When Valerie Reiffert attended her first day of protest after George Floyd was murdered at the hands of a police officer, she couldn’t believe the size and energy of the crowd.
“I thought, ‘Someone should be registering people to vote.’”
Three days later she was back, newly deputized by the Bexar County Elections Office to sign up voters. She joined forces with others who were also registering people. Since then, the Radical Registrars, as they dubbed themselves, have signed up nearly a thousand new voters, helped others become deputized, and created voter guides.
Reiffert would like to do even more, but she is often overwhelmed by the day-to-day challenges that come with creating a sustainable organization. She takes work with local campaigns to help pay the bills and dreams about running Radical Registrars full time.
This fledgling nonprofit and others like it could get that chance, thanks to a new venture launched by H. Drew Galloway, who recently stepped down as executive director of MOVE Texas. Galloway, 38, steered development of MOVE from its roots in San Antonio as a student-led voter registration nonprofit to an influential statewide youth civic engagement and leadership organization.
Now he wants to take a page from startup culture and use it to grow and develop progressive social justice organizations across Texas.
BRIDGE – an acronym for Building Resourced Infrastructure for Diverse Grassroots Engagement – will eventually consist of several programs, but the core will be Spark, which Galloway said will act as an accelerator to a handful of organizations and innovative ideas chosen through a competitive application process.
Each group will get $100,000 – enough money so founders can pay themselves, buy supplies, and focus on honing plans, building infrastructure, and measuring success. They’ll also get mentoring on everything from running the back office to leadership development.
At the end of six months, the organizations will be evaluated on the impact of their work, and those that succeed will have the opportunity to pitch “national and state donors who are eager to fund their continued growth,” Galloway said.
“How do we find the next leader, the next MOVE or JOLT [a progressive nonprofit focused on increasing the political power of young Latinos in Texas], or the next Texas Freedom Network?” Galloway asked. “That’s what I want to work on. We are going to give you early resources, plenty of money in the first six months so you don’t have to worry about fundraising, so you can focus on the program. And we will be there working with you side by side, we will help with the back office, get you in front of funders, help you deal with all the early-stage hangups that come with starting an organization.”
The application window for BRIDGE Spark opens Tuesday and will remain open all summer. Galloway said BRIDGE will do “rolling interviews” in July and expected to select three to five organizations for its first cohort, which will launch in September.
He likes to call BRIDGE “the Y Combinator of grassroots organizing, social justice advocacy, and civic technology movement-building in the Lone Star State,” referencing the oft-imitated incubator credited with developing a potent combination of relatively modest seed funding plus intensive mentoring. Since 2005, Y Combinator has helped launch thousands of companies, including many well-known industry disrupters like Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe, Coinbase, Instacart, and Reddit.
Since stepping down from MOVE Texas, Galloway has leveraged the extensive donor networks he’s cultivated from across Texas and the nation to raise BRIDGE’s $1.2 million first-year budget. He called donor interest “high” and said he’ll continue fundraising over the summer.
While Y Combinator’s ongoing funding income comes from the small stakes it takes in the companies it supports, the nonprofits BRIDGE hopes to fledge won’t create profits to fund future cohorts – but Galloway hopes BRIDGE’s Launch Fund will.
He envisions the Launch Fund investing and taking a stake in for-profit startup companies or ideas that seek to empower democracy and expand the electorate. This could include such “civic technology” as the app MOVE collaborated on with Irys, a local government tech company, that allows voters to find the shortest lines among polling sites.
Galloway acknowledged that some groups or ideas BRIDGE funds may fail, but he wants them to have the opportunity to refine their ideas and believes that even the failures will offer valuable insight to Texas progressives working to flip the state from red to blue.
Alex Birnel is one of the founders of MOVE Texas, which began in 2013 as a student-led organization at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Today, Birnel serves as the group’s advocacy manager, training organizers around the state how to effectively push for policy change. He said too many progressives still believe the myth that changing demographics will be enough to overturn the state’s conservative power structure.
Rather than “sitting on the bench, watching the clock,” Birnel believes progressives have an obligation to experiment and thinks Galloway is the right person to lead such an effort. “I think MOVE Texas is an experiment that has proven itself, and I think Drew’s time here showed that experiments can work.” He praised Galloway’s tenacity at MOVE, guiding it from a two-person staff with an annual budget of $90,000 to a statewide organization that boasts a budget of $4.5 million.
Under Galloway’s leadership since 2016, MOVE Texas has registered more than 120,000 young voters and consistently turns out roughly 70 percent of its database in statewide elections, according to the organization.
Attorney Mikal Watts, a major Democratic donor, helped boost MOVE Texas’s fortunes in 2017 when he offered the group a $100,000 donation if it could match his gift within 60 days. It did, and Watts credits Galloway’s vision for the group’s muscular growth.
“I think Drew understands the long game,” he said. “There are a million – quote – political consultants – unquote – who market themselves as the be-all-end-all of voter turnout and take money out of your pocket. Drew didn’t do that with a little money, and now that he controls big money, I know he won’t either. He keeps his eye on the mission.”
Progressive movement builder is Galloway’s second career. His first was in the wine trade. With a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, he moved to San Antonio in 2011 to manage a Specs liquor store. His political awakening came as a member of Travis Park Church.
“Someone asked me, ‘Did you know that your landlord could refuse to renew you and your partner’s lease just because you’re a gay couple?’ and I didn’t believe it, so I looked it up, and it was true,” he said. “Given that San Antonio is home to one of the highest percentages of gay couples with children in the country, I thought about how many families could be affected by this and immediately jumped into action.”
Working alongside some of the city’s veteran organizers, he said, was eye-opening and inspirational. Galloway went back to school to study political science and public administration, taking internships with the city, the county, and the White House’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Administration. He spent a year overseeing the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life’s New Politics Forum, a program that focuses on engaging young people in civic life, before taking the top job at MOVE.
Galloway said MOVE Texas is a success for the same reason he believes BRIDGE will be a success: “We listen to organizers on the ground who are listening to the community. If we follow what the community wants through the work of organizers, we are going to be successful.”
For Radical Registrars, seed funding and mentoring would be a game changer.
Seed funding “would mean I could give 100 percent of my attention to Radical Registrars,” said Reiffert. “We could do more outreach into rural areas and Spanish-speaking areas, really start to build those relationships. The mentorship, too – this world is new to me, and there is so much for me to learn.”
Disclosure: Alex Birnel is a member of the San Antonio Report’s board of community advisors.