Summary: Citizen Engagement Laboratory is a well-funded beehive of progressive advocacy that uses foundation money to fight for left-progressive causes. It is also an incubator of nascent left-wing groups that it creates and assists to carry the radical agenda forward. It uses its network of group websites and letterheads to pretend that large grassroots movements are angry with companies and other organizations it dislikes. One of its favorite targets to abuse is the center-right organization of state legislators ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).
Left-wing groups are used to winning, and there is little sign they wish to chasten their ambitions even after being repudiated in contests for the presidency, Congress, governors’ mansions, and state houses. There is rarely a “job well done” or “mission accomplished” moment for the Left. Each victory presents the next challenge to overcome and the next injustice to right—all landmarks on the endless road to utopia. If the courts give you gay marriage, then it’s time to put men in women’s bathrooms. At first abortion was to be safe, legal, and rare; now the goal is safe, legal, and celebrated. Every slight of a minority group—real or perceived—every terrorist act inexplicably connected to climate change, every tech office that hasn’t reached its quota of black, brown, or hijab-wearing personnel becomes the new front line. And on that battlefield the Left is astoundingly effective at placing foot soldiers and community-organizing generals to bring publicity to their cause and to force their enemies into submission.
But all this fighting is hard, costly work. If you have a cause, you’re bound to need some help in terms of money, expertise, and experience. Or perhaps you have these things and want to start a new organization to create the appearance that more people support your cause than actually do. Who really cares if you’re helping the grassroots grow among fertile soil, or just Astroturfing like a suburban homeowner in the drought lands of Southern California? If it’s all in the service of Progress, does it really matter whether groups are organically agitating?
A Culture of Progressivism
This research study profiles an organization called Citizen Engagement Laboratory (CEL), based in Oakland, California, which aims to cultivate other left-wing groups to agitate for all sorts of left-wing causes, from climate change to diversity to anti-right-wing religious advocacy. CEL both helps groups that come to it and creates groups (or sometimes just letterheads) to do the activist work.
CEL is a technology-centered 501(c)(4) social welfare/advocacy nonprofit created in 2008 that calls itself “a home for social entrepreneurs … and a launching pad for new ideas and people powered projects that seek to change the world by leveraging the power of the Internet.” It offers a variety of consulting services to progressive start-up groups, and, with its affiliated 501(c)(3) CEL Education Fund, offers financial resources as well.
“Laboratory” is a good name for CEL. At any given time it has dozens of groups in petri dishes, trying to make them bigger, badder, and louder. And there is a certain, well, biological relation between the experimenters and their work. Many of the organizations CEL supports are run by current and former CEL staff. In fact, the staff of one of CEL’s “partners,” CounterPac, is four-fifths CEL alumni or current staff.
The CEL Education Fund has several main funding sources:
- George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (formerly Open Society Institute) has donated $1,320,000 since 2012
- Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation has donated $4,500,029 since 2013
- Schmidt Family Foundation has donated $725,000 since 2012
- Two donor-advised fund providers, which allow a donor to create an account, then dictate where those monies are doled out, were major conduits: Fidelity Investment Charitable Gift Fund passed along $1,180,000 since 2013, and Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program passed along $875,000 during the same period.
Citizen Engagement Lab also had a long-standing relationship with the now defunct left-wing public relations shop FitzGibbon Media, which abruptly shut its doors after its leader, Trevor FitzGibbon, was deluged with allegations of sexual assault and harassment of staff and clients. FitzGibbon had long worked closely with the biggest names in the progressive world, including MoveOn, Center for American Progress, NARAL, and the AFL-CIO.
CEL is also connected to the Democracy Alliance, a network of major progressive donors who pump hundreds of millions into Democratic campaigns and left-wing political infrastructure. CEL is one of the Alliance’s top recommended organizations for its donors to underwrite (a list that also includes the CEL-linked groups Color of Change, Center for American Progress, and Organizing for America). CEL even made it into the Alliance’s “2020 Vision” strategy as part of its investment portfolio, guaranteeing that the organization will be flooded with money from major progressive donors.
Unfortunately for CEL, the company suffers from high turnover. According to glassdoor.com, former CEL employees think it is a good organization that has good goals, but its staff often burn out quickly. That, or staff are sent to run new organizations that CEL chooses to support. Or perhaps CEL wants a new organization to exist and sends staff to create and run that new organization…. It’s all rather opaque.
