Deep-seated within the explosive election aftermath last November was a call to action for many Americans. There was a collective drive to overcome losses, organize change and above all, reexamine and reinvent the very concept of democracy.

Erupting across the nation were countless movements, groups, protests and demonstrations, born to raise awareness or give voice to their respective political messages. But all echoed a similar end-goal—giving power to the people.

The post-election reaction hit home for a group of old colleagues who worked on the 2008 Obama campaign. Compelled to reconnect in the days after the election, they began to brainstorm ways they could empower average Joes and Josies to run for office or get engaged in politics in their communities.

The idea seeded a new event series called The Arena, and after a successful kickoff in Nashville last December, they’re bringing round two to downtown Raleigh March 24 and 25.

Through talks and workshop sessions, their mission is to train, educate and encourage people to run for office. It’s a sort of DIY, “So You Want to Run for Office” approach to promoting civic engagement.

So far, it’s proving successful. Out of 400 Nashville attendees, over 150 committed to run in the next state and local elections.

Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander presents his keynote address at the inaugural Arena summit in Nashville in 2016. Credit: Lee Pedinoff/The Arena

Co-founder Ravi Gupta says the Nashville summit brought in a diverse turnout of folks from more than 30 states. And while there’s no set demographic target, he saw more women than men in the crowd, “which is great because the percentage of gender representation in office is skewed.”

Why Raleigh?

Raleigh was a natural next move for The Arena, says Gupta, a main organizer who also co-founded and led the RePublic charter school network in Nashville as CEO until his resignation last year.

North Carolina was on his mind in the time around the election as news spread about everything from HB2 to massive redistricting to restricting voter rights to deliberate partisan power reductions.

In a split state with party demographics around 50-50 yet no fair representation in the Senate and House majorities, Gupta says the organizers picked Raleigh because “the stakes are high and level of overreach is significant.”

The Arena certainly isn’t the only group hoping to draw in a new sort of political candidate. There’s Run for Something, hoping to attract progressive young people to run for office, and CrowdPac, a platform to nominate yourself and start fundraising for a campaign.

But its angle is around preparing potential candidates for the commitment and knowledge required, as well as supporting innovation in the political field.

Civic startup focus

Timely to the Raleigh event is this week’s launch of the Arena accelerator program, for organizations or startups solving critical problems in the political and civic space.

Fellows are granted strategic planning support and training from the Arena team, access to the networks of Arena participants, staff and supporters and a stipend where necessary, to help fellows focus on their core work.

Arena announced this week the first of 10 fellows: the CEO of Flippable, a nonprofit Democratic party advocacy group that offers tools and resources in state races.

Its website includes helpful information on who’s running, why that race is important and how to support candidates. The site then connects volunteers, supporters, voters and donors to Democratic candidates in swing states who need support.

Just last week, Flippable received national attention for its role in a win by Delaware state senate candidate Stephanie Hansen. In a district Democrats had previously lost by a 2 percent margin, Hansen won by a 17 percent margin after Flippable helped her earn national press and raise $130,000. That brought her total campaign donations to $475,000, reports Vice.

On its website, Flippable says it’ll focus on three states in 2017. North Carolina is one of them, due to its longstanding history of drawing district lines in such a way that state legislators are elected who don’t support or identify with the voters in their districts. The site says it will be providing an allyship to NC Governor Cooper over the course of the next year.

This idea of civic collaboration and candidate support is well-represented in the Arena’s mission. Joint teamwork across multiple disciplines is encouraged.

Raleigh Summit rundown

To be held at the Doubletree by Hilton’s Brownstone Hotel on Hillsborough Street, the Raleigh summit will open with a handful of out-of-state speakers such as government officials and candidates from Michigan, Virginia and Indiana.

The material to be covered is key to the Arena mission, to push progress of civic engagement in North Carolina. Session titles include “Keeping Our Children at the Center of our Politics,” “The Present and Future of Political Technology,” “Driving Towards Action” and, an overarching theme of “How You Can Help North Carolina Save its Democracy.”

Several high-level North Carolina officials will also speak, including House Representatives Graig Meyer and Chaz Beasley, General Assembly Senators Jay Chauduri and Terry Van Duyn, and former Governor Bev Perdue.

Arena will also host “lightning talks,” featuring Dimple Ajmera of the Charlotte City Council
Rumana Ahmed, a former member of the National Security Council, and Ian Conyers of Michigan State Senate.

A series of training sessions will be led by various leaders in different sectors, such as Campaign Greenhouse founder Kathryn Poindexter, former Hillary for America executive leaders Addisu Demissie and Michelle Kleppe, New Blue Interactive Founder Taryn Rosenkranz, Lillian’s List Action Fund Director Sarah Preston, and Kate Catherall, founder of CHORUS.

Ticket costs are measured in “partial and full contributions,” at $50 and $125, but both prices grant attendees access to all sessions of the summit.

Gupta believes the Raleigh Arena summit will shine a larger spotlight on local organizers (both attendees and speakers) doing “important, underlooked work” in North Carolina, addressing issues that “need to be well-understood.”

The concept of staying grounded in steps to improve democracy rings persistent throughout the Arena movement. And it’s a message Gupta and his team hope to continue and advance, as Arena visits other cities and communities throughout the U.S. in the near future.