Twenty Years of Supporting Citizen Democracy Worldwide

By Jim Shultz, founder and executive director

Most things begin as an idea. The idea for the Democracy Center began in 1977 in a small cubicle in the California State Capitol, where I spent the summer between my sophomore and junior years at UC Berkeley as a student intern. I began that summer excited for the chance to work on the inside of the political process at its highest levels and I ended the summer disillusioned at how the passionate citizen activism I witnessed seemed to have such little impact on the real decisions being made. I decided that there should be an organization that would help people trying to make change from the outside understand how things really work on the inside and I also gave the idea a name – The Democracy Center. I tell college students now: Be careful what ideas you come up with when you are young, sometimes they become your life’s work.

Our Beginning

Fifteen years later, after I had served as staff to the California Legislature and as a public interest advocate with Common Cause and Consumers Union, three good friends gave me the chance to bring the Democracy Center to life. In the summer of 1992, as my wife Lynn and I were returning to the United States from Bolivia with our newly adopted daughter Elizabeth, the co-directors of the Advocacy Institute in Washington, Michael Pertschuk, David Cohen, and Kathleen Sheekey, asked me to open an office in San Francisco. The Advocacy Institute had dedicated itself to helping progressive advocates all over the world become as effective as they could be and that was our mission in California as well (originally as Advocacy Institute West and then as we amicably became independent organization in 1997).

That October we started work in a small loft on Mission Street in San Francisco, rented from our friends at Consumers Union.  We began our work by focusing on California’s massive budget crisis, which was drilling a hole through public schools and services.  With our first staff member, Janis Nielsen, the Democracy Center founded the California Budget Project to bring a strong social justice voice forward on state budget issues. We also took aim at the attack being waged against California’s immigrants. With Kathy Curran, the Democracy Center helped provide support to grassroots immigrant activists. One of our best projects was a media advocacy workshop for young immigrant day laborers who then marched in to the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle to make a passionate case in defense of their human rights.

When the ballot initiative became a weapon aimed at immigrants, and also the chief tool for making policy in the state, we wrote and published a citizen’s guide, The Initiative Cookbook, which is still being used by activists today. Ingrid MacDonald joined the Center to help produce it. Soon our advocacy trainings became so popular that, with the help of Santosh Seeram, we expanded them all over the state.  The Democracy Center provided workshops, counseling and support to dozens of organizations, from the leaders of the California PTA campaigning for smaller class size to the women at the San Francisco Homeless Health Care Program. One of the activists in that project was a woman I had first met years before in the family shelter where she had taken refuge in San Francisco and where I worked as a volunteer making grilled cheese sandwiches. With our help she traveled to the State Capitol to meet with lawmakers and journalists and to help bring a badly missing dose of reality to the debate over welfare reform.

The Move to Bolivia

In the fall of 1998, the Democracy Center closed its office in San Francisco as my family and I returned to Bolivia (for what we thought would be a year). For months I sat under a tree going through stacks of notes and then in front of the computer crafting them into another book, The Democracy Owners’ Manual.  My quiet focus on writing abruptly ended just as 2000 began when the people of Cochabamba took to the streets in what became known as the Water Revolt. Armed with an e-mail list, some media contacts and a very slow dial-up connection to the Internet, I was able to take the powerful story from the streets and help it become known worldwide. In the midst of that April week of government repression I also managed to investigate and document that the corporate power behind the scenes was Bechtel, which had also come to Bolivia from San Francisco at about the same time as my family and I, but with very different intentions.

Our work on the Water Revolt began a new era in the Democracy Center’s evolution. Bolivia had become ground zero in a growing battle over globalization without justice, and while those battles were fought by Bolivians, it turned out that it was useful to have some gringos involved in researching stories and getting out word to the world.

In 2003, with the help of two great young volunteers from Seattle, Carolyn Claridge and Nicholas Verbon (profiled in the Seattle Times), we launched an investigation into how pressures from the International Monetary Fund set off a week of violence here that left 34 people dead, Febrero Negro.  Then we decided to continue forward and document a whole series of stories about Bolivia’s brave challenge to globalization.  That plan became a book, Dignity and Defiance.  Marcela Olivera, one of the wisest Bolivian activists I know, agreed to join our staff to help.

Then people just started showing up.  A procession of extraordinary people began coming to our door and became a part of our effort to tell Bolivia’s story. Christina Haglund intrepidly cycled the indigenous highlands to document the untold story of Enron and Shell’s massive oil spill.  Aaron Luoma and Gretchen Gordon translated Bolivia’s complex struggle to retake control of its oil and gas.  Lily Whitesell came twice, and wrote a beautiful chapter about Bolivia’s migrants abroad.  Barbara Gagnat helped research the aftermath of the Water Revolt.  Juliette Beck helped with the winning campaign against Bechtel when the company sued Bolivia for $50 million in a World Bank trade court.

