MAY 22, 2018
Episode 17 – Cultivating More Women Activists
Wendy Davis from Deeds Not Words
A little over two years ago, Wendy Davis founded Deeds Not Words in response to the millennial population’s strong desire for political change. The organization encourage this motivated population to lead the conversation and take action to implement change by increasing voter turnout, getting involved in the political process, and demanding change from our political leaders.
Read the Transcript
Lisa Graham (00:00):
Welcome to this week’s episode of the Change The Rules podcast. I’m Lisa Graham, Co-Founder of Notley. And with me today in the studio is Dan Graham, Notley Co-Founder, and a very special guest, Wendy Davis. Wendy is known for many things. Her work as a Texas State Senator member, founding the nonprofit Deeds Not Words, and most famously for her 13-hour filibuster against Texas Senate Bill 5, which included more restrictive abortion regulations. She’s now the founder of Deeds Not Words, an organization dedicated to cultivating more women activists at a young age and teaching them how to mobilize in effective ways. Thanks for being here.
Wendy Davis (00:31):
Thank you, Lisa. It’s great to be with you and Dan today.
Lisa Graham (00:34):
Yeah. We’re excited to chat with you. So what I’d like to start with is how the idea of Deeds Not Words came about, and let’s go into more detail about what you guys do.
Wendy Davis (00:44):
Yeah. So I started Deeds Not Words a little over two years ago. And it was before the infamous 2016 presidential election. It was before many women in this country had really kind of decided we needed to own the power of our voices. It was really in response to a question that I was getting from young women around the country when I would travel and speak. And it was some form or other of what do we do, you know? And it became really clear to me that what I had believed to be the case about millennials was true. This was not a generation that doesn’t care, which of course is the bad rap that a lot of people that fit within that generation get tagged with. Instead, this was a generation of people who didn’t really see the political system as the place to make change. They didn’t really trust it. And when you think about what’s happened in their lifetime in the political system, you can understand why. But they did want to be impactful. And they did want to use their voices in ways that could make a difference. And so Deeds Not Words really was my attempt to help answer that question. What do we do? How can we use our voices in ways that are effective? And what are some channels that I might be able to lead those young voices into that could help them create impact?
Lisa Graham (02:15):
And so as an organization, how are you helping young women to do that?
Wendy Davis (02:19):
So we have two main focuses. One is the digital work that we do. And our digital audience is a national one. And each week we provide what we hope is informative, inspiring content and suggested actions that can be taken on how to move us forward productively and proactively on those issues. And then we do work on the ground. Right now, only in Texas, though we hope to expand to other states. And our on the ground work is all about helping to demystify the political process, whether we’re talking about the local state or national level. And how young women can use their voices effectively within those systems. So, for example, in 2017, in the legislative session of the Texas legislature, we trained a cohort of high school and college aged young women. Almost 500 young women went through our training. And we broke down the legislative process for them.
Wendy Davis (03:34):
We introduced them to some ideas for legislation based on issues that they were concerned about. And they either helped to draft legislation working with legislators in the Texas Senate, or came in as support behind legislation that had already been filed and that they really cared about. And primarily the issues that they focused on had to do with sex trafficking and with sexual assault, particularly campus sexual assault. And we worked with them throughout the legislative session. We helped them understand the power of the personal narrative and how persuasive we can be when we make issues about people. And we take them outside the theorial and the abstract. And they were amazing. They worked very effectively in reaching out to legislative offices, through phone calls, letters, postcards. They met with legislators about the issues that they were concerned about and the bills that they were supporting. And they testified in committee hearings at both the Texas Senate and the Texas House. And were just magical in their ability to communicate effectively and powerfully. And because of them and so much of the hard work that they did, there are now seven bills that passed into law that are very impactful on helping to change the way we approach sex trafficking and sexual assault. And my hope is that this is a taste of something that they’ve gotten that they’ll never let go of.
Lisa Graham (05:24):
Going back to, you said a lot of this generation, it’s a lot of distrust of government and not feeling like they can be effective. So what demystification education goes into that? Is that what is used to kind of help them maybe gain a little more faith in the system, or to trust it a little more? How do you guys combat that?