As of writing, current staff at CEL include social activists and progressive entrepreneurs. Here’s a small sampling:
- Ian Inaba is a co-founder of CEL and a member of its board. A graduate of the Wharton School of Business and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, Inaba worked as a journalist for the now-defunct Guerrilla News Network (GNN) before diving into filmmaking. He directed a music video for Eminem called “Mosh” and directed American Blackout, a 2006 documentary on alleged voter suppression. He serves on the boards of several of CEL’s affiliate organizations.
- Vanessa Fajans-Turner, another board member, has worked for the U.N. Development Program and U.N. Women’s Fund for Gender Equality as a researcher and analyst. She was also involved in Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.
- Cheryl Contee, a CEL board member, is a graduate of Yale University and an accomplished writer. She is co-founder of Jack and Jill Politics, a major black blog online.
- Robin Beck is CEL’s chief strategy officer. He is a former campaign director at MoveOn and ran online organizing programs at Change.org. He has also worked for Rainforest Action Network. He divides his time with CEL partner CounterPAC.
- Jackie Mahendra is executive director of CEL and formerly a director at Change.org. Before that, she was part of the pro-immigration America’s Voice and a board member of Netroots Nation, a progressive networking organization.
- Shannon Baker is development and communications director. She previously worked at the Nature Conservancy. She has an MBA from the University of Michigan.
Besides the 501(c)(3) education fund, CEL is subdivided into several other branches: Engagement Consulting, Acceleration Services, and two “Innovation Labs” — the Climate Lab and Culture Lab.
Engagement Consulting focuses on helping specific partners “plan, staff, resource, and execute innovative social change projects.” CEL works with media producers, with ostensibly philanthropic organizations, and with “social entrepreneurs” to employ social media and other digital tools to carry out campaigns. It offers services from “development consulting, fundraising, website and digital asset creation, software platform development, content creation, data analysis, and tactical project execution.”
The branch connected with the most outside organizations is Acceleration Services, which “supports startups that are testing new solutions to pressing problems like climate change, inequality, and democratic participation.” The branch was founded in 2008 to “offer infrastructure and strategic support” to groups.
The Innovation Labs were founded to “create, develop, and operate innovative social change initiatives across large issue areas.” To that end, CEL is “constantly surveying the social justice landscape looking for gaps, needs, and opportunities…. We create new campaigns, infrastructure, and networks that drive forward political, cultural, and systemic change.” There are two labs: the CEL Climate Lab and the CEL Innovation Lab.
The Climate Lab was launched in 2011 to “strengthen the U.S. climate organizing and communications landscape.” The project includes many of the partners listed below, including ClimateTruth.org, Climate Relief Fund, Climate Parents, and Faces of Fracking.
The Culture Lab was created to “use tech-savvy strategies to fill the gap in culture organizing… to help changemakers leverage culture and advance social progress.” The labs do this by co-producing documentaries with organizations, offering field audits for how organizations invest and improve how they operate, and producing online products for their organizations to use. CEL does not list its Culture Lab partners online.
Engagement Consulting Partners
CEL consulting currently works with seven partners. We’ll look at each in turn:
- America by the Numbers
America by the Numbers is a documentary television series that first aired on PBS in 2014 that reveals “the human faces of the biggest population change in U.S. history” as a “growing number of Asians, Latinos, African Americans, mixed race, immigrants, women, youth, and LGBT” are becoming the “new American mainstream … influencing election, culture, commerce, and every facet of contemporary life.” The host, Maria Hinojosa, is also anchor and executive producer of Latino USA, National Public Radio’s only Latino news and culture show. She also runs the Harlem-based Futuro Media Group, a multimedia journalism organization. In a 2015 review of America by the Numbers’ first year of broadcasting, the show reached 1,165,000 unique viewers over eight episodes.
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC)
Founded in 1991, AAJC is a civil and human rights organization advocating for Asian Americans. It has three main goals: to promote equal protection, increase public visibility of Asian Americans and expand immigration, and strengthen the political power of the Asian American community. It also files amicus briefs in court on issues including health care, education, reproductive rights, immigrant rights, criminal justice, and racial justice.
