Winter 2014

The Leadership Required for an America in the Making

By Ajenai Clemmons, MPP, NBCSL Policy Director serves as NBSCL’s policy director. She was formerly the ombudsman for Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, where she helped establish a civilian agency that monitors police and sheriff internal affairs investigations. She has worked in the Iowa State Legislature as well as non-profit and private sectors. Ms. Clemmons holds a Master of Public Policy and B.A. in International Relations, Spanish, and Latin American History.
The Leadership Required for an America in the Making

The U.S. Census Bureau projects America will become a majority-minority nation as early as 20431 —in other words, about one generation from today. With the rise in interracial unions, multiracial births,2 and possible changes to immigration policies,3 our new demographic status might arrive even sooner.

Increasing numbers will not automatically translate into increased political power. Americans holding the reins until now have mobilized to “Take Our Country Back” to a time they feel was safe and secure. If we are not careful, this country will indeed go back.

So, how do we ensure that never happens? How do we embrace and advance change? How do we choose to operate not out of fear, but out of power, love, and a sound mind as our Creator intended?4

This nation needs leadership resolute on bringing people together. No minority has the luxury of self-reliance in achieving the change so desperately required. America needs transformational coalition-building that takes the media by storm to enlist more members and amass political power.

The Reality: Our Fates Are Linked Whether We Know It or Like It

Foundational to effective coalition-building among people of color and White allies is understanding that our fates are linked. The Institute for Social Policy & Understanding (ISPU), a nonpartisan think tank and trusted resource on American Muslims, released a report this November summarizing a state legislative effort to systematically disenfranchise historically marginalized groups.5 The ISPU examined bills in all 50 U.S. state legislatures between 2011 and 2013 across six issue areas:

  1. Restrictions on women’s reproductive rights and access
  2. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and other bans on LGBT unions
  3. Right-to-Work legislation
  4. Anti-immigration proposals
  5. Voter Identification requirements
  6. Anti-Sharia/Anti-Foreign Law bills6

The ISPU found that a very small subset of legislators (4807 out of 73838) were responsible for sponsoring or co-sponsoring anti-Sharia/anti-foreign law bills. But, of those legislators who did, 80% either sponsored or co-sponsored a restrictive law in the remaining five areas. Of note, the greatest amount of sponsorship overlap occurred between bills targeting Muslim communities and bills calling for strict Voter ID requirements and Right-to-Work legislation9—both having disproportionate, adverse impacts on the African American community.10,11

For those previously limited to anecdotal evidence from their experience in the House and Senate chambers that such a broad legislative strategy was being orchestrated, ISPU’s report is deeply reaffirming and lends scientific credence to what might have been otherwise dismissed as a conspiracy theory.

And yet, in the last few years, there have been rare glimpses of candor revealing the attitudes underlying these grand designs. For example, in Texas, where population growth between 2000 and 2010 yielded the state four new congressional seats, the legislature managed to redraw the lines to favor Republicans in three of the four seats even though 89% of Texas’s 4.3 million new residents were people of color (65% being Hispanic).12 Responding to the Department of Justice’s claims that Texas was attempting to dilute the Hispanic vote, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (now Governor-elect) defended the maps, stating “It is perfectly constitutional for a Republican-controlled legislature to make partisan districting decisions, even if there are incidental effects on minority voters who support Democratic candidates.”13

In a second example, the Interim CEO for DeKalb County, Georgia announced DeKalb would allow early voting on an October Sunday and added a voting location in a shopping mall frequented by African Americans. This prompted State Senator Fran Miller to write a letter to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that read: 

…Now we are to have Sunday voting at South DeKalb Mall just prior to the election…this location is dominated by African American shoppers and it is near several large African American mega churches such as New Birth Missionary Baptist…Is it possible church buses will be used to transport people directly to the mall since the poll will open when the mall opens? If this happens, so much for the accepted principle of separation of church and state…we are investigating if there is any way to stop this action. This may be another reason to eliminate the CEO position.14

Without realizing it, minorities have been in the same boat paddling against the same crushing tide. Rather than function as a team to row in sync toward calmer waters, people have paddled chaotically away from one another in a misguided attempt to distance themselves from such associations. 