Wendy Davis (05:42):
My hope is for them to gain faith in their ability to be impactful in the system. I get it. If you’re looking, for example, at your newsfeed, at what happens in Congress on a day-to-day basis, you don’t believe that’s a place to get something done. But when you think about the issues that impact women, whether we’re talking about pay equity, or family leave, or affordable quality childcare, or access to contraception. You name it. The place to solve the challenges that confront us on all of those issues is the political system. The political system has unfortunately been the breeding ground for some of the obstacles that we face in regard to those issues. And it’s only through helping to shape policy through political decision-making that we can really begin to move forward in ways that I know we all want to see. So just helping them to see that there are opportunities to shape the law. And that the law is the most important way in which we can begin to move forward on some of these issues is the role that we try to play through Deeds Not Words.
Lisa Graham (07:08):
One of the things that I was so inspired by with the work that you guys did was really seeing too — giving young people a voice in which they are comfortable talking about some of these very hard issues that a lot of adults feel they don’t want to talk to young people about like sex trafficking. And hearing them speak about it in a very powerful way. Which reassures us these are things that we don’t need to be necessarily shielding our young people from, but they need to be a part of the conversation.
Wendy Davis (07:38):
That’s right. And it takes a special effort to communicate that message in a way that is empowering rather than terrifying. And we were very fortunate to partner on our sex trafficking work with an organization out of California called Nest, who has spent a great deal of time, effort, and money developing a curriculum that does exactly that. And it was Nest who had originally gone to some high schools in Texas to train them on this particular curriculum and who invited us at Deeds Not Words to be a part of a community conversation about that work. And it was really the question of a student from the Ann Richards School that prompted our decision to get involved in a legislative effort around that. She asked the question during a community conversation, “Why are we one of the few high schools in Texas that is receiving this curriculum? Because we feel empowered by it.
Wendy Davis (08:50):
It’s been really important for us to understand and learn”. And so I put the question to her, “Well do you want to do something about that?” Back to our motto, Deeds Not Words. And these amazing high school girls, sophomores and juniors, worked along with students from three Dallas area high schools. We found a Senate champion for their ideas, Senator Zaffirini, and her staff worked with these young women to create a bill that would create in the Texas high school systems across the state, a sex trafficking prevention curriculum that’s modeled after what Nest has done. And they took this idea. Got it written into a bill. Met with Senator Zaffirini’s office after the bill was drafted to give their feedback and their revisions to the bill, which was amazing to watch. And then they articulated the need for the bill to lawmakers.
Wendy Davis (10:01):
And what I loved watching in the process was that these crusty old white Republican men, you know, who I’ve worked with for a long time. The way they sat up and paid attention when these young high school students were sitting in front of them in committee hearings. They really listened to them. And it really helped for me to see that when young voices are added to the conversation, we do tend to treat them with a deference and respect that ought to be accorded to everyone. But at the very least, it was most definitely accorded to these young women. And they didn’t have even a hiccup in getting this passed. They came out of committee hearings, unanimously. They sailed through votes on the floor. The Governor signed their bill into law without any problem. And this is hard to do because as you know, we’re in Texas, where having any conversation in our school systems about sex is forboden. So they did something remarkable. And I know that they felt really empowered by it at the end of the day.
Dan Graham (11:20):
I’m really curious, when you think about outcomes and the goals for the organization, you have these policy initiatives and underlying causes that you’re working toward, but they’re almost sort of the tool that you’re using to create more activation and more engagement from these young women. When you look at, especially on the digital side that has such a broad reach, but probably is harder, a little bit harder, to measure impact. How do you think about outcome measurements and what you’re striving for as an organization?
