By Krysten Crawford
In the summer of 2001, Tanzila Ahmed took a job as an environmental activist, where she faxed letters to Congress and called supporters using a landline. Then 9/11 happened — and she realized that life as a Muslim in America wouldn’t be the same.
As the injustices directed against Muslim Americans began to pile up, Ahmed embraced a different form of advocacy: mobilizing South Asians at the ballot box. She started a non-profit, where she and her team would cold call people based on their Asian-sounding names listed in the phone book.
Over the years, Ahmed’s job changed and so did the tools at her disposal. Eventually, she ran a phone bank staffed by high school volunteers who could engage Asian American voters in 17 different languages. Today, she is a campaign strategist for 18 Million Rising, a non-profit dedicated to helping Asian Americans find their collective voice online and off. For outreach in the 2018 midterm elections, the organization turned to text messages and printed the California ballot guide in seven languages.
Ahmed recently shared her story — and her insights into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to civic engagement — as part of a public speaker series, “The Active Citizen in the Digital Age.” Hosted by the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS), the panel discussions build on an online course taught by Lab directors Lucy Bernholz and Rob Reich that looks at the myriad ways technology is shaping how citizens engage online and offline. Previous installments in the quarterly public event series have looked at how digital platforms are re-imagining democracy and the alleged hypocrisy of elite do-goodism.
The Power of Moving Hearts and Minds
This third event in the speaker series started with Red Hook, Brooklyn. Aditi Mehta, an assistant professor of urban studies at the University of Toronto, has studied ways that communities in post-disaster areas use grassroots technologies to rebuild and reconnect. She described how, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 crippled power and communication lines in Red Hook, residents turned a small WiFi network used to host a local radio station into a free online hub that has become a model for how communities can connect.
Young Red Hook residents, many of whom lived in public housing, were paid to rebuild the neighborhood’s communication services. They knocked on countless doors to ask permission to install routers on the roofs of homes and small businesses. Soon, African-American kids from low-income sections of Red Hook were getting to know their white, middle-class neighbors.
“It became a community-building tool,” said Mehta, who has also studied how New Orleans residents used Yahoo groups and blogs to rebuild an online community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
By the time Hurricane Sandy struck seven years later, the technology landscape had changed dramatically. Mehta said YouTube videos featuring music artists rapping or singing about life challenges inspired Red Hook residents to create and post online their own takes on Red Hook’s transformation. “[Through entertainment] they were exercising their voice,” said Mehta. They talked, too, about building apps that would allow them to showcase their talents. “I watched their sense of morale and their self-confidence increase. They felt like they were making a difference and that’s what motivates someone to vote.”
Ahmed, the campaign strategist at 18 Million Rising, agreed that pop culture can be a powerful tool for mobilizing. “You don’t reach hearts and minds through a voter registration form” said Ahmed, who is also the host of the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast. “You reach [them] through essays and beautiful pieces of art and things that move them. If we can figure out how to move people, then we can also move them politically.”
A Focus on Ease of Use
For Alex Niemczewski, the CEO of BallotReady and the third featured speaker, engaging voters is about offering convenience at no cost. Her for-profit company does this by aggregating nonpartisan data on every candidate — including their backgrounds, their positions on issues, and their endorsements — and referendums on ballots in all 50 states that users can access via a mobile app. Every piece of information is linked to their original sources.
The inspiration is the sheer size of most ballots. In the most recent election, Chicagoans had 103 issues and candidates to vote on, said Niemczewski.
“We want people to vote every time and complete their ballot,” said Niemczewski, who co-founded BallotReady in 2015 with support from the National Science Foundation and others. Her big concern is the number of local issues that voters either ignore or blindly choose.” At the local level, policies are created that later on become national policies and local elected officials are the pool from which we choose higher-level officials,” she said.
With BallotReady, users can store their choices and share them with families and friends. Depending on state laws, they also can carry their phones into the voting booth. Niemczewski said that 6 percent of voters used the app ahead of the recent midterm elections; in Chicago, where BallotReady is based, engagement reached 20 percent of voters. The service makes money by helping nonprofits and advocacy groups inform and turn out voters.
Niemczewski’s emphasis on reliable information. Mehta’s focus on infrastructure. Ahmed’s commitment to empowering the disenfranchised.
Bernholz credited all three for building “incredibly powerful ways to use digital technology to affect positive change.”
Watch the full video of the event below.