All in all, AAJC looks like little more than a left-wing legal association. It proudly emphasizes that it filed a brief in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby to attempt to force employers to violate their religious beliefs by following an Obamacare diktat to supply abortifacients to employees. AAJC also signed an amicus brief in the Obergefell case, where the Supreme Court unilaterally declared that millennia of human understanding that marriage is between a man and a woman is not only incorrect, but bigoted. AAJC has worked on legal cases with left-wing groups like the ACLU, Demand Progress, Color of Change (co-founded by CEL alumnus James Rucker and kept afloat with six- and seven-digit grants from CEL, Open Society, and the Ford Foundation), and the National Council of La Raza.
It’s hard to distinguish CounterPAC from the organization with which it consults. CounterPAC’s goal is to eliminate dark money in politics, but what is most notable about the organization, for our purposes, is that a majority of its staff actually comes directly from CEL. Jay Costa, the executive director at CounterPAC, was previously CEL’s campaign director. Likewise, CounterPAC’s Research and Operations Associate, Royce Change, was formerly CEL’s Logistics, Support, and Research Assistant. It doesn’t stop there. Julia Rhodes Davis not only works for Vote.org, one of CEL’s acceleration partners, she has also been listed as a board member in tax documents for CEL and CEL Education Fund. Finally, Robin Beck serves simultaneously as strategy director at CounterPAC and as chief strategy officer at CEL, a fact neither organization mentions explicitly.
CounterPAC’s goal is to change the calculus in elections by calling on candidates for office to reject so-called dark money (money from groups that aren’t legally forced to disclose their donors) and then launching public campaigns against those who don’t sign the PAC’s no-dark-money pledge. From West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district election in 2014 to the same year’s Senate race in Alaska between Mark Begich and Dan Sullivan, CounterPAC has spent hundreds of thousands in ads tying candidates to “dark money.”
The group was founded by Jim Greer, a technology mogul and founder of online gaming exchange Kongregate. Besides Greer, its main funders include Google’s Matt Cutts and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian.
- The Ford Foundation
Capital Research Center readers need no introduction to the Ford Foundation, an organization with a long history of supporting a panoply of left-wing groups from Black Lives Matter to ACORN. It created (and obtained IRS approval for) the movement for left-wing “public interest” law groups and for gender studies departments on college campuses, among other accomplishments (see Foundation Watch, July 2013). From gender, racial, and ethnic justice to “inclusive economics,” the Ford Foundation is a bank account for nearly all the latest and greatest left-wing organizations, including its major grants to CEL.
- The Kapor Center for Social Impact
The Kapor Center works to increase racial diversity in the tech industry. The aim is to recruit more minorities into tech fields and then ensure those folks don’t drop out in the “leaky pipeline” that feeds the sector.
The center was founded by Mitch Kapor, a seed investor in Uber, Twilio, Inkling, and University Now, and the founding chairman of the Mozilla Foundation, which created the Firefox web browser. Gaurav Vashist, the Kapor Center’s chief financial officer, formerly had the same position with CEL. The Kapor Center provides seed funds for new technology ideas from minorities and supports STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. The center has made tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of grants not only to the CEL Education Fund, but also to left-wing groups like the Tides Center and Tides Foundation.
- Open Society Foundations
As with the Ford Foundation, Open Society needs no introduction here. This George Soros-founded and -funded organization is the gateway to the vast left-wing conspiracy, as well as an ATM for just about every progressive cause imaginable.
- Years of Living Dangerously
Years of Living Dangerously is one of those left-wing propaganda projects that gathers together as many big-name stars as possible to draw attention to a subject that few Americans care about. The Daily Kos website called this documentary “the most important television series ever,” which indicates what kind of small audience would want to watch it. Featuring A-listers James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jessica Alba, Matt Damon, and Harrison Ford, this series focuses on how climate change allegedly causes severe weather.
Acceleration Services Partners
Beyond its consulting services, CEL supports and helps foster, grow, and publicize many other organizations focused on issues like race, climate, and more. Here’s a look at groups listed as CEL’s Acceleration Services Partners:
Launched in 2012, this is another Asian-focused interest group with the goal of increasing the civic engagement and influence of Asians and Pacific Islanders using technology and social media. It focuses on influencing the ballot box, “holding corporations accountable, building interracial coalitions, and developing our shared identity.”
