Integrated Voter Engagement (IVE) is a strategy to connect organizers to the communities in which they work; it serves to build a relationship with the community and catalyze future organizing efforts. For Gamaliel affiliate Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN), IVE in the 2020 election season was not just a strategy for building power in the community, but for rebuilding the organization itself.
After a tumultuous year, PIIN found itself without funding, an executive director, or any paid staff.
“We were really in more than just a tough spot. It was a question of were we going to survive – and how,” said Ronnie Cook Zuhlke of PIIN. “And for me, it was marrying this critical effort to save democracy with giving PIIN a focus.”
As part of Gamaliel’s commitment to revitalizing the organization, PIIN partnered with Angela James, Gamaliel Consultant for the Southern States and National N’tosake Coordinator. According to Bob King of PIIN, after assessing PIIN’s needs and goals, James and Gamaliel National Policy Director Cynthia Jarrold suggested IVE as a path forward.
The transition made sense – while PIIN had previously worked on a variety of social justice issues, those issues had been set aside ahead of the election. In addition to the support from Gamaliel staff, PIIN received a grant from the Gamaliel Network to support their IVE work.
“Working on this election was hard to avoid when you’re offered it,” King said. “And so it was an easy sell.”
One problem remained, however – none of the leaders tapped for IVE held a high-level leadership position in PIIN, nor had they done electoral work. For Zuhlke, however, the relational nature of IVE meant the risk was worthwhile.
“[IVE] really spoke to my values for PIIN, my Jewish values,” Cook Zuhlke said. “That was really the hook for doing it.”
PIIN’s IVE efforts began long before the election with training sessions in June and July that attracted more than 100 people. According to King, the training and organizing was done by an all-volunteer team that laid the groundwork for all of the efforts that followed.
With Gamaliel’s support, Zuhlke, King, PIIN Vice President Rev. Ella Scales, and PIIN Secretary Peter Kaplan worked to devise a three-pronged approach to IVE: Outreach to community members unaffiliated with PIIN in historically low-turnout areas, reopening dialogue with congregations that were previously affiliated with PIIN, and “inreach” to PIIN congregations that took the form of listening campaigns, get-out-the-vote efforts, and informal conversations with members isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
King said community outreach was initially stymied by their lack of access to the Voter Action Network, which would have provided pre-sorted calling lists and an easy means of collecting data from calls made during phone banks.
Instead, King purchased his county’s voter rolls from the state – a total of 700,000 names and phone numbers. With the help of a tech-savvy neighbor, King divided the list into multiple, shorter spreadsheets that could be distributed to phone bankers. After devising a script that allowed community members to guide the conversation toward issues that mattered to them, the phone banks were up and running.
“It wasn’t clear if it was going to work, it wasn’t clear if people were going to be able to use it, and it wasn’t clear that the information was accurate. Nothing was clear when we started,” King said. “It was a very dark, dark discouraging moment.”
A core team of 20-25 volunteers phone banked for two hours every week, ultimately placing over 1,000 calls to community members.
“We developed a community within the group of the callers… as much as we were trying to build relationships out in the community, we also built relationships internally,” Cook Zuhlke said.
Within PIIN-affiliated congregations, listening campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts also bore fruit. These efforts were carefully tailored to the congregation in which they were employed and focused on building high-quality connections rather than making a target number of calls. In one Unitarian congregation, the value of the listening campaign came from connecting with congregants’ hopes and fears connected to the election in a way that will help guide their future work, King said. It has also spurred the congregation to seek out training in listening for signs a person receiving the calls may need additional support.
In Zuhlke’s synagogue, the inreach campaign took the form of Vote 2020, an effort to ensure that 100 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. The effort not only resulted in a high turnout rate, but turned out at least one first-time voter – a man in his 80s.
“The caller got online and registered for him, with the gentleman telling him all his information, and requested a mail in ballot. That’s as relational as you can get,” Cook Zuhlke said.
Both King and Cook Zuhlke said the inreach efforts raised awareness and respect for PIIN within their congregations.
Although PIIN’s outreach to former affiliate congregations didn’t bring them back into the fold, Scales said the effort was valuable because it kept the relationship with those congregations open for future collaboration.
“At least as PIIN we reached out to them,” Scales said. “And if they responded, that was fine, and if they didn’t respond, that was okay too. But they at least knew we were willing to team up with them and help them with their efforts as we were trying to do the same thing…that was our main effort, to keep that relationship open, to say, ‘Hey, we’re here if you need us, and we would like to join forces with you.’”
With the election behind them, the team behind PIIN’s IVE efforts said they see a lot of work ahead of them – but plenty of reason to be optimistic about their organization’s future.
“[IVE was] a necessary first step, and it was a step in the right direction,” King said. “It’s the beginning, not the end.”