With all the talk of corporate bailouts and Super PAC-funded political campaigns, it’s nice to know that someone is actually looking out for the rest of us. Especially when that someone is a 35,000 member advocacy organization, and the rest of us is, well, all of us.
Washington CAN! is a grassroots organization that engages Washington State residents in the democratic process. Through member education, skills building, and a whole lot of active listening, they empower local residents to influence both political and corporate entities to enact policies that reinforce racial, social and economic justice in Washington State.
And while it’s easy to get depressed about Washington State’s state of affairs (the budget cuts, the over-influence of money, the bureaucracy), Washington CAN! is a testament to how good democracy really can and should be.
“Democracy only works when everyone is engaged,” says Policy Director, Mauricio Ayon.
Rather than simply trusting elected officials to make the right decisions, Washington CAN! mobilizes community members to make their voices heard, and forces policy-makers to make democracy work—even in between election cycles.
“We’re showing strength not through money, but through community building,” Ayon says.
And building community is exactly what they do.
Washington CAN! draws upon the wisdom of its members to identify key priorities for the organization to tackle each year. Via Leadership Council meetings, conversations with members, surveys and community forums, Washington CAN! distills the state’s most pressing concerns, and organizes members to address each issue in turn.
For much of the year, Washington CAN! dedicates the majority of its time to raising awareness of local issues, mobilizing members, analyzing legislative voting records, and producing its annual Racial Justice Report Card.
During the state’s legislative session, they focus their efforts on empowering members to take action on issues that impact their lives (like affordable healthcare, immigrant rights, and economic justice)—and fighting budget cuts that would disproportionately impact low income communities and people of color.
Inevitably, this last part ends up being a major focus for the organization.
“You can’t talk about budget cuts without talking about race,” says Communications Director Rachael DeCruz, which is why their Racial Justice Report Card is so important—it’s one of the only reports that uses a racial justice lens to evaluate legislative voting records.
“One of the benefits [of the Report Card] is that it actually talks about race,” DeCruz says.
The Racial Justice Report Card breaks down the most critical bills of the previous legislative session, and grades legislators based on how they voted. The report also includes analysis of missed opportunities and budget cuts, as well as the implications of the bills that did—and did not—make it to the floor for a full vote. (Keep an eye out for this year’s report card, which will be released in the coming months.)
Ultimately, the intention of the Racial Justice Report Card is to put community pressure on legislators to listen to the voices of their broader constituency, rather than succumbing to the influence of dollars from corporate donors and wealthy benefactors.
“We need to know where legislators stand on these important issues. Our report card allows us to begin a dialogue with legislators and the public around how to reduce disparities and increase access to opportunity for everyone in Washington,” says DeCruz.
But pressuring policy-makers is challenging work; it requires organizing—and more than that, it requires bodies. In order to be effective, Washington CAN! needs people—like you and me—to join them for lobbying efforts, for marches, for phone banks, and letter-writing. They need people to share their insights and ideas, issues and priorities. They need people to help them keep democracy working all year long—not just when election season rolls around.
In a presidential election year, this is a particularly important lesson to keep in mind. Getting the right people in charge is a good thing, but in order to effect real change, we need organizations like Washington CAN! to help us look out for ourselves all along the way.
Because when it comes to looking out for the rest of us, there’s only one thing that truly matters: us. And that’s what Washington CAN! is all about.
Washington CAN! was funded most recently through SJF’s Civic Action Giving Project. To learn more about the work of Washington CAN!, or to become a member, please visit their website at www.washingtoncan.org.