18MillionRising.org’s interim executive director is Cayden Mak, yet another MoveOn alumna. She also spent four years as a “caucus facilitator” for the White Privilege Conference, the most recent iteration of which will focus on “deconstructing the culture of white supremacy and privilege.” 18MillionRising.Org also employs Oanh-Nhi Ngyuen, a campaigner and Kairos Fellow from CEL. CEL launched the Kairos fellowship to “address the racial disparities that exist within the digital movement by pairing robust recruitment with a training and mentorship program that creates a new cohort of tech-savvy campaigners of color.” The fellowship also sends employees to such left-wing groups as MoveOn, Democracy for America, the Sierra Club, Daily Kos, and Planned Parenthood, along with CEL partners like MPower Change (which will be discussed later).
18MillionRising.Org, which also receives support from the CEL Education Fund, has previously joined forces on campaigns with organizations like the National Council of La Raza, Demand Progress, CEL-offshoot Color of Change, the AFL-CIO, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and CEL partner Presente. The organization can’t help but stir the pot, making comments on everything from the “racist tropes” at the Golden Globes to starting a petition against actor Mark Wahlberg for punching an Asian man when we was 16 years old—a crime he deeply regrets and that the victim himself publicly forgave Wahlberg for.
- Arts in a Changing America
Arts in a Changing America, led by former Ford Foundation program officer Roberta Uno, focuses on the intersection between art and social justice as well as the demographic transformation of the U.S. through the lens of art. This five-year initiative is “creating a vast network of relevant organizations, artists, scholars, idea producers, and resource people across sectors to reframe the national arts conversation at the intersection of arts and social justice.” Its mission is to create “opportunities for artists, organizers, and thinkers to advance cultural equity” (a task that must be made difficult by the demonstrable inequality among cultures). The initiative is funded in part by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a grant-making organization that recently collected nearly $1 billion in Facebook stock from Mark Zuckerberg and has deep connections with the Silicon Valley upper crust. Capital Research Center’s Matthew Vadum wrote at WND that the Silicon Valley Community Foundation is a left-wing group that receives federal and private money, and doles it out to left-wing groups like:
“Tides Center and Tides Foundation ($2,546,888 since 2005), Planned Parenthood and affiliates ($2,007,950 since 2005), (Jimmy) Carter Center ($1,346,500 since 2007), Center for American Progress ($1,696,000 since 2007), Center for Responsible Lending ($275,000 since 2009), ACLU ($204,075 since 2005), Center for Constitutional Rights ($106,500 since 2007), People for the American Way Foundation ($90,000 since 2010), Clinton Global Initiative ($59,000 since 2011), New Organizing Institute ($20,000 in 2012), National Immigration Forum ($15,000 in 2012), and Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence ($6,950 in 2012).”
- Climate Parents
Climate Parents was founded by former labor and environmental movement campaigner Lisa Hoyos along with environmental and progressive organizer John Friedrichs. The group’s strategy is to exploit the sentimentality we have for children to increase fear over climate change. It parades images of children and families while discussing the climate change-caused catastrophes that these Chicken Littles imagine will occur, in hopes of recruiting families for environmental policy battles.
Hoyos has been a climate activist since the first grade and has spent 25 years working for the labor and environmental movements from the AFL-CIO to Greenpeace. She has been arrested four times for civil disobedience while protesting wars. Former California Senator Tom Hayden unironically described her as “a true Guardian Angel sent to save our precious world.” Her organization’s goal is to expand clean energy use, block fossil fuel use, and force the teaching of climate change orthodoxy on children in schools. After founding Climate Parents in 2013, Hoyos was directed by Greenpeace’s Annie Leonard to reach out to CEL. ClimateWire reports that CEL helped Climate Parents with social media as well as “with its online presence, crafting its fundraising presentations and its campaign strategy.” Climate Parents also receives support from the CEL Education Fund.
- Climate Relief Fund
Since everything from floods to drought to terrorism is now attributed to climate change, the Climate Relief Fund was created in 2014 to support communities around the world “devastated by climate disasters,” all while “helping the public understand the urgency and immediacy of climate change.” One of its two directors is Daniel Souweine, a co-founder of CEL and former director of CEL’s Climate Lab. At the bottom of its web page, the fund acknowledges it is “a project of the Citizen Engagement Lab Education Fund.”
The organization also employs Sarah Craig, a photographer who works for Faces of Fracking, another one of CEL’s Acceleration Partners. The Climate Relief Fund is another project of billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer and his wife Kat Taylor, who began the organization with a $2 million donation.
