By Judia Holton, Emelia Cowans-Taylor, Erin Byrd, Roxane Richir, and Ivanna Gonzalez (Blueprint NC)
In 2006, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a Winston-Salem based philanthropic organization, called on several civic engagement and advocacy groups to have facilitated dialogues about progressive reform strategy. Initially referred to as the “Aqueduct Group” (named for the space where the meetings were held), participants in these dialogues continued to have conversations for more than a year before committing to move forward with something new to North Carolina: a permanent organizational infrastructure for civic engagement that didn’t dissolve after each election cycle. The project was named Blueprint NC.
This paper shares the Blueprint NC origin story, organizing principles, and lessons learned from the North Carolina 2018 midterm elections. Blueprint NC was formed out of a critique of the existing civic engagement infrastructure and a need to protect families and communities that were left behind and/or excluded from participation in the processes of democracy. The experience of Blueprint NC offers a community-centered, visionary approach for civic engagement organizations elsewhere that are looking to embody racial justice as an ongoing practice—not just an ideal destination—for movement-building.
Story of Self
Today, Blueprint NC sees itself as a movement-building incubator that provides opportunities for training, resource-sharing, and convening for partner organizations. Our partners include a network of more than 60 non-profit organizations spanning the state of North Carolina. These organizations use civic engagement and education to advocate for a healthy democracy that works to remove barriers, and to provide the resources communities need to achieve opportunity, security, and well-being. Blueprint NC insists that the larger progressive agenda that will produce better, more equitable, and healthier movements requires a commitment to combating racism and all forms of discrimination. This means critically examining the unique role race has played in shaping power, division, and white supremacist ideology in the United States. Unless the idea that white people, their ideas, culture, and actions are superior—and its operation as the status quo—is actively challenged and replaced, it will continue to manifest internally, interpersonally, institutionally, and culturally. In this struggle, Blueprint NC believes there is no neutral path.
The Blueprint NC vision has been shaped by and through history—with changing political tides, injustices, and openness to self-reflexive examination and critique of our approaches to social change at every step of our journey.
When Blueprint NC was created, Democrats had control of the North Carolina General Assembly. For organizations committed to building democratic, economic, and social inclusion and well-being, policy change seemed the simple and obvious route. “You could just go lobby; you actually didn't even need community,” explains founding member and current Executive Director of Blueprint NC, Erin Dale Byrd. “If you hired a good lobbyist, that lobbyist would go and do your schmoozing, and then your bill would pass.”
This approach of organizing to influence policy was active until the November 2010 election, which resulted in the Republican Party claiming a supermajority, taking control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The last time Republicans had control of both chambers of the General Assembly was during Reconstruction.
By the 2013 Legislative Session, the state of North Carolina passed some of the most conservative legislation in the nation, including fracking, mandatory drug testing for people on public assistance, attacking labor unions, and defunding public schools. The most notorious piece of legislation was a 56-page bill aimed at influencing elections dubbed the “Monster Law.” Its blatant attacks on voter access and voting rights—which a judge ultimately ruled targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision”1 —prompted outrage in the form of lawsuits and protests, including Historic Thousands on Jones (HKonJ) and the Moral Monday movement led by then-president of the North Carolina NAACP, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.
Attacks on communities of color in North Carolina—and the Black community in particular—shown as a microcosm of what was happening on the national stage, with Black people increasingly murdered with impunity by police, increased visibility of state violence, and the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. These circumstances were the catalyst for Blueprint’s consciousness to shift from lobbying for change in Raleigh to centering base-building in communities of color and racial equity. It was a decision born of resistance to injustice: “If you build a base of support, they can’t run roughshod through your community, especially if you have thousands and thousands of people to resist...or at least they can't do it quietly or easily,” says Byrd. “At least make them fight for it!” This shift represented a real transformation in the thinking, culture, and budget priorities of Blueprint NC and its partners. In 2014, Blueprint NC and other organizations in the movement started investing in base-building, first and foremost by hiring organizers instead of lobbyists.
Grounded in the principles and values described in the next section, Blueprint NC has grown through this history into the backbone of a growing network of 66 non-profit, non-partisan organizations. These groups work together across issues and racial lines to advance equity and social justice in North Carolina. Our partnership brings together organizations with different capacities, access to resources, theories of change, and organizational goals. As a collective impact backbone organization, Blueprint NC is intentional about establishing permanent work groups, networks, and task forces driven by a critical mass of partners with a clear decision-making structure, established common agenda, and dedicated staff support. Sustainable networks created out of Blueprint NC include Raleigh PACT (Police Accountability Taskforce), NC BLOC (Black Leadership Organizing Collective), Black Women’s Roundtable, the Eastern North Carolina Work Group, Redistricting Work Group, and the North Carolina 2020 Census Taskforce.
