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California in an Election Year: Irvine Partners Reflect on Voter and Civic Engagement

“So much is at stake.”

That’s how Sabrina Smith describes the importance of the 2024 elections for working Californians, young people, and communities of color. As CEO of California Calls, Smith and her team partner with 30+ grassroots organizations across the state to mobilize people to participate in the democratic process.

The stakes are high as Californians in November will decide on several issues affecting worker rights, the minimum wage, criminal justice, and the ability of government to raise funds for public services. 

“The bottom line is when we don’t vote, decisions get made for us. And when communities of color and low-wage workers and immigrants don’t vote, it’s a good bet those decisions are going to go against their interests,” Smith said.

California Calls and partners are working overtime this year to ensure the 2024 elections reflect the will of all Californians, especially those whose voices are so often overlooked in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

California Calls is one of several that receives core support from Irvine’s Just Prosperity initiative, with Fair Work investing to support the nonpartisan civic engagement efforts of worker rights organizations. Combined, the initiatives support organizing focused on the workplace, community and regional decision-making, policy and voter and civic engagement.

It’s About Power

Smith launched her organizing career in the mid-1990s as an undergraduate at UCLA. Today, she and her team are putting the lessons from prior losses—and important wins—to work as they strengthen the ability of grassroots organizations to get communities more involved in voting and civic life. At the heart of their approach is a model of “integrated voter engagement” that builds trust and relationships in communities over time.  

“Traditional get-out-the-vote campaigns parachute people into a community and prop up campaigns in the months right before an election,” Smith said. “What we’re doing is building lasting infrastructure in communities that stays in those communities, so they can exercise their power on a continuing basis—from election to election, issue to issue, and year in and year out.” 

It supports partners with state-of-the-art technology that includes access to millions of voters. It also manages regional phone banks with the latest systems and hardware to support high-volume organizing and phoning campaigns. Combined with training programs for grassroots leaders and the development of shared strategies and messaging, it’s a powerful package of supports to encourage people to vote and build the civic power of workers and their communities. 

It’s About Understanding What’s at Stake 

One of the organization’s partners is Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), which works primarily in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties to advance worker rights, especially in the agricultural industry. 

California Calls helped launch the Million Voters Project in 2015 to unite the biggest statewide networks working to get out the vote and build power in communities most impacted by economic and social inequality.

Lucas Zucker, co-executive director, said the “bread and butter” of CAUSE’s nonpartisan civic engagement work is canvassing and phone banking focused on people within farmworker families in the Central Coast who can vote, while also advancing the community’s collective understanding of issues affecting undocumented workers.  

“A lot of people in this region who can vote are the children of immigrant farmworkers, so a lot of what we do is to try to connect them to that legacy and that affinity for the issues we’re focused on,” Zucker said. 

CAUSE also manages activities and campaigns to keep low-income workers engaged in civic and community affairs on an ongoing basis. These include grassroots committees of farmworkers who meet every two weeks to talk about local, state, and national issues affecting them and their families. It also supports workers to speak at public hearings, organizes rallies and marches, and other initiatives.  

“Voting and elections are key, but we think of civic engagement in a broader sense,” Zucker explained. 

It’s About Relationships 

That’s the approach of the San Diego Black Worker Center, which is working to build a community of civically engaged Black workers in the city. “Our theory is that we need people to see how the issues impact them on a real level and engage with them throughout the year, so they feel informed and a part of the process before we ask them to go out and vote,” said Director Brisa L. Johnson. 

Johnson pointed to several programs that reflect this belief in deep and ongoing community engagement. At the center’s “Sip and Listen” events, workers are invited to Black-owned spaces, including coffee shops, breweries, or restaurants, to converse about critical issues in their lives. The center also hosts focus groups with specific groups of workers (such working mothers) to get a better sense of their needs and concerns. Meanwhile, through its door-to-door canvassing and other outreach, it provides workers with nonpartisan information about urgent local and statewide issues, from reparations to worker protections.   

More than anything else, Johnson said the work is about one thing: relationships. “Too many times, we all jump to wanting big system changes, but we forget that those changes are made through knowing someone’s name and what matters most to them.” 

It’s About Representation 

Smith, Zucker and Johnson appreciate how funders are showing a greater understanding of the need for ongoing, year-to-year support for the civic engagement work of their organizations and others, though more is needed.  

Zucker noted that flexible general support funding has become critical as CAUSE experiments with new strategies for digital outreach and narrative change. 

Lucas Zucker, Co‐Executive Director of Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE); Sabrina Smith, CEO of California Calls; Brisa L. Johnson, Director of San Diego Black Worker Center
Lucas Zucker, Co‐Executive Director of Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE); Sabrina Smith, CEO of California Calls; Brisa L. Johnson, Director of the San Diego Black Worker Center

Similarly, Johnson said longer-term grants make all the difference as the San Diego Black Worker Center and its partners tackle structural issues that have made it so hard to reduce stubborn disparities for Black workers and other groups.   

Zucker added that the need for continuing and stepped-up funding for grassroots civic engagement is evident, noting that 57 percent of residents of the two counties are people of color, while two of the 10 county supervisors reflect the region’s diversity.  

“We have incredible underrepresentation for Latinos and Indigenous residents, and low-wage workers really don’t have a voice in government to contest the power of the agricultural and oil industries,” he said. “As a result, our communities aren’t wielding the power they can.” 

Looking ahead to November, groups like California Calls, CAUSE and the San Diego Black Worker Center aim to show what happens when communities step into their power, build their solidarity, and speak up for change.

Photo credit: CAUSE