This is one in a series of Nebraska News Service stories about election and voting issues in the state and the efforts of people and organizations who are working to strengthen democracy. This series is part of a national initiative — USDemocracyDay.org — in which more than 300 news outlets published stories on Democracy Day, Sept. 15, to bring attention to the crisis facing American democracy.
Nebraska Civic Engagement Table has a mission: increase voting, particularly among those who have little power and influence.
The organization does that by working with nonprofits to increase voting and other types of engagement work. The communities that they help serve have historically been those who don’t have as much power and influence, such as the LGBTQ and African-American communities. Some of the 70 nonprofits they work with include Black Men United, Community Action Nebraska and March for our Lives Lincoln.
“We want to make our democracy look like the people that live here,” said Meg Mikolajczyk, executive director of the organization. The vision of the organization is to “increase voter turnout, make sure their voices are represented, and build leadership among community members,” according to the group’s website.
Although a lot of the organization’s well-known work revolves around working on educating people about the voting issues, the goal of the engagement table is to be more inclusive and engage with people through “year-round civic participation,” according to Mikolajczyk.
“We are working to make sure the communities we serve are those who are traditionally left out, including LGBTQ folks, women and young people,” she said. “We want them to have more power and to be able to use their voice to represent their interest in democracy.”
While underrepresented communities have faced uncertainty for years, the issues have escalated in the United States, she said.
“Following the events of the 2016 election of Donald Trump in particular, and then events such as the storming of the Capitol Building, have challenged our current democracy, and has led to many people having questions about the future of our democracy,” she said.
The last few years of divisive politics has only increased the importance of the engagement table, Mikolajczyk said. In a world where now it seems some people are frightened and unsure if their rights are being protected, she believes that the conversations they have can lead to change for the better.
One constant complaint she hears from people at meetings is the lack of trust in the voting system for elections.
“Some people have lost a great degree of trust in the political voting system due to having multiple instances now when a candidate wins the popular vote, but doesn’t actually end up being elected,” she said.
As part of a survey of Nebraskans, Mikolajczyk’s team found that only 6% trust their political parties to serve their communities. While the lack of trust in politics is troubling, it’s happening not just in Nebraska, but everywhere in the United States. But as Mikolajczyk explains, this makes voting and choosing people in power that much more important because it “feels like the last preservation of democracy.”
“We know that over time social media has taken over and the disinformation that is happening can easily manipulate the system,” she said. “So we have to make sure that people are properly informed about what is actually going on.”
How does her organization do that? By having roundtable discussions with various communities that have been impacted by issues such as voting rights, poverty and feelings of under-representation. In those discussions, people with differing experiences actually get share how they feel and what issues they think believe need to be addressed — and that has led them to believe that their voice does matter and there are people who will listen and try to help, Mikolajczyk said.
The organization’s conversations have helped build communities centered around “diverse issues” in a room with people from different communities who normally would not interact with each other, Mikolajczyk said. But the more people who engage with one another, the more likely it is that these various communities can stay informed.
“When you consider what Black people, indigenous folks, people of color are going through in this country right now,” she said. “The enormous efforts that have occurred in this country to restrict those groups of people’s ability to participate in this process, and how those policies then historically have negatively impacted them.
“That has got to change, and so that’s what we are really focused on as an organization.”
Mikolajczyk has been involved with democracy in some form for most of her career, including twice running for the Lincoln city council. She said those experiences helped her realize that she loved talking to voters and people engaged with the community and that she wanted to have more of an influence. Despite not winning the elections, she said she got a lot out of the experiences in “trying to understand how to make people’s lives better.” That led her to the position that she has now with the engagement table.
Mikolajczyk said the organization’s approach is not one of self service, but more a position of public service to better represent everyone that lives in the community.
Her goal is to help communities understand how easy and safe the voting process actually is.
“We should be celebrating the democracy we have,” she said, “and the true patriotic act to do would be making this as easy for people as possible.”