Building a New America: Ann Ravel

Microsoft Bay Area is committed to helping solve local challenges through technology, deep relationships and a commitment to serving the needs of the Bay Area community. Here on our blog, we’ve focused on the organizations and civic leaders that are moving our cities forward. In our latest series, we’re highlighting fellows from New America CA, which supports social entrepreneurs at the forefront of local innovation.

As former vice chair — and then chair — at the Federal Election Commission (FEC), you’d expect Ann Ravel to know a thing or two about civic engagement.

Ravel was nominated to the FEC in 2013, and spent four years observing a shift in engagement.

“It became very clear to me that the problems we face with engagement in the political sphere — people not voting, contributing, volunteering in campaigns, and general disassociation in the community — is a very multi-faceted problem,” Ravel explains. “It’s a real issue in our representative democracy. Civic engagement, to me, seems to be the solution.”

As the way people interact with government has changed, Ravel began to think of ways that technology can be used, and has been used, to engage people.

“I do think that technology plays a really important role in being able to organize people and bring them together,” she says. “But I ultimately have concluded that it’s probably not enough. There needs to be a combination of technology and personal involvement with people to help them understand why engaging — whether in community groups and activities, and hopefully politics and government — is important in their lives.”

Although technology seems to be ubiquitous, not everyone has the same access to digital resources as, say, someone in a city. Here, it’s important to note that while technology is a great way to organize people, those without access are left out. And Ravel prefers that personal touch that comes from in-person organizing.

“I think it requires a kind of bilateral action,” says Ravel. “It requires change, not only in people’s desire to participate in government or the political system, but also requires government to change to be more accessible, more transparent, and to change how they reach out to people and include them in government processes and decisionmaking.”

Certainly, technology plays a role in that and can be very useful to government. But, sadly, most governments are still woefully behind in their technology. And Ravel sees that it’s a really important place for technology to create a big difference — by providing these resources and allowing government to better reach out to people.

“Ultimately,” Ravel tells us, “it’s about people feeling that they have a voice. That’s what I want to do with my project for New America CA.”

With New America CA, Ravel is working with the governments in Stockton and San Jose (her hometown), because they both have large communities that are calling for further civic engagement. There, she sees families led by those working two jobs, battling life/time constraints, and dealing with poverty. And she doesn’t want that to be an obstacle to being involved in the civic sphere. So she’s working with the mayors of both cities, who have already established programs to further civic engagement, to help overcome these obstacles.

Ravel has also found strength in community groups — and not just the ones that are politically-facing. Groups like preschools, churches, Boys and Girls Scout troops, and the like are what she calls hidden civic corners.

“That’s where you will find people who are more disengaged,” she explains, “and where they can perhaps benefit from getting to a place where they are ultimately trying to think of the best mechanisms for reaching out to lots of different people, to see how two groups can be brought together to at least have a conversation about the issues people care about, rather than going to them with an issue that is already addressed.”

Ravel has also reached out to schools, speaking at the Santa Clara County Office of Education and more to identify further obstacles and solution. There, she’s interested in finding ways to get students more engaged. Rather than focusing more on interest in political issues and getting more engaged in voting, she wants students to understand and realize that government and voting do have a really important impact on their lives, and they should be a party to deciding how that impact happens — to her, having an input just once every four years isn’t enough.

“I’m beginning to see that it’s a little more holistic, and there’s a lot of ways to deal with this problem,” she tells us. “I have to say that the problem is urgent to see how government and these people can be brought together.”

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