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Catching up with some members of the inaugural Democracy Collective Incubator Program

Updated: Apr 22

Elena Nail [left] and Ronaldo Rodriguez Jr. [right]


Eight months ago, Cleveland VOTES launched The Democracy Collective Incubator Program (DemCo), a 9-month long experiential leadership program designed to expand and build the participants’ capacity for--and commitment to--equitable civic engagement. Over 12 sessions, participants built their individual and collective power to effect change in their communities through the development of advocacy and leadership skills. Participants also gained a greater understanding of the landscape of power in Cleveland, identified levers for change, and developed + advanced “activation projects” to address their priorities.

On April 20th the DemCo participants had their final session. Two members of the cohort--Ronaldo Rodriguez Jr. and Elena Nail--kindly offered to talk about their experiences as well as walk us through their activation projects.  We bet by the end of this post you will want to apply to be part of the next DemCo Incubator!

Let's meet Ronaldo and Elena.


Name: Ronaldo Rodriguez Jr.

Pronouns: He/Him

Please describe/summarize what your activation project is, and how it's going.

My activation project is a micro-local newspaper for La Villa Hispana, the neighborhood emanating from the intersection of Clark Avenue and W. 25th Street, on Cleveland’s Near Westside. The newspaper is named “La Villa” and it is geared towards the city’s Hispanic and Afro-Latin (Blatino) residents. It will be published in Spanglish (a combination of both Spanish and English). I envision it as a publication “by and for” this community, which is underserved by traditional media outlets and often left out of broader conversations regarding civic life in the City of Cleveland.

I began my activation project by seeking the input of community members and stakeholders, to determine if there is a need for such an outlet. The resounding answer has been yes!  There are no other locally based media outlets serving the area in this capacity. I hope that La Villa will be an extension of the community, build identity for La Villa Hispana, and act as a catalyst for civic engagement.

What originally drew you to DemCo and compelled you to apply?

I was compelled to apply for DemCo because of the lack of Latinx representation in our city. The entrenched systemic inequities in Cleveland’s power structure have left many in my community ambivalent towards active participation in democracy. I’ve often felt disempowered and discouraged by not seeing Hispanic people at the table. We have earned and deserve a seat. If my participation in DemCo encourages just one other person to claim their spot…it will have been well worth it.


Ronaldo at Storytelling at Sunset, an event organized by Cleveland VOTES to celebrate our programming participants

When you first applied to DemCo, did you see yourself as a leader? How about now -- has your perspective changed? Please elaborate.

In October of 2023, I was quoted in the Plain Dealer. They called me a community activist. I thought it was strange because I have never given myself that label. I consider myself a resource. A resource of knowledge, a resource of encouragement, a resource of inspiration, and most importantly, a resource of love. I think that is what makes me a leader. I don’t operate out of my own self-interest. I am very fortunate to have been blessed with many different gifts, and I express my gratitude to God by exemplifying His love in everything I do. The cohort has helped me to appreciate the unique gifts that each individual has, and I am honored to have embarked on this journey with them.

What are unexpected ways you have found yourself applying what you learned in DemCo to your work, your life, and your relationships?

The Democracy Collective has helped me to recognize my own power. I’ve found myself more engaged with civic life, from my local block club to city council meetings. DemCo has instilled in me the courage to make myself heard. I’m more confident in asking questions now, no matter how difficult they are. I’ve also grown more cognizant of listening to understand.


As inaugural participants, what would you want to convey to future cohort members?

I would advise future cohort members to put themselves out there. Take chances. Speak up. Be your most authentic self. I think fear holds a lot of people back. Go with the flow and be kind to yourself.


Name: Elena Nail

Pronouns: She/They

Please describe/summarize what your activation project is, and how it's going.

I am collaborating with fellow DemCo JaNae Hambrick, and we are creating a Cleveland Resource Guide, highlighting both institutional and grassroots organizations, as well as their strengths and barriers. We are in the process of writing up the guide and gathering resources, and planning out our budget for printing through collaboration with local printshops and designers. 

What originally drew you to DemCo and compelled you to apply?

What originally drew me to DemCo and compelled me to apply was the opportunity to engage in organizing in a group setting, and to be able to make change directly through that group. I was fresh out of grad school at the time and just beginning to work, and felt like I finally had the time to focus and dedicate more of my life to a social justice practice instead of school.

When you first applied to DemCo, did you see yourself as a leader? How about now -- has your perspective changed? Please elaborate.

I did not see myself as a leader when I first started DemCo. I believe my connection and knowledge of organizing in Cleveland has grown through meeting the wonderful people in my cohort and the guest speakers who have spoken on many areas and aspects of our city. My confidence in my work has grown alongside this knowledge, though I still primarily see myself as a collaborator, but a leader can be defined in many ways.

Elena [left] participating in a DemCo activity with fellow cohort member JaNae Hambrick [right]

What strengths did you bring into the cohort? How did you see yourself using those to make DemCo better for everyone?

I believe my connections to the LGBTQIA+ community and my knowledge of art therapy and counseling have bettered DemCo. I can think of moments with my cohort members where they were excited to learn more from me, and in those times I feel proud and valued that my skills can benefit others.

What was your favorite curriculum module?

I enjoyed Session 11: Creating a Strong Foundation the most because we were given the opportunity to share 10 minute presentations on topics of our choosing, which allowed me to get to see the passion of my cohort and their individual interests. We also reviewed our skills and packed our "medicine bags", which prompted reflection on all the invaluable knowledge I've gained in this program.


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