People first, always
Dom Leon-Davis is an organizer whose work focuses on mobilizing and empowering those closest to the center of our most pressing issues, especially black, brown, and immigrant communities.
Prior to becoming a managing director at Digital Climate Coalition, Dom served as senior staff for several national, state, and local campaigns, including Cory Booker’s presidential campaign, Reverend Warnock’s Senate race, and Stacey Abrams gubernatorial.
Dom has also worked at several advocacy organizations including MoveOn, where he ran a national voter mobilization campaign for the 2020 general election, and Working Families Party, where he ran communications for New York and served as part of the New York Renews coalition.
Dom believes that social change starts internally, both personally and within movements, dismantling exploitative practices and focusing on long-term impact. He lives in Miami, Florida with his husband Daniel and their two mini schnauzers, Raj and Rowan.
We caught up with Dom Leon-Davis about building a new coalition within the climate movement, the importance of understanding your base, and the lesson he’s learned along the way.
How did you get your start in politics?
Having previously interned in the state legislature in Maryland, I volunteered for former Governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley’s presidential campaign in the 2016 cycle. Then I became an organizer in south Florida. Back then, electoral politics seemed to be where I could make the biggest impact on issues that matter.
After that, I started focusing more on communications and digital strategies — I worked for a New York state legislator running for the Democratic National Committee’s vice chair, then for Working Families Party, and after that for Stacey Abrams’ campaign for Governor in Georgia. The rest is history.
And now you are at Digital Climate Coalition (DCC). Talk to us about your work: what problems are you solving and why does that matter?
I had a good experience building digital strategies and supporting campaigns and organizations to help them think about new ways to reach an audience. But I wanted to do it on a larger scale and make impacts within a movement.
The climate movement has always been close to my heart. Knowing about climate and environmental issues and how those impact me and my family, our health and livelihood, have always been important. Coming into the climate space was a no brainer.
This job seemed perfect for me, given my experiences and expertise in digital. And to have the opportunity to build an organization from the ground up and set the priorities for the coalition and to be able to influence the direction of the members, that’s important. As we move into the critical phase of the climate crisis, we need to engage people that haven’t been part of the process, or have been left out.
The core part of our work at Digital Climate Coalition is to understand what it takes to engage these folks, especially communities of color, rural communities, moderate-leaning constituencies — what it takes to reach those folks and engage them, motivate them, and move them to take action.
We exist to help the climate movement become more informed, more strategic, and to help reshape the way we engage audiences and talk about the climate crisis.
In order to do that, we utilize the tools at our disposal to make the climate movement more equitable and to bring the issues “down to earth” for the communities that don’t have the luxury of thinking about the climate crisis in an academic or theoretical way. We make the connection between the science that we know exists and the effects on everyday lives.
We focus on closing that gap so people see that it’s not just about recycling or changing our food systems, but also about holding corporations and big actors accountable to make our planet and environment more sustainable.
You’ve worked for electoral campaigns and now are leading this advocacy organization. What does an electoral campaign need the most in order to be successful versus an advocacy organization or nonprofit?
What electoral campaigns and issue advocacy groups need are actually very similar. It’s a clear understanding of your theory of change and who your core audience is, and who you need to expand the reach to.
When you understand the WHY and the HOW and the WHO, it informs your strategies. Until you really understand why you are doing, what you’re doing, and what it takes to get there, you won’t have a clear sense of who needs to be brought into the movement. And that understanding informs the messaging you need to reach the critical audience.
From a digital perspective, so often we find ourselves frustrated because our job is to throw things against the wall to see what sticks. When there is not an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve, it creates a lot of waste and inefficiency. The more clarity, the more alignment there is on the direction and the audience, the better job digital folks and organizers can do.
I often talk to folks in electoral campaigns about taking the time upfront to really understand your “win number,” meaning how many people you need to vote for you to win, and a breakdown of your core base versus groups of people outside the core base you need to persuade and mobilize to win.
Figuring out how you can best split your time between engaging the core base and how much time you can spend persuading key audiences is important, not only to the immediate victory of the electoral campaign or issue, but it’s also important for building power in the long term.
Lots of this work is oriented around the short term, but there has to be long-term thinking too: we can go for the win and build power for the future.
