A Message on My Final Days as President of Demos
Dear friends in the fight,
Saturday, June 30th is my last day as president of Demos, a public policy organization dedicated to creating an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy. I have served as Demos’ president for the last four years, but I’ve worked there for 16 — practically my entire adult life. As I look back on what we’ve built together, I feel called to share some reflections from those years, for each of us who yearns to see our nation live up to its democratic promise.
Now more than ever, it is clear that Demos’ founders — among them Stephen Heintz, Charles Halperin, David Callahan, and Miles Rapoport — were wise to reach to the root of democracy for our name. It means “the people” of a nation. I have learned that without a collective sense of, and respect for, the demos, there can be no democracy.
The distance between the decision-makers in our representative system and our true demos was one of my earliest political lessons. As a teenager in the 1990s, I saw the contempt that politicians of both parties had for struggling single mothers, whom they caricatured and scapegoated for their own electoral gain. I knew the grit and sacrifice and love it took for those women to sustain and nurture their families, because I lived in such a family and was surrounded by similar families in our neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. They were villainized, and I wondered how our leaders could tell such a disdainful story about the people who made a way out of no way, every day.
And so in 2002, at age 22, when I read an online posting about a job at a young organization called Demos that sought to “tell a new story” about poverty and economic opportunity in America, I applied. The idea of crafting a truer story about our country was compelling to me, because the old story — the one about makers and takers, about who was and was not worthy of our nation’s bounty — did not resemble the world, and the demos, I knew.
For me and for Tamara Draut, who hired me at Demos and has remained my intellectual partner throughout the years, inequality was not about a theoretical concept but about life-and-death priorities for people we loved. As we used research and advocacy to put the issue of crushing debt onto the radar of elites in the mid-2000s and reframe the narrative from irresponsible borrowing to abusive, irresponsible lending and people borrowing to make ends meet, we were also revealing the dignity and humanity of the families that our nation’s business and government leaders so often mischaracterized.
During those early years at Demos, I learned so much about politics and policy — campaign finance, voting rights, opening pathways to the middle class, and improving work and wages. But everything I learned in spreadsheets and meetings and in the halls of power was filtered through a singular lens: Does this ring true to the demos, the people, who know so much and are heeded so little by the policymakers pledged to serve them.
What I knew was that the man-made structural inequality in our economy showed up as everyday suffering for the people of America. They worked hard at their jobs and came home soul-dry and exhausted, with only a few dollars in their pockets — not enough to pay their rising rent or save for the future. They dreamed of college for themselves or their children but dreaded the years of student loan debt that would follow. Their labor made the companies they worked for enormously profitable, yet little of that success found its way into their paychecks or earned them respect on the job. All the while, people and corporations with more money and more power were busy rewriting the rules to stack the odds even further in their favor.
Based on these realities, Demos had the foresight to focus on the way that inequality of our economy precisely reflected the inequality of our democracy. That our unrepresentative electorate and the even more wildly unrepresentative donor class had produced policies written by and for a narrow elite — policies that had stalled upward mobility, left the U.S. unprepared to tackle global challenges, and did not represent the will of the vast majority of people. In making this link, Demos was well ahead of the curve. We saw that confronting inequality would be the fight of our lives.
And oh, how we have fought. With our research, advocacy, litigation, and strategic communications, shoulder-to-shoulder with allies in the labor, civil rights, democracy, women’s rights, racial justice, and progressive movements, Demos has won important and improbable victories for the working people of America.
These victories include landmark consumer protections to rein in credit card abuses and save consumers over $50 billion in fees. Critical contributions to policies that rewrote the rules for how financial institutions operate. Billions in wage increases at large companies and for government contractors. Four million low-income voters registered at DMVs and public agencies. Pro-democracy reforms, like public campaign financing, same-day registration, and automatic voter registration, won in a dozen states and the future state of Washington, D.C.
Each of these efforts expressed an underlying respect that we have at Demos for the contributions of America’s people, particularly those who have been excluded from wealth and power. We fought to remake institutions to be more inclusive and democratic, and in a society shaped by racial and gender hierarchy from the outset, there wasn’t exactly a roadmap. And so, when I had the opportunity to become president of Demos, I decided we needed to use our own small organization to learn what it would take to transform an historically white-led institution into one more diverse, more inclusive, and more equitable.
And so, in 2014, when I was the only person of color on the Executive Team and the staff was 73 percent white, my courageous colleagues and I launched an organizational transformation process to put racial equity at the heart of everything we do, from the research projects we undertake, to the legal challenges we raise, to the way we train and evaluate our staff, to the partners we seek. We learned so much through that Racial Equity Organizational Transformation process; we stumbled and leapt, stretched and reached out to learn from others and also to share what we were doing with the growing number of organizations who also wanted to do more to live up to their values but didn’t know exactly how. This fall, my partner in this effort, Lucy Mayo, Demos’ Senior Vice President for Organizational Development, and I will release a handbook outlining Demos’ steps and lessons learned.
