The Fahey Q&A: How Cindi Copeland is searching for political humanity in Virginia
Having organized last year's grassroots movement ending Michigan's politicized gerrymandering, Fahey is now executive director of The People, which is forming statewide networks to promote government accountability. She interviews a colleague in the world of democracy reform each month for our Opinion section.
Cindi Z.S. Copeland has gone from someone who never voted to someone who spends her free time meeting in libraries, coffee shops and at dinner tables to unite Virginians of all political stripes around improving civic life.
Her life is inspiring and resonates with me on many levels. Neither of us share the same beliefs as some family members, both of us have lost relationships because of such differences and each have stayed involved in politics because we think all people have the right to make their voices heard. We find inspiration from connecting with people from different backgrounds, because you never know if your next conversation is going to transform your life.
Our recent phone conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Fahey: How did you get involved in People?
Copeland: In October 2018 I participated in a focus group for women in the D.C. area who held different political views. Early this year members of our focus group were asked if we wanted to work on a new program bringing together people from up and down the political spectrum to find common ground, talk about why we are so polarized and try to fix it. I said yes and soon became one of The People's co-leaders for Virginia.
Fahey: The People brought about 100 people from all 50 states, with different backgrounds and viewpoints, to Washington in May. What was that like?
Copeland: It was great meeting people from states I have never been to, hearing what their lives were like and hearing their excitement about getting more involved in fixing what's broken. It was also an exhausting and jam-packed 48 hours with lots of thinking, listening to others and sharing my thoughts! Most exciting was drawing up our People's Declaration with perfect strangers and seeing a final document that — though imperfect — gave us something to move forward with.
Fahey: Is there anyone you met who really impacted you?
Copeland: I was chatting about special education with a guy from Portland, Oregon, on the way to sign our declaration at the Lincoln Memorial. I'm a speech therapist and work with people with autism. He has a friend with a child with autism. At some point it came out I was a Donald Trump supporter and he kind of stopped in his tracks like, "Oh darn, I really liked this person, and now she is saying she voted for Trump?" We started discussing issues and it shifted away from the stuff of real life, but because we first had that conversation on a person-to-person level we were able to be frank in discussing our political ideas. Finding common ground is so important. We need more people who see things differently but help each other anyway.
Fahey: You registered to vote a little later in life and have been inspired to encourage others to do so. Could you share that journey?
Copeland: I did not vote until I was in my mid-40s. I had thought politics was for those with strong stomachs who could tolerate contentiousness and electing people who made promises but didn't often stick to them. I didn't think politics was really for me. I also didn't think I had enough information. I was so busy raising kids, working, doing volunteer work and being active in my church that I didn't think I had time to accumulate the information to really understand the issues. Then I realized I didn't like the increasing polarization, divisiveness and name calling. I decided to get involved and stop saying this is for others to deal with. I have five kids and don't want them to grow up and raise their own families in a society so divided and ugly.
Fahey: Describe the work you are doing on the ground now.
Copeland: We started a listen-learn-action tour this fall in Northern Virginia and will continue to Richmond and southeastern Virginia by early 2020. This is about hearing what people see as needing fixing and exploring solutions together. In our town hall meetings, we present information about how things are broken, talk about what needs to change in civic education and engagement, and hear from attendees about possible solutions.
Fahey: What has it been like to have different political beliefs from family members?
Copeland: When the presidential election was over there was a lot of anger, maybe from people who thought Hillary Clinton would win and did not like what Donald Trump stood for. Trying to share my ideas, mostly on Facebook — why I voted for him and thought it was good he won — I was met with a lot of name-calling and accusations of being racist or anti-immigrant.
Three of my children are in their 20s and at the time of the election all three were in college. I got a feeling they were not very open-minded about hearing from people who thought differently. As a speech therapist, a lot of friends viewed me as a "do-gooder" and assumed I tended towards liberal-minded thinking. They were very surprised to hear I had other beliefs about what I wanted from government. There was a lot of contentiousness. It was very hard. I lost one good friend, my youngest son's godmother.
Being with The People has helped because I've learned skills about building relationships across the aisle and connected with many people who also want to find common ground. It's become easier talking with my big three. I've learned how to be a better listener and share ideas in a way that reflects an understanding that people don't all think the same. Having never really discussed politics before, I am finding my voice.
Fahey: If you were speaking to a high school student or maybe a new immigrant to the country, how would you describe what being an American means to you?Copeland: America and opportunity are synonymous. I seize any opportunity, which is how I came to The People: I saw the ad, went to the focus group, got the email, and now have a leadership role. To me, being an American is not waiting for someone else to dictate how you should live or what you should do. It's about being a very active member of society who embraces opportunity.
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In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.