With municipal elections on the horizon, a changing of the guard is coming to Philadelphia. Who will choose the city’s new leaders? Ideally, as many people as possible.
That’s the essence of democracy, and it’s the goal behind a new initiative from the Lenfest Institute.
The journalism nonprofit, founded in 2016 by local philanthropist Gerry Lenfest, just after the most recent competitive mayoral election, is announcing today the “Every Voice, Every Vote” project. It comprises a series of grants totaling $1.5 million, going to 52 Philly organizations.
Half the grantees are community nonprofits or faith-based institutions, and half are news outlets — including Billy Penn.
Funding for the project comes from the William Penn Foundation, Lenfest, the Knight Foundation, and some individual major donors, according to Lenfest CEO Jim Friedlich.
We’re psyched about the election-related journalism this will help us take on, including translation of our Procrastinator’s Guide and creation of an interactive quiz that helps you find the candidates most aligned with your views. We’re also partnering with WHYY and CeaseFire PA to host a mayoral forum on gun violence prevention.
We spoke with Friedlich about how the initiative came to be, and why the people running it think it can help get out the vote in Philly.
News outlets are obviously going to cover the municipal elections anyway. Why offer them grants to do it?
The first reason is that we, and the voters we talked to, and the community organizations we talked to, felt very strongly that the news media has not always reflected every voice and every vote in Philadelphia.
The second is that media coverage has often been focused on the horse race. What candidate is ahead? Who’s winning? Who’s losing, who just entered the race? Who’s raising the most money? What voters keep asking for is a focus on the issues, on having their voices heard.
Define the purpose of this project.
Ultimately, it’s voter engagement. Philadelphia primary turnout is usually in the 200,000-person range. And when there are six or eight serious candidates, that means it will come down to 10,000 to 15,000 people — often an interest group or a special interest of some kind. So it’s vitally important for democracy to engage as many people as possible.
How did you choose who’d get funding?
We said, “What can your organization do to best engage voters to best inform voters and best listen to them about the most important issues facing Philadelphia?” We got hundreds of applications. What came back was a very broad array of approaches.
There’s an organization that gathers Black constituents in barber shops. There’s the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, which will use Sundays and other convenings to engage voters on a nonpartisan basis. There are 29 voter guides in 13 languages. Some are just about affordable housing and homelessness, or just about green Philadelphia and sustainability. Others are broad based and about the election writ large.
Expressed in all of this is that we need to meet voters where they are — on social media, in their own languages, through media, community organizations, and spaces that they trust.
Lenfest owns The Inquirer, right? What’s their involvement?
The Lenfest Institute is the non-controlling parent company of The Philadelphia Inquirer. What that means is that we support select activities and transformation and evolution — at an arm’s length. The same way that we do our other partners. So, they’re one of 52 grantees. Their content, which as you know is sometimes for subscribers only, in this case will be free to all users. That’s a requirement of the project in general.
Who’s in charge of ‘Every Voice, Every Vote’ at Lenfest?
Notably, it’s not me. Shawn Mooring, who heads our Philadelphia programs, is the director of the project. Allie Vanyur is the project manager, keeping the trains running on time. Portia Fullard is leading community engagement efforts. Kristin Traniello is [coordinating] media organizations.
Our leadership team’s median age is 30. I think there’s a special opportunity and a special importance to engaging younger voters. The midterm election was distinguished across the country by millennial turnout.
How’d you come up with the name?
We engaged the Message Agency. It became clear that the working name for the project — “The Next Mayor” — made it more about a person, an event that is over on Election Day. But we wanted to center the notion of listening. Voters tell us, “I’m not sure I’m gonna vote. I don’t think they’re listening. I don’t think they’re accountable to me. I think they’re accountable to special interests or to their funders.”
And this notion of hearing every voice and caring about every vote started to emerge.
What most surprised you about the process?
The sheer enthusiasm and volume of the response. Philadelphia voters have a reputation for apathy and for not showing up. But the organizations showed up in a big way. We have additional commitments from 6ABC and NBC10, who said, “Hey, we don’t need a grant, but we want to be involved.”
Another delight is the level of digital engagement proposed. Billy Penn is a good example. Your proposal that you create and adapt a “Meet Your Mayor” app, which as I understand it is a kind of gamified approach to “Who are all these mayoral candidates? What do they stand for, and which is the right one for me?” in an interactive format, that will live on your site and elsewhere. It’s a way to meet people where they are, especially younger voters.
Yeah, an NYC outlet called The City had done it, we reached out to them earlier this year.
They developed the app for the New York primary, I think, and it touched more than 20% of primary voters, which is extraordinary. If you can do half that, I’d be very, very happy.