In November 2017, Make the Road Nevada (MRNV) launched its operations in the state by leading a mile-long march through the neighborhoods of East Las Vegas. The March started around Desert Pines High School, in some of the densest Latinx neighborhoods in the state, where both low-income and middle-income immigrant families call home. Our initial group of 200 marchers carried signs and shouted chants demanding justice for immigrants, protection for DREAMers and temporary protected status (TPS) recipients, and dignity and respect for working families. Most importantly, we encouraged members of the community to join the march and take a stand in support of immigrants and justice. With bullhorns blaring chants and a mariachi band leading the march through the neighborhoods, dozens of families came out into their front yards to find out what was going on. After seeing and hearing what we were there for, over 100 community members joined our march and we were more than 300 strong by the time we reached our destination—a block party at MRNV’s offices. Two of those who joined our block party were young brothers Hector and Xavier, who saw our signs and heard our music from a hot dog stand down the street, and decided to come learn more about what MRNV was bringing to the community.
That day, Make the Road Nevada zeroed in on neighborhoods that candidate campaigns rarely do, and engaged community members used to being asked for something, but never to be a part of something—much less given a chance to lead. I serve as director of MRNV and have been a part of campaigns ranging from city council and school board elections to national campaigns advocating for comprehensive immigration reform and LGBTQ equality. Working in the civic engagement space all across the country, I have seen time and time again how campaign strategy often involves figuring out how best to pigeonhole voters of colors—especially Latinx voters—into narrow issue priorities, extracting votes without any regard for community leadership development beyond winning elections for Democrats.
This paper contributes to the Civic Engagement Narrative Change series by shining light on shortcomings of political campaign investment in Latinx communities, and showing an alternative route grounded in trust, respect, and empowerment of community voices. It draws on MRNV’s recent experiences to illustrate how it looks to invest in the people themselves: to cultivate not only voters, or informed voters—though that is important—but also leaders and change agents in their own right. This is a different way of approaching political participation; it is one that should call the attention of progressive donors interested in transformative change aimed at altering the very way political power works.
I get why it is satisfying to give to an inspiring candidate with an admirable platform. But my experience tells me that most candidate campaigns underappreciate and underutilize many of the supporters and volunteers best suited to expand turnout and bring fresh ideas on behalf of those most in need of progressive change. Latinx volunteers in particular are often seen as just Spanish-language vessels for pre-set scripts on the phones and at the doors. Though many of these volunteers are ready for leadership roles, and could be powerful “validators” in their communities, campaigns do not set processes that would allow them to bring ideas and influence from the ground up. Then they wonder why communities that they only know how to talk to in one way—for example, through the issue of immigration—continue to turn out at below-average rates.
Those low turnout rates in turn mislead donors into blaming the people, when in fact it was the campaign that was deficient. But if year-round civic engagement organizations were resourced even a fraction of what campaigns are, we would see impacts up and down the ballot. We might also get the kind of policy agenda that would remind low-income people across the board that government really can be made to improve their everyday lives.
In this paper, I focus on Latinx voters because this is the group I know the best and where I see the shortcomings of the status quo approach as particularly acute. The next section lays out some of the flaws in this approach in greater detail.
The Status Quo Approach to Latinx Voter Activation
Seemingly like clockwork, every year and a half, a crop of consultants, funders, and others who determine the course of resources appears to make far-reaching decisions about what voter engagement will look like in the coming electoral cycle.1 One of the key calculations made early in this process is around messaging for voter groups—usually narrowly defined by demographic labels that reduce voters to one or two aspects of their identities. The result is that groups like “white women,” “middle-class whites,” and first-time or young voters emerge and become the targets of sophisticated messaging efforts on a variety of issues that impact their lives.
As much as we hear that campaigns are working hard to win Latinx voters, our experience with messaging on the ground has been very different. Especially in Spanish-language media, Latinxs too often encounter messaging that suggests that all we need to know is which candidate is good or bad on the issue of immigration. When Latinx voters receive messaging in campaign commercials, literature, digital ads, or door-knocking materials, it is overwhelmingly light on policy platforms or commitments that go beyond that one issue. While other groups are treated to an array of policy proposals that dive deep into jobs, the economy, the environment, housing, women’s rights, LGBTQ equality, and other hot topics, Latinxs are presumed to care about one thing only.
This shallow approach to engaging Latinx—especially Spanish-language—voters leaves them on the hook to research for themselves how candidates and campaigns feel about the many other issues that matter to their families. According to a 2018 report by the consumer research firm Nielsen, “Hispanics have a voracious appetite for relevant and authentic online content and use social media as a means of connecting with their personal and extended communities.”2 A study by the Pew Research Center supports the point that Latinxs in the U.S. rely on the internet as much as television to obtain their news.3 This research offers evidence that campaigns eager to court the Latinx vote should get serious about how to use digital media and networks to engage Latinx voters in genuine political conversations. Latinx communities should be seen as voters who would naturally gravitate towards more content, but are instead treated as a bloc that solely cares about immigration.
