Meet the reformer: 10 questions with Katie Fahey
Katie Fahey is not a fan of politics, but that hasn't stopped her from scoring one of the biggest political upsets in recent years.
Just a few years out of college and working in Grand Rapids for a nonprofit promoting recycling, the Michigan native never intended to get involved in politics. But her frustration with the system reached a tipping point with the 2016 election. Two days later, she took to Facebook with a simple message: "I'd like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan. If you're interested in doing this as well, please let me know."
Several dozen people responded, and soon her group Voters Not Politicians was born. Ultimately, it gathered 425,000 signatures to get an initiative on the ballot last year calling for an independent commission to draw the state's electoral districts in place of the legislature. Despite opposition led by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, it was approved with 61 percent of the statewide vote.
The victory has made her something of a folk hero in the world of democracy reform, and she was flooded with calls from others hoping to similarly leverage grassroots activism. Now 30, she has recently created and is executive director of The People, a national group that aims to educate and galvanize people around reform issues. (Her co-founders are Andrew Shue of DoSomething.org and conservative pollster Frank Luntz.) She has also joined the board of the bipartisan democracy reform group Issue One (which is incubating, but journalistically independent from, The Fulcrum.)
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The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
What led from Michigan gerrymandering to The People?
A lot of people from different states, who were just regular folks too, had reached out to me and said, "I am really concerned about this issue" – it wasn't always gerrymandering – "Can you help me figure out what to do?" I really wished someone had been helping us from the very beginning. There was a lot I felt we were recreating the wheel on and so I wanted to help others learn how to navigate this process.
That's when I met Andrew and Frank. I think we were all motivated by the same thing – wanting to help people navigate the political process and be able to have their own voice instead of being talked for or to. That's when we all decided to try this out.
What are your plans?
I'm trying to help give people the channels to do something about what they want to see happening in our country, especially around reform issues. We did this country-wide tour – 21 states in 15 days – and we had community conversations about meeting people who are different from you and what our shared hopes and concerns are for the country.
At those meetings, the lists of what's wrong, and even why it's happening, were very long. People were able to explain those very easily. But then when it came to "OK, so what can you as an individual do about this?" – there were crickets. A lot of people really feel paralyzed by these problems, even though they know what they are. I want to make it easier and give people a safe environment to learn how to use this system of government that impacts us every day.
What has been your biggest professional triumph?
Being able to make the case for large donors to fund the people who were putting in their time, energy, creativity and money in the Michigan campaign for ending gerrymandering. We only had small-dollar donors for the first year and a half. We needed the investment to help raise awareness. Because there are things you can't crowdsource, like buying TV commercials.
When we finally got that first large-dollar commitment, I've never felt more proud. I finally saw a pathway, and we could actually get the word out about what we were doing. Because with misinformation and with our opposition having a lot of financial resources, it's just hard to let people know what you're doing. So to finally be able to reach that was a really big milestone.
And your biggest setback?
We ended up overcoming it, but there was a moment when we were being challenged in the Michigan Supreme Court, and there's a lot of uncertainty that comes with that. People had been working every day for a year and a half, and it literally came down to seven people deciding whether they're going to act in accordance with the law or in a partisan way.
We had a back-up plan, but how do you keep people motivated when the reality is it's out of your control? I think figuring out ways to keep people motivated and having faith in the democratic process was hard to do. We did our best, but it definitely was a large lesson learned and eye-opening to how fragile people's faith in the process is right now.
What was your very first civic engagement?
My dad worked for the Veterans Administration in Detroit when I was growing up and he helped set up some of the first homeless veteran programs at the time. One of my earliest memories is going to a restaurant in downtown Detroit that opened up only for homeless people on Thanksgiving. I helped serve food there and I met a little girl, who was about my age, and I learned she didn't have any stuffed animals at home. That really bothered me, so I made sure we found a way to give her one of my stuffed animals.
What qualities do you admire most in politicians?
I like a politician who focuses on governing. How are you actually going to mobilize people and make sure you're getting their input and involving them in the political process, beyond just getting them to vote for you?
I also think proactive transparency is really nice – when people put everything out there and talk about it. Or when they try purposefully to have a process of being transparent and speaking to the realities of what it's like to serve.
The last thing I would say is accountability. In Michigan, one of the big events that made me feel like I had to do something was the Flint water crisis. There were a lot of different officials all pointing at each other trying to pass on blame. There were people who had died and children and families who had been poisoned. I find that so shameful because being in politics does require leadership. That means when things are going well, you get to take credit, but when things are going bad, you have to own that, too.
In 10 words or less, what is the biggest challenge to our democracy?
People not knowing what to do.
How should that challenge be overcome?
There's a real lack of authentically helping people understand the power they do have within the democratic process. Because there are a lot of people who are asking others to donate to them, so they can do it for them, and there's a lot of people saying "Vote for me and I'll take care of it." But I do not see proactive outreach to help people learn how to do something about all the issues bombarding them every day.
A lot of people genuinely care, but they feel stuck, like they don't have any agency. So many of these big decisions related to the political system impact millions of people every single day, and yet there are very few attempts to engage people. Until we start looking at people as an asset in this process, we're going to continue to have a lot of overwhelmed people who are unhappy with a system that doesn't reflect the America they want to live in.
What is something fun most people don't know about you?
I used to run two comedy improv groups. I started the Grand Rapids Improv Festival.
If you could create a new Ben & Jerry's flavor, what would it be?
I love caramel, chocolate, brownie batter and sprinkles. I think it would be called "Red, Blue and You." The brownie batter and caramel would be in the shapes of people, flags or eagles. And the sprinkles would definitely be red, white and blue.
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