As I look back on what we’ve built together, I’m most proud of the moments when Demos has served as an honest broker, our trademark “soft elbows” and care for our partners allowing us to set a table at which dozens of sometimes competing organizations come together to find shared purpose and build shared strategy. Our Racial Equity Organizational Transformation process also emboldened us to intervene in the racialized dynamics in our own democracy movement and help white-led progressive organizations see the strategic imperative for them in addressing racism. Our Inclusive Democracy Project has helped change the face of leadership in democracy reform, centering 20-plus grassroots groups organizing in working-class communities of color that have the most to gain from reform.
Out of this work, we at Demos realized that the story we were telling about inequality in our democracy and our economy had to change yet again. This story is simply not complete without an understanding of the way that racism poisoned the democratic experiment from the beginning, and twisted the shape of our capitalist system in order to make people into property in the name of profit.
After Donald Trump occupied the White House last year, I began to ask myself with even more urgency: What is it truly going to take to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice for good? Because when the arc bends from slavery in the 1860s and then returns to convict leasing in the 1880s; when it bends from Jim Crow in the 1960s and then returns to the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration in the 1990s; when it bends from Native American genocide to an epidemic of Native American suicides and the highest rate of death at the hands of police . . . when the arc bends, but as a tree does in the wind, only to sway back, we have to admit that we have not touched the root.
For there was a great lie at the root of our nation’s founding, perpetuated by a powerful few in pursuit of unparalleled profit. That lie is still with us: it’s the belief in the hierarchy of human value.
At the eve of the Civil War, according to the economic historian Edward Baptist, 80 percent of our gross national product came from the value of enslaved people and their labor. The great immigrant textile mills of the North milled cotton gathered by stolen labor; the great system of finance that would become Wall Street sprang up to insure and commoditize human beings. All because the wealthy and the powerful taught the nation to believe that some people are not really people at all.
When we don’t get to the root, the arc bends, but as a tree does in the wind, only to sway back. Today, a tiny minority have kept control of our politics even when every single one of their ideas are deeply unpopular. How? They rig the rules of our democracy, count on the majority to sit it out, and most importantly, they relentlessly propagate an us-versus-them belief in a hierarchy of human value. So when those of us who believe in equality don’t loudly proclaim who we are to one another, who has value, who belongs as part of our demos, they stay in power.
The good news is that across the country, ordinary people, driven by record civic participation of women of all races and ages, are daring to show their love for their neighbors out in public: in marches, in meetings, in rallies, and in races for office.
We simply have to take our fight to that higher ground — the fight for a demos — because when we gain that ground, every policy that progressives yearn for will be the natural outgrowth.
Demos has always been led by core values, and moved policy change alongside narrative change, recognizing the need both to design new rules and to shift what policymakers believe about the people subject to those rules.
Our latest contribution to a new story has been in partnership with Anat Shenker-Osorio of ASO Communications, Lake Research Partners, Brilliant Corners Research and Strategy, SEIU, and Ian Haney López, the author of Dog Whistle Politics. We believe that the country needs a multi-racial, inclusive populism to counter the white nationalist phony populism of Donald Trump — and that multiracial populism needs a shared story. So we tested and identified the language and messages that can recharge the way progressives talk about the problems facing everyone in America. For the first time, our research provides empirical data that people are hungry for leaders to call out racism as a divide-and-conquer tactic that benefits the wealthy and corporations, and shows that most Americans of every color are eager to forge alliances across racial lines to demand and create a government that works for all of us.
That vision of social solidarity and a shared, honest story about our demos is what guides me every day. With my transition from the helm of Demos, I will begin a new phase where I’ll be giving my all to helping write that new story.
I’ll start with a book to be released next year that argues that there is a cost of racism to us all, not just the communities targeted: personal costs, economic costs, societal costs. At a time of demographic change, I believe what’s happening to our entire society is like what happened when Southern towns drained their public swimming pools rather than let black children swim, too. Everyone loses out. My book will challenge the zero-sum paradigm of racial competition and offer a vision of a future where we recognize that our fates are linked. You’ll also see and hear from me as a Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow; I’ll be a contributor to NBC News and a frequent commentator in print and radio.
My mission and Demos’ mission remain the same, and that’s why I’m not going far. I will always champion this organization. And I hope you will too. The country needs Demos, now more than ever, to set the table, to tell the truth, to see over the horizon, and to uproot the beliefs that hold us back. I hope that you’ll give your time, your ideas, and your support to Demos, today and long into the future because together, we are building the America that the people deserve.