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ADDRESS BY ELISABETH MACNAMARA, PRESIDENT, LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS OF THE U.S. TO THE 51ST NATIONAL CONVENTION
DALLAS, TEXAS, JUNE 7, 2014
Convention is a time to take stock of what we have done and to plan for where we are going, not just over the next two years, but to set our course for the future. This convention, like the last convention and the many conventions before, has done just that. You have set our course for the future by building on the successes of the past and taking the next important steps.
As we move forward towards our all-important 100 year anniversary, I would like to take a few moments, and if you will indulge me, draw on my thirty years of League experience, starting as a very young, impatient member, to share with you where I see these decisions are taking us.
Taking stock means making a list of what is working and looking for ways to improve what is not working or what is not working as well as it could be.
What is working for the League? You might be surprised by my list.
Nonpartisanship is working for us. We understand that we mean that we do not support or oppose candidates or parties. I believe we can make our case to the public that this statement does not preclude us from our watchdog role or from our advocacy role. We make that case not by shying away from controversy but by being visible doing what we do – finding power in knowledge and participation.
Our consensus process is working for us. That faith that knowledge is power and that every eligible voter should have the opportunity to get informed and participate has served us well for over 90 years. Yes, we are slow, but we are steady and our processes have evolved over the years to give every member an opportunity to learn about issues and contribute to forming the League’s position on those issues. Do our members have challenges finding the time or the inclination to engage in those processes? Absolutely, and I have been the poster child for those challenges over my League career and having considered other ways of approaching our program process, I would still assert that the process is sound.
I still remember the first time I participated in consensus meetings. I was not yet a member so I came to several local League consensus meetings as a resource. I was 29 years old, a recent law school graduate and I was bowled over by the discussions. During the immigration study, I was the discussion leader for my local League and nearly every participant was a new member doing consensus for the first time. The reaction was electric. There was a diversity of views in the room and everyone left the meeting with a deeper understanding of the issues and the consensus of the group was different in some regard from the individual opinions with which the participants had entered the room.
I believe we can make this thoughtful exercise in democracy work in the 21st century if we can discipline ourselves not to take on every issue (which, by the way, every League president at every level of League has been saying at every convention since 1920); if we can always bear in mind that if knowledge is power, the process itself, especially if we engage not just our members but the public in the process, makes a difference to the issue.
The wisest words that I have ever heard spoken at a League meeting were spoken by one of my League heroes, pat parker. Pat, who is over 100 years and still emails, was the wisest woman in my local League. Whenever there was a question about whether we could take on an issue, we turned to pat. At more than one annual meeting, pat’s assessment of the problem was this – “that is a good thing to do. There must be a League way of doing it.” I was recently at LWV Texas convention and I passed along those words of wisdom and they were voted the most valuable contribution to the small group session I was in.
So often we are our worst enemies on the issue of process. We let process stop us, rather than finding the League way. If we don’t have a position on an important impending issue, can we do an educational forum? Can we do a white paper? Can we examine all sides of the issue and let our coalition partners use our material to persuade decision makers. There is always a League way.
But because of our process, we have withstood many attacks on our organizational integrity and nonpartisanship. Unlike so many other organizations, we didn’t wake up yesterday and decide that voter suppression was a bad thing; we have been saying so for over 90 years. When I could remind the media that we had applauded Richard Nixon for signing the clean air act and that we have been defending the EPA ever since, our street credibility on that issue was established.
Multi-issue is working for us. Although the need to focus is paramount, that focus certainly can and should shift as needs arise. Right now, we are facing the greatest assault on voting rights in 50 years. Our focus on the most basic right of democracy is well placed and we are well placed to discuss it. On this issue our history, our demographics and our image work entirely in our favor. The hatefulness of this debate is astonishing, but try as you might you can’t stereotype women voters are somehow illegitimate. Our voice is not just needed on this issue it is essential. We cannot be and we are not being dismissed on this issue. It must come into the mainstream for us to defeat these efforts. We must speak with one very loud voice on the danger to our entire democracy of these efforts. Yes, we are confident that the impact will have a disparate effect on some groups; but what we are seeing are the unintended consequences to individual voters that indicate the truth of our belief that these laws will impact us all. Who will be next, we don’t know and that is danger.
But I started out saying that multi-issue is working for us and again, I feel that I am living proof of that. I started my League career with a safe little portfolio in courts and criminal justice, an area in which I have some expertise. Thanks to years to working in League and taking on leadership roles at various levels, I can now speak confidently about voting issues that I had no interest in 30 years ago. I know something about environmental issues; I can speak to health care, to name just a few and the current issues.
Our founding mothers were absolutely right to put their faith in educating everyone and not becoming a League of experts.
This brings me to the most important thing that is working for the League - our federated structure. Yes, we are a grassroots organization, but we are also a state organization and a national organization. It has taken all of us to create all that the League is for all these years and it is because of all of us that the League still going strong. Like everyone else in America, we sometimes think the grassroots are greener behind some other organizational fence. We compare ourselves to Common Cause, to AAUW, to the Sierra Club, to Moveon.org, Mom’s Rising and I could go on. But from where I am standing, none of these organizations does what we do, as well as we do it, as consistently as we do it and has the support that we have.
