Valerie Reiffert regretted missing the first protest in San Antonio that sprang up the weekend after the police murder of George Flloyd in 2020.
She stayed home, worried that counter protestors might endanger the safety of her two-year-old child. But when another protest was planned less than a week later on the last day of her employment doing payroll sales, this time Reiffert made sure to be there.
Making her way to the Bexar County Courthouse, Reiffert found a small group of people who had gathered and joined them. They marched around the courthouse, and at one point reporters emerged to ask about why they were protesting.
“Everybody turned and looked at me, and then I realized I was the only Black person out there,” Reiffert said. “And so I spoke to the press and we kept on marching, and then before I knew it hundreds of people had joined us.”
Shocked by the number of protestors and realizing there was no one at the rally registering voters, Reiffert set out to become deputized with the Bexar County Elections Department to do some voter registration of her own. She said the idea came from an Instagram video she remembered of someone doing voter registration at a Popeyes during the fast food restaurant’s viral chicken sandwich moment in 2019.
“That’s actually like what I thought of when I was out there and saw the amount of people that came out, that’s kind of what I was inspired by,” Reiffert said. “If somebody can register voters at a Popeyes line, then certainly somebody should be registering voters out here.”
Days later, she took the exam and made her way to a third protest ready to register voters.
“I saw some people doing voter registration and I asked if I could join them, they asked if I had a marker, and that’s where Radical Registrars was born,” Reiffert said.
Radical Registrars, a nonprofit Black-led, youth-led voter registration and voter education organization has since gone on to register more than 10,000 voters. The group has also created voter guides and multiple programs, including civics and voter registration classes that see Reiffert visit those incarcerated at the Bexar County Jail twice a month.
When the organization first began in 2020, Reiffert said it operated on spunk, gumption and a shoestring budget of around $2,000 dollars that came from community donations.
A $15,000 grant from Black Voters Matter pushed the work further, and then a $100,000 investment from BRIDGE in 2021 allowed Reiffert to begin paying herself and hire a staff of women of color.
BRIDGE, short for Building Resourced Infrastructure for Diverse Grassroots Engagement, is a startup accelerator for civic and social justice-focused nonprofits.
“It’s a long acronym, but essentially means that we are looking at areas of the state where we see progrssive gaps,” its founder H. Drew Galloway told the Signal of the newly founded company.
Radical Registrars was one of three nonprofit groups selected to be part of BRIDGE’s first class that ran October 2021 and March 2022.
“Really, I just got like everything we needed to set up; tables, tablecloths, t-shirts, technology and stuff like that — clipboards — when we first started we were literally using the backs of signs and cardboard boxes as clipboards,” Reiffert said.
“None of this was really planned,” Reiffert said, describing her journey as going from activist to executive director. “I did what we needed to do to get that $15,000, never really thinking this would be my full time job, but that didn’t come until BRIDGE happened.”
“It allowed me to get off of unemployment and pay myself to do this, because yeah I was definitely doing this fulltime and functioning off unemployment,” Reiffert said.
Besides $100,000 in funding, the accelerator program also included coaching for organizing, finance and operations from two individuals that had worked in similar spaces: Brigid Hall, owner a management consulting firm for nonprofit organizations and former chief operating officer to the Latino youth-focused civic engagement organization Jolt Action, and Raven Douglas, political director for the Texas Future Project and former political director for the well-known voter registration group MOVE Texas.
Before starting BRIDGE, Galloway served as executive director of MOVE Texas between 2016 and 2021, or as it was known back then, MOVE San Antonio, a small voter mobilization group started by a group of diverse students at The University of Texas San Antonio.
“When I arrived it was still very small,” Galloway said. “It was myself, one organizer, and a couple of fellows.”
“We were small, we were scrappy, we registered 8,500 people that year alone in San Antonio on a budget of about $90,000,” he said. “I definitely saw the challenges of startup level nonprofits in the progressive space.”
Galloway said he saw the small startup grow and begin operating around the state, first in Laredo and San Marcos in 2018, then Dallas and Houston in 2019, to Corpus Christi in 2020 and to many suburbs in between.
