How do we keep our democracy healthy? Especially when politics and policies keep people from participating? As the consequential elections of 2020 approached, NYU professors Erica Foldy and John Gershman began asking these questions—and the VOTE 2020 Fellowship was their answer. “By the People, For the People” tells the story of this experimental initiative, and examines what happens when everyday people, like Erica, John, and their students at NYU, take ownership of their democracy. This episode was created through the Ignite Change Fellowship: a partnership of the Cross-Cutting Initiative on Inequality, the NYU Production Lab, and the Wasserman Center for Career Development.
In the months preceding the 2020 elections, NYU Professors Erica Foldy and John Gershman were concerned about voter turnout. The country continued to reckon with one crisis after another—from the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic to persistent demonstrations against racial inequity—and the ballot box would be a powerful opportunity for Americans to respond. But would voters show up on election day? And even more alarmingly, would those who want to vote even be able to? The solution, Erica and John realized, was to mobilize organizers who could educate and empower America’s electorate—and who better to mobilize than their students at NYU? And so began the university’s VOTE 2020 Fellowship.
From the summer preceding the elections to the senatorial run-offs in January, the VOTE 2020 Fellowship partnered NYU students with grassroots organizations that champion voting rights. Erica and John secured funding from the university provost to support the students, and then, like matchmakers, paired students with organizations that could utilize their talents. In total, thirty-two fellows partnered with nearly ten organizations around the country—they taught constituents how to use mail-in ballots, advocated voting accessibility for people with disabilities, challenged the discriminatory use of A.I. intelligence, and worked to prepare election sites for the logistical challenges of a pandemic.
“By the People, For the People: The VOTE 2020 Initiative'' chronicles this experimental fellowship through one student, Maya, and her two partner organizations, Mi Familia Vota and Detroit Action. As Maya encountered, the challenges to voter access are often historically complex, politically weaponized, and contrary to the principles of democracy they’re meant to uphold. But just as elites can erode the foundations of democracy, so can everyday people uphold them. And “By the People, For the People” examines what happens when these everyday people—like Erica, John, Maya, and Carlos, a lifelong advocate and organizer—take ownership of their democracy.
By The People, For The People: The NYU VOTE 2020 Initiative
… a barrage of false claims of fraud and corruption without….
… no matter who’s the winner, and they’re going to try to rig this election too…
… this is going to be a fraud like you've never seen…
… how the President’s false claims about election fraud incited the riot and the fact…
… it's the story about who we are as Americans, it’s that basic…
Maya Portillo: You didn’t have to be like an organizer who’s boots on the ground, been doing it for ten years. You could be an everyday person who says, I don't like what I'm seeing or hearing. And so I'm going to do and say something about that.
Carlos Duarte: We are facing tremendous challenges. But I am an optimist. And I do believe that the people are committed to making it work.
John Gershman: Democracy is one of those institutions where real people can make a difference to the health of the institution. Democracy can certainly be undermined by elites, at the end of the day only real people can defend democracy.
Anna: From New York University’s Cross-Cutting Initiative on Inequality and the NYU Production Lab, this is “By the People, For the People: The NYU VOTE 2020 Initiative.”
Erica Foldy: So my name is Erica Foldy, and I'm on the faculty at the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU.
John Gershman: And I'm John Gershman. I'm also on the faculty at the Wagner school. And we are the founders of New York University’s VOTE 2020 Initiative.
Erica: I was very concerned about efforts that were getting at the foundations of our democracy. And I realized that I wanted to do work that would help strengthen our democracy by ensuring that as many people as possible got out to vote in the fall 2020 elections.
John: In the years leading up to the 2020 election, there had been an increasing effort at specifically passing legislation that was making it more difficult for particular communities and constituencies to vote.
Erica: So this all started around September of 2019 there were a few colleagues, we all said, “We have this incredible platform, we're at a school of public affairs, we're at this you know global university. And why aren't we using that platform more to advance issues of social justice?” So we wanted to draw on the resources of the university to make the world more egalitarian. And I suggested that perhaps we fund students to work in pro-democracy organizations. So we advertised around NYU to get as many students as possible involved, and for the students who jumped on board, we got funding approved by the provost to support them.
John: And this is how we met Maya, one of our grad students who became one of our fellows. She ended up partnering with two organizations: Detroit Action and Mi Familia Vota.
Maya: My name is Maya Portillo. So when I went to graduate school, and I studied public policy at New York University, Wagner School of Public Service, I ended up just taking one community organizing class, and it was this week long kind of boot camp style class, and had this amazing professor who really put organizing into perspective for me, and embedded the idea that you didn't have to be this organizer who's boots on the ground and been doing it for 10 years. But, you could be an everyday person who says, I don't like what I'm seeing or hearing, and so I'm going to do and say something about that. The opportunity presented itself after graduate school, to apply to the NYU VOTE 2020 Fellowship, I said, “Why not?” This feels like where I need to be right now. Which for everyone was at the height of the coronavirus pandemic and also after the murder of George Floyd. The question was, for me: Is there anything else that you could be doing right now that's more important than organizing?
