The Democracy Collective Incubator Program is a 9-month long experiential
leadership program designed to expand and build the participants’ capacity for,
and commitment to, equitable civic engagement. To this end, the program will
build the participants’ individual and collective power to effect change in their
communities through the development of advocacy and leadership skills.
This will create a strong foundation for their long-term work. Throughout the
program, participants will surface shared issues of concern, gain a greater
understanding of the landscape of power in Cleveland, identify levers for change,
and develop and advance projects to address their priorities.
Building a culture where equitable civic engagement is made a reality is a serious challenge. It requires overcoming decades of structural impediments, intentional barriers, systemic inequities, and a disempowering mindset that have left the marginalized residents of our community hopeless and discouraged by the lack of progress on these issues. Creating the future we all deserve requires both people + opportunities, time + investment, and drive + commitment. It will also take an understanding that breaking generational problems—and rebuilding them—is going to take at least a few years.
Ask anAsk any Clevelander and they will tell you that civic engagement—from voting to participation in broader aspects of democracy, to community voice, to civics education in our schools, and more— has experienced decades of underinvestment, lack of commitment from some institutions. You can read more about this in our 2021 study in partnership with Policy Matters Ohio and HIT Strategies.
Don’t get us wrong—there are innumerable dedicated Clevelanders working to keep our community engaged with the issues that matter most to them. We are fortunate to work with many of them! However, because local government apathy and hostility (as noted in the above-referenced study) has been going on for so long, one inspiring candidate, or a great teacher who registers students to vote, or a committed parent who takes their kids to city council meetings, isn’t going to be enough to fix what is now a systemic issue. And even after the success of our work over the past several years, including our most significant efforts in 2020, we recognize that we cannot fix local democracy alone.
In response to the past and current civic climate in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, we are launching DemCo to expand our capacity and commitment to equitable civic engagement in our cities, academic + educational structures, our community organizations + neighborhood-based collectives, and our institutions + businesses. This work impacts all of us, so we’re going to need everyone’s help to get the job done.
WHY AN INCUBATOR MODEL?
The incubator model may be new to social justice nonprofits, but the practice has been in the private sector for some time. And as the Center for Effective Philanthropy article notes, “anyone can be a leader.” We must not limit our imaginations for who in fact is a democracy builder. A person’s lack of organizational affiliation or a specific role in an organization should not dictate or limit their ability to affect change in their communities. To learn more about social justice incubator models, we encourage you to check out the Social Justice Accelerator. They elevate many reasons why we need to reimagine the ways in which we are empowering leaders in our communities.
Furthermore, we must acknowledge that “leadership is not static, and it doesn’t sit with one person. Instead, leadership is about building collective power to influence and change organizations and systems to operate in just and liberating ways that enable all individuals to thrive. Under this definition, anyone can be a leader, and leadership is expressed through the actions people take.” (see Leadership Development Programs Need an Upgrade: Five Ways to Advance Racial Equity).
Ultimately, we are asking ourselves—how can we cultivate a person’s ideas/ passion into action? We're excited to connect and learn from those leaders in Cleveland that are already doing dope work and may benefit from additional investment and resources.
Build the power of individual leaders to effect change in their communities
Build collective power to advance advocacy strategies and influence government systems
Proliferate framework of “equitable civic engagement” to bolster and amplify a wide universe of civic engagement activities
Seed activation projects to advance equitable civic engagement
Pilot leadership development program
Fight for a better Cleveland
Get grounded in social movement history of Cleveland
Learn about equitable civic engagement, explore different approaches to social change + map groups in Cleveland that use each approach
Develop a shared vision for the future of Cleveland
Identify priority issue areas to work on
Gain an understanding of the landscape of power in the city and effective levers for change, including movement partners
Learn how to identify, reach + move targets
Strengthen their concrete advocacy skills and power as leaders
Strengthen connections with local movement groups
LEARNING + TRAINING
ISSUE IDENTIFICATION + ACTIVATION
PROGRAM + COMMITMENT.
Cleveland VOTES exists, in part, because of the challenges described above and our commitment
to being part of addressing them. The Democracy Collective (DemCo) is an incubator for
community-led, community-driven leaders. We aim to invest in the cultivation of leaders
and innovative ideas to realize a more equitable democracy and stronger social fabric.
DemCo, launching in September 2023, is a 9-month long incubator that will bring 12–15 local
community members into a training and action-oriented experience that will advance equitable
civic engagement in their lives, their communities, their organizations + schools, and in Cleveland
as a whole. This immersive experience is intended to create a co-learning experience that will serve
as an incubator to cultivate, harness + strengthen the collective knowledge and power of our
Our DemCo participants will be asked to commit to a total of 11 hours per month, and one
additional 5-hour deep dive that will be completed quarterly. The core tenets and time
commitment of DemCo are detailed below.
