Voting at Ujima: A Behind the Scenes Look
#HowWeWork is a series dedicated to how we get sh*t done at Ujima. We’ll unpack the inner workings of our culture, participatory processes, and how we advance our mission with a team of economy-builders.
Democracy, as we’ve learned, is a dynamic, expansive concept — and it is very much alive in our communities. Voting affords us an opportunity to hear directly from our constituents, and helps us build towards a practice of “everyday democracy.” Our voting members are a colorful, vocal bunch, and while Ujima has several successful votes to celebrate, we’ve never given our members a peek behind the curtain. Until now.
Read on to hear Ujima’s Executive Director, Nia K. Evans, explain how voting at Ujima works behind the scenes.
Paige Curtis: What can members currently vote on today? What kinds of things will they be able to vote on in the future?
Nia Evans: Today, voting members can vote on the businesses that we invest in, since investment opportunities come up regularly. They can also vote on some questions that staff want to get member input on. So for instance, on the ballot for the second voting opportunity we had in 2019, there were businesses that were named by community members. So we ratified those lists as investment plans, but we also asked a couple of questions, like: “which financial institutions should we place undeployed capital in?”
Because we had a few members who asked, it seemed like it was something that members wanted to weigh in on.
So, process questions might be voted on by members as well as governance questions, like board composition. In the past, we also had members vote on our community standards, since we intend for those standards to be reviewed regularly. There’s also a second tier of community standards that we want to create, perhaps around social justice so members will be voting on that eventually.
What are some steps of the voting process that members don’t necessarily get to see?
So a major step is creation of the voting list and determining quorum. We define quorum as 50% plus one of all voting members. Then the natural question is 50%, plus one of what number? In the beginning, it was just a matter of running a report of who our voting members are, then just doing the math. More recently, we’ve tried to refine our definition of participation. Now, we generate a list of our voting members from our CRM (customer relationship management) system. Then look at a list of voters that we have previously removed from the list, simply due to life circumstances (like moving, lack of time, etc). We also cross reference our voting list with a list of people who opt out of our communications and previous voting history. So for example, if someone has never voted, and they’ve opted out of all of our communications, they’re not likely to vote. So we remove people based on these rules. We’re not just randomly removing people to make our lives easier. This new process helps us calculate an accurate quorum.
The other important step that members don’t see is the creation of the ballot. We’ve experimented with different platforms over the years, but now we use Google forms. Keeping it simple seems to work best. Now, we’re able to create a simple ballot with linked information and context for voters.
For us, voting isn’t just a formality; the power in our communities is real.
Obviously reaching quorum is really important in order for the vote to be binding. So, what happens when a vote doesn’t reach quorum?
So far, we always meet quorum on investment votes. But not reaching quorum means we essentially don’t have an answer from members on that particular voting question. Voting gives Ujima a clear directive from members, so without quorum we can’t move in any direction. With this question up in the air, we have to figure out how to settle it, and return to it in the future.
For us, voting isn’t just a formality; the power in our communities is real. The first vote we held in 2019 included that question I mentioned earlier around where to store undeployed capital. The first week of voting was very slow, so we sent out messages to our members communicating how important voting was. We told members that the money was going to sit there if they didn’t weigh in. So the bottom line is if members don’t vote, nothing will happen.
Voting members must be working class people of color living in Boston, but what’s the current demographic makeup of Ujima voters?
We track this closely. Folks can learn more about the voting demographics of each ballot result here.
Any final reflections on voting at Ujima?
We’ve made a lot of innovations when it comes to voting, and one of them is our voter affirmation form. I love this because it really respects the notion that participation is a matter of not just choice, but calculus.
When I think of broader voting conversations, particularly when it comes to Black communities, it’s very “finger waggy.” It’s us telling our communities to vote because our ancestors died for this, and that not voting means shirking their duty. We shouldn’t assume people don’t vote out of apathy, necessarily. Some people are weighing the benefits of voting. So the voter affirmation form removes this “all or nothing” dynamic and respects the calculus of our voters. Not everybody wants to weigh in on every single decision. Decision fatigue is real. There are legitimate reasons not to care about a particular decision, among many you’re asked to weigh in on — and, that should be respected. ◼︎
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. If you’re interested in learning more about Ujima’s voting process read the 2020 Harvard Kennedy School report Get Out the Vote: Increasing Voter Participation at the Boston Ujima Project, written by Yohana Beyene and Karl Kumodzi.