In November 2009, the Central Coastal Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) ran a hard-fought campaign to establish a moratorium on big-box retailers. After weeks of knocking on doors and making phone calls, the initiative to keep Walmart out of Ventura lost by less than 200 votes. Community leaders and staff were crushed, according to Marcos Vargas, CAUSE’s Executive Director. “We had been involved civic engagement and initiative work in the past, but it was always short-term — gearing up two weeks before the election to make a difference. We had some impact, but it was never enough to result in a lasting increase in voter participation.” Out of that loss surged new energy in CAUSE for a long-term approach to building civic power.
CAUSE works in a “shifting region”, where recent demographic changes in Ventura, Santa Barbara and four other Central Coast counties have moved in tens of thousands of new residents open to change. Nonetheless, there are stark reminders that the organization operates “in the shadow of the Ronald Reagan Library” and the Simi Valley courthouse where the Rodney King verdict came down. Phone-bank team members grapple every day with racist comments and a deep-rooted conservatism.
Rather than viewing the political climate as an obstacle, CAUSE has created opportunities by building unlikely alliances with traditional opponents. In 2001, CAUSE led a collaborative effort that moved the County of Ventura to adopt the only living wage ordinance in the country supported by a local Chamber of Commerce. Since then, CAUSE has continued working both with labor and with moderate and progressive businesses, such as Patagonia, an industry leader in corporate responsibility.
Expanding its base of grassroots power and helping to change the state’s tax system are the next horizon for CAUSE, according to Vargas. Since joining the Alliance last March, the group has contacted over 26,000 individuals, of whom 14,000 support fiscal reform. Last month, CAUSE followed up the civic engagement outreach with a “Shared Prosperity Forum” that drew more than 1,000 supporters, over half of whom also attended a series of trainings on the budget, power analysis, immigration reform and more.
Big outreach numbers and the state-of-the-art technology that makes all those conversations possible are the organization’s “secret weapon,” says Vargas, noting that CAUSE’s new Civic Engagement Program has generated great excitement among community leaders, allies and funders. CAUSE will use that momentum to reach new goals this fall and beyond — engaging residents on a local sales tax measure, and mobilizing 200 grassroots precinct leaders to educate their neighbors through face-to-face conversations. Over the long term, working with the Alliance can help give CAUSE more regional influence to achieve a major institutional imperative: building a strong network of community-based organizations and service providers. “Reform of the state budget is a bold and unifying goal that allows us to partner with new organizations that don’t normally participate in civic engagement work,” says Vargas. “We are excited — because of the Alliance, we get to stretch, to scale up, to reach our next level.” ‘