Initially launched in 2012 as Forecast the Facts, ClimateTruth.org’s goal is to challenge “climate denial” among television meteorologists, corporations, and public officials. It has run campaigns criticizing Mitt Romney and Barack Obama for not talking enough about climate change during the 2012 election cycle, pushed to have the topic of climate change discussed in more presidential debates, and even pressured the Washington Post to stop publishing editorials that deny the party line on climate change. It also demanded the Associated Press change its stylebook to label those who don’t submit to climate orthodoxy as “climate deniers.” ClimateTruth.org is another project of the CEL Education Fund and was launched by none other than CEL founder and board member Ian Inaba.
- Colibri Center
The main goal of the Colibri Center is to find missing migrants who are illegally crossing the Mexican/American border as well as identify those who die during the crossing so that their families can give them a proper burial. Founded in 2013, Colibri wanted to provide a forum outside of law enforcement for families to report missing persons. Colibri was founded by Robin Reineke, former director of the Missing Migrant Project, and William Masson, who formerly worked for the Higher Achievement Program and Npower Greater DC.
Coworker.org is an online platform founded in 2013 for people to advocate for changes in the workplace. It helps employees start campaigns to change company policies or throw light on some or another disagreeable activity. Run by a co-founder and co-director duo of SEIU (Service Employees International Union) alumnae Michelle Miller and Jess Kutch, Coworker.org has hosted petitions on everything from getting Starbucks to change its employee tattoo policy to pressuring Apple to give employees Martin Luther King Jr. Day off. The group lets employees start a campaign online, find coworkers through social media, and then receive help from the Coworker.org team to publicize and promote their cause. Coworker.org is fiscally sponsored by the New Venture Fund, an organization that provides pass-through funding and consulting to nonprofits on behalf of dozens of the largest American foundations. For example, the MacArthur Foundation in 2016 passed $400,000 through the New Venture Fund to support the Fund for a Safer Future, in hopes the latter will “enlarge the base of support for gun policies that prioritize public safety over the individual rights of gun ownership.”
CultureStrike was founded in 2011 in response to Arizona law SB 1070, a state statute that echoed federal law by making it a misdemeanor for an illegal alien to be present in Arizona without proper documentation. It empowered police officers to stop, detain, and arrest someone if there is a reasonable suspicion the individual is in the country illegally. Favianna Rodriguez is executive director of CultureStrike and also oh-so-coincidentally was listed as a chairman of Presente, another CEL affiliate discussed below, in past IRS filings. Rodriguez explained in a 2013 US News interview that CultureStrike’s goal is “to encourage more positive views of migrants and share the stories of migrants and create inspiring and compelling content.”
The group does this by featuring a “multiracial and multicultural team of artists and activists” who draw “from [their] unique experiences as women, LGBTQ, working class, and undocumented people” to create everything from political cartoons to poetry. CultureStrike also receives support from the CEL Education Fund.
- Demand Progress
Demand Progress is another project of the New Venture Fund along with the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization created to lobby for progressive policies. Demand Progress runs online campaigns urging people to contact Congress and other public officials, to fund pressure tactics, and to promote leftist ideology. Founded in 2010 to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act, Demand Progress predominantly focuses on the Internet—such as advocating for so-called “Net Neutrality” (see Foundation Watch, April 2011) —as well as money in politics.
Demand Progress has criticized the National Security Agency, pressured the Senate to confirm Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, and urged the Federal Communications Commission to expand broadband access to low-income Americans.
- Faces of Fracking
Faces of Fracking is a project of the CEL Climate Lab that also uses CEL’s Acceleration Services. In part run by Sarah Craig of the Climate Relief Fund, this California-based outfit documents the stories of Californians who object to fracking. There is no proof that fracking causes any damage to food, water, or people, and there is ample proof that fracking provides good-paying jobs, low fuel costs, and economic stability to an America still struggling through an anemic recovery. Yet at Faces of Fracking a small team that consists of a writer, a journalist, and a photographer are committed to spreading the story that communities in California are worried about fracking and that the energy industry needs even more regulation.
- Faithful America
Invoking the motto “Love Thy Neighbor. No Exceptions,” Faithful America says it is “sick of sitting by quietly while Jesus’ message of good news is hijacked by the religious right to serve a hateful political agenda.” This makes one wonder if the “no exceptions” Faithful America has in mind also applies to neighbors who are unborn babies. But I digress. The goal of Faithful America is to create grassroots campaigns (which sort of defeats the whole “grassroots” idea) and “speak up” whenever “corporations and religious institutions invoke religious freedom as a justification for bigotry or discrimination.”
