Engaging Voters to Empower Communities

CAPI USA is one of 13 local nonprofits that received grants from The Minneapolis Foundation this year to increase voter engagement in the metro area, especially in populations with historically low turnout. Here’s a snapshot of what CAPI is doing to empower voters in the immigrant communities it serves.

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A CAPI Pledge

What is CAPI’s mission?

CAPI USA helps refugees and immigrants gain access to jobs, housing, food, and social services in Minnesota, guiding them on the path to self-determination and social equality. The organization started more than 30 years ago as a food shelf serving new immigrants from Southeast Asia, but has expanded to offer many other services, from eldercare to vocational training. In 2012, CAPI added voter engagement to its initiatives.

Why is CAPI doing voter engagement work?

Some nonprofit organizations don’t even know that they’re allowed to do nonpartisan get-out-the-vote work, but for CAPI, voter engagement is a natural part of their mission. “We are a direct service provider, but our goal is to make sure people are self-sufficient,” said Ekta Prakash, CAPI’s executive director. “Self-sufficiency doesn’t just mean getting a job and having food. It means the people we work with are independent, they don’t come back to our services again, and they know their power.”

Which voters are they reaching out to?

CAPI serves more than 4,000 immigrants and refugees in Hennepin County, most of whom are originally from Southeast Asia or East Africa. These families and their networks are at the core of the nonprofit’s voter outreach. Not all of the immigrants that CAPI serves are citizens, but many are, and CAPI is working hard to remove barriers that can make it harder for them to vote and participate in civic discourse. For example, many of the people the organization serves don’t speak English as a first language. Since most of CAPI’s staff members are bilingual immigrants themselves, the organization is well-positioned to help these voters, whether it’s by having one-on-one conversations about registering to vote or providing Hmong, Oromo, and Spanish translators at candidate forums.

What kind of GOTV work is CAPI doing this year?

CAPI is using some of its grant funding from The Minneapolis Foundation for traditional voter turnout activities such as door-knocking and phone banking. It has also hosted several candidate forums for local elections in Minneapolis as well as Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, both of which have growing immigrant populations.

The organization is also integrating voter engagement work into its other services. For example, CAPI has a program for seniors, and they’ve taken time at monthly meetings to talk with participants about candidates and issues that will be on the ballot. “Many of these seniors can’t read or write English, so it’s important for me to talk with them so that when they vote, they’re informed,” said Samantha Vang, a civic engagement fellow at CAPI. When staff members do intake interviews with new clients, they ask whether they’re citizens, and if so, whether they’re registered to vote. “We want to make sure that every staff member at CAPI understands that this is part of their job,” Prakash said. “If you’re working at the food shelf, you’re not just giving out a bag of rice; you’re also talking to people to make sure they have the tools to get engaged.”

Who is CAPI working with?

CAPI is one of 13 local organizations that received voter engagement grants from The Minneapolis Foundation this year. Many are working together through Minnesota Voice, a nonprofit with expertise in nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts. By collaborating, these organizations are able to share resources and take advantage of each other’s strengths. For example, by teaming up an advocacy group to hold a candidate forum, CAPI can leverage that nonprofit’s expertise in grassroots organizing while using its community relationships to increase turnout at the event. “There needs to be more linkage between the advocacy groups and the direct services groups, and that’s something that CAPI has taken seriously,” said Christina Chen, CAPI’s civic engagement coordinator. It’s not just about activating voters in the months leading up to an election, she added. “Right now, we’re really caught up with GOTV work, but I think the next step is thinking about how we can push those who are elected even further.” Through its voter engagement work, the organization has gained a better understanding of which issues matter most to its constituents. “There are issues that I wouldn’t have known about if I didn’t have these networks, and I think it’s important that CAPI considers how they impact our community and how we can be advocates as well.”

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