Today, MOVE Texas boasts dozens of staff members and operates on a about a $4 million budget.
Despite that expansion, Galloway said there are still plenty of other places in the state that don’t receive a lot of on-the-ground civic or social justice work.
“In the progressive organizing sector there’s 25-30 groups that are sort of established with year-round budgets, but you know we can fit three Georgia’s in the state of Texas, we can fit five or six Ohios,” he said.
Galloway left MOVE last year to begin BRIDGE in June 2021. The first BRIDGE program received 31 applicants and funded three spots that ran through the summer.
“We intentionally keep the application process very broad because we don’t want to show up in a place like Loredo, or McAllen or Lubbock and pretend that we know all the answers for that community,” he said. “The application is easy, you can complete it in probably thirty minutes max online when it’s open and then we ask for a four-minute video of you talking about the project.”
“I think the thing that makes us unique is that our program not only comes with dedicated funding, but it comes with a tremendous amount of coaching and very high-touch infrastructure building inside the nonprofits,” Galloway said.
BRIDGE receives its funding statewide and nationally from major individual donors, event fundraisers, and family foundations and other foundations offering civic engagement or issue-based grants. Galloway said roughly 70 percent of last year’s budget went directly to the groups they were backing on the ground.
The two other groups funded by BRIDGE in ACT 4 SA, a nonprofit focused on police accountability in San Antonio created by Fix SAPD board member Ananda Tomas following the city’s narrow Prop B fight over the collective bargaining of police unions, and Somos Tejas, a block walk-focused Latino civic engagement organization.
In April, BRIDGE announced its second cohort of nonprofits in its accelerator program; the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute, a Dallas-based civic empowerment nonprofit for Black women; Trucha, an independent multimedia platform based in the Rio Grande Valley; and FREED Texas, an anti-recidivism nonprofit in San Antonio.
Somos Tejas Executive Director and Co-Founder Ramiro Luna, a DREAM Act activist that made his way into electoral campaigning, worked on dozens of political campaigns in Arizona and Texas (including State Rep. Victoria Neave and Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia) before Somos Tejas.
“I had been wanting to be more creative with my work and see what it would look like if we did a campaign without a candidate at the helm, and instead focused on the areas that needed the most attention,” Luna said.
Somos Tejas set out to increase voter turnout in Latino neighborhoods of Dallas with Luna at the helm, working on the organization unpaid and part-time while doing politics on the side.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t secure funding, we couldn’t secure grants and things of that nature,” Luna said. “So the first two years we were a 100 percent pretty much volunteer-run, self funded organization that the money that we raised was the money that went into the work that we were doing.”
Despite its early budget troubles, the group and its work received a fair amount of local media coverage, including from the Dallas Observer and The Dallas Morning News as well as fanfare from supporting lawmakers. Still, by the two-year mark of the nonprofit’s start, it was close to burning out, Luna said.
“I remember having conversations with our board to see how long our organization could survive, literally like weeks before we found out about BRIDGE,” he said, recalling a “come-to-Jesus moment” where he told board members he would have to begin searching for a full-time job.
“Honestly, it was like our lifeline, it was literally our lifeline,” Luna said of the funding. “We were barely surviving by a thread.”
The real saving grace was the actual information provided by the program, Luna said, explaining that his previous experience of running campaigns did not prepare him for the life of nonprofit executive director that had to worry about hiring a certified public accountant, long-term budgeting, or creating “marketable programs” for future funds.
Somos Tejas now conducts year-round civic engagement in Latino neighborhoods with Luna working full time and two part-time staffers in a physical office space. The nonprofit has knocked on 20,000 doors in specific precincts in Dallas, two of which Luna said grew by more than 200 percent in voter turnout. In April, the group is hosting its first fundraiser.
“The idea was kind of there, but it was very much an idea that was in the rough,” Luna said.
“There were different elements that I had no idea that donors really needed to hear,” he said.
Fernando covers Texas politics and government at the Texas Signal. Before joining the Signal, Fernando spent two years at the Houston Chronicle and previously interned at Houston’s NPR station News 88.7. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, and enjoys reading, highlighting things, and arguing on social media. You can follow him on Twitter at @fernramirez93 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org