Erica: Again, we created this fellowship because we’re convinced that democracy is an institution for real, everyday people and that it can only be preserved by real, everyday people. And John and I saw that in our students’ work, especially when they were able to uniquely connect with people. And again, Maya is a great example of that.
Maya: I grew up middle class in I would say a very stable household, you know, mom, dad, two sisters, two dogs. You know, we had a pool. It's really nice. And my parents separated when I was 10, went through a nasty divorce. And by the age of 13, things had taken a nosedive financially for my family. So during the height of the pandemic, when people were losing their jobs, when people were dying, you're seeing your loved ones die in front of you, and you're going to more funerals than celebrations shit gets real. You're not going to ask someone when you pick up the phone, are you registered to vote? That's not the first question. The first question is, are you okay? Can you feed your children tonight? And if we get through that, then we can ask the question of, do you know your polling location? And I've many experiences of crying on the phone with people: I don't know your pain right now. But I know that I know what feeling powerlessness is. And I also know a way to feel powerful. And that is through expressing your voice through voting through getting out in the streets, and telling your representatives what you deserve and what you need.
Erica: We really ran on two tracks, we ran on recruiting students, then we ran on recruiting organizations.
John: One organization in particular that many of our student fellows worked with was Mi Familia Vota. This organization helps Latinx communities across the country participate in public life. And that was one amazing thing about organizing this fellowship: Erica and I got to connect with amazing people all across America who have devoted their lives to helping people participate in democracy. People like Carlos, the Chief Development Officer of Mi Familia Vota.
Carlos Duarte: So my name is Carlos Duarte. To me working with Mi Familia Vota is a mission, and that comes from my own personal experience. When I tried to vote in Mexico for the very first time for president, even though I had gotten my voter ID and I had registered and everything, by the time that I got to the polling location, they told me that I was not on the list, and I was not allowed to vote. So, that was an infuriating experience. And then shortly after I moved to the states to get my studies and I have continued to be in the process of becoming a US citizen. I’m almost 50 years old to this day, I have not been able to vote. So one of the most satisfying things that I have been able to do with Mi Familia Vota is really to empower those that can vote to actually vote and to show with my example: that even if you don't have that particular privilege of voting, you can still be an active participant in public life and actually influence and promote other people for being active.
John: By working with established organizations, our fellows got to draw upon the expertise and knowledge of lifelong organizers. These established organizers, like Carlos, also deeply understand the needs of the communities that they work with and therefore best understand how to help them advocate and participate in the democratic process.
Carlos: I had the fortune of being employed with the roofers union. It was just inspiring to see the growth of people that in the beginning, felt that they have no rights, that they should not be demanding for anything, that they should just be quiet, to really improving the working conditions and with that better quality of the work that they were doing. And that was a key moment in my life you know because they were undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. This was in the 2000s, so there was a housing boom in Phoenix. And the pressure to build quickly was tremendous. Supervisors were US citizens, white US citizens. And it was interesting: they were huge, huge white men compared to the very short Guatemalan immigrants, right? So there was even the physical size and the fear factor. But in any case, the pressure to build quickly was such that they would not allow the roofers to actually come down from the roof to drink water. So as you can imagine, in Phoenix heat 120 degrees, they were passing out and then falling from the roof. There were multiple cases where they were hurt in such a way that they could not even walk anymore. And there were a couple of cases, one in particular, where the roofer that fell from the roof actually died. Alberto Menchú, one of these immigrants, he was super shy, he was super short. And I remember, we were training for him to confront the supervisor. So I asked him to stand up on top of a table and then talk down to me. And just getting him practicing and getting that feeling of being powerful, and of being tall. And then the idea was, he would recall that sentiment when he had to confront the supervisor. We organized all of the roofers outside of the yard; they said, We’re not gonna come in. We are demanding that you provide us clean water to drink. And then I said, “And Alberto is gonna say something to you.” And low and behold they ended up getting the water that they needed. So again, sometimes people think that you need to be oppressing the other in order to do well. In my experiences, life has been the opposite: when we all collaborate, the end product is better.
Erica: So we started this whole program because we were concerned about the health of our democracy, especially as the 2020 elections approached, and especially because of things that have happened in the last decade.
… And what happened in 2013…
… It was a cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement, but now in a split decision by the Supreme Court, a key portion of the Voting Rights Act has been struck down…
… Is that Tte guardrails that kept de facto voter suppression in check, those guardrails were removed…
… Set to hear arguments on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act tomorrow. It brings back key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights act that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013…
… We are witnessing an attempt on the greatest contraction of voting rights since the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow…
John: So there’s a very specific reason why it seems like our democracy has become particularly unhealthy in the last decade. And through Carlos, we got to see firsthand the ways how this can affect certain communities.
