The day after the 2016 election, Genevieve Thiers organized an impromptu event in her living room. She invited activists and tech leaders, many of whom had worked on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, to come together and talk about what to do next.
That was how NewFounders started.
“The concept that the Left’s ‘war room’ would be situated anywhere outside of D.C., or that your average person would have to be leaping in and fixing problems on the Left,” Thiers explained to Ms., “never occurred to anyone until Trump was elected.”
Thiers, a tech-builder whose work focuses on women, was hardly alone in her concern that day for the nation’s future—and together, the cohort that convened in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood realized that they could play a major role in changing its trajectory. They committed themselves to bringing progressive campaigns and organizations up to speed in the tech space.
“NewFounders year one was just about seeing if we could even get everyone in a room,” Jamie Crain, the organization’s COO, recalled to Ms. “750 people poured in, and we knew we had something. Year two, we split into 10 groups and dove deep into 10 areas, which you can see reflected in our action papers on Medium and on our site, NewFounders.us. Year three, the solutions started to mature and pour out—and they are already making quite a splash.”
More than 300 leaders, activists, candidates and concerned citizens are now working through NewFounders. They’re taking on tech problems in cafes, on trains and from home across the country, often for little or no pay. They have published action papers on how to rebuild various areas of political infrastructure. They’ve developed a variety of new tech tools meant to help progressive candidates win races. And each year, they travel to the annual NewFounders conference, a sort of political TED meets SXSW meets political convention, to learn from each other and forge connections with one another.
This year alone, three major projects have emerged from NewFounders. The Tech Yourself Guide, a 212-page digital framework that is being distributed to candidates and training programs across the country, began at the 2017 conference and was released in May; live video classes are coming soon to supplement. Ten of the best digital campaign managers in the country, all of whom agreed to work at a cut rate, worked brutal hours to turn the guide around in six months.
Tech Yourself was meant to help candidates “level up”—equipping them to run digitally savvy campaigns by making the information that consultants hold and the best practices from the tech startup space accessible to them. And it’s working.
“Already, we have comments coming in from candidates who are running down-ballot races that now feel they can not only run a good race—they can run a great one,” Thiers boasted. “Candidates are no longer lost in a sea of 300 tech tools. They know that at band one of five—the smallest band of campaign we laid out, for example—they should use eight to 12 tools, and exactly which ones. And they know how to leverage digital spend now, instead of sinking money into radio and TV. That alone will save many tens of millions gone to waste.”
CheckYourBiasAmerica.com also came out of the NewFounders conference—and the “pink wave.” The viral campaign challenges unconscious biases around female candidates, and its website features a list of 100 powerful women in Chicago that were part of it.
“CheckYourBias is a campaign that any woman can immediately become a part of and share,” Kathryn Jones of Collective Agency, the team that launched the campaign, explained. “It has 15- and 30-second videos and tons of images, as well as ready-made social posts. The campaign turns standard suppositions about women on their heads. It begins with the words ‘they’re so shrill’ and immediately flips to a montage of male candidates yelling. We do the same with messages like ‘smiling more’ and other similar messages. The minute people see these messages applied to male presidents, their bias is challenged—and, for some, eliminated. But they have to be exposed to this message, so you have to share!”
The two focuses of NewFounders—supporting changemakers and grounding the approach in digital media—comes to life in “RUN: THE SERIES,” a show being pitched to networks now in which five female political trainers help women across the country run for office and win. The pilot featured Bushra Amiwala, who just won her race in Skokie, IL; the show’s all-female production team includes Chicago native Victoria Elena Nones and “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” producer Ana Breton.
But output alone is not the NewFounders goal—and it’s not the only result of their work. This year’s conference featured a discussion between Juliana Stratton and Mandela Barnes, an update from the DNC tech team, a feminist power hour, performances by the Schuyler Sisters from Hamilton and the launch of new tools like Knoq—run by Adrienne Lever, the wunderkind behind Swingleft’s The Last Weekend GOTV surge.
More is yet to come, even if the exact shape NewFounders’ work takes isn’t yet set in stone. “We have something planned for the summer of 2020, to tie into the DNC convention in Milwaukee,” Thiers revealed, “but we have not planned beyond that.”
It took Donald Trump’s election to launch this grassroots movement created to empower grassroots fighters. Now that it’s in place, their efforts might just make all the difference.