Meet Project Civics: Breaking down barriers to political participation in Allen County

When Fort Wayne residents Brooke Klejnot and Lindsey Corwin were preparing to vote in the 2020 primary election, they wanted to give due diligence to their civic duty.

In an effort to be engaged and informed citizens, they sought to educate themselves on the issues, the structure of local government, and the candidates running for each office. What they didn’t realize was how challenging it would be—not only to navigate the ins and outs of politics, but even to access the information.

“A lot of the information about political candidates is scattered across the internet or incomplete,” Corwin says. “Even when important information is available, it’s usually not presented in a manner that makes it easy or enjoyable to read. We thought: Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a one-stop-shop where people could find information about candidates and how local government works?”

Lindsey Corwin and Brooke Klejnot are the Co-Founders of Project Civics.

Out of this question, the concept for Project Civics was born. Founded in June and launched in August, the social media-based organization has grown to a team of about 17 volunteers and advisers committed to breaking down barriers to political knowledge and participation in Allen County. Together, they’re creating a one-stop, nonpartisan platform for civic engagement, including candidate profiles, voter registration booths, and even flow charts that explain government structure.

Along with increasing participation in everything from local to federal politics, Project Civics hopes to inform and empower residents with the knowledge to ask for specific changes they want to see in their community, Klejnot explains. Earlier this summer, she watched a County Council meeting following the Black Lives Matter protests in downtown Fort Wayne where council members received hundreds of emails from concerned citizens about matters, which they said they had no power to address. 

“Citizens had unknowingly reached out to the County regarding issues they had no control over,” Klejnot says. “One of the council members went on to say that if anything were going to get done, there needed to be a Civics 101 course for the citizens of Allen County.”

Project Civics hopes to provide just that in a way that’s free, interesting, and locally focused.

While 2020 is a historic year and an election year, Corwin says the ultimate goal is to extend civic participation to citizens’ daily lives, every year. That way, when they wanted to suggest an idea to elected officials, they know who to contact and what to ask for.

“A lot of times, people say that their city is boring, or they don’t like it for whatever reason,” Corwin says. “But what people don’t realize is that a city is only as good as the people in it. It’s us who have to make it better. We want to educate people on things they can do to as citizens to make a difference, whether it’s sitting on commissions or boards or simply speaking up at City Council meetings. You don’t have to be a decisionmaker to have an impact on the community.”

In honor of National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 22, Input Fort Wayne sat down with Klejnot and Corwin to learn more about Project Civics and the role it plays in increasing and informing civic engagement.

Project Civics has been hosting voter registration booths around Allen County in 2020.

IFW: Project Civics has a team of about 17 volunteer members. Tell us how everyone came together around this concept.

LC: When we started telling our friends around town about this idea to gather information about local, state, and federal government, we realized that many of them were feeling the same way we were. They were frustrated because they wanted to see changes happen in their community, and they wanted to find their place in making a difference. But they also didn’t know what to do or where to start. The first team meeting for Project Civics.

We ended up gathering a team of creatives and organizers—graphic designers, web developers, copywriters, and researchers. Many of us are people who need the website ourselves, so we also gathered a validation team of retired or current politicians and educators to ensure that the information we’re putting out is accurate and nonpartisan. For example, we often reach out to the Election Board or Andy Downs at the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

IFW: As the nation appears to be growing increasingly divided, tell us about your commitment to providing unbiased, nonpartisan information.

BK: Politics today is polarizing. Being nonpartisan was an important choice for us. We didn’t want anyone to be discouraged from educating themselves on civics, their local community, and how they can be impactful because they thought we picked a side.

Project Civics is purely about providing information that helps people better understand our political system so they can participate, be heard, and make a difference in their community. We don’t interject our opinions or our personal biases. We just present factual civics education.

IFW: Let’s talk about candidates. How does Project Civics find information about political candidates to inform voters?

BK: One reason that Lindsay and I were inspired to start Project Civics in the first place was that everyone tells voters to educate themselves on the candidates, but when we went looking for information about local candidates, we found that the information was often incomplete or not there at all. Some candidates have a ton of information about themselves available to the public; others have hardly any information out there to help people make a decision. So we realized that if we wanted to be a one-stop-shop for voters, then we would have to put in the work to seek out information about candidates ourselves.

This is our first election that we’re doing this, so we’re going to see how it goes, but our goal is to present a comprehensive guide to all of the candidates. We’re reaching out to the candidates themselves and asking them questions about what they stand for and what direction they want the city or county to head. If candidates are party affiliated, we’ll reach out to the party, too.

It’s a process, but what we’re trying to avoid is sharing information that is incomplete. If we are able to cover one candidate really thoroughly, we want to cover their opponent just as thoroughly. Some candidates make it easy, and some make it difficult.

IFW: In addition to candidate profiles, Project Civics also focuses on basic government education. Tell us about that part of your work.

BK: Based on the input we got from educators, we are going to introduce government structure by talking about the federal government first. That’s because most people are more familiar with the federal government’s players and processes than local or state government.

