AS AN HISTORIC and unusually contentious election season draws to a close, organizations around the country are urging Americans to exercise their right to vote. For Eric Leslie MC/MPA 2014, “get out the vote” is more than just a slogan: it’s a cornerstone of civic engagement and a key part of the work of his organization, Union Capital Boston (UCB).
Leslie, a former middle school principal and community organizer, began working on the business plan for UCB during his year at HKS. “We talked a lot about lifting kids out of poverty and working to help individual students,” Leslie says of his time as a principal in North Philadelphia. “But I always wondered: what about building a sustainable community too? There’s only so much we can do to support one student if we are not sparking change in his or her community and family opportunities.”
Union Capital Boston may sound like a venture capital firm, but its capital is mainly of the human sort: the organization hires people who are already firmly rooted in their communities and can help their neighbors and friends build stronger connections with one another.
“We offer incentives in the form of points to our members,” Leslie explains. “If they attend fitness classes, help others register to vote, attend PTA meetings or participate in other community activities, they earn points, which they can redeem for cash.” The rewards add up to small amounts of money—about $200 to $600 a year—but the greater gain, Leslie believes, is the increased community connection.
“Connection leads to information,” he says. “It’s a ripple effect. We’re not an employment agency, but we’ve seen a 14 percent increase in employment for our most engaged members over the past two years. The incentive program is a layered set of motivations – both extrinsic and intrinsic. It creates a virtuous cycle of more connection, which opens up all kinds of doors.”
Voting, which Leslie calls “the bread and butter of civic engagement,” is a central UCB activity this fall: hundreds of UCB members across the Boston area are helping inform their families, neighbors and community members about ballot questions, local candidates, issues and voter registration. As of late October, more than 2700 people had indicated to a UCB member their intent to vote.
“We are a nonprofit organization and so we are issue- and party-agnostic,” Leslie explains. “But only good things happen when people are more informed and more engaged with their communities. We can’t award points to individuals for registering to vote, or for voting – but we can and do award them for people who help others register to vote, or help inform people about the issues. It’s a community project. We’re using this big, historic national election to build an efficacious, sustainable model that we could use in a local election.”
UCB members who help others register to vote can upload their information to the UCB app in real time, so the organization can keep a running tally. On election night (Nov. 8), Leslie and others are planning a victory party—not for any single candidate, but to celebrate the organization and its work.
“Members will speak about their work, and we’ll project a map of who voted where,” Leslie says. “We’re combining a digital platform with tried-and-true relationships.”
Leslie points to his time at HKS as the catalyst for developing UCB: not only was he planning to stay in the Boston area after graduating, but his classes and professors helped him shape and refine the idea.
“I loved the flexibility of the MC/MPA program–I could tailor it to fit my needs,” he says. “I also did a leadership skills evaluation and saw where my gaps were. So I took an Entrepreneurial Finance course. I had to build a business plan with a budget! That was new and important for me.” Faculty members like Marshall Ganz and Ron Ferguson taught courses that sparked Leslie’s thinking on connecting community resources, educational equity and making change both on the ground and at the systemic level.
“I needed so many things HKS gave me: the brain space to think about this, the new skills, the confidence and the time,” Leslie says. Now he’s looking forward to seeing some of the fruits of his labor on election night—and beyond.