October 26, 2023 | FEATURES | By Emma Popkin
For about the last 19 months, Mike Williams has been the Executive Director of the Colorado Springs Citizen’s Project, a non-profit working to educate Coloradans on local and national elections, increase voter participation, and promote educational equality in The Springs. He previously served as the chair of the District 11 Equity Leadership Action Team subcommittee and co-founded Neighbors for Education.
Citizen’s Project is one of the Collaborative for Community Engagement’s high-impact partners.
The Catalyst: Tell me a little bit about your background and how you got involved with the Citizen’s Project:
Mike Williams: I’m a Colorado Springs native, I’ve been here since I was two.
Williams’ parents grew up during the Civil Rights era, fighting for basic rights.
They raised us to always fight for what was right. My personality growing up for sure was a little bit contrarian, I was always a kid challenging things. I took that same attitude into community service as well – like why should House District 17, which I live in [and] grew up in, have a 16-year shorter life expectancy than every other district in Colorado Springs? I worked for the NAACP when I was like 13 years old, then I did some educational advocacy stuff, I was the chair of the District 11 equity leadership action team. I’ve been [with the Citizen’s Project] for about 18 to 19 months.
TC: Does the project have a lot of volunteers, or younger volunteers?
MW: That’s my goal, to have more younger volunteers, that’s one of my main focuses. We’re high impact partners with Colorado College, so we try to get youth involvement as much as we can. We did something on Sept. 9 called Beats and Ballots, and that was like an all-day music festival. The whole goal was to get people educated on voting and encourage young folks to vote. So in the Nov. election last year, 34 [year-olds] and under voted at a 12.6% rate, compared to 70-year-olds who voted at an 89.7% rate. We’re just trying to show young folks that it’s one of the largest demographics that has a voice that is not used, so we’re just encouraging that they use the power that they have.
TC: Under your leadership, what have been some of your biggest priorities and initiatives?
MW: A big thing is, there was House District 17, [where] we did a low voter turnout survey, [to really understand] why people in that area are not voting. It’s the third-lowest voting district in the state, the other two areas that vote lower are rural areas, so it’s the biggest metro area that doesn’t vote.
It’s two degrees hotter down here and it’s a food apartheid here, one of my friends says that all the time – it’s not a food desert, it’s a food apartheid, because there’s literally not access to good transportation and healthy food options. It has a lot of disparities, so we’re doing a lot of focused programming down here with a lot of organizations, so like a voter 101 to educate people on the importance of voting, because there’s a bunch of data nationally that shows that areas that have the lowest voting usually have the shortest life expectancies.
We have a lawsuit with the city, currently, it’s going to federal court next year, in the April elections, the vote that’s already low drops 40% from Nov. to April. That’s very targeted – before this last election cycle, there hadn’t been a woman, or a person of color elected to an at-large city seat in over two decades. We just wanted to make sure that people have access and the ability to vote, and the ability to be civically engaged.
TC: Tell me a little bit more about the Citizen’s Project’s educational advocacy work
MW: Education is very important, especially K-12. We have a belief that all kids, no matter their socio-economic status, their gender identity, whatever barriers that young folks may have, we feel that everyone should have access to quality education. We partner with organizations like Neighbors for Education, to show up to places and advocate for that right. We partner with a lot of schools, and we also speak up at board meetings if we need to and moderate forums.
TC: What are some of the biggest factors inhibiting voter turnout and equity in the city?
MW: A few things that I think are inhibiting it are peoples’ access to accurate information. We would do candidate surveys and voter guides and stuff like that. So now what we do is we partner with a few organizations, and we put the voter guides there, like barber shops, Food to Power, et cetera. So, we’re bringing information to people, as opposed to expecting people to come to us.
We’re also trying to educate people [on local elections].
Williams described how they try to simplify each election by providing Voter 101’s so people can understand each office.
We’re just trying to fill in those gaps for people and language barriers, that’s a huge thing.
TC: What are some of the future goals/initiatives of the Citizen’s Project?
MW: We do a legislative report card, after the legislative cycle from Jan. to April, to show people how their legislators voted on issues, and we give them a grade on that. So, we’re expanding that and partnering with Justice Watch on CC’s campus to do a judicial report card. So, they’re helping us do court observations, reviewing sentencing data, et cetera. We do our community engagement series; we’ll have a talk on equity or engagement and get feedback from the community on those different areas. We’re also trying to fundraise to add staff to do those things, so we need a lot of volunteers to help.
TC: How can young people get involved with the Citizen’s Project?
MW: We do forums, generally in the fall when there’s an election. We’ve been partnering with students to help moderate those forums. Next year, we’re doing our low voter turnout survey again, so we’re going to need a bunch of students to help us in the communities we’re serving, that are at least bilingual, just to see how much we moved that needle in a two-year period. We [need help sending] postcards, calls, canvassing, etc. We can’t endorse candidates, but we can take a position on issues, and we just generally encourage people to vote. And then I would just say to come up to the office, we try to have a very open space where people can hit us up and ask questions, and come to events, and follow us on Instagram, where we put up current events. We have a policy and advocacy committee that people can join. We’re a small staff, so we need a lot of help.