Three ways to support new progressive leaders

April 19, 2019

Democracy works best when our elected representatives truly represent their communities.

Thankfully our country saw a number of grassroots community leaders – such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar – take the 2018 election by storm.

As new progressive women of color leaders are stepping into power across the country, however, many are facing challenges as they seek to advance bold change that puts working people of color first. Amid these challenges and the great political shifts taking place across the country, many are asking: how can we support these leaders in making long-lasting change that meets the needs of our most marginalized and transforms how governance happens?

A recent report authored by the University of Southern California’s Program on Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) offers a roadmap for how our movements can transform the wave of progressives shaking up Congress today into a steady stream of community-rooted leaders reshaping governance for generations to come.

Researchers at USC studied existing leadership development programs, including our 1,000 Leaders project, and highlighted three critical approaches that can expand progressive governance beyond individual campaigns or election cycles.

Specifically, the authors found that our movements must:

  • Lead collectively. Transformational change happens when individuals—electeds on the inside and movement builders on the outside—work collectively toward a shared agenda and collaborate in ways that redistribute power.
  • Lead with values. Centering campaigns around shared values, rather than narrow issues or individual aspirations, motivates leaders to stay true to their communities of origin and serves as a “true north” toward which a governing coalition can aim.
  • Lead toward governing power. Providing the ability to navigate often-opaque technical government processes and to play a power-shifting role from the “inside”—a new realm for many progressive movements—is critical to helping pass, implement, and sustain long-term change.

You can find out more about the research here.

Even the boldest of elected leaders cannot make change alone, and getting into office is only half the battle. Elected leaders face a greater challenge in governing with accountability to the movements that seeded their leadership. Bureaucratic systems and individualistic cultures are often designed to distance them from their base, challenge their authority, and downplay their values.

These challenges are even greater for women of color who face racism and sexism within institutions. Navigating the tricky terrain of newly elected leadership requires support, training, and a network of movement leaders working across government and community institutions to advance change.

Twenty years ago, Working Partnerships launched our 1,000 Leaders project to create just such a network based on the core belief that change happens collectively and a new wave of progressive leadership was needed across the South Bay.

Since its founding, 1,000 Leaders has supported thousands of community leaders to step into positions of power at the organizational, institutional and electoral level. It has equipped new leaders with the skills, knowledge, and relationships needed to take bold action on the most pressing issues facing working families. And it has cultivated a commitment among leaders across our region to stand together, across identity and issue area, to advance change rooted in shared values as part of a progressive governing coalition.

Early 2019 has borne the fruit of two decades of work to shift governing power here in Silicon Valley with $15/hour becoming the new minimum wage in eight cities as part of the nation’s first regional minimum wage campaign. The scale of this wage increase – which will benefit over 200,000 workers – is unprecedented and was made possible thanks to the hard work of our community and labor allies along with forward-thinking public officials who chose to stand up for the region’s working families. This win would not have been possible without the strong network of progressive leaders that was nurtured through the 1,000 Leaders program.

We are grateful to the authors at USC PERE for their thoughtful research, and for offering a window into how our movements can scale this approach to shift power at the regional, state, and national level. We look forward to continuing to nurture a network of progressive leaders locally and to joining with allies across the country in order to make our democracy work for all of us.