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A New Approach to Voter Empowerment: An Interview with Dave Chandrasekaran

Image via Dave Chandrasekaran

Dave Chandrasekaran ‘01 graduated from Brown University with a BS in Biology. He is now the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Voter Empowerment Project (VEP). VEP is a nonprofit that provides pro bono targeted assistance to frontline voting rights organizations in historically disenfranchised communities. Prior to his work with VEP, Dave served as a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, contributing to the state and national implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He has also served as the Director of the Office of Health Care Innovation at the DC Department of Health Care Finance and as an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow at Health Care for All in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Taleen Sample: You graduated from Brown University in 2001. Did you have any experiences at Brown that were particularly impactful to your career? 

Dave Chandrasekaran: At Brown, I earned a BS in Biology. I loved science, and I loved human biology. When I left, I ended up getting an AmeriCorps position because the person who had it before me had also gone to Brown. I worked at this really amazing nonprofit in Boston called Heath Care For All. It’s probably one of the preeminent state-level healthcare advocacy organizations in the country. It was one of the reasons that Massachusetts had been a leader in health coverage before the Affordable Care Act. While I worked there, I focused on teen health, public health, and health coverage, but most of my activities centered around community engagement like grassroots organizing and policy advocacy. Even though I cared a lot about the basic science part of biology and considered going into medicine, that exposure from a Brown alum really changed my life. I realized that I wanted to work on the advocacy side. 

My experiences at Brown led me to that decision because it was a place where folks were very comfortable being activists and challenging the status quo. There are a lot of jokes about Brown’s campus being very “protesty” from around the country. That environment teaches students that, regardless of whether they are trying to stop suffering around the world or change some slight thing on campus, making change is important. While I was at Brown, I was very focused on my studies and a few other extracurriculars. I wish I had gotten more passionate about causes. However, I enjoyed learning in a culture where activism was very much okay and encouraged. 

I also loved the academic freedom at Brown. Even though I was a hardcore science student, I took an enormous number of religious studies classes on religious ethics. I also took political science classes like City Politics, a class that has been absolutely informative in my current career. A lot of folks at other schools don’t have the luxury to dabble in completely unrelated coursework. I am thankful that I was able to. 

TS: You started the Voter Empowerment Project after a conversation with a nonvoter in South Philadelphia. Walk our readership through that conversation and the moment you decided to create a nonprofit dedicated to voting rights. 

DC: Although the main focus in my career since Brown has been centered around health policy and access to care for low-income families, I have always found time during major election cycles to mobilize friends, neighbors, and colleagues to get involved in voter turnout activities. We travel to Virginia or Pennsylvania, knocking on doors and phone banking. In 2016, there was so much attention about the election from around the country because of what was at stake. We mobilized over 1,000 people across the East Coast to travel to different states, especially Pennsylvania, to encourage voters to come out. 

When I was door-knocking in south Philly, I ran into an older African American voter who told me he had no interest in voting. He said, “You people come here every four years, you yell at us to vote, and then you leave because you don’t give a damn about us.” When I talked to my colleagues in the political space about this, they shrugged and said, “Yeah, talk to 10 million voters, and you’re going to upset a million of them. It’s collateral damage.” After communities of color were marginalized in the 2016 election, I decided that we needed a different way to approach voter empowerment leading up to the 2020 election. 

A lot of people who work in the space have known for years that voter engagement is often transactional and episodic. We needed to find a way to build trust. In 2019, my colleagues and I discussed strategies for activating people who wanted to volunteer in a way that was genuine. How do we avoid just parachuting privileged people into Black and brown communities around the world every four years? We realized that there are so many groups on the ground doing year-round voter engagement in their communities that also focus on education, criminal justice, and healthcare. Those organizations have built up trust among folks in the area, so they are better messengers in explaining why people should vote, helping them to vote, and helping them overcome barriers to voting. 

We realized that many of these small groups were very under-resourced. A lot of them weren’t receiving help from anywhere else, so we said, “We have access to several skilled people from across the country. What can we do for you?” We recruited volunteers with a wide array of skills. They allowed us to offer services like social media content creation, website design, data analysis, volunteer recruitment, copy editing, video production, and digital marketing. We realized that we could provide several consulting services completely free through our amazing network of volunteers from around the country. 

TS: I’m really interested in the consulting model that VEP operates under. How did you develop the idea to connect a network of skilled volunteers with small, under-resourced frontline organizations? 

DC: We were deciding how to best channel volunteerism. After we identified the groups that had the highest impact, we noticed that, while they did need volunteers on the ground to do door-knocking and help with phone banking, they also had some very basic needs that were holding them back. Some organizations had very out-of-date websites. Other organizations did not have active social media platforms or were having trouble generating content and graphics to post. Others did not have the capacity to analyze data to know what areas they should focus their voter registration efforts in. Once we realized that these organizations needed technical skills, we researched, identified, and recruited volunteers. We had digital strategists who worked for Hollywood companies. We had graphic designers who worked for big apparel companies in Portland. We had professional filmmakers and documentary makers in New York City. We also had students with super helpful skills that they developed from their hobbies. It made sense to take advantage of these volunteers’ skills because those were exactly the kinds of skills that frontline organizations needed and could not afford. It naturally fit to create a pro bono consulting model based on the needs we identified from the community using the amazing talent of those out there who wanted to help. 

TS: VEP is volunteer-based. What trends has VEP witnessed in terms of volunteer recruitment since 2018?