It is essential that we collectively confront bigotry whenever and wherever it occurs. We have a moral imperative not just to speak out when our own group is attacked, but to speak up when other marginalized communities are placed in the crosshairs. Worse than silence, however, is when minorities take part in the scapegoating of another minority group. When these temptations arise, we must resist them and help each other stay focused—keeping our eyes on the prize.

Click to enlarge image 1_GMFQC_Combo.jpg

Quad Caucus staff teamed up with staff from the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the U.S. Helsinki Commission to bring together four political European leaders of color from the U.K., Germany, Belgium, and Poland with Quad Caucus legislators for their final meeting (left to right) Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, German Marshall Fund; Mischa Thompson, Senior Advisor, U.S. Helsinki Commission; Rhina Villatoro, Interim Executive Director, NHCSL; Martha Salazar, Senior Policy Specialist, NCSL; Michael Reed, Policy Analyst, NBCSL; Ajenai Clemmons, Policy Director, NBCSL; Irene Kawanabe, Program Director, NCSL; and Tricia Simmons, Meetings Associate, NCSL. (LaKimba DeSadier, NBCSL Executive Director, not pictured)

Now That We’ve Sung “Kumbaya,” Our Work Begins

Undoubtedly, some hate or strongly dislike other groups, and that problem merits a serious response. What is far more often the case is that the majority of Americans consciously believe in an egalitarian society and see themselves as living up to those dear egalitarian values. Tragically, it is not the conscious ideals, values, or beliefs that predict behavior; it is unconscious biases that do. Automatic associations—whether negative, neutral, or ostensibly positive made between groups and their traits, competency, capabilities, and character—happen without consciously thinking about them because they are so ingrained in media, society, and upbringing. These automatic associations, which lead to biases, generally feel very natural and logical, because they are constantly reinforced.15

Unconscious or implicit biases are particularly dangerous for policymaking, because it is possible for people to be genuine when they earnestly claim they are not racist or prejudiced while advocating for policies that are destructive to groups who do not look like them.

New scientific research demonstrates that negative associations can be replaced with positive or neutral ones, and empathy can increase for other groups by taking deliberate measures.16

The Perception Institute is a consortium that uses mind sciences research to develop strategies that reduce racial bias and anxiety, and influence cultural conversations nationally. Perception Institute advises that our coalition’s messaging must consist of narratives that lead to empathy and linked fate. 

How do we do that?

Step One: Build Transformational Coalitions

Dr. Manuel Pastor is a demographer at the University of Southern California who has researched America’s demographic shifts and their implications. In a 2011 report he co-authored, “Transactions, Transformations, Translations: Metrics that Matter for Building, Scaling, and Funding Social Movements,” he makes clear that effective, multi-racial, sustained coalitions are indispensible to an equitable allocation of public resources and political power as America transitions.17

Dr. Pastor and his colleagues created a framework of “transactions and transformations” for measuring the success of social movements. They describe transactions as involving quantifiable markers, such as the number of doors knocked, number of dues-paying members, or the number of demands met. Transactional Coalition-Building involves those with mutual interests convening on particular issues. Success might be measured by the diversity of coalition, the scale of reach, and shared commitments.18

Transformation, on the other hand, shows how people, organizations, or movements have changed based on collective efforts, or how societal views have been impacted by movement-building. Thus, transformational coalition-building occurs when groups actually feel what each other feels and show up to defend one another as a matter of practice—and more importantly, even in each others’ absence. It results due to the trust built from collaborative work and can only come from seeing each others’ stakes and fates as one.19 

Both transactions and transformations are needed and inform the other: the more transactions, the more transformations, and vice versa. The report shares key recommendations for those who want to engage in this difficult work:

