Case Study on 501c3 Election Engagement: Chinese Progressive Association

Anne Ryan

In our second case study about 501c3s and election engagement, CompassPoint interviewed Le Tim Ly, Program Director at Chinese Progressive Association (CPA). Chinese Progressive Association educates, organizes and empowers the low income and working class immigrant Chinese community in San Francisco to build collective power with other communities and ensure we can all have better living and working conditions. This year, they are working with a community coalition to pass Proposition 30: the Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act.

1. What is your organization doing in preparation for November 6?

In September, we kicked off an effort to identify 7000 Chinese immigrant voters who would support Prop 30. We’re doing this by training and developing the leadership of our member leaders as they make phone calls to voters in our community.

This effort is part of a statewide strategy of the Prop 30 campaign to knock on doors and make phone calls so we can help as many voters as possible really understand what the initiative means for the future of public education and other social services. As a whole, the Prop 30 campaign is trying to reach 60,000 people through this effort. CPA is making a unique contribution to this effort because we are able to talk to one segment of the community – monolingual Chinese immigrant voters—and help them understand what is really at stake with Prop 30. We are helping our member leaders build relationships with voters across the counties that they work in, as well as hone and develop our message to the Chinese immigrant community.

We are also doing a lot of community meetings and community education leading up to the election. We’re lucky to be part of Mobilize the Immigrant Vote, a statewide collaborative to get immigrant communities to raise their voice at the ballot box. CPA is also doing various mobilization efforts with our allies to get the message out there. On October 2nd, we participated in a statewide press event, where we talked about the impact of Prop 30 for Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Our youth membership is also planning events to promote Prop 30 at different street festivals including the Excelsior Arts and Music Festival and Visitacion Valley Haunted Harvest Festival.

We have been preparing for the 2012 election a long time. We’ve been talking with our membership for at least 2 years about the need for progressive revenue in California. Because our members are low-income working families, they have been very hard hit by budget cuts that come year after year in California. As a community, we’re just getting used to budget cuts and some have even come to expect them. In recent history, we’ve seen Republican legislators oppose any kind of revenue increase, and this is really hurting the state, working families, and our community. We helped collect signatures to qualify Proposition 30 for the ballot, and it’s a large part of how we’re getting our communities engaged in politics at the state level.

2. What message are you sharing with your community about Prop 30?

Our members are talking with people about the reasons why so many folks immigrated here: the pursuit of the American Dream and the idea that all families should have the opportunity to have their children attend quality public schools and universities. What we’ve been seeing, however, is that this Dream has eroded for many families in the past few years, while at the same time Wall Street is experiencing almost record high profits again. The wealthiest are getting wealthier. This is not the system, the America, or the California that we all want to be a part of: the system where the rich get richer and working families are left out to dry.

Last Fall we conducted a poll of over 4000 Chinese immigrant voters about how they felt about asking higher income earners to pay their fair share, and this research helped us develop our message. You can view results of the poll here.

3. How does this relate to your organization’s mission?

Our mission is to make sure that working-class Chinese immigrant families can help create a society that’s just and equitable for everyone regardless of immigration status and race, and a world where people can thrive and succeed. Prop 30 is a step towards that mission because it is one step towards reversing the course of budget cuts that have decimated the social safety net, harming students, seniors, and families. There have been many cuts to programs that families depend on so they can invest in their future. Every cut has magnified effects on working class communities who are already struggling to make ends meet. By working on the Yes on Prop 30 campaign, we are speaking out about how we want to invest in our communities and state for the long term: this means quality and affordable education, health care, and programs for seniors and families.

4. How did your organization decide to take this action? Was it a staff-wide decision? Was the board involved?

Our process of endorsing political propositions is this: the CPA staff talks about the issues, CPA adult member leaders talk about the issues, and CPA youth members talk about the issues. Each group independently decides on their position, all of the positions are presented to the board, and our board makes the final decision. It’s a pretty intense process every election cycle, and everyone in our organization has a chance to voice their ideas. Usually, if all three bodies are in agreement, the board adopts the position. If there are disagreements among the three bodies, then the board decides.

During their group discussions, we ask staff, adult members and youth members to all reflect on the propositions as they relate to CPA’s mission and values. This way, while individuals might have personal differences, we ask people to look through their experiences and through the lens of what the organization is about.

5. What resources are you calling on to do this work?

In terms of financial resources, CPA received grants to do civic engagement related work. Additionally, once we know what we’re working on we will fundraise around a particular issue.

In terms of staff resources, CPA is a membership-campaign-based organization, so a lot of what we do is supporting campaign work, whether it is electoral campaigns, winning wages back for our workers, or some kind of policy fight at the city or county level. We have staff members that are skilled in doing campaign work, but it’s also important to realize that training and capacity has to be built over time. We’ve been slowly building over the past years to be prepared to engage in electoral work.

6. What strategies did you decide upon to do this work effectively?

It’s important to make connection with broader networks and alliances. CPA is a small organization. As part of the coalition of community groups working to pass Prop 30, we all have a specific role to play and we need to figure out what that is. We have to ask, “What makes sense for my organization?”

I think that for most organizations, probably the most effective way to maximize impact is to connect with other alliances. We are connected with San Francisco Rising and Mobilize the Immigrant Vote.

It’s also good to build up your organization’s civic engagement abilities over time. Folks don’t have to go from doing nothing to doing everything.

7. How is it going so far?

It was very exciting to kick-off our phone calls on Saturday, September 22nd. It’s a really important time in the state and the country, and there is a real opportunity to shift the narrative away from cuts and towards a more balanced set of solutions. The message definitely resonates with our communities right now, and I think that people want to reinvest in our communities.  


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