No other organization can demonstrate like we do and we have for decades that giving voters facts and information gives them the confidence to engage in democracy. The League was organized on that principle and we have lived that principle and we have survived some really tough times by that principle.
We prove over and over again that to know the League, to really know the League, is the support the League. Some of us have supported League for our entire adult lives. We have found our friends in League; we have connected to new communities in League; we have raised our children in League and we have contributed our time, talent and treasure to this organization because we believe in the fundamental truth about our democracy – that its success depends on many persons doing small things faithfully.
Which is not to say that we can’t do some things better. Our grassroots sustain us. It is where we first join the League; it is where we form our first relationships with League members; it is where we take our first steps towards leadership. But it can be where we become a bit territorial. While I have never worked harder for the League than I have on the national board, I remember well my years on my local League board and how isolated you can feel. Even having served on the state board, when I became local League president, I somehow lost that connection. I got so busy and so absorbed with the issues that my League had, I forgot that I could reach out to state leaders and to a national liaison for advice and for assistance. I knew little or nothing about my members other than that reliable 10-15% who regularly volunteered. What were their interests? Why did were they members? What were we doing right in their eyes and what could we do better? I had no idea. At the time, we were maintaining our own database. Did my members contribute time and money to state League? They did contribute to the national League? I had no idea. Why didn’t they turn out for events? Were we on the wrong topics? Were we meeting at the wrong times? What was going on their lives that we needed to accommodate? I had no idea.
Serving on the state board, I actually had a better idea of who our members were because our method of contact was different, we had some staff and we were better at keeping track of donors and we had a larger pool to draw from for volunteers. But I didn’t think to reach out to national to ask for help or advice.
Communication has continued to improve. The update was a miracle; the national database was a miracle; and when the issues we were confronting in Georgia started to be of national interest, we were fortunate enough to start having regular contact with national. That was a little miracle, too.
Another miracle was taking the risk with our state reserves to hire a young staff member. We have always had wonderful staff at the Georgia League who truly made life as a state League leader possible. But they were League members and we were all the same age; while we all worked hard, we all tended to think alike. When we hired Meg from the outside and we listened to her, a lot changed. A previous Leaguer had designed a database for us. It was comprehensive but not real user friendly. Our new 25-year-old executive director couldn’t figure it out. But she found the national database more intuitive and she had no hesitation about reaching out to national staff for support. We made the conversion.
We discovered that taking advantage of opportunities to standardize our administration opened up time to work on the real issues in Georgia. Around this time, we were the first state to go entirely electronic in our voting machines and shortly thereafter, we saw the first voter photo id legislation pass the general assembly. Not having to struggle with administration meant we could be active and visible on huge issues and on a shoestring. It meant we could focus on raising money to support our efforts. Unfortunately, what we could not do was use the national database to collect our donor information and over time, that data was lost. It doesn’t have to be that way and it should never be that way for any League. We can standardize that type of data collection and know that will always be available even as volunteers move on.
There are a lot of great LWV websites out there. Unless a League subscribes to League Easy Web, they all look different and right now, they all look different than the national website. There is great advantage in uniform branding. More and more we rely on the internet to find the things we want, including opportunities for civic engagement. Our governments are using the internet for more and more business. At LWVUS, we are working very hard to drive as much traffic to the website and to Facebook and Twitter as we can. Uniform branding allows all 800 affiliates to get the benefit of that work without spending a dime or lifting a finger. As we create opportunities for state and local Leagues to have affiliate websites on the national website, let’s imagine the opportunity that creates. First and foremost, when someone from your state is looking for the League, she can find you through national and she can be sure that you are the same trustworthy organization that perhaps she encountered in a different state or in her local community. Second, when life happens to your webmaster, LWVUS staff can keep your website current by pushing down information to your site and keeping it alive and well.
We are already seeing the benefits of friending each other on Facebook. How much more interesting is our Facebook page with all the comments and articles and postings from around the country. But we have to overcome our reticence about using the medium. If we can standardize our social media, we can save time and take advantage of each other’s strengths while at the same time giving the public a real taste of what the League is all about.
Remember to know us is to support us. We can leverage each other through the new media just like we used to with print media only better. The League is a marvel not just of civic engagement but also of grassroots organizing and nowhere is that more apparent than on Facebook. If something wonderful happens in Wisconsin on voter ID and something wonderful happens in Florida on voter registration and the League in Georgia is working on voter issues, not only does the public know we are doing it, but the public knows that this is how community groups like the League engage and move our communities forward.
In our communities, we build our nation. We have enormous potential to impact not just local issues but national issues as well by remembering, that many of the issues, like marriage equality, the death penalty and immigration fall within the discretion of local elected officials. Yes, we do wonderful educational forums on these issues with varying attendance, but do we meet with local officials about them? Does your League feel passionately about the death penalty? Remember that your local prosecutor (nine times out of ten, an elected official) is the one making the decision whether to seek the penalty in your community. Worried about immigration enforcement under these draconian new state laws? By and large that is in the jurisdiction of local and often elected sheriffs. These folks respond to public opinion and they can be educated, too. Our sentencing reform position will have its greatest impact on local decision making. What an opportunity to engage local officials and start to turn the tide of public opinion, one community at a time.