Over the past few years, Black, Indigenous, People of color (BIPOC)-led organizations have utilized ballot initiatives as a strategy to forward their generational work of safety and liberation for people of color. At Borealis Philanthropy, we believe that every community should be resourced with the tools to architect their own future. And when decision makers ignore our voices, ballot initiatives helmed by BIPOC organizers can be a powerful tool for community-led self-determination. 

On November 18, 2021, Borealis examined two innovative ballot initiatives in our donor-learning event, The Arc of Justice: Supporting Ballot Initiatives for Transformative Change, where we highlighted the strategies to fund, win, and defend ballot measures as part of supporting BIPOC movement power building. 

For more funding strategies, plus additional readings and resources, read our toolkit.

We explored the organizing efforts it took for the Re-Imagine LA Coalition to bring Measure J to the ballot, which in 2020, resulted in the commitment of 10% of Los Angeles County’s locally-generated unrestricted revenue to community investment. Although Measure J is being challenged in the court, the Coalition successfully advocated for the same percentage of the budget to go to community-based alternatives to policing and incarceration. 

We also learned about the Yes on 2 campaign by Yes 4 Minneapolis, which would have replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a new department of public safety. Yes on 2 received 43.8% of the vote in Minneapolis. While the measure didn’t pass, it signaled a significant shift in the community’s understanding about what is needed to keep them safe. 

During the webinar panel, moderated by Andrea Ritchie (sher/her), lawyer and researcher at Interrupting Criminalization, we heard from: Corenia Smith (she/her), campaign manager at Yes 4 Minneapolis; Kandace Montgomery (sher/her), founder of Black Visions Collective; and Brian Kaneda (he/him), deputy director for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB). 

Together, our panelists discussed how organizers in Los Angeles and Minneapolis built the community power to challenge the status quo of policing and incarceration with ballot initiatives focused on community care and community safety. They also reflected on the lessons learned from combating negative narratives, legal challenges, and well-resourced opponents committed to the status quo. 

Watch: Kandace Montgomery explains how ballot initiatives fit into broader organizing strategies to educate and drawn funders: “The larger work that we did was actually organize coalitions, to host people’s assemblies—really as the container to build the political education that was necessary. And I think a ballot initiative lends itself the same opportunity to have door to door, phone to phone, political education conversations […] Because coming out of 2020, what was really clear […] was that folks had a lot of fear and were really worried, were being polarized in not always the most helpful direction.”

Watch: Corenia Smith and Kandace Montgomery expand on the wealth of knowledge produced by ballot initiatives, regardless of their success at the ballot box: “We have a lot of information that helps to fortify our bite moving forward […] I think one thing that’s coming out for me that I’ll name is we also saw that people, when you start to talk to them about what the alternatives are, they’re down for it. And so the lesson that I take from that is that we need to build up and fund these alternatives, so that people are even more down for it.” 

Watch: Brian Kaneda discusses mobilizing supporters to overcome a well-organized opposition: “The only way the opposition can win is if they lie on us […] The risk and benefit is the same that you have to sustain some kind of belief in democracy, or the will of the people to move on this stuff and risk that status quo forces will ally against you.”

Organized by Borealis’ Black-Led Movement Fund, led by Julia Beatty, the Communities Transforming Policing Fund, led by Jeree Thomas, and the Spark Justice Fund, led by Luisa Taveras, this event allowed us to exhibit the democratizing power of ballot initiatives, while underscoring the areas opponents typically target. 

A Call To Action for Philanthropy

Ballot initiatives are grassroots tactics that at their core rely on mobilizing people to vote yes or no. However, as our panelists shared, so much goes into both getting people to the polls and getting them to vote favorably for radical ideas, and protecting initiatives in legal challenges. Funding is needed to create spaces where voters are educated and empowered, as well as to defend ballot initiatives from the communications and legal strategies of opponents. 

Watch: Corenia Smith shares how C3 funding helps organizers build and realize ballot initiative strategies: “I think chiefly it’s educational work around public safety. There was so much political education that was related to that within our election this year […] There was just a lot of educational opportunity. A lot of instruments and questions, polling focus groups—allowed us to really build and plan our strategy that then was able to enhance and further our C4 strategy.”

Ways that funders can support this work: 

  • Use your position and privilege as a funder to open doors and spaces to movement organizers.
  • Be authentic partners in the work. Utilize the resources, talking points, and materials developed by groups to share the work.
  • Resource the generational work of power building and not just advocacy for a win.
  • Fund holistically and flexibly, recognizing there are multiple stages to ballot initiative campaigns.
  • Fund the ecosystem of frontline organizations implementing community based safety strategies.

For more funding strategies, plus additional readings and resources, read our toolkit.

We encourage you to consider partnering with Borealis Philanthropy so that together we can support grassroots groups working to create a world where communities have the resources they need to thrive and safety that does not involve policing, jails, and prisons. To learn more about partnering with Borealis contact Maya Berkowitz.