Galvanizing a Pro-Democracy Response

Western States Center
6 min readDec 17, 2020


By Eric K. Ward

The election of Donald J. Trump as our nation’s 45th president spurred me to leave a job in philanthropy to return to the Pacific Northwest where I believed the region would once again be a proving ground between the white nationalist movement and those who would choose to resist it. The torch-bearing white nationalists in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” spurred Joe Biden to get back in the game. The man Biden would defeat famously defended the deadly Charlottesville rioters as “very fine people” and continued to downplay the threat of white nationalist violence in the wake of the 51 worshippers killed by the Christchurch mosque shooter 19 months later.

Like the 2017 killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, the 2019 twin massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand signaled the opening of a new front in the fight for inclusive democracy. With the pre-announcement of his live-streamed attack and the manifesto that proclaimed the influence of Donald Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” — the theater of white nationalist political violence had come fully of age.

The Christchurch massacre put the white nationalist movement on the global stage and dramatically escalated demand for answers and tools. Western States Center had already committed to challenging the terrain upon which white nationalists were building their movements while strengthening our own movements to withstand the attack. With our limited resources and small staff we chose to prioritize rapid response and leadership development over research and analysis.

Why? Because we understood that a moral barrier against hateful ideologies was no longer enough. We also needed to ignite the full spectrum of civil society and its power. The day after Christchurch, Western States Center put all of its poker chips on the table and worked at breakneck speed without pause to bolster America’s ability to resist authoritarianism and expand opportunity for all.

With authoritarianism being promoted top to bottom — from the White House to the racist policing of protesters and rise of armed paramilitaries on the right — we dedicated ourselves to galvanizing a pro-democracy response from local municipal and civil society leaders. This year we’ve delivered:

  • A hard hitting seminal analysis of antisemitism as the fuel that feeds white nationalism and a growing conspiracy theory that seeks to sow distrust in the pandemic response and the electoral process.
  • A major blow to the Trump administration’s authoritarian overreach, with a summer lawsuit that secured an injunction against federal enforcement agents in Portland and served as a litigation model for other cities.
  • Innovative cohorts of activists, artists, and organizational leaders (see our 2020 Honor Roll, below) that build relationships across the silos of issues, identities, and geography and serve as laboratories for 21st century civil rights movement strategies.
  • Shareable tools, from updates to our Confronting White Nationalism in Schools Toolkit, to our 21 Day Pledge for Inclusive Democracy following George Floyd’s murder, to our digital action platform #WeDefendDemocracy.
  • Training and thought leadership shaping the work of municipal, educational, congregational, and other civil society leaders through more than 145 speaking engagements, workshops or cohort sessions, 250+ stories in the news media, and essays published by Southern Poverty Law Center and on Medium.
  • Behind-the-scenes support for communities under attack and for elected and organizational leaders increasingly speaking in a unified voice against threats to inclusive democracy.

We can expect that white nationalists will continue to terrorize communities with acts of violence. We can and must demand that elected officials remove the blinders of ideological bias and take this threat seriously. We can expect that white nationalists will continue to stage media stunts to dominate news coverage and exaggerate their influence. The good news is, it’s within our power — if we come together as civil society and municipal governments committed to inclusive democracy — to deny them the oxygen of attention.

The bottom line is, we are winning. White nationalist numbers are not increasing. Their post-election rallies would be considered a flop by any organizer’s measure. More Americans than ever believe that Black lives matter. Our vision of an inclusive democracy is supported by a majority of American voters.

Welcome to the 21st Century Civil Rights Movement

The story of Western States Center in 2020 is a story of adaptation and determination. The challenges of the year affirmed the focus of our work, the strength of our relationships, and the promise and impact of our programs. The hero of the story is inclusive democracy. The authors of this story are legion.

We thank and honor all those we worked alongside this extraordinary year:

  • The Artists: The 15 singer-songwriters in our Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab: An Artist Cohort for Countering Bigotry (now entering their second phase as a cohort) and the 20 multimedia artists in our inaugural Common Good Masterclass for Artists and Cultural Workers: Combating Racism, Antisemitism, and Anti-Democratic Movements.
  • The Educators: The 88 participants from 20 states and Canada who completed our eight-hour certification program to bring our Confronting White Nationalism in Schools Toolkit to their communities (“energizing, inspiring, and deeply informative” is how participants described the training); the 140+ members of our ongoing Confronting White Nationalism Educator Network; Senior Fellows Nora Flanagan (recently appointed by the governor to the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission) and Jessica Acee (seen here with program coordinator Adrienne van der Valk highlighting the work for SXSW); and the many campus leaders who hosted us for virtual learning events this year.
  • The Municipal & Elected Leaders: The 100+ state and local elected officials and civil society leaders in Oregon who issued a unified statement against hate and election-related violence; the leaders who responded to our call to action to defuse a Proud Boys incursion into Portland; the Portland city commissioners and bureau heads attending our two-part training on white nationalism; and the municipal leaders in large cities and small towns from Georgia to the Pacific Northwest requesting our support behind-the-scenes to manage political violence and other threats to democratic practice.
  • The Movement Leaders: The 23 members of our Northwest Racial Equity Leadership Cohort based in tribal, labor, and community organizations and local government in Oregon and Washington; our 11 Defending Democracy and Building Movement Fellows in 7 states, meeting two to three times monthly for political education, expert panels and group consultation, and leading independent projects in their communities to strengthen democratic practice; the dozens of civil rights, labor, racial justice, conservation, and community groups meeting monthly through the Oregon Inclusive Democracy Network; the activists in 7 states sharing best practices through our Local Anti-Hate Network; Senior Fellow Josie Raphaelito who continues to share Indigenizing Love through events like the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Two-Spirit Roundtable; Senior Fellows Wajahat Ali and Megan Black, who translate their experiences from our first Leadership Initiative to Combat AntiSemitism cohort to new cohorts and settings; and our movement partners at the local, state, and national levels including close collaborators Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward.
  • All of You: Our grassroots and major donors, our foundation partners, our board of directors (stay tuned to meet our new board members in January!); the organizations who hosted the 116 workshops and speeches we presented this year and the more than 30,000 who attended these events; the other The Oregon Way thought leaders, the readers of our Medium channel, the reporters delivering thoughtful coverage of threats to democracy; and all who took action as part of our ongoing #WeDefendDemocracy campaign or in other ways in your local communities.

Three Signposts for 2021

We’re holding off on forecasting 2021 until after Inauguration Day in January, which will mark a new year — possibly even a new era — in the fight for inclusive democracy. But in the meantime we want to lift up three important signposts for where that fight is headed.

We are proud of U.S. Senator from Oregon Jeff Merkley for introducing the Abolition Amendment, which would strike the “Punishment Clause’” of the 13th Amendment in order to finally abolish slavery in the United States (similar amendments have already been adopted at the state level in Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska).

We’re honored to be a part of the Belonging Begins with Us campaign, developed by the Ad Council, American Immigration Council and Welcoming America.

And we’re paying close attention to the Blueprints developed by Groundswell participants, designed to move $100M to grassroots organizing led by women of color and transgender and gender non-conforming people of color.

We end this year in grief and anger over the 300,000 American lives taken needlessly by COVID and the long-term illnesses of racial and economic disparity and police violence. Alongside these sorrows, we feel immense gratitude for the privilege of joining with you to give rise to a 21st century civil rights movement, one dedicated to a world where every person can live, love, worship and work free from bigotry and fear.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.

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Western States Center

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.