1:1 MEETINGS W/ DemCo FACILITATOR
COMPLETE HOMEWORK + REFLECTIONS
KEEP THE LEARNING
Please note, the time commitment for each session is as follows:
Saturday Sessions: 9:00am–12:30pm
Deep Dives: 9:00am–2:00pm
Community of Practice: 9:00am–12:30pm
Final Session: 9:00am–2:00pm
September 9th + 23rd
October 7th + 21st [deep dive]
December 2nd + 16th [deep dive]
January 13th + 27th
February 10th + 24th [deep dive]
Community of Practice
March 9th + 23rd
April 6th + 20th
Activation Project Dates
February 26 [start]
April 26 [complete]
May 18th [present]
EDUCATE - CONNECT - EMPOWER
Over the course of our 9 months, the approximate breakdown of how we will spend our time together is detailed below.
The 6-month curriculum will invite participants to reflect deeply on their role as social change agents in Cleveland, including on the unique assets and commitments each participant brings. Sessions will include topics such as: advocacy skills and strategies such as power mapping, target research, one-to-one’s, storytelling, and power-building.
Throughout the program, our facilitator will offer best practices and models, prompt participants to reflect and develop their own strategies, and create spaces for feedback and reflection to strengthen those strategies. These exercises will serve as building blocks for the activation projects the participants will develop toward the end of the program. A critical component of DemCo is relationship building, as well as group alignment and individual leadership development. There will also be opportunities to connect with local democracy-building movement leaders and gain deeper understanding, which will complement the curriculum.
Each participant will be asked to identify an issue area to focus on throughout the incubator. Examples of issue areas may include: education, environmental justice, healthcare, housing, infant mortality, and more. The issue area must be specific to a challenge we’re facing in Cleveland. After completing 6 months of curriculum-based learning, each participant will be asked to identify an activation project. The goal of the activation project is to take what you’ve learned and apply it to an issue in our community— that is, to translate your learnings into tangible real-life action. Since we know translating theory into practice doesn’t always go smoothly, you will continue to engage with your fellow Incubator members in our Community of Practice.
Why did Cleveland VOTES conceive and develop DemCo? We know the work we are doing matters, but we also know we can never do it alone. To achieve the goals we detailed in our four-year strategic plan, we need a full community engaging in this critical work together. Cleveland VOTES cannot hold all the work ourselves, nor should we try to raise money just to build our own efforts. We want Cleveland VOTES’s culture and practices to be embraced by every organization in our city – in every school, in every church, and in every conversation about power and about who decides our future. And that means we must be willing to shift and relinquish positional power.
This program will allow us to train, support, encourage, and lead participants who strengthen our partnerships, our educational and community institutions, and our business community, and to add to their work. It will create and support a pipeline of future leaders who will expand and branch out into critical aspects of the Cleveland infrastructure. Over time, it will mean we change what Clevelanders think about civic engagement and our city.
SHIFTING POWER (one of our strategic plan pillars) requires us to also challenge previously held norms about belonging and othering. We cannot expect our community to shift towards a more liberatory future and not change our own practices. Our commitment also includes a direct investment in each participant in the form of a stipend, as well as resources to support each activation project.
WHO WE ARE
LOOKING FOR +
We aim to engage a cohort that is intergenerational, multidisciplinary/racial and reflective of Cleveland residents. We will select 3-4 participants from the following categories.
Community-Based Organizations: Staff members that currently engage in some form of community building that are looking to enhance, further their learning and/or recalibrate for greater impact.
Local Community Leaders: Leaders that are committed to affecting change, but may not currently do this work full time. Imagine the ‘go-to’ to folks in our neighborhoods that hold folks accountable, convene neighborhood meetings, attend block/precinct/ward club meetings, engage local officials, etc.
Young Adult Leaders: Leaders that are 18+ who may not yet have the tangible work experience, but have engaged with and/or have an interest in contributing to our community’s social fabric.
Participants must reside in the City of Cleveland or demonstrate substantial commitment/current work in the City of Cleveland.
Participants must have at least 1–3 years of related experience in the community-building and/or social justice field. This can be formal, paid positions, self-directed or volunteer roles.
Participants must be able to commit to the majority of the 11 in-person sessions.
Participants must complete homework and reflection assignments in between sessions.
Participants will be asked to implement an activation project that must include voter engagement/registration.
Participants must be willing to collaborate with fellow participants, embracing the power of the collective to enact transformational change.
Priority consideration will be given to those applicants who reside/work in wards with lower voter participation.
MEET THE TEAM BEHIND DemCo
Director of Grassroots Relationships
We would like to thank our funders for investing in DemCo and the leaders that will greatly benefit from this incubator!
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