Carlos: We've known for years that the Latino community has challenges getting voter IDs. We have challenges in terms of access to the polling locations. I mean, it's been documented that in several communities that are mostly people of color, there are not as many polling locations like in more affluent areas. Every election I remember, even in the 2008 election, several of the Latino community would at that time receive paper flyers in their homes telling them that the election date was on another date. So there has been, again, this has happened many, many times, but in this past election, there continues to be targeted disinformation, to the Latino community.
Erica: As our students and organizations continued working together throughout the fellowship, it became increasingly clear how important our mission was and is going to continue to be even though the 2020 presidential election is over—especially because of the efforts we’ve seen across the country just in the last few months to make voting more difficult. So our fellow Maya, for example, realized this as she worked with another organization, Detroit Action, and their executive director, Branden Snyder.
Maya: There was an opportunity in Detroit that every 10 years, the Detroit charter commission,
amends the charter giving advocacy organizations the opportunity to propose policy and different initiatives to be included in the charter.
… What is the Detroit Charter Commission anyway? Here’s your quick info-blast on the Detroit Revision Commission...
… The federal government has a constitution, the state has a constitution, and the city has a constitution, it’s called the charter…
… The charter is the constitution for the city, it’s the laws…
And so Brandon asked me to research three topics: public financing of elections, participatory budgeting, and a voting site in Wayne County Jail. So I must have submitted those policy memos in the fall of 2020. The letter was not received well by the city clerk and or her administration. We did have a call with the clerk's Chief of Staff maybe a week or two after the letter was sent. And all I'll say is that it was a very hostile call, with kind of this notion of, “We know how to do our job, we don't need your help.” And we received word that our proposals were not included in the charter in February of 2021. And Brandon emailed me and others who are involved. The message was: we'll find another way. We'll have to figure out another way to get campaign finance regulation passed in Detroit. And I believe that to be true. And that's what organizing is, if one door is shut, you just find another way.
Erica: Strengthening our democracy, repairing our democracy, and making it even better, is going to be the fight of the next several decades, at least.
Erica: I don't know where I learned this but there's this line: eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. There will always be assaults on our democracy. And for too long, we did take it for granted.
John: Democracy is not a spectator sport. We should not treat electoral politics as something that you kind of observe from the sidelines. It requires life and dynamism. It requires really a broad set of participation. It can never be reduced to simply the act of voting itself. Democracy is for people and must be done by people, everyday people. And the more people who get to participate, the healthier the democracy will always be.
Erica: And that is the fantastic story of the last few years, is the millions and millions of people who got involved in the political process for the first time because they saw a huge threat to our democracy, and they're continuing to, to fight. So somewhere in July we were kind of exhausted, and were kind of like, we finished that piece. And John was like, “Okay, what about the fall?” And we suddenly realized, Oh, yeah, what about the fall? So we got more money from the provost. And we were able to put more students in organizations for the fall and then for the Georgia runoffs. So ultimately, we had 32 fellowships between June of 2020, and January of 2021.
John: And then we saw what has happened after the presidential election and the Georgia runoffs, which has only confirmed the need for the initiative we created.
… in Georgia, are trying to make it harder to vote after President Biden flipped the state and Democrats won both senate seats. State lawmakers are pushing a sweeping election bill: it would put restrictions on early and absentee voting...
… State legislatures across the country are moving rapidly to pass new voting laws amid former President Donald Trump's continued false claims of election fraud...
...In Texas a vote over voting rights is heating up as dozens of bills make it through the state legislature there...
...Have you no shame? There is an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert the right to vote in fair and free elections. An assault on democracy...
Erica: And now you know, we've got 10 or 11 fellows working this summer of 2021, and we have money to continue to have them work this fall into the following spring of 2022, and the following summer is going to be the summer right before the 2022 midterms. So super important time.
John: Our summer 2021 fellows are working in some key battleground states including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, as well as nationally, and are working particularly with Detroit Action and Mi Familia Vota to make sure as many people as possible understand how to participate in the democratic process. And what our fellowship is helping NYU students do, any person in this country can also do. They can contact a local organization, learn about local barriers and obstacles to voting, and do what you can to help more and more people actually participate. Because that’s what a healthy democracy is.
Maya: What the Vote 2020 fellowship instilled in me was the idea that I, I am an organizer. And that's a weird thing for me to say. But it's the truth. And I want others to feel that way. Because it's a powerful thing to be able to say that you don't need a formal title. All you need is a community. And the charge to speak up.
“By The People, For the People” is a product of the Ignite Change: Impactful Storytelling Through Audio Fellowship, and a collaboration between the NYU Cross-Cutting Initiative on Inequality, NYU Production Lab, and the Wasserman Center for Career Development, sponsored by the Offices of the President and Provost at NYU.
This episode is hosted by Erica Foldy and John Gershman of NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service. It was produced by Anna Venarchik, written by Malcolm Walker, edited by Matthew Lai and engineered by Iván Budnik. It contains original music by Carmen Lustik, John McQuaig, and Shuhui Yao.
A special thank you to Maya Portillo, Carlos Duarte, Branden Snyder, Alexis Richards, and Clarence Okoh.