Putting its faith in progressivism above that of the actual Christian and Jewish faiths, Faithful America fought along with Ultraviolet (another CEL Partner discussed below) to force the Hobby Lobby company to violate its religious conscience rights by submitting to the Obamacare mandate for abortifacients. Faithful America also
- pressured MSNBC to stop inviting Family Research Council president Tony Perkins onto shows where he would discuss his religious beliefs;
- fought against the right of Catholic schools to hire people who conform with the teachings of the Catholic faith;
- pressured the Catholic University of America to deny a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation for the study of principled entrepreneurship (pressure that Catholic University resolutely resisted);
- and fought against the defrocking of a Methodist pastor who officiated at a gay wedding.
Faithful America—which is also supported by the CEL Education Fund—is led by Michael Sherrard, who previously worked at MoveOn advocating for Obamacare. Faithful America appears to be an affiliate of Faith in Public Life, a project of the Open Society Foundations.
- Latino Startup Alliance
The Silicon Valley-based Latino Startup Alliance is a sponsored project of the CEL Education Fund, founded in 2011 by Mexican-American brothers Jesse and Ed Martinez to foster Latino-led start-up ventures by providing a support network of entrepreneurs, investors, innovators, and mentors. It previously funded grants to help Latina entrepreneurs in California and joined with Black Girls Code to provide funding for young women to learn computer science and coding.
- MPower Change
MPower Change claims to be a grassroots movement of Muslims “working together to build social, spiritual, racial, and economic justice for all people.” It boasts a high-powered team including Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim to be elected to Congress and at press time a leading candidate to head the Democratic National Committee; and Rep. Andre Carson (D-Ind.), the second Muslim elected to Congress. It also employs CEL Kairos Fellow Mohammad Khan, who has worked in coalitions to support the $15 minimum wage and augment Muslim power in local New York elections.
Linda Sarsour, who co-founded MPower Change, is a Palestinian-American Muslim, community organizer, co-founder of Muslims for Ferguson, and was reportedly a die-hard Bernie Sanders delegate, according to the State Journal-Register of Illinois. The group joined with CodePink and NextGen Climate (created by megadonor Tom Steyer) to protest outside of the 2016 Republican National Convention, seeking to prophesy the “new wave of terror” against “people of color” that would follow if Donald Trump becomes president, according to a release by United We Dream. MPower Change also joined with left-wing groups like NARAL, MoveOn, SEIU, and Color of Change to purchase a full-page ad in the New York Times in 2015 to combat the alleged “rising tide” of Islamophobia.
- Open Summit
Open Summit is another project of the CEL Education Fund. It operates as a “sisterhood of national grassroots campaigning organizations” spread across five continents (all the inhabitable ones save South America) with the goal of helping its members “drive progressive change,” according to its website.
The only affiliate listed in the U.S. is MoveOn, but Open Summit also includes under its umbrella LeadNow of Canada, 38 Degrees in the United Kingdom, Progressi in Italy, and other progressive organizations from New Zealand to Israel. Open Summit allows these groups to connect year ’round to share lessons, advice, and support through messages, live seminars, and online “learning circles,” as well as regional summits and staff exchanges.
Presente has deep connections with Citizen Engagement Lab. Beyond being another recipient of CEL Education Fund support, three out of the five board members listed on recent tax filings come from CEL or a CEL affiliate, including Ian Inaba, the co-founder of CEL who currently sits on CEL’s board of directors, as well as Daniel Souweine, who is also a CEL co-founder, a former CEL Climate Lab director, and a director at the CEL-affiliate Climate Relief Fund. The chair of Presente is Favianna Rodriguez, who also serves as executive director of CultureStrike.
“Presente says its “mission is to advance Latinx [sic] power and create winning campaigns that amplify Latinx [sic] voices…. Presente is the largest Latinx [sic] online organization advancing social justice with technology, media, and culture” [not difficult to achieve, since Latinx isn’t a word].
