Our History


The Democracy Center: Twenty Years of Supporting Citizen Democracy Worldwide.

A special report by Jim Shultz


The Democracy Center was founded in 1992, in San Francisco. Originally established as the west coast office of the Washington-based Advocacy Institute, The Democracy Center became independent in 1997. Over the past two decades The Center has trained and supported thousands of social and environmental justice advocates across the US, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It has published three books, a series of major reports, and hundreds of newspaper, magazine, and Internet articles dealing with democracy, social and environmental justice issues. It has also helped found a set of important citizen organizations, in both the US and abroad, and helped lead successful citizen campaigns in the US and globally.

California and the U.S.

In our first decade much of the Democracy Center’s work was focused in California and the U.S. In the early 1990s, in the midst of the state’s historic budget crisis, the Center founded a progressive advocacy organization on fiscal issues, The California Budget Project. When immigrants in California came under political attack (including by a right-wing ballot measure to keep undocumented immigrant children out of the public schools), we worked with grassroots immigrant groups to help them speak for themselves with the media and the public.  We also provided advocacy training and support to groups ranging from state PTA leaders campaigning for school reform to formerly homeless women speaking up for the economic rights of the poor.

Bolivia and the Battles for Globalization with Justice

In our second decade the Democracy Center moved to the heart of the ‘global south’, Bolivia, and from there began to work in the movement for a more just vision of economic globalization. In 2000 the Center provided groundbreaking reporting from the scene of the now-famous Cochabamba Water Revolt against the U.S. engineering giant, Bechtel, winning top honors from Project Censored.  Later the Center helped lead the global campaign that forced Bechtel to drop its $50 million World Bank lawsuit against the people of Cochabamba.  In the years since the Center has reported on the secret local dealings of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Enron.  We also joined with citizens worldwide to form a global campaign to reform corporate-dominated trade rules.

International Citizen Action on Budgets

As a long-time associate of the International Budget Partnership, the Democracy Center has worked globally to help empower citizens to understand and impact upon their governments’ tax and budget policies. We have written major case studies on: budgets and human rights; tracking gas and oil revenue; and the influence on budgets of the World Bank and IMF. The Center also carried out research looking at effective budget advocacy work in Croatia, Brazil, and Argentina.

Training Citizens in the Art of Advocacy

Over the course of two decades the Democracy Center has led advocacy training and support projects involving thousands of activists across five continents.  We have worked with Native Americans in New Mexico working on environmental issues, women leaders in Tanzania struggling for equal rights, health activists in South Africa, UNICEF leaders in Asia and Europe, and social justice activists across Latin America.  Read more about our advocacy training work here.

Our Publications

Over the course of its history the Democracy Center has published three major books: on California ballot politics, citizen advocacy and on Bolivia’s struggles with globalization.  We have also published a long series of major reports from across the world and many articles for newspapers and magazines across the U.S. and Europe.  For more, visit our publications page.

Our Work Today

As the Democracy Center begins its third decade, the focus of our work continues to be about strengthening citizen action worldwide, most especially on two challenges that we believe are central in the years ahead. One is the global climate crisis, where citizen action is urgently needed to break through the inaction by our political leaders, and the other is helping citizens challenge the growing pervasive and abusive power of corporations. In these new projects, as before, our mission remains to honor the good causes citizens choose to fight for and to help them wage those fights in the most strategic and effective way possible. Read more about our current work here.

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