Electoral Power Building

Liberty Vote! Honors Longtime Liberty Hill Champion Gary Stewart

October 28, 2020
By raymond

“How can I help? What can I do?”

The late Gary Stewart’s first encounter with activism came in 1988 when he walked into the offices of a shoestring progressive group called Coalition 88 in a strip mall on Western Avenue and asked, “How can I help? What can I do?” 

When Michele Prichard, now Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives for the Liberty Hill Foundation, asked him to deliver some literature for shipping and offered him the petty cash to pay for it, he responded, “Don’t worry. I got it.”

Gary’s cheerful, can-do fighting spirit would be a fixture in progressive Los Angeles advocacy for the next three decades, including 20 years on the Liberty Hill board, several of them as chair. He is the guiding inspiration for the relaunch of the Liberty Vote! Initiative in advance of this November’s vital elections.

Liberty Vote! is a nonpartisan electoral engagement program dedicated to voter engagement in disenfranchised communities. Its goal is to build the electoral power of the communities most harmed by systemic oppression so that they can win progressive policy changes. By helping our grassroots partners add voter engagement to their organizing toolkit, Liberty Vote! donors are amplifying the voices of the grassroots in the halls of power.

“Gary believed in the basic principle of every person having a vote, and an equal voice,” said Prichard, a longtime friend of Stewart’s. “But he clearly saw the barriers faced by people who experienced some of the biggest social challenges, who were poor, young, jobless, didn’t speak English, and he saw that these represented an unfair obstruction of democracy that we have to work to surmount.”

Gary was a great believer and booster of the idea of donor activism. He understood that ensuring that dedicated, professional organizers on the ground in low-income communities and communities of color had financial resources was an essential contribution to the struggle for justice and equity.

“Writing a check isn’t a cop-out,” he told the audience at Liberty Hill’s 2011 Upton Sinclair Dinner, where he received the Founders’ Award. “It’s not a passive, disconnected act. It’s part of making change happen—a key part. The best people doing community-based work are paid trained and experienced staff. Without checks, they don’t get hired — and that work just doesn’t happen.”

In celebration of that spirit, Liberty Hill will be issuing Liberty Vote! Electoral Engagement Grants in Honor of Gary Stewart. These grants of up to $40,000 are helping established community partners conduct nonpartisan voter engagement during this election year, including voter education, voter registration, precinct and community leadership training, and access to new voting technology and data programs. 

In addition to these grants, Liberty Vote! will also support ballot initiatives spearheaded by grassroots organizers and advance justice and equity, such California Proposition 15, the Schools and Communities First Act, which would raise $6 to 9 billion per year in new tax revenue by eliminating property tax breaks for large businesses. These funds would go to support public education and community-based social services.

While current efforts are directed towards November’s elections, the long-term goal of Liberty Vote! is to catalyze change with year-round attention to building civic engagement in oppressed communities, from voting to attending public hearings, contacting elected officials, and creating political pressure for progressive change. One of the reasons that Liberty Vote! is particularly focused on engagement in low-voter-turnout areas is that these communities, often skeptical of their power to make a difference after years of neglect, can see the most significant changes simply by awakening their political muscles through organizing. 

This is how sustained voter engagement can boost ongoing organizing—by ensuring that public officials know that if they ignore the demands of their communities, their jobs in office are at risk.

“Gary knew the importance of helping our partners nurture grassroots electoral power in their communities. So, it was no surprise that he championed Liberty Vote! when it was first launched in 2008,” said Liberty Hill co-founder Sarah Pillsbury. “By reviving Liberty Vote! for this critical election, we are honoring his legacy and ensuring that low-income communities of color, too often ignored in our political system, have the organization and information to flex their power at the polls, hold elected officials accountable, and make their demands for progressive change impossible to ignore.”

At Gary’s memorial service in 2019, his friend Michele Prichard said that the words he spoke to her on that first day in the offices of Coalition 88 — How can I help? What can I do? Don’t worry, I got it — embodied his approach to activism for the rest of his life.

So how can we help? Let’s fund organizing that builds voting power where it's needed most. 

What can we do? Take up Gary’s call and carry forward with a donation to support these electoral engagement grants here.

Don’t worry. We got it.