Presente’s main activity seems to be agitating activists via email, social networks, text messages, ad campaigns, and more to fight against perceived injustices or slights to the Latino community. Previous causes include attacking the Gang of 8 immigration bill for being too tough on border control, fighting the deportation of illegal aliens, rallying against the Tucson Board of Education for dropping its high school Mexican-American studies program, and attacking Southern California’s utility company for wanting to add a fixed charge to people’s utility bills that could not be avoided by using rooftop solar panels or conserving energy (what makes this a Latino issue is unclear). Several of the first 100 signers of the Presente pledge featured on the organization’s homepage—a pledge that calls for more lenient immigration policies and stronger political action among Latinos—are actually CEL employees, including Ian Inaba and Jackie Mahendra.
Stellar advertises itself as a nonprofit “that connects people to low-cost financial services to fight poverty and develop individual potential.” The goal is to use the Internet to send, save, and receive money—even in different currencies—with ease and minimal fees. The system relies on an alternative currency, known as lumens, using a complex system to dole out new lumens to new users based on the votes of current currency holders. According to a 2014 StartUpSmart report, the idea is to bring “participatory democracy” and apply it to financial systems.
- Transform Finance
The goal of Transform Finance is to help investors better use money for social change. The organization has allegedly gathered over $550 million from a group of funds, foundations, and family offices with the goal of using the money for social justice causes. Transform Finance also provides educational training for “social entrepreneurs” to better influence their communities as well as helping local organizations understand how to create revenue-generating projects and “hold investors accountable.” Transform Finance has partnered with various left-wing organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the scandal-plagued Clinton Global Initiative.
Ultraviolet—another beneficiary of the CEL Education Fund—says its aim is to put the “voices of all women, especially women of color and LGBTQ women, front and center” to “fight sexism and expand human rights, from politics and government to media and pop culture.” Its tagline is “equality at a higher frequency” (ultraviolet—get it?). Its all-woman (save one lone man) team pulls exclusively from the hard Left, with a special emphasis on former MoveOn employees. Co-founder Nita Chaudhary was at MoveOn and previously worked for the Democratic National Committee. Fellow co-founder Shaunna Thomas is at P Street, a nonprofit that exclusively focuses on organizing for progressive members of Congress, a job she did after working for the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Ultraviolet’s chief operating officer, Kat Barr, came from MoveOn, as did Susan Hildebrand, its grassroots campaign director; Karin Roland, its chief campaigns officer; and Holly Witherington, deputy operations director. The lone male employee out of a listed staff of 16 is Adam Binkman, who worked for Progressive Strategies LLC, the progressive blog OpenLeft.com, and Courage Campaign, a progressive activist group in California.
On every posting of its “campaigns” page—from thanking Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards for defending taxpayer funding for abortion to protesting the pay gap between men and women’s soccer players—viewers can sign a petition and, of course, donate to Ultraviolet. Really, Ultraviolet seems like little more than a place to sign online petitions and gather money.
What is ever more astounding are the successes for which Ultraviolet inexplicably claims. Roger Ailes resigning from Fox News? Ultraviolet helped with that. The NBA all-star game leaves North Carolina after legislators responded to the Obama administration’s unilateral decision to force localities to allow anatomical males into women’s bathrooms? Ultraviolet did that too. President Obama’s “fair pay” executive action? Advertisers pull out of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show? Congress reauthorizes the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)? You guessed it. All Ultraviolet.
Finally, there is Vote.org, which is registered as a 501(c)(3) “public charity.” It conducts voter registration and voter mobilization—two activities which a charity can only conduct legally if they are carried out in a “nonpartisan” manner. Given what we know of CEL and its network, how likely is it that Vote.org works on a nonpartisan basis?
Launched in 2008 under the name Long Distance Voter as a one-stop-shop for absentee ballot information, it switched to Vote.org on April 1, 2016, after retooling to allow people to complete, sign, and mail their vote-by-mail applications using smartphones. Julia Rhodes Davis, formerly CEL’s chief development officer, now serves on its board.
Quickly wrapping it up
The CEL Education Fund also supports:
- Progressive commentator Sally Kohn, founder of the Movement Vision Lab, whose goal, she says, is to shake up the comfortable orthodoxy of progressivism with new ideas. She formerly held a program fellowship at the Ford Foundation, was a campaign strategist at the ACORN-linked Center for Community Change, and bills herself as “one of the leading progressive voices in America today.” (Movement Vision Lab apparently died around 2014; type org into your web browser and you’re automatically sent to SallyKohn.com, where her bio doesn’t even mention the group.)
