A Call for the Pro-Democracy Field to Prepare for Gray Rhinos

Joe Goldman and Crystal Hayling
June 6, 2024

Admitting that you’re planning for the worst-case scenario when it comes to democracy can be tough. It takes courage not to brush aside threats of violence. It is hard to acknowledge that our political systems might fail or that forces are actively working to undermine our election system.

As Democracy Fund’s new paper, On Black Swans, Gray Rhinos, and the 2024 Election outlines, understanding the menagerie of “chaos factors” in front of us may hold the secret to readying the pro-democracy field to meet this moment.

Too often, “Black Swans,” or unpredictable disasters, distract our attention in these conversations. At Democracy Fund, we are more focused on “Gray Rhinos” — the foreseeable dangers that we fail to prepare for, even though they are charging straight at us in plain sight.

What makes a Gray Rhino foreseeable and a Black Swan nearly impossible to predict? The difference is often in what holds our attention. And navigating the chaos factors ahead will come down to listening, readiness, and resilience.

Listen to Marginalized Communities Sounding the Alarm

By the time the rumbling earth caused by a charging rhino is close enough to feel, most responses are ineffectual: fear, hope that the carnage will happen to someone else but not us, doubt that we can do anything to stop it, and of course, the desire to just run and hide. There’s no escaping disaster when a Gray Rhino is on our heels.

However, there are ways to prepare for Gray Rhino threats. One of the best ways to prepare is to listen to marginalized communities, who are often the first lines of both defense and impact. Their perspectives are invaluable because they are often the first to be targeted and tend to have the greatest perspective on the real scope of the dangers we face.

Too often, however, the people closest to the harms aren’t at decision-making tables — their valid concerns and forewarnings are cast aside by people in positions of safety and power.

Take for example, the conservative court’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade as a Gray Rhino. Despite the clear and stated threat, along with the warnings of reproductive justice advocates and BIPOC organizers, many people were not able to imagine or prepare for the court taking this action. The Rhino was charging straight ahead, but too many hoped that it would ultimately divert its path. People who had already directly experienced their rights being taken away were in