If we’re just going after the low-hanging fruit and maximizing the votes or petition signatures signed by the same people, we’re never going to get to the people who are on the outside to engage. If you already did the work to bring folks into the work by shifting their attitude, the next time you have to ask for a vote or for people to hold their elected officials accountable, the base you can go after is larger. You’ve expanded the electorate.
Who or which organization do you look up to the most in your issue area and why? What are they doing really well?
I’m biased because I’ve done a lot of organizing in Georgia. My north star for how this work should be approached came from seeing what a lot of groups are doing in Georgia: New Georgia Project, Fair Fight, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Mijente, Georgia League of Conservation Voters, Sustainable Georgia Futures.
There is a whole network of progressive organizations that are really focused on building power and getting folks civically engaged. Their work has shifted the electorate in Georgia, where folks are easily mobilized and easily fired up about any issues that’s on the table because they’ve built a culture of organizing. They have figured out the messaging and the messengers and the tools and the tactics — down to almost a science.
We also have been following Georgia closely since the 2020 elections. Obviously a lot of the foundation and infrastructure were built before that. But every state has coalitions, movement support groups, and donor tables. So, what makes the ecosystem in Georgia so successful?
The Georgia ecosystem benefits from a clarity of directions and understanding that by working together, they make the movement and their individual focus stronger. Long story short, the three main things are:
Understanding the power of collective efforts
Willingness to share resources (data and tools), information, and lessons
Focus on the end goal
My hope for Digital Climate Coalition and our partners is that we take the lessons from Georgia and apply that into our movement. Fortunately, we’re a very well resourced movement with big infrastructure. We each understand our role, and we’re learning to get really good at the couple of areas where we can make the deepest impact. We can’t do everything.
What are some skills you learned during the campaign days that translated well over to your current position?
I have learned a lot of organic content strategies, how to build on different platforms, how ad targeting works, and how to run creative and messaging tests. I also learned how to analyze data and extrapolate insights from various sources in real time, while applying the historical context and my own lived experience.
What kind of resources and communities have been the most helpful for you in this work?
I have a community of mentors who taught me the ropes and took chances on me. They are my support system.
My network is also great for seeking practical advice, like for when Facebook made changes to its ad targeting.
Is your network on a specific platform?
A lot of my network is on Twitter. I’m also a part of BlueDigitalExchange, which is a group of digital folks working in the progressive movement, and there is a Slack channel. I’m also on a couple of group chats.
This is a big question: what do you predict your organization will look like in 2030?
In 2030, Digital Climate Coalition will be the go-to hub for understanding different audiences and what resonates with them in the movement. We also want to be a model for the movement in terms of building a culture that is equitable and people-centered.
This is secondary to our mission, but for me, this is the core of the work: We want to be the place that people love to work at, and that’s just as important as what we can offer the movement.
My philosophy is that the best asset really is people, and when you truly invest in people, they will do good work, regardless of how well-resourced (or not) the organization is. People have tremendous capacity to inspire and surprise and do work that is so much larger than themselves when they feel taken care of, respected, appreciated and their work is seen.
That’s really beautiful. What have been some of the key challenges you have faced (or are still facing) in reaching those two objectives?
The biggest challenge is that we are a coalition with a hub at the center of it. So in a coalition dynamic, you have to spend a lot of time rallying the troops and bringing folks along with you. If it’s just up to me and the staff at the hub, we would be off to the races. But since we're in a coalition, we don't want to move faster than the members of the coalition. So there’s a lot of time spent laying out the vision and helping them see the potential and possibilities in the vision.
It’s a lot of time, capacity, and frankly, money, to get people on board. Fortunately, we’ve got a good amount of seed money but a big part of my job is not only selling the vision to the coalition, but also to other people who might invest in the work as well.
When it comes to building a new future of work, the challenge is similar to the other objective. It’s a lot of time laying out the vision, and to convince folks away from the status quo. The “Great Resignation” started in 2021 because the traditional way of work hasn’t benefited people. We have to constantly remind folks that we need to be willing to step outside of the comfort zone. And we might fail at times, but we can learn from that.
Any last pieces of advice for your industry colleagues?
Put people first, and everything else will follow.