Civic and political engagement are more important than ever in Erie as the city rebounds and local elections approach. We often look to Pittsburgh’s Mayor Peduto and his city as an example of how innovative leadership transformed the economic and social prospects of an entire region.
Engaged voters elect engaged politicians and disengaged voters acquiesce to the election of self-serving politicians. Civic engagement is not a top down process. It starts from the bottom up and includes the voices of diverse change-makers.
Radius member Dan Doubet, local Organizer for Keystone Progress, is driving civic engagement across the region. As an Organizer, Dan wears many hats. But one important aspect of his work is leading open and rigorous policy discussions with residents, so that their voice can be heard. We sat down with Dan to learn about his life to Erie and the important work he’s doing to drive innovative, people-focused policy.
Radius: A lot of younger folks seem to be making their way to Erie after living in bigger cities, how did you find out about the opportunity here?
Dan: I’m originally from Meadville and organizing has taken me all over the country, but I’ve spent the most time in NY and California. During one particular return home to Meadville I met my wife who is from North East. Whenever I came back here, and whenever I would reflect on home, I always had a vision of what I could do if I lived here. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to work locally on behalf of Keystone Progress, who shares that vision on how organizing the community could be very impactful to the Erie region.
Radius: Before we ask you about your work with Keystone Progress, we noticed you making more than a few appearances on CNN during the Democratic National Convention. Tell us your experience at the Convention.
Dan: It was an enormous honor to represent Bernie Sanders’ voters at the Convention. It was great to meet with leaders from across Pennsylvania and the country.
It also gave me a lot of hope for the future, because a few conventions ago, the event was only for power-brokers and party-elites. People working to build community power at a grassroots level were rarely on the inside. The more voices we have at the table from Erie and places like it, the more we can move toward policies that will actually make a difference in people’s lives.
Radius: How does organizing create meaningful change, especially at the Grassroots Level?
Dan: People often feel disempowered and cynical about the region’s prospects. Organizing is all about changing the relationship of power and building real improvements in people’s lives. To be clear, when I’m talking about power, I’m talking about strictly the ability act and to make a difference. People in Erie feel like they have no recourse. A lot of people have only experienced a city in decline. There are a lot of external reasons for this cynicism. For example, we have a lot of well-meaning political leaders who have only experienced a city in economic decline and are not versed in the types of policies that will revitalize the region. The work that I’m doing helps people see that they have an ability to make change. A golden rule of organizing is to never do for individuals what they can do for themselves.
Radius: What is your process for effecting change?
Dan: We run the full spectrum from identifying problems and solutions to action. That third step is the hardest, but most important step. We identify who or what is standing in the way then set out to take action and create change.
A recent success that comes to mind is our work with regional public transit to extend a bus route from Erie to an industrial park in west Erie County. The project connected people with jobs that they can’t otherwise attend. We partnered with business leaders and Emerge 2040 among others throughout the process, and they deserve a lot of credit. What organizing brings to the table is people power, and we mobilized members to tell leaders why this was important to them.
There are a lot of misconceptions about organizing, one of them is that we are anti-business. What I’m working to accomplish is much more pragmatic and rooted in empowering people from all walks of life, including business owners, in this case, who need access to resources to reach a talented labor force.
The next step for Keystone Progress is to build a Chapter so that we can begin hosting bi-weekly meetings. Throughout my time in Erie, we have begun developing core values and have begun identifying specific issues we think are important for the region. Part of what makes Keystone Progress a great organization is that we are working to become an organization rooted in democratic principles. That means that chapters and contributions are organized from the ground up. Self-determining, and self-funded.
Radius: What are some of those issues?
Dan: A few include decriminalizing marijuana, banning the box for previously incarcerated folks, and creating equity in statewide school funding. Regarding school funding, we recently helped mobilize a group of 70 concerned citizens, teachers, and representatives from labor to rally in Erie to support passage of a fully funded education package. We held the rally at Perry Square.
Some of our core values include dismantling racism, putting the planet first, and holding leaders accountable to good government and fair elections. Often times we’ll take direct action to support specific policies at the State and National level to mobilize people to act on policies that impact them directly.
As an organization, Keystone Progress has a strong digital presence. We have an email list of 250,000 people Statewide, thousands of folks in Erie County. We’ve been able to represent Erie voices to statewide progressives for change. We also have a statewide summit and we hosted a regional summit in Erie last year that drew both challengers for the US senate as well as elected officials from across the State.
Radius: Why Erie?
Dan: One of the most corrosive forces in town is the lack of civic pride. People are always down about Erie. It is really easy to fall into that. Places like Pittsburgh or NYC had that mentality 30 years ago. It is only until the community took the brave step of admitting they were proud of their city that they could build upon the region culturally.
One of the things I like most about Erie is that we are distant enough from population centers that we don’t have issues like traffic or overuse of resources like overcrowded state parks. But we’re not exactly a small town. Erie has a great perspective about the world, we have a great cultural zeitgeist. We are connected and always a day’s drive from many of the major East coast cities.
It’s also the people. Erieites are shrewd and intelligent. You have a sensibility of rural friendliness without the naivety of being unexposed to bad ideas. You can’t pull one over on Erieites. People have a good grasp on down to Earth, common sense reality.
Radius: What’s Coworking Been like?
Dan: The cool thing about Radius is that I came here programmatically when I needed inexpensive office space with fast Internet and a quiet place to work away from distractions. It became my go-to space because it is a place with the perfect intersections of the work I’m trying to do – people from different backgrounds always coming in and exchanging information. I’ve met some great people here. That is part of why I stay and why I recommend it.
Thank you for taking the time Dan!
Dan: Thank you!
If you’d like to learn more about Dan’s work organizing grassroots change, feel free to contact Dan directly at email@example.com.