I am myself an immigrant from Mexico. My family arrived in this country—in Las Vegas to be exact—as missionaries through the Evangelical Church when I was roughly a week old. I have lived in a community of largely immigrants, and worked in the civic engagement space for over twelve years, with a significant focus on immigrants and immigration reform. I am not saying that candidates and campaigns can ignore the topic of immigration—they shouldn’t. But it simply cannot be their only point of engagement with Latinx voters.
Consultants and funders would be helping themselves if they put more time and resources into understanding Latinx voters, hearing their concerns, and authentically engaging and reflecting them in outreach. As I know firsthand from Make the Road Nevada’s work, Latinx voters, their families, and their communities have leadership and network potential far greater than most conventional campaigns appreciate. Developing that leadership in real and meaningful ways would be an incredibly smart investment, and would pay dividends in election and policy work now and into the future.
Make the Road Nevada Walks the Walk
The latest in the Make the Road family of organizations, Make the Road NV (MRNV) is a dues-based membership organization that dedicates itself to building the power of Latinx, immigrant, and working families in Southern Nevada to create concrete and positive change for its members and their families. We do this by engaging our members and the community on a weekly basis through membership meetings, where we develop and work with members and member-leaders to conduct informative sessions and political education modules that build the capacity and skillset of our members so they can lead campaigns that matter to their families.
In what follows, I describe the steps MRNV took to ensure that our members were fully engaged and empowered in what was our first official election cycle as an organization in 2018. MRNV lived our commitment to following our members’ priorities and developing them as leaders, from the beginning to the end of our midterm work. As a member-driven community organization, we see it as our goal that our members will ultimately be the ones shaping and leading the campaigns we work on, and in the directions most crucial to them. We think that this is what all civic engagement operations could and should look like.
Ground-Up Agenda Setting
MRNV began 2018 by assessing the needs of our membership through weekly discussions about key issues impacting their families. We began this process by putting our members into direct dialogue over a series of weeks to identify common shared priority issues. We recruited member-leaders to help facilitate these conversations, working in small groups to hold open discussions and list out problems and issues. These ultimately led to a member vote held over the course of two weeks to set legislative priorities.
Many of our members experience difficulty affording their bills and rent, and being able to take care of themselves or their children if they become sick. With these consistent themes, our members concluded that MRNV should focus on engaging the wider community on: earned sick days, raising the state’s minimum wage, and tenant protections that include rent control and eviction protections. With our agenda set, our staff began the process of developing educational modules for membership meetings, ensuring that all of our members are aware of the agenda that was agreed upon as well as a strategy for pushing legislative solutions.
Building Strategy and Agency
To achieve the agenda our members laid out, we established modules explaining the difference between tactics and strategies for our campaigns, and equipped members with the information necessary to lead campaigns rather than being told what to do by paid MRNV staff. As stated above, our focus is on building the leadership of our members and member-leaders, so we started with the basics of campaign planning to make sure all members could be included in the process.
Our first session covered basic components of a campaign plan, discussing what our members saw as the right end result and goals to meet along the way. In addition, we worked with our members over the course of two weeks to build strategies for communications, community engagement/education, and electoral/legislative mobilization. Throughout this intensive process, we made sure that all materials were available in both English and Spanish and offered fully translated meeting spaces so that every member could participate in their native language. At the end of the process, we emerged with a strong cohort of members and member-leaders who were now fully informed about the upcoming election cycle, and how to demand that their priorities be electoral priorities for candidates up and down the ballot. This built up their capacity as political actors, and ours as a year-round, sustainable civic engagement organization.
Field Testing and Feedback Loops
The agreed upon community engagement/education strategy put our members’ messages into MRNV’s ongoing canvass operation in the neighborhoods of East and North Las Vegas. However, when our canvass teams went to the doors, they discovered that the messaging developed with our members was not yielding the desired results.
We found a lot of confusion and concern about raising the state’s minimum wage, because individuals were concerned that rent and other living expenses might surge if wages rose. This was not the response we had anticipated. We expected that those we were engaging would immediately support a minimum wage increase that would likely apply to them or their family.
At this point, most campaigns would turn to a consultant. But for MRNV, what we heard at the doors needed to go back to our membership, immediately. At our next meeting, we consulted across our canvass leadership and our members about the initial resistance to our campaign, and determined that we would need to reconfigure our canvass scripts. The experience reminded, or re-taught, valuable lessons:
to always monitor community responses closely rather than switching to a sole focus on increasing outreach numbers once the agenda is set;
to create spaces and feedback loops for people in the community (not just MRNV members) to inform our campaigns based on their understandings and needs.
Turning Members into Leaders
Another component of the campaign plan included making our members’ agenda a political/electoral issue in the midterm election cycle. This meant that our members would have to engage in elections for the first time. In order to grow the skills and knowledge of our members, our staff developed training modules about the upcoming election, with key dates, races, and potential opportunities to impact the dialogue on the campaign trail.
