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People First, Always - Part 1

Part one of an interview with Digital Climate Coalition’s Managing Director, Dom Leon-Davis, on building a new coalition within the climate movement, the importance of understanding your base, and the lesson he’s learnt along the way.

Q: How did you get your start in politics?

Dom: 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 DNC’s vice chair, then for Working Families Party, and after that, for Stacey Abrams’ campaign for Governor in Georgia. The rest is history.

Q: 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?

Dom: 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 DCC 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 way, or very theoretical or high minded way, and really making the connection between the science that we knows exist 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.

Q: You’ve worked for electoral campaigns and now are leading this amazing advocacy organization. In your opinion, what does an electoral campaign need the most in order to be successful versus an advocacy organization or non-profit?

Dom: 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.

Q: We weren't expecting that answer at all…

Dom: 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 ask for people to hold their elected officials accountable, the base you can go after is larger. You’ve expanded the electorate.

Read part 2 of Dom's Interview, where he shares the organizations he looks up to the most and why, what type of resources have been most useful to him, some of the challenges he has faced and key learnings.

About Dom Leon-Davis

Dom Leon-Davis, Managing Director, Digital Climate Coalition

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 joining the coalition, he 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. He 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 movement spaces, dismantling exploitative practices and focusing on long term impacts. He lives in Miami, FL with his husband Daniel and their two Mini Schnauzers, Raj and Rowan.