  1. Groups should align themselves based on values, which allows for deeper, longer-lasting collaboration versus interests. Interests can be fleeting and are more subject to divisiveness. 
  2. Leadership development must be a priority, because successful transfers of power to the younger generation are necessary in order for overall movements to sustain impact.
  3. Recognize that conflict and collaboration can co-exist. Groups can commit to working through conflict rather than giving up.20

Step Two: Claim the Media Narrative

After building coalitions that are aligned based on values, coalition members must be visible and proactively claim the narrative, rather than being on the defensive. Knowing each other’s stories and having developed empathy for one another as a result, will reduce instances of distancing from other stigmatized minorities whilst they are under attack. People of color and White allies must be disciplined in not reinforcing problematic messaging or framing. Instead, coalition members should use inclusive language and reframe the issue in a way that defines it properly and reflects their values.

Step Three: Increase Political Power

America needs more people of color in office. Despite the fact that people of color constitute nearly 37% of the U.S. population21 and 29% of the eligible voting population,22 people of color hold 10% of the nation’s 42,000 elected seats, and women of color comprise only 4% of elected officials.23

We all should encourage people of color to run for office and help them win. But, minorities should make a concerted effort to assist those of another race or ethnicity. This is especially true for African Americans who are currently the best positioned of any minority group in the U.S. in terms of political representation. Every other group is significantly more under-represented in office, and among communities of color, African Americans hold more seats than all other minorities combined.24 Rather than serve as a source of pride, this fact should signal a call of duty to help bring others to the fore.

We should also encourage more people of color to run campaigns, serve as legislative staff, and become lobbyists. They should also form PACs and donor committees that enable them to educate candidates and elected officials, and to hold those officials accountable. Finally, a representative democracy demands fair districting, and people of color must press for greater involvement and decision-making ahead of the census and afterward as political boundaries are redrawn.


A commitment to inclusion is a matter of urgency not only for predominantly White organizations, but for all organizations. As the most visible minority wielding the most political power, there is a special responsibility for Black Americans to lead the way. Black leaders and organizations can and ought to become educated on the challenges of other minorities, push for disaggregated data collection to allow for informed interventions, help create opportunities for advancement, provide platforms to increase their visibility in the public sphere, and make room at the table to share power.

NBCSL Examples of Inclusiveness and Collaboration

NBCSL has intensified efforts to become more inclusive, to collaborate strategically to grow the organization, and to engage in transformational coalition-building that will help us better achieve our mission. Below are a few examples.

At the 37th Annual Legislative Caucus in Memphis, TN, NBCSL held a policy session, “Forging the Black Agenda on Immigration,” which convened a panel to discuss how Black state lawmakers could lead on state-level policies affecting Black and non-Black immigrants and refugees. In addition to Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton sharing his efforts to welcome and integrate immigrants, three legislators shared their perspectives: Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (WA), Chair of the National Asian Pacific American Caucus of State Legislators; Sen. Jeff Hayden (MN) who discussed his enacted legislation allowing undocumented children access to in-state tuition and scholarships; and Sen. Geraldine Thompson (FL) who shared her adopted legislation to reunify Haitian families following the earthquake.

In 2013, NBCSL began a partnership with the State Government Affairs Council (SGAC), an association of corporations and industry groups with state government affairs operations in multiple states. SGAC enjoys a long history with NCSL and CSG. SGAC’s commitment to exposing its membership to more diverse legislators, and our commitment to growing NBCSL’s capacity and reach led to partnership. This year, that partnership culminated in SGAC’s sponsorship of NBCSL on the Hill, featuring a joint reception introducing more corporations to NBCSL and a successful social media training in which both of our members took part. Both organizations look forward to continued collaboration.

Mission Fulfillment
This year, NBCSL concluded a three-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to study the structural barriers of institutional racism keeping children and their families in poverty, in which members from the Native American, Asian, Hispanic, and Black state legislative caucuses traveled to nine cities. Legislators examined policies related to health, education, juvenile justice, and economic security and held site visits in the community to see both problems and solutions in context. Legislators learned about challenges unique to the various racial and ethnic groups, so they could become more effective advocates. And, they learned about common barriers to devise joint strategies. A joint policy priority document will be released early 2015. Legislators cultivated a national network of colleagues engaged in the same work while also developing friendships. NBCSL envisioned engagement that would be transformative in the work each legislator now does individually and in the work the caucuses will do collectively moving forward.