Wendy Davis (11:47):
Well, I love the point that you just made Dan, because I do have a twofold goal with the work that we do at Deeds Not Words. One of course is the immediate improvement in the policy framework and the particular issues that these young advocates are working on. But the larger goal for me is all about introducing young women to the legislative process, to the powerful role that they have in shaping that process. And my goal is that they become lifelong leaders in that conversation, that they discover something magical about their power to create change and that they don’t lose faith in it, even in those instances where they don’t immediately succeed. The measurement for me, in terms of our on the ground work in Texas, has not only been the passage of the legislation that they’ve worked on. But what I’ve watched these young women going on to do. Many of them have come on as interns in our office.
Wendy Davis (12:53):
Some of them are college-aged young women who have graduated from college, are going into non-profit entities that are working on these issues, like the Texas Association Against Sexual Assualt, for example. We have a young woman who went to work with them on the digital side who had interned with us. We have a young woman who’s now working in City Hall. We have young women who are working on political campaigns. So it’s just so gratifying to see that they’re taking their power and they’re moving it forward really effectively.
Wendy Davis (13:29):
It’s harder, as you said, on the digital side, and we’re really grappling with that right now. Certainly would welcome any feedback you and Lisa or any of your listeners might have about how we can create a digital footprint of their work digitally. You know, if we’ve invited, for example, our young advocates to reach out to members of Congress about an issue that’s percolating. For example, we’re going to be doing a lot of work around the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. How will we measure how many of our followers actually did engage in an action? And how can we help them feel the attribution of their work when VAWA is successfully reauthorized? And it includes some of the things that they wanted to see in it. It’s a harder, bigger challenge and opportunity, I guess.
Dan Graham (14:31):
Yeah, it’s such a bigger outreach mouthpiece, but the data becomes harder to gather.
Lisa Graham (14:40):
And how do you all decide what issues or legislation to focus on?
Wendy Davis (14:44):
We really try to make sure that we are supporting young women in the issues that they care about. And that we’re not coming in with a pre-defined idea of what that might be. I know that we play an important role in helping to raise awareness with young women about some of the challenges that we confront, that can be resolved through legislation. So I definitely see a role of creating information from which they make their decisions about what to work on. But we really do try to make sure that we’re reflecting their priorities. We do have a scope of our work though. And the scope centers around all things gender equity. And some of those are more instinctive like pay equity or reproductive autonomy or, of course, the sexual assault work that we’ve done in the past. Some of them though are less necessarily intuitively associated as women’s issues, but they’re very much women’s issues from the perspective of creating opportunity for women.
Wendy Davis (16:00):
So raising the minimum wage. Raising the tipped minimum wage. Because in each of those worlds, the vast majority of people who are earning minimum wage and tipped minimum wage are women. So where we can correct and make improvements in that landscape, we’re lifting women. Affordable access to higher education. Again, many, many, many disproportionate number of people trying to access a higher education system in order to have improved outcomes in their own lives are women who face financial challenges and barriers to being able to get there. So, some of the things that we’re working on are a little less necessarily associated with “women’s issues”, but they have disproportionate and very important impacts on women where we can help to shape them.
Dan Graham (17:02):
I’m curious, going back to, at the very beginning, you mentioned kind of the stereotype that millennials have of not caring. I’m curious, a lot of millennials that we’ve actually visited with think that baby boomers have destroyed the planet. And so I’m curious, where do you think the origin of that comes from? Is it just looking at voter turnout numbers or?
Wendy Davis (17:23):
It is. It’s looking at voter turnout. And it’s where the generation gets a bad rap. Part of a presentation that I like to give to young people is I show them a chart with the turnout in older generations and the turnout in their generation in voting. And there is such a disproportionately higher percentage of older voter turnout than there is younger voter turnout. By the year 2020, millennials are going to occupy 40% of the total eligible voting population in this country. So if they turned out in numbers as high as people in older generations, they could literally change the outcome of what those elections look like. So, the idea of taking your values and moving them forward to the ballot box and making sure that you have people there who are going to reflect the things that you care about is really important.
