Building a True Democracy

Nov 5, 2018 | Civil Rights, Social Action, and Advocacy, Features

Common Cause North Carolina knows the ultimate power in our democracy is the people. Comprised of fearless, ordinary Americans standing together to build a system that works for everyone. It starts with putting an end to gerrymandering, limiting the undue influence of money in elections, encouraging broad voter participation, and ensuring diverse, accessible, and accountable government. Ultimately, every person matters.

By Bob Phillips

Democracy allows us to have freedoms and benefits of living in a culture and society that is protected. Many times, we see democracy as being tarnished by voter suppression, money, and gerrymandering, but that is not the ideal of American democracy or how it was founded to be. Common Cause NC sees the value in democracy, and works to educate people of all backgrounds to create a more grounded and supportive democracy that will ultimately lead to unity amongst our citizens.

Common Cause was a national foundation that was founded in 1970 by John Gardner. After serving on the Kennedy and Johnson administration, Gardner saw many people questioning authority and policy. As a result, Gardner left the Johnson administration and started Common Cause to empower citizens to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process. Almost overnight, a quarter of a million people took an interest in Common Cause and 8 state chapters popped up, including one in North Carolina.

With Common Cause’s mission to advocate for a reformed and strengthened democracy that pushes for a more open, honest, and accountable government, the organization offers many programs to obtain their mission. A big factor in the work and success of Common Cause NC is public outreach. Executive Director, Bob Phillips, says, “People need to understand that they do have a voice, and they can help shape policy using their voice.” Through their public outreach, reforms on curbing money in politics, strengthening lobbying and ethics laws, ending gerrymandering, and more are discussed. On top of discussing reforms, people are ultimately connected to their passions, whether that be more efficient public schools, affordable housing, etc. These passions are made possible and impacted through the government, so it is important to not only connect citizens who share the same passions, but to educate these citizens as much as possible so they can make the greatest impact. Lobbyists make up the members of Common Cause NC. They take action to have an impact. As part of this mission, Common Cause will host citizen lobby days and events to draw attention to issues, whether through rallies or public meetings, with hopes to attract people, alert the media, and convince lawmakers to make change.

Common Cause NC is always busy during election season. An impactful tool that showcases and emphasizes their non-partisan work is their contribution to the statewide voter guide. These guides can be found in print or online, and their purpose is to serve the community by educating them on what offices do and how they relate to citizens. Common Cause NC uses a non-partisan approach to share with citizens why they should care. The guide also informs citizens where to vote, hours of operation for voting sites, and early voting sites.

A specific way that Common Cause NC is making an impact is through their intentional outreach with young people and on campuses of Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Members of the Common Cause staff specifically reach out to these campuses in our triangle and triad of North Carolina. Historically, these campuses had been ignored, but Common Cause wanted to give young people of color a place at the table to discuss ending gerrymandering, voting rights, big money in politics, and many other topics that were generally conversations amongst white progressives. Common Cause NC members have had the privilege to take HBCU students to the legislative building for lobby days, and for many students that is the first time they set foot in the general assembly. Phillips says that it is a joy to watch people take in these educational experiences about democracy. The true reward is in seeing people take an interest.

Another well-planned and creative way that common cause uses intentional outreach is through their casual social events to encourage young people to come hang out, get educated and go vote. During this election season, Common Cause NC has hosted early voting parties at local breweries in close proximity to early voting sites, to invite younger voters to come enjoy the company of other citizens, relax, be empowered by their vote, and then to go out and vote right then. Through their intentional outreach, Common Cause NC is creating a more diverse environment that reflects a true democracy.

When Phillips started working with Common Cause NC, over 20 years ago, he was pretty much the only man involved. Because the work is important and the need is great, Common Cause has grown thanks to the support of members and foundational support. Common Cause NC is impacted and being impactful now more than ever, because the need to achieve their mission is just as great as it was when Common Cause was founded in 1970.

Through their mission to reflect and create a true democracy, Common Cause NC has had huge success. Public financing laws have been passed; early voting rights have been addressed; even high-schoolers are being educated on their vote and pre-registering. After the 2008 election, North Carolina was among the top 5 in voter participation. 20 years ago when Phillips took this role with Common Cause NC, he knew the issues, but was not necessarily convinced that it would be his passion. After working with and connecting with people to educate them on a strengthened democracy, Phillips found his passion. “There is value in the work that we do, and that is the reward,” said Phillips. There is something about the work being done with Common Cause NC that says what they are doing is important. We should always remember that democracy is an important cause that should be protected. Everyone is important; every vote is important. It matters.

Bob Phillips has served as Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina since 2001. Bob’s work includes lobbying the legislature and building statewide grassroots campaigns for good-government reforms. He is a North Carolina native, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and worked as a broadcast journalist in Raleigh and press secretary for former Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker before joining Common Cause.

Haily Jones is a senior at N.C. State, majoring in English Secondary Education, and is the Communications Assistant for The Philanthropy Journal.

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