Blueprint is YOUprint: Our Organizing Principles and Values
Progressive state tables historically have used an economies-of-scale share model. In this model, organizations that needed access to a set of tools or resources purchased them together instead of each buying their own. While financially beneficial, this model by itself was unable to connect organizations working in silos, and could not take the place of actual labor and time that is required to build cohesion. “The economies-of-scale model should be seen as a cost-saving measure and a fine first step, but it doesn't build trust,” explains Roxane Richir, Deputy Director of Civic Engagement. “It is our job to build relationships, process, and programs, and not wait for tools to do it.” These insights informed the decision for Blueprint NC to adopt collective impact as an organizing principle and an intentional means of collaborative partnership.
For Blueprint NC, collective impact starts with facilitating collaboration between partners by establishing clear decision-making structures and building a common agenda through work groups. Work groups operate on basis of an egalitarian process of dialogue to set an agreed-upon vision and theory of change—a common acknowledgment of the conditions to be addressed and a shared belief of what will fix those conditions.
Another key ingredient for building collective impact is to set agreed-upon metrics of tracking success. These answer the question, “If we all agree that there is a vision, what are the mutual measurements and benchmarks we must achieve to get there?” Lastly, collective impact requires having a core group whose primary purpose is recognized as being the backbone that provides progressive infrastructure for all of the other organizations doing this collective work. Blueprint NC is that backbone.
Blueprint NC and its partners recognized that the organizing principle of collective impact alone was not enough. Our staff has always wanted to center racial equity as well, but what should that mean?
Racial equity is a practice and a muscle that affects every move an organization makes. It must live in the cells of the organization. It is all of those small shifts that help subvert the culture of white supremacy that teaches us to be detached from shared humanity. For Blueprint NC, racial equity allows us to build alliances and coalitions based on actual real relationships—not just via email. It is about dismantling the things that seek to divide us and instead exploring opportunities to work in solidarity with communities.
Blueprint NC evaluates all aspects of our work and operations through a racial equity lens. This lens has an intentional focus and analysis on dismantling structural racism and intersecting systems of oppression (classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and beyond) through civic education, leadership development in communities of color, and active advocacy for public policies that promote equity in all its forms. Blueprint NC shapes strategy to prioritize historically under-resourced communities in alignment with our values.
What does this lens and commitment to racial equity look like in the everyday? It looks like an active commitment to resisting white supremacy culture in hiring practices, examination of power dynamics, views on accountability, and support and trainings for partners. Blueprint’s approach has been to carefully resist urgency when hiring for major internal positions, and to build networks of vendors of color. A component of racial equity is transparency about who holds power to make decisions with staff and with partners, and holding ourselves accountable. That accountability involves hearing feedback and integrating it. Blueprint NC is meeting people where they are, because their input is vital. And because living racial equity means continuous learning and reexamination, Blueprint NC provides trainings to explore how white supremacy manifests itself in new and unexpected ways in our movements.
Most importantly, how racial equity is embodied on a day-to-day basis is by honoring humanity. Blueprint NC recognizes the complexities of building authentic relationships and humanizing people and their lived experiences. This is achieved within Blueprint NC and its partners by being conscious and consistent with check-ins with people so that they feel equipped to show up in their roles. This can only happen when real relationships are prioritized, and by asking how we show up for each other acknowledging the identities, and positions of power and privilege, that we each hold as we make decisions that affect one another. Blueprint NC sees addressing hierarchy and power as a necessary grounding component of the world that we are trying to create.
Shared Values for Aligning Our Voices
It is a Blueprint NC foundation that shared narrative helps partners working on diverse issues communicate a united front in the face of ever-emboldened and well-resourced opposition. We are committed to advancing six shared values across issues, constituencies, and geographies to leverage governing power for the benefit of the entire partnership, its members, and supporters. Our 2017 Shared Narrative Taskforce set these shared values, and shaped key narrative themes for our partnership.
1. Equity – The benefits and burdens of society, and where we have the opportunity to go in life, should not depend on what we look like or where we come from. Equity means embracing our differences, giving everyone what they need to be successful based on those differences, and challenging stereotypes.
2. Community – We share responsibility for each other and for the common good. Our strength depends on the vibrancy and cohesiveness of our diverse population.
3. Opportunity – We need an economy that works for everyone where the roadmap to opportunity is clear and available to all. This means making collective decisions to prioritize people over profit for the few.
4. Security – We should all have the tools to meet our own basic needs and the needs of our families. Without economic and social security, it is impossible to access the other rights and responsibilities society has to offer.
5. Voice – Our government and communities should be a reflection of the people. We should all have a say in the decisions that affect us. Our voices must be recognized at the polls and beyond – at public forums, in elected officials’ offices, and in the media.
6. Safety – We should have the ability to shape the emotional, physical, and spiritual health and autonomy of our bodies.
