An Update on our Defending Our Democracy Program

Posted Nov 17, 2020, by Veronica Coptis

From left: Mark Dugan, Phoenix White, Paul Fedore, Prem Rajgopal, and Jeromy Mackey.

From left: Mark Dugan, Phoenix White, Paul Fedore, Prem Rajgopal, and Jeromy Mackey.

The Defending Our Democracy program of the Center for Coalfield Justice is a new initiative centered around civic engagement and voter education. We brought four Organizing Fellows and a Field Coordinator onto our team in order to implement the program, keeping with our values of hiring people from our communities. Since August, we have worked tirelessly to keep Washington and Greene County residents informed about environmental and economic justice. We also have worked to create an open space where community members felt heard and had a nonpartisan resource to learn from about the voting process and local candidates’ positions on issues that matter to them.

Our work started with an issue-based deep canvas of residents in Washington and Greene Counties. We asked questions about environmental, economic, and racial justice, texting over 10,000 people with an average response rate of 25%. From those, we have routinely engaged with about 300 people in order to move them into action. We also called more than 1,000 people and had insightful conversations on the issues that matter to them and why this election was important to them. In September, we held a community meeting to foster conversations between residents and to present our initial canvas results and plans moving forward. 

Using the information we gathered through these canvases, our Defending Our Democracy program curated a candidate questionnaire for all of the PA 14th Congressional District candidates. Our main goal was to ensure that all voters in our community were informed about the positions of the candidates running for the congressional seat. 

Our team has also provided resources via social media posts, blogs, and community meetings on the vote-by-mail process, changes at the polls, and ensuring people know what their rights are in regard to voting. In a confusing election season, this work helped to inform the public about how they could vote both in-person and remotely. 

Throughout October and early November, our program supported Make the Road PA and CASA in their Get Out the Vote programs. Our team text and phone-banked to help voters have a concrete plan to cast their vote. Through this work, our team was able to reach many community members and ensure that we got out the vote.

Our team also trained through the Center for Popular Democracy Voter Guardian Program to provide de-escalation of any voter intimidation that might occur. With widespread reports of potential situations of voter intimidation and suppression, we had multiple staff members on call during polling hours to help de-escalate potential situations. We also distributed water, masks, and other materials to voters while they waited in lines at the polls. 

Lastly, we planned and held a Count Every Vote car rally in Washington County on November 7th. At this rally, we stressed the importance of fair elections and the need to ensure that our officials count every vote, because every vote matters. We had speakers and music and gave out masks and shirts in order to help get our message across. Close to 30 people gathered, and we made our voices heard.

A few reflections from our Organizing Fellows:

“Being able to be a part of the Defending Our Democracy program is an accomplishment that I do not take lightly. This work gives me the opportunity to pursue my dreams to work for a better future for our community while giving me a safe place to do so, and for that I couldn’t be more thankful.” ~ Phoenix White

“Working as an organizing fellow for the Center for Coalfield Justice on the Defending Our Democracy program has been the experience of a lifetime. To me the program is about building people power through having an informed electorate.” ~ Prem Rajgopal

“I have only ever lived in two counties, Washington and Greene, and so connecting with CCJ and being able to help protect the democracy of my home was an incredibly rewarding opportunity. CCJ invests in the area and its community members, and has helped to develop many of my skills and ambitions.” ~ Jeromy Mackey

“Working on CCJ’s Defending Our Democracy program has been a rewarding experience with unique insight into our electoral processes and the mechanisms which ensure its integrity.” ~ Mark Dugan

In conclusion, the Center for Coalfield Justice’s Defending Our Democracy program was able to accomplish quite a lot. We were able to learn more about where our community stands on the issues, inform our community about the voting process, and help further the narrative that every vote must be counted. Our civic engagement work, however, is just getting started as we move forward. We want to continue growing our base of members and supporters while advocating for a more just future that includes both environmental and economic justice. Our organizing fellows will be with us for a few more months to continue their skill-building and to support our ongoing issue work. 


  • Veronica Coptis

    Veronica Coptis joined the CCJ staff in March 2013 as a Community Organizer and is now serving as the Executive Director. She grew up in western Greene County near the Bailey Mine Complex and currently lives in the eastern part of the county. Before joining the CCJ staff, Veronica served on the Board of Directors for CCJ and organized with Mountain Watershed Association. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology from West Virginia University. She enjoys hiking and geocaching at Ryerson State Park and other areas around Greene County with her husband and daughters. Read more about Veronica in a New Yorker Magazine profile at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/07/03/the-future-of-coal-country. Contact Veronica at veronica@centerforcoalfieldjustice.org.

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