DC: In 2019 and 2020, we had an amazing network of students, professionals, and retirees who helped us support small, frontline voting rights organizations. There was enormous interest. Four hundred fifty people signed up through the course of that year. Half or so were active in some way. Many were very active. We also had several interns. Also, VEP already offered fully remote volunteer work, so we didn’t skip a beat with the pandemic. We had amazing tech wizards, social media experts, and students from all kinds of campuses and high schools across the country who knew how to do graphic design and video editing. I think a lot of folks loved having a nonpartisan way to be involved in voter empowerment efforts during that year. 

In 2022, the world was a lot different. The pandemic was by no means completely over, but the world opened back up. In general, there is less voter enthusiasm, less interest in volunteering, and fewer donations across the board during midterm years. We also heard from some people that they had been cooped up for too long and wanted to go door-knocking and do in-person events. We witnessed a dramatic drop in interest in 2022, but we were able to partner with some universities to bolster our capacity through our student fellowship program. We’re very thankful for that. 

Leading up to 2024, we have no idea what’s going to happen, but we anticipate that interest in volunteering will be somewhere in between. We know that people care. People are going to be very interested in the world and who’s running it, but we’re just not sure how that will translate. We are preparing ourselves by trying to recruit as many volunteers as possible. 

TS: I think it’s really interesting and frustrating that there is generally more interest in politics during election years. Do you have any idea how we can respond to that issue or change public perception to remind people that voter suppression happens all the time and not just during election years? 

DC: Everyone is trying to figure that out. How do we keep voter enthusiasm high? How do we make sure it’s high regardless of how flashy candidates might be? How do we keep it high when it’s not a presidential election year? I think we need to remind people that voting in local elections really impacts their communities and neighborhoods as much as, if not more than, voting at the national level. There are so many races in your city, county, and state that happen not just in presidential election years and not just during midterm years but also in the odd-numbered years. Those odd-numbered years are when you will find that voter turnout is very, very low. Years like 2021, 2023, and 2025. Some of those local races will impact you more than any other because those races determine who is on your school board, who your mayor is going to be, and who your city council members are. Those decisions govern an enormous number of issues that affect people’s day-to-day lives. We have to encourage folks to think about down-ballot races and local races as being important to them. We really want to create a culture, a habit, of voting. 

Also, once people start voting, especially if they start early, they tend to vote for life. If you don’t start voting early, it tends to become less of a priority. That’s why we certainly want to engage young people. For those of you who are on campus and have the ability to register and vote in Providence, you should remember that many of those local races will affect your daily life and the communities in Providence that we all care about that have their own share of disparity and struggles. Helping to elect the alderman in your city, the state representatives in your area, and the governor in your state will matter. Voting in those elections will hopefully create a habit of voting for you wherever you might live after Brown. You will adopt that behavior of voting throughout your life.

TS: You mentioned that students need to start voting early so that they will continue to vote later in their lives. I’m interested in the role that you think students can and should play in combating voter suppression efforts. How do you think that students can effectively and purposefully advocate for voting rights? What opportunities exist for them? 

DC: At VEP, we’re very proud that over 80 percent of all people who have signed up to volunteer for us reported having little to no previous experience advocating for voting rights. We’re excited to be a sort of doorway for people to get more civically engaged through volunteer service. We learned early on that, while we’re used to recruiting professionals and retirees in our networks, students are extremely talented and effective volunteers. Many voter empowerment organizations are trying to convince 18 to 24-year-olds to vote. It only makes sense that folks in that age range know what kind of messaging works best for them. Students know how to use social media and are extremely helpful in attracting folks in a way that makes sense. We were so excited to see that. We have invested a lot of time in creating more opportunities for students. 

In the spring of 2023, we launched the VEP fellowship program. We had six students that spring and 12 students in the summer from across the country. We selected applicants based on their lived experiences, their backgrounds, their interests, and their skill sets. We did monthly meetings together and recruited guest speakers to talk a lot about professional development. We wanted to make sure that our fellows had access to people in the fields they were interested in and really just wanted to build camaraderie. We wanted to invest in those students so that they could become the next generation of leaders in civic engagement and voting rights regardless of what careers they pursue after college. In the last five to 10 years, young people have driven a lot of change in criminal justice reform, climate change, reproductive rights, and democracy. They have so much passion. I am excited to double down and invest in that. 

Once we launch the 2024 volunteer sign-up portal, we’re excited to continue to recruit from Brown. I have to say that Brown has played an enormous role in this organization. In the fall of 2020, incoming freshmen were encouraged to take internships since they weren’t able to come to campus because of the pandemic. We had three interns from Brown that fall who were incoming freshmen who hadn’t even started college yet. They were probably three of the most talented people I have ever worked with in my life. I am so thankful for them. There is no way VEP could have done what it did during the fall of 2020 if it weren’t for them. Since then, we’ve had several other Brown interns. I am unbelievably grateful for the quality of support they give and cannot wait to see where they go in their careers. I am very grateful for the partnership we’ve had with Brown and want to continue that every semester. 

TS: Is there anything else that you would like to add as we head into the 2024 presidential election? 

DC: Next year is going to be very intense in terms of elections. There are going to be a lot of threats of voter suppression. We’re currently looking for new groups to help. A lot of the groups that we have been helping over the past three to four years have gotten bigger and have gained capacity. It’s time for them to graduate. We want to look for smaller groups that are helpful in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona, and Florida. We anticipate that their needs are going to be very high, so we will need a lot of volunteers to help out. 

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.