Shared Narrative 2.0 (Culture before Policy)
Most recently, the 2018 electoral cycle challenged our partnership to move and communicate in alignment like never before, as we responded to six detrimental ballot initiatives that aimed to amend the state constitution. These dense and complex policies, their misleading language on the back of the ballot, the tight timeline, and dirty politics posed formidable challenges to communicate about the amendments collectively.
Our partnership’s commitment to speak with blunt honesty about the racialized intent and harm of the amendments is what led us to connect with Dēmos, which has been leading research on a race-class narrative.2 Throughout the campaign seasons, By the People (our anti-amendment referendum committee) and partners experimented with implementing this narrative, which names how Black, brown, and white working-class people are being intentionally pitted against one another for the benefit of the wealthy few.
We have plans to deepen our exploration of a shared race-class narrative and to use “transformative cultural strategy” in the coming years.3 It is clear to our team that no single tool will shift the pendulum on our public dialogue, so we are doubling down on strategies of culture and narrative toward a vision of an inclusive, anti-racist democracy—bringing the same level of resourcing, rigor, and curiosity for learning as we do to traditional civic engagement tactics.
In 2019, our aim is to create space for partners to propose investments in their long-term capacity to sustain narrative-shifting work and/or implement experiments in culture shift strategy with the support of Blueprint staff and other partners who want to form a part of a learning community.
2018 Elections: Lessons in Adaptability and Getting the Vote Out
The historic 2018 midterm elections in North Carolina brought distinct challenges for Blueprint NC and its partners, but ultimately these affirmed the principles and approach we’ve refined through our history. Our versatility and successes stand as a testament to years of strategic planning, experimentation and learning, intentional relationship building, and adaptability.
The obstacles we faced began with the usual challenge of activating voters in a year with no presidential, U.S. Senate, or gubernatorial campaigns, when turnout is always lower. Communities with large populations of voters of color or young voters are especially unlikely to be fully reflected in voter turnout and registration in these “off” years.
Blueprint and its partners work year round towards the goal of equalizing political representation across racial groups, engaging and educating people about what will be on the ballot and what is at stake for constituents. We know that elections are just one day, and every day until the next one should be spent equipping communities with the tools they need to become leaders and create real change. Taking seriously the goal of equal representation means that Blueprint both shapes outreach using the voter file—official electoral data—and goes beyond it by equally utilizing the knowledge, expertise, and insights of partners on the ground. We conduct experiments and testing to see which tactic works best with different groups of people so that everyone has what they need to cast a ballot.
The turnout challenge was exacerbated in 2018 by misleading constitutional amendments on the ballot, and devastating natural disasters. Our approach was put to the test in particular by the impact of Hurricane Florence, which hit the eastern region of North Carolina less than eight weeks before Election Day. Eastern North Carolina, known as the “Black Belt,” is home to the largest number of Black residents in the state. Existing poverty and environmental injustice from hog farming and contaminated water are exacerbated by such increasingly frequent disasters. As Florence approached near the end of the election season, Blueprint NC realized it had to shift gears to support thousands of people with food, water, and supplies, while partners registered voters.
Due to years of relationship and community building in the region, a network of people that trusted each other already existed. This network had existing norms and systems on how the work should happen. As a result, we were able to quickly and collaboratively move between civic engagement and recovery work. In the end, Hurricane Florence was an opportunity to raise awareness and learn how to talk about the political realities of Eastern Carolina, while simultaneously offering aid.
In the end, North Carolina saw historic numbers for voter registration and turnout in 2018. Voters defeated two of the six proposed constitutional amendments, and many hearts and minds were changed through outreach and education. Blueprint NC will continue to participate in every election cycle because it believes that voting is a part of building a robust democracy, and that a better world needs higher participation from everyone.
Blueprint NC was formed from a critique of the non-profit industrial complex which existed within the infrastructure. It has grown into a movement-building incubator, and the backbone organization for a robust network of organizations across the state. Over the years, Blueprint NC has been shaped by the lessons learned through experimentation, dreaming of the North Carolina we want to see, and placing those most directly impacted by injustice, internalized oppression, and lack of resources at the center of decision-making processes. Grounded in a shared narrative and guided by organizing principles of collective impact and racial equity, Blueprint NC and its partners are creating a vision for an inclusive anti-racist democracy.
Tips from Blueprint:
Dismantle all the things that keep us apart.
Invite personal transformation through the work.
Build authentic relationships.
Call out white supremacy.
Dream of changes you want to see.
Recognize the humanity and dignity of all people.
- 1North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. McCrory, 831 F. 3d 204 (4th Cir. 2016).
- 2Dēmos, Race-Class Narrative Project, https://www.demos.org/race-class-narrative-project.
- 3The Movement Strategy Center, based in California, describes transformative cultural strategy as “strategy that turns the present into the embodiment of our vision and values of love, generative power, and interdependence.”