Wendy Davis (18:38):
When we look particularly at the dearth of women who are representing us at the local, state, and national level, it’s no wonder that we have been on the receiving end of aggressive and hostile legislation in years past, because our voices aren’t at the table. So if we really want our values to be reflected, we’ve got to make sure that we are voting to assure that that’s going to happen. And so long as a majority of our voting population are older, white men, we can continue to expect that we are going to see assaults on immigrant rights. Assaults on women’s rights. Assaults on the LGBTQ community. Assaults on our safety when it comes to not having sensible gun reform laws. The voters right now are deciding who represents us. And those representatives are doing their job in reflecting the values of the people who elected them to serve. So, if we want to see that change, each of us has to own our responsibility to do it.
Dan Graham (19:56):
So how do we get millennials to vote? Do we need to pass legislation that allows vote by Snapchat? Why aren’t they voting?
Wendy Davis (20:05):
Certainly need to pass legislation to make voting more accessible. And unfortunately, in our state, in Texas, there have been tremendous efforts to dissuade. That’s the nicest way I can say it. Some would say to suppress voting. And that has come in the form of the strictest voter ID law in the country. It’s also come in the form of how we register people to vote in our state. You have to be a deputy registrar who has gone through specific training and you have to become certified before you can actually register other people to vote. That’s very purposeful. And interestingly, when you look at our voter ID law, and I was in the Texas Senate when we debated the passage of that law, the law allows your concealed handgun photograph to satisfy the photo ID requirement. But it does not allow a university issued student ID to qualify you to vote. That’s very purposeful.
Wendy Davis (21:24):
And it creates a system where lawmakers are choosing their voters, as opposed to voters choosing the people who represent them. And I try to make sure every young person I talk to understands that, because I want them to be empowered with the anger that comes from it. They know how powerful you are. And they’re doing everything they can to keep you from exercising your voice at the ballot box. And so, let’s show them otherwise, right? I’ll tell you something I’m really encouraged by, though. It’s the young people who are leading the conversation about gun safety. Starting, of course, with the remarkable students from Parkland, Florida, but spreading all over the country. And what I am so excited to see is that they understand if they don’t take this to the next level, beyond the marches, beyond the rallies and the conversations about why it matters. If they don’t take it to the level of registering people to vote, taking responsibility for using our voices at the ballot box, and turning voters out — young voters out — in these upcoming elections, then all of that work is for not. It’s the reason a term was coined called slacktivism, right? Where we talk about things, but don’t quite take it to the level of actually doing something about it.
Lisa Graham (23:03):
What are those issues that are getting the younger generation fired up? You mentioned a few, but you know, hearing this ‘people not voting,’ a lot of times, people just think, well, it doesn’t affect me. And I know some very educated, very bright people in their thirties who are like, ‘Well, I just don’t want to get involved in the conversation. It’s a little too hard, so I’m just not going to do it.’ And so I could see easily if you just don’t really see things affecting your life day to day, it’s easy to sit back. And so what are those issues?
Wendy Davis (23:32):
Well, certainly the gun safety issue. I’ve seen it capture the attention of young people in a way I haven’t seen before. The affordability of college. These unbelievably burdensome student loans that so many of our college students are graduating with now. The obstacle to ever even setting foot on a college campus because of those costs. These things didn’t happen accidentally. And I consider it part of the responsibility of my generation to help inform and educate young people with the understanding that lawmakers did that. It wasn’t suddenly college became more expensive. It was that lawmakers decided on two fronts to make it harder. Number one, by not providing the kind of financial support to our university systems that was once provided at the state and federal level. And number two, by dramatically shrinking the availability of support for student loans, so that they became harder to get and more expensive to get. The combination of that has priced a lot of people out of college.
Wendy Davis (24:52):
And when we think about who we are as a country and whether we really want to be reflective of the diversity of all experiences and backgrounds, and yet we create college access only for a certain person in society who can afford it, we’re going to create an even greater divide than we have right now. And I know our young people, while each and every one of them is concerned about that for themselves individually and their own access to opportunity, I know they’re also really concerned about the need to respect people from diverse backgrounds. This is the most incredibly loving, accepting, embracing of differences generation I think that we’ve ever had in American history. And they all want to play a role in making sure that those values are projected. And again, I think part of my responsibility and the responsibility of other people in our generation is to help them see that voting is truly the key to that.