By March, our members were also beginning to evaluate which elections they’d like to target. So while MRNV’s staff was developing education modules, we also began developing electoral modules to help our members learn about the political process for the 2018 midterms.
During meetings of our electoral education modules, our members decided to create a smaller committee to more closely analyze particular elections to determine in which races we could have a significant presence. This led to the creation of our political committee, a seven-member committee that would make decisions about priority races. MRNV members also laid out processes for how to work as a committee that represents the membership at large, and how to communicate out the committee’s work. It was an exciting process for our members because this was the first political experience for many on the committee, and it offered real, consequential experience in political leadership.
In sum, MRNV developed real-life training modules that would educate our members about the political process, involved them in the decision making-process all along the way, and also asked them to lead in their neighborhoods, workplaces, and their families on the important issues that impact their lives. Our organizing model intentionally includes and develops our members’ skills so that they know how to make certain their voices are heard in political discussions. They are encouraged to express and prioritize whatever political goals and priorities are most important to their everyday lives—not just immigration.
Throughout the course of the 2018 midterm elections, MRNV’s engagement became an increasingly mature and fluid political conversation in which members developed ideas and solutions through a sophisticated political lens. We were intentional about how we engaged our members throughout every step to make sure that their knowledge, skills, and roles in the work would all continue to grow. Because we took the steps to develop our members’ leadership, by the end of the 2018 midterm election, our members had formed a larger ten-member political committee, weighed in on key races, organized membership-driven canvasses and phone banks, and even hosted roundtables and in-person meetings with key political players to push them on their legislative agendas.4 Our members were successful in getting then-candidate (now-Governor) Steve Sisolak to publicly support and endorse earned sick days legislation,5 raising the state’s minimum wage, and addressing the growing need for affordable housing and tenants’ rights. Our members even launched a successful effort to unseat an incumbent member of the Clark County School Board of Trustees, and elected one of the first Latinas to that elected body in county history.6
I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the reason an approach to engagement like MRNV’s is not embraced by candidate campaigns—and why there’s such commitment to the status quo. Is there a fear of unleashing the real power of these constituencies to decide what—and who—is best for them? Some might say that it’s not the job of candidates or parties to make the kind of investments in constituents’ skills, leadership, and advocacy capacity that MRNV did in 2018. Maybe they’re right. But if so, all the more reason progressive donors should take a long hard look at how they make their investments in supporting the social and political change of tomorrow. Only very rarely will transformative change—changing power—be on the table as a return on investments made in candidates. But with checks written to groups that grow not only votes but leaders, it always will be.
With candidate campaigns, the return on investment is uncertain at best, and always narrow. The real power to create long-term change lies with community organizations committed to developing real leaders from the grassroots up the ladder of leadership.
Truly people-powered movements express the voices of those most directly impacted, and invest in their engagement, development, and aptitude for creating positive change for their families and their communities. MRNV learned very quickly that our members have a far-reaching network of individuals in their lives who pay attention when they speak about political issues. We take every opportunity to uplift their voices on social media, in the press, and at events. Latinx voters and immigrant communities are not one-dimensional. Their families live full and diverse lives. Political campaigns should not overlook or discount their reach, their credibility within their expanded networks, or their ability to retain and operationalize complex political information.
Given the outcomes of the midterm elections in Nevada, I have to think that serious political analysts and operatives will take notice of our members’ contributions. We hope they will see that Latinx voters are a constituency not to be ignored. Decision makers at all levels should engage them early and continuously if they would like to continue seeing positive results. Our members have shown that Latinx voters and Spanish-speaking communities can truly impact the political landscape of the state. Through their continued commitment pushing to pass earned sick days and the rest of their legislative agenda during 2019’s legislative session, they will show that they are more than “turnout” or immigration voters.
- 1Community organizations in some ways rely on these resources to grow infrastructure, though what is made available to them is consistently outpaced by funds sent to private consultants and paid canvassing vendors whose only goal is to win elections. But that is the topic of another paper!
- 2Nielsen, “Descubrimiento Digital: The Online Lives of Latinx Consumers,” August 2018, https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2018/descubrimiento-digi….
- 3Antonio Flores and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Among U.S. Latinos, the internet now rivals television as a source for news,” Pew Research Center, January 11, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/11/among-u-s-latinos-the-….
- 4Michael Lyle, “Forum highlights need for paid sick leave, higher minimum wage,” Nevada Current, September 28, 2018, https://www.nevadacurrent.com/2018/09/28/forum-highlights-need-for-paid….
- 5A video is available on Make the Road NV’s facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/MakeTheRoadNV/videos/584830891966502.
- 6Colton Lochhead and Ramona Giwargis, “Campaign 2018: Nevada voter turnout doubles 2014 showing,” Las Vegas Review Journal, November 3, 2018, https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/politics-and-government/nevada/campa….