What Funders Need to Know About the Next Big Democracy Challenge

Friday, December 6, 2019

What Funders Need to Know About the Next Big Democracy Challenge
By Patricia Swann, Sr. Program Officer, The New York Community Trust, on behalf of the New York State Census Equity Fund Steering Committee

Nonprofit work on redistricting is NOT partisan, and, to achieve truly fair representation, foundation support is crucial to executing deep engagement that establishes community-defined, non-gerrymandered lines that demarcate authentic neighborhood spheres. This is the essential starting point for a conversation the philanthropic community is beginning to have – even as CBOs roll out 2020 Census get-out-the-count campaigns – and leaders look toward the next essential step in fortifying our nation’s democratic health. 

The New York State Census Equity Fund organized its first funder convening on redistricting in November. It aimed to lay the ground work for better understanding of the challenges to, and opportunities in, community-centered redistricting efforts, both across the nation and right here in New York. 

Panelist Gary Bass, the executive director of the DC-based Bauman Foundation and leading organizer of the national funder’s collaborative on redistricting (tentatively called the Collaborative for Fair Representation in Redistricting) made a compelling and deeply-researched case that foundation funding for redistricting efforts are not only legal, but totally logical for a wide variety of foundations that are committed to growing community power, helping local grassroots leaders engage diverse communities, and nurturing neighborhood conversations about common concerns. Bass has sought formal legal counsel on ways in which private foundations and other donors can support fair representation work, which produced a memo detailing these areas of high-value nonprofit redistricting initiatives foundations can fund:

-    Public education and mobilization 
-    Proposed maps for administrative redistricting bodies 
-    Advocacy surrounding changes in legislation 
-    Challenging existing or planned districting maps 
-    Establishing new institutions for redistricting 
-    New standards for legislatures and other districting bodies 
-    Litigation and supporting activities 
-    Additional democracy reforms 

The memo from Bauman Foundation’s legal counsel is not publicly available, but Bass detailed the findings for attendees of NYSCEF’s convening and has generously shared the memo with foundation colleagues upon request. Bass is currently working, along with the collaborative’s Advisory Committee Co-Chair, Sanjiv Rao of Ford Foundation, to encourage the 300+ funders who signed onto a public letter supporting Census integrity and protesting the Commerce Department-proposed question on citizenship to now get engaged in funding community-centered redistricting efforts. The national redistricting fund will focus most of its efforts on states in the South. 

The counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program, Yurij Rudensky, then led a conversation examining of the major issues surrounding redistricting nationwide, segueing into the particulars of New York State’s new procedures that will get a first test-drive in 2021. Rudensky says that the partial dismantling of the Voting Rights Act since the 2011 round of redistricting will have a huge impact on 2021 because federal approval is no longer a mechanism for pre-checking gerrymandered district lines before they are approved by legislatures in some of the most problematic states and localities. (Nota bene: Some of the localities previously subject to VRA review are located in areas of New York, such as the counties of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, which were under review for language accommodation compliance).  

Rudensky suggests there is a continuum of activities that foundations should be funding to move redistricting in positive directions nationally, and right here in New York:

1.    Start with getting the 2020 Census count right
2.    Protecting redistricting that is based on total population (not excluding non-citizens or non-voting age population, as is being advanced already in Missouri)
3.    Supporting grassroots organizing and the development of community-designed maps
4.    Shedding light on the redistricting process with work done by community journalism and organizations focused on democracy and accountability
5.    Promoting redistricting reform where it is viable, in states that may be ready for independent commissions and other improvements (Public opinion research indicates that, across partisan lines, people support independent commissions even when they believe their own party would suffer, Rudensky says.)
6.    Litigating racial gerrymandering in federal courts and extreme partisan gerrymandering in state courts. 

The other panelists – Juan Cartegena of Latino Justice, Esmeralda Simmons of Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and Jerry Vattamala of Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund – laid out a somewhat daunting timeline for the redistricting work that needs to occur in New York based on their experiences in 2011 and 2001 (with Simmons and Cartegena harkening back even further to their redistricting experiences in 1991 and 1981!). They are persuasive advocates for a specific process called “Unity Mapping,” which systematically and laboriously surveys people through deep conversations about how they perceive and define the communities around them. That process produces map lines that are guided by people’s authentic definitions of geographic and demographic community. 

Simmons, Cartegena and Vattamala also made a strong case that the process for producing Unity Maps should begin soon so that the information is available at the start of the redistricting process in 2021.  Their point was reinforced a few days later when the League of Women Voters of New York urged the public – and legislators – to focus their attention on the fast-approaching February 1, 2020 deadline for NY State’s legislative leaders to appoint eight people who will serve on the new “independent” commission to draw district lines based on census results (two each appointed by the Majority and Minority leaders of the Assembly and Senate; and then the eight political appointees are to jointly decide upon two additional “nonpolitical” appointees to the commission).  LWV-NY’s missive also highlighted the fact that the commission is required to hold at least 12 public meetings in counties across the state, which may present opportunities for community-developed maps to take center stage. 

As Ford Foundation’s Sanjiv Rao said in paraphrasing a colleague involved in the national redistricting collaborative, “If the Census is to make sure everyone is seen, redistricting is to make sure everyone is heard.” 

More and more foundations are recognizing that grassroots organizing and community-up priority setting are the keys to revitalizing our nation’s democratic functioning. Foundation funding for redistricting work will form a crucial building block to shore up our democratic infrastructure. 

This post is a short distillation of an extraordinarily wide-ranging and complex first funder conversation. There will be more opportunities for funders to come together around redistricting.  In the coming months, New York State Census Equity Fund’s steering committee will be reaching out the 32 funders that donated to the Fund and other funders interested in nurturing community-centered democracy to solicit interest in dedicating additional funds to New York’s redistricting work.  If you’d like to hear about our plans, please email me.        

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