  1. U.S. Census Bureau. (12 December 2012). Press Release. “U.S. Census Bureau Projections Show a Slower Growing, Older, More Diverse Nation a Half Century from Now.” Retrieved from U.S. Census Bureau website: 
  2. Passel, J., Livingston, G., & Cohn, D. (17 May 2012). “Explaining Why Minority Births Now Outnumber White Births.” Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends. Retrieved from Pew Research Center website: 
  3. Associated Press. (12 December 2012). “Whites No Longer a Majority in the U.S. by 2043.” Retrieved from CBSNews website: 
  4. 2 Tim. 1:7 New King James Version.
  5. Khan, S. et al. (2014, November). Manufacturing Bigotry: A State-by-State Legislative Effort to Push Back Against 2050 by Targeting Muslims and Other Minorities. Retrieved from the Institute for Social Policy & Understanding website:[4].pdf
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Number of Legislators and Length of Terms in Years.” Webpage. (11 March 2013.) Retrieved from National Conference of State Legislatures website: 
  9. Khan, S. et al.
  10. U.S. Government Accountability Office. (2014, September). Elections: Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws. Report to Congressional Requesters retrieved from GAO website: 
  11. Mishel, L. (29 August 2012). Issue Brief #342: Unions, Inequality, and Faltering Middle Class Wages. Retrieved from the Economic Policy Institute website: 
  12. Beckett, L. & Lee, S. (27 February 2013). “Five Ways Courts Say Texas Discriminated Against Black and Latino Voters.” Retrieved from the ProPublica website: 
  13. Defendants’ Response to Plaintiffs and the United States Regarding Section 3C of the Voting Rights Act.”  Perez v. Texas, (W.D. Tex. 5:11-cv-00360). Retrieved online: 
  14. Millar, F. (9 September 2014) Op-ed filed under “An angry state Sen. Fran Millar R-Dunwoody is promising to end Sunday voting in DeKalb County when lawmakers assemble in the Capitol next January.” Retrieved from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website:  
  15. Godsil, R., Tropp, L., Goff, P., powell, j. (2014, September). The Science of Equality: Volume 1 – Addressing Implicit Bias, Racial Anxiety, and Stereotype Threat in Education and Healthcare. Retrieved from the University of California Berkeley website: 
  16. Ibid.
  17. Pastor, M., Ito, J, & Rosner, R. (2011, October). Transactions, Transformations, Translations: The Metrics that Matter for Building, Scaling, and Funding Social Movements. Retrieved from the University of Southern California Program for Environmental and Regional Equity website: 
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. U.S. Census Bureau. (2011, September). “The White Population: 2010.” 2010 Census Brief retrieved from the U.S. Census Bureau website:
  22. U.S. Census Bureau. (Thom File: 2013, May). “The Diversifying Electorate—Voting Rates by Race and Hispanic Origin in 2012 (and Other Recent Elections).” Current Population Survey, Population Characteristics retrieved from U.S. Census Bureau website: 
  23. Reflective Democracy Campaign of the Women Donors Network. Retrieved from the Who Leads Us website:
  24. Lien, P., Pinderhughes, D., Hardy-Fanta, C., & Sierra, C. (2007, July). “The Voting Rights Act and the Election of Nonwhite Officials.” 
Ajenai Clemmons, MPP

NBCSL Policy Director serves as NBSCL’s policy director. She was formerly the ombudsman for Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor, where she helped establish a civilian agency that monitors police and sheriff internal affairs investigations. She has worked in the Iowa State Legislature as well as non-profit and private sectors. Ms. Clemmons holds a Master of Public Policy and B.A. in International Relations, Spanish, and Latin American History.