- Media consultancy New Arts Axis, which partners with artists to help their art have impact on communities. Founded in 2012 by Wendy Levy, a filmmaker and media advisor, it is currently fee-for service and attempting to become a 501(c)(3).
- Anti-foreclosure organization Occupy Our Homes, started after the Occupy Wall Street movement in hopes of thwarting mortgage foreclosings.
- Election monitoring group Video the Vote, partners with Color of Change, Presente, Mother Jones, MoveOn, 18MillionRising, and Ultraviolet. Financially supported by the Kapor Foundation, it was created by CEL founder and Presente board member Ian Inaba, along with James Rucker from Color of Change, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and CEL, which built its website.
A brief example
To see how these groups operate, look no further than the 2016 presidential election where left-wing organizations—many of which are associated with CEL—targeted businesses and pressured them to drop sponsorships of the Republican National Convention.
Color of Change led the charge, sending letters in February 2016 to Coca-Cola, Google, Adobe Systems, Xerox, AT&T, and Cisco, telling them to stop their sponsorship of the Republican Convention if Donald Trump was slated to be the nominee. They sent letters in conjunction with a petition, joining forces with CEL-affiliate Ultraviolet, CREDO, Care2, MoveOn, and SumOfUs. All would-be corporate sponsors were sent the message.
(A quick note on SumOfUs: Though not listed as one of CEL’s partners, the organization nonetheless shares a close bond with it. SumOfUs claims to be a “global movement of consumers, investors, and workers all around the world standing together to hold corporations accountable for their actions and forge a new, sustainable path for our global economy.” Their tagline is “Fighting for people over profits,” and the Tides Foundation sponsors the group. Paul Ferris of Coworker.org also acts as SumOfUs’s campaign director, and Tara Harwood, SumOfUs’s Manager of Analytics & Data Science, was listed on the board of CEL’s Education Fund and CEL itself in 2012. Ben Brandzel of Open Summit, Eli Pariser of MoveOn, and James Rucker of Color of Change also serve on the Advisory Board.)
In the petition to Google, Color of Change noted that tech companies had “poured millions of dollars into marketing themselves as diverse and inclusive brands, yet are planning to fund a platform for a presidential nominee running on a campaign rooted in violently racist rhetoric.” According to a New York Times report, the online petition from Color of Change featured a Coca-Cola bottle labeled “Share a Coke with the K.K.K.”
But for Color of Change and their fellow left-wing advocacy groups, online petitions and threatening to cry “racist” weren’t enough. Color of Change executive director Rashad Robinson, who also works for CEL partner MPower Change, reportedly spoke with Coca-Cola executives on the phone, threatening them with further action if they did not break with the Republican Party.
“We walked them through what a public campaign would look like,” Robinson told the New York Times, describing the public protests Color of Change and other groups could hold against Coke at their headquarters and in Cleveland. Robinson added, “these companies have a choice right now, a history making choice. Do they want riots brought to us by Coca-Cola?”
Coke soon announced that it would not match the $660,000 it had given to the Republican National Convention in 2012. Google, AT&T, and Cisco still offered their technical support. Others like Xerox, Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Adobe repeatedly declined to say whether they were supporting the convention. And others from Wells Fargo to UPS to JP Morgan Chase to Microsoft to Motorola to Ford Motor backed out of the convention.
This entire episode reveals a common tactic: find companies who support an organization that left-wing groups oppose, launch a petition against those companies demanding they end their support, send a threatening letter, then blackmail the companies with the specter of a coordinated public campaign by multiple groups who will claim the company supports racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry, or whatever else offends public sensibilities. These are the same tactics used everywhere from the campaign to force the NCAA and NBA to move events out of North Carolina after the state passed a law requiring people to use public restrooms aligned with their biological sex, to the continual wars against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for its support of constitutional rights, free markets, and limited government.
Of course, it’s not illegal for employees and leadership to flow from one organization to a network of other groups. Nor is there anything illegal about close coordination between like-minded activist groups. But it’s also true that corporations and the public should not assume a grassroots movement exists, just because one of the groups in this network takes up a cause and claims to have an army of organizations and supporters behind it. Sure, dozens of organizations may sign a letter or petition decrying the latest target of the progressive indignation machine. But if those organizations are run, staffed, and organized by the same small group of people—well, it’s just not that impressive.
Alec Torres is a Capitol Hill aide.