Fortunately, our team was more than just Jim and the foreigners. Two smart and dedicated young Bolivians, Aldo Orellana and Leny Olivera, joined the Democracy Center and have been with us ever since – our passionate and intelligent bridges to Bolivia’s realities. The whole crazy project (I sometimes referred to it as ‘the book that ate the Democracy Center’) was only possible because of the partner who made it possible: Melissa Draper, my co-editor on the book who also served as assistant director of the Democracy Center. In 2009 Melissa, Leny and I went on book tour in the U.S., holding more than two-dozen events in 14 cities, organized with the good spirited help of Yi-Ching Hwang, a former Peace Corps volunteer who was another one of those talented people who just came to our door.

In the midst of all of our Bolivia reporting we decided to try our hand at something mysterious called a Blog. For more than 10 years our presence on the web has been guided with great generosity by Jorge Hurtado, a Bolivian transplant to California.  With Jorge’s help we launched the “Blog from Bolivia” which became the English language go-to source on all things Bolivia, with thousands of readers every day. The most popular of these posts were our annual April Fools spoofs including one reporting on a U.S. conspiracy to force Bolivia to adopt daylight savings time, reprinted as a news story in both the Huffington Post and U.S. News & World Report.

More good people continued to come to us and join our work. Two talented young journalists, Alexander Provan and Caitlyn Esch, helped start the Democracy Center’s Jallalla Magazine and contributed to our other reporting. Mike Graham-Squire helped us get our volunteer program up and running. Lindsey Bucher offered English classes to Bolivian activists who asked for them.  Olivia Zink and Kris Hannigan-Luther helped build our distance volunteer program. Elliot Williams helped us with our investigative work in Bolivia. Elizabeth Cooper spent her summer vacation from college documenting the efforts of local Bolivian communities to build their own water systems following the Water Revolt. Rebecca Hollender guided our investigation into Bolivia and its lithium.

In 2010 Politics Online named the Democracy Center as one of the Top Ten Groups Pioneering the Internet for Political Activism. Our efforts have also been profiled in the media and have drawn awards both for journalism and human rights activism.

Our Work Today

Today our work at the Democracy Center is focused on three areas where we believe citizen democracy is vital. One is the rising threat of corporate power.  Together with our allies at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington we formed the Network for Justice in Global Investment and Shawn Arquinego joined with us to help launch that global effort. A talented Australian, Kylie Benton-Connell, came to us and produced, among many other projects, our popular resource guide for anti-corporate campaigning, Beating Goliath.

The second main focus of our work today is the crisis that will impact us all, global climate change. Bolivia is a ground zero for climate change’s dire effects and the Democracy Center has been active in capturing those stories to share with the world. Two gifted young people, Jessica Aguirre from the US and Anders Vang Nielsen from Denmark, teamed up to produce this powerful video on Bolivia’s melting glaciers. Shawn, Leny and Aldo traveled to distant Bolivian villages to capture the stories of what severe drought and flooding really mean for the people living through them. Maddy Ryle joined us from the UK to become the Democracy Center’s stellar communications director and put together not only our new website, but also this important multimedia site on the impact of climate change on water here in the Andes, based on our team’s work. In 2011 Ben Brouwer from the U.S. and Ben Castle from the UK led our effort to capture the experiences and lessons from climate campaigns across the world in a series of widely read case studies. Our work is also focused on strengthening the strategies being employed in climate activism, through articles like this one.

Finally, the Democracy Center continues to focus our efforts today on the same task where we began two decades ago: spreading advocacy skills as broadly as we can to those who wage the fight for social and environmental justice. We’ve done trainings and workshops with thousands of activists across five continents. We’ve worked with public health activists in apartheid South Africa, environmental activists in New Mexico, women’s organizations in Tanzania, and with UNICEF children’s rights activists in Vietnam, Jordan, Senegal, the Balkans, Uganda, and beyond.

The Democracy Center begins its third decade with a great team. Maddy continues to lead our communications activity from the UK, with a newborn resting in her lap. Thomas McDonagh has come from Ireland to join Aldo in guiding our work challenging global investment rules. Leny continues to help us navigate the Bolivian landscape in our climate investigations.  Anders continues as our talented video producer. Two new young volunteers, Carey Averbook and Denis Vidal, have recently joined us – the latest in a long line of wonderful young people who have in one way or another discovered our work and decided to be a part of it.

Many other people have made the work of the Democracy Center possible during these 20 years. Maryann O’Sullivan, our close friend dating back to the  California days, serves as chair of our advisory committee. Martha Nissen Stabler has been our anchor in San Francisco virtually since the start, helping with everything from administrative details to events. The good people at Community Initiatives in San Francisco have served as our nonprofit fiscal sponsor for more than 15 years. Generous foundations have supported our work as well as many kind individuals who graciously send us checks from time to time to help keep us going.

It is difficult to write a brief history of the Democracy Center because it is not a brief history. It is one that stretches across five continents, three decades, a myriad of issues, dozens of wonderful allies, and most importantly, more than three dozen inspiring and talented people of many nationalities who have, for moments both long and short, made the Democracy Center their home.

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