Wendy Davis (26:07):
It doesn’t feel very sexy. You know, you registered to vote, you go vote, and you’re like, gosh, that’s my one vote. How the heck is that going to make a difference in the world? But it’s sort of like the rally, right? If one person showed up to the march with their sign, it wouldn’t have an impact. But when you take responsibility for just showing up your person and you’re added to all the other people that took responsibility to do the same thing, next thing you know, hundreds of thousands of voices have gathered together in a way that really creates a very effective noise. It’s the same thing with voting. It’s all about adding your little voice to what you hope is going to be a huge orchestrated noise because everyone else is taking the responsibility to do the same thing.
Lisa Graham (26:57):
Yeah. A really great non-profit in San Antonio, MOVE San Antonio, they register young people to vote and they talk about local elections. As a voter in a local election, you can really see the impact that you make. Because some elections, mayoral elections included, they could be decided by maybe a hundred people. And so that’s really empowering as well.
Lisa Graham (27:21):
How do you take somebody from that showing up at a rally activism and being excited to more the type of activism that Deeds Not Words works with young people on? Maybe going to testify. Really digging into an issue. Calling your Congress person. Calling your state Senator. What takes somebody to that next level?
Wendy Davis (27:46):
It is foreign. And that’s what we work to achieve is to make it understandable, approachable, and impactful. And you know, one of the things I really try to help our young people understand is that that capital, it really belongs to them. And the offices that those legislators are sitting in, literally to the chair that their butt is in, that belongs to them as well. The people who are elected to serve don’t own that space. We do. And we should have every expectation that we could be heard when we show up. That we should be heard when we show up. And, just issue by issue, by issue, helping them to see the power of their ability to weigh in is important. And sometimes the outcome won’t be what you want it to be. Sometimes you will go and you will articulate a position on a piece of legislation expecting that your voice is going to be respected, and your wishes honored, and they won’t be. And that’s where you really begin to see the association between that person who voted against what you wanted and your ability to take that person out. So it’s this multi layered and slow evolution, but important evolution, of seeing why it matters so very much not just that you show up to articulate an advocacy position. But why you choose who the decision makers are going to be as well.
Lisa Graham (29:42):
Yeah. And so is a part of what you guys do kind of teaching some of that resilience?
Wendy Davis (29:45):
Yes. Yeah. We had such a great first legislative session. I worried that it created a little bit of a false idea about easy this all is. But we’re gonna, I think, be taking on some issues that are maybe less readily achievable in the next legislative session. We’ll probably learn some of those hard lessons.
Dan Graham (30:12):
I just love the idea of that moment where a young person comes to the realization that rather than the system, it’s like 50 individuals who are ultimately the ones that are operating off of feelings, and political influences, and that can be talked to. And suddenly it seems very doable, right?
Lisa Graham (30:33):
Yeah. It’s the demystification of, not just the process, but who are these people? How did they get there? And why are they making those decisions that they’re making? There’s a lot behind it other than their own personal opinion a lot of times. Well, if I were a crusty old man, I’d be really scared too. Just putting that out there.
Lisa Graham (30:52):
Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Wendy. This has been really interesting. Thank you. We appreciate it. Deeds Not Words does much more than your average nonprofit and you guys also offer incredible resources on your website. So check out the Deeds Digest and we encourage all of you all listening to visit www.deedsnotwords.com to explore their expansive library of blogs, articles, and case studies that are surrounding their work. And you guys also do updates on issues of the week or the month or things that you all are exploring as well, correct?
Wendy Davis (31:36):
Yes. Every week in the Deeds Digest, if you’ll sign up for that, we stay on top of issues that are happening. Not just in Texas, but elsewhere. And give suggested actions on how you can use your voice to make a difference on those.
Lisa Graham (31:52):
The Change The Rules podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio and the talented Shayna Brown. You can find her studio at https://chezboomaudio.com/. That’s C H E Z Boom Audio dotcom and Change The Rules is also on iTunes. And you can find every episode by searching Change The Rules. Thanks again for coming.