the first steps RTF has taken towards this goal is to work with two research consultants, Aisha Yaqoob and Aamina Ahmed, who have spent the last few months digging deeper into the gaps and needs of the field. Both Yaqoob and Ahmed are career experts in fostering MASA civic engagement, and both have run for local office.

After conducting a literature review of current research on the subject, desk research of organizations and campaigns, and nineteen total interviews with MASA field organizations, Yaqoob and Ahmed identified priority recommendations for funders. Below are just a few of the recommendations in the report. The full report can be provided upon request.

Invest in a pipeline of MASA organizers that will support the work of MASA organizations for years to come

A number of MASA organizations noted the difficulty in finding qualified, culturally competent talent to staff their programs. The Muslim Power Building Project (MPBP), a grantee partner of RTF, is an example of a training program that addresses this need. With increased funding, efforts like MPBP can be scaled to support base-building and organizing, digital communications, and data analysis needs.

Invest in systems to enable organizations to track members’ arc of engagement

Although many organizations can share numbers on how many individuals they registered to vote, they are usually unable to track their arc of engagement to see if the individuals they registered voted in a particular election cycle. MASA organizations would benefit from having better records and tracking mechanisms to ensure that their community members stay engaged after being registered to vote. Grantmakers should fund these organizations to access voter engagement programs like the Voter Activation Network (VAN), which can help to track the long-term engagement of communities.

Provide easier access to committed year-round funding for voter engagement

In order for MASA organizations to improve their systems and campaigns, they need a committed investment so as to retain knowledge and talent. Many organizations run short-term civic engagement programs during general or midterm elections, but lose out on opportunities for engagement during special or municipal elections. In addition, funding groups year-round will help build a stronger base of voters and volunteers. Funders should establish a long-term funding stream– at least five years– which will help foster non-partisan voter engagement infrastructure beyond the 2020 election.

RTF will act on several of the recommendations in the report — for both the short term needs next year, and longer term engagement strategies. We welcome partnership in this endeavor. We want to ensure that MASA communities regularly turn out to vote even in off-year elections, so that policymaking bodies are responsive to our growing communities.

At the FCCP Race and Power plenary in November, Charlene Sinclair of BlackPAC stated, “Voting is an articulation of collective power.” Indeed, with sustained, deepened support for civic engagement efforts, MASA communities can fully realize their role in our democracy.

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