From that starting point, we’ll begin introducing state and local government information, too. State government is structured similarly to federal government in a lot of ways, but there are a lot of nuances in local government that we want to help people understand.

Since this year is an election year, our time and energy right now is being spent covering the election, the candidates, and voting. That includes things like the id requirements for voting and the many methods you can use to vote—applying for an absentee ballot, voting by mail, voting early at a location, or waiting until Election Day.

This information is especially important to share with the public because of COVID. Many people are concerned about safety, so absentee voting (vote by mail) and early voting is a great option.

Project Civics creates eye-catching graphics to educate citizens about issues, candidates, and government structure.

IFW: A lot of your work so far has been focused on hosting and promoting voter registration booths. Tell us more about that leading up to National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 22.

BK: National Voter Registration Day is an important date for us and other advocates for citizen engagement because the 22nd kicks off the last two weeks you can register to vote before the deadline on Oct. 5. It is a huge push to get as many people registered as possible—friends, family, neighbors, co-workers. Everyone! 

To help as many citizens as possible get registered to vote this year, we created a DIY guide to setting up your own voter registration booth in your neighborhood or workplace. Citizens have until Oct. 5 to register to vote in the 2020 general election.

People might think that running a voter registration booth takes a lot of time and effort, but with our simple DIY guide, all you need is five items you can find around the house to set up a voter registration booth, and you can do it on your lunch break at work. It really doesn’t have to be difficult.

If you don’t want to run your own booth, consider posting to social media or texting your friends and family to remind them that the voter registration deadline is coming up.  

In our research, we’ve found that more than 1 in 4 unregistered voters reported not being registered because they didn’t know how to do it, they kept forgetting to do it, they were too busy to do it, or they had recently moved. A nudge from a friend may be all that is needed to get these people to register and vote.

IFW: Speaking of voting, how does Indiana compare to other states when it comes to voter turnout?

BK: Voter turnout in Indiana is very poor. According to the 2019 Indiana Civic Health Index, we’re ranked 40th in voter registration—and that’s only counting those who register to vote. That same year, Indiana ranked 41st in voter turnout, with just over 58 percent of registered voters showing up to the polls.

So we still have a long way to go in encouraging people to be part of the voting process. The Indianapolis Star reports that Indiana has been in the bottom 10 states for voter turnout in four of the past five elections.

Project Civics provides Allen County-centric information about engaging in civic life.

Part of what Project Civics aims to do is to take the intimidation factor out of the voting process. A lot of folks say, “I don’t feel educated enough about this topic or candidate to vote, so I’m going to not participate.” We’re there to help them feel confident about the entire process, on top of helping them learn about the topics and the candidates.

I’ve voted in almost every election since I was 18, and it’s still a process for me to show up to a voting location and hope that I do this right. Oftentimes, even people who understand how important it is to vote might still feel intimidated about being part of the voting process.

Project Civics has been hosting voter registration booths in the summer of 2020.

IFW: This is an election year, but what happens with Project Civics after 2020? What are your plans for the future?

LC: When we started Project Civics, we talked a lot about how our mission is about more than just an election. This isn’t just a “Get out and vote” thing. We want it to be a lifestyle change for people. We want people to be engaged in the political system.

There’s so much that needs to be explained about local government and how it works, so after this election season, we’ll have the opportunity to dive into that. We want to cover topics that community members are interested in, so on our website, we have a “Send us your questions” link. We encourage people to submit questions there for us to answer on our social pages.

A lot of questions we’ve received so far are about local government. People want us to help them understand what City Council does or what County Council does, so we’ll be working on that more after the election. Many of us know how our federal government works and pay close attention to federal elections. But many of us don’t understand how local government works, and local government actually affects us much more in tangible, everyday ways.

A voter registration booth hosted by Project Civics on The Landing in downtown Fort Wayne.

BK: To add to what Lindsey said, helping people understand how government works is the first step to bringing about change. At the end of the day, we started Project Civics to help people make a difference in their community and to give them a voice.

We genuinely believe engagement in the political system is the best way to tackle our community’s biggest (and smallest) issues.

Our government is structured to give the people a tremendous amount of influence. But government is also complicated, and it’s not easy to access. When I first reached out for help to understand how local government worked, a professional in the field recommended I buy a 500-page textbook that cost about $100. It was such a good example of how inaccessible civics education is.

You shouldn’t have to have a degree in political science to effectively participate in government. So our goal for Project Civics following the election is to keep chipping away at the barriers keeping people from being active in local government. We want to keep providing easy to read, easy to understand, easy to find, free civics education to the people of Fort Wayne and Allen County.

IFW: If anyone’s interested in supporting you, using your resources, or getting involved with Project Civics, what should they do?

BK: People should stay tuned to our social media pages the next three to four weeks for important information and updates leading up to the election. Find us at @projectcivicsfw on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

They can also connect with us directly at [email protected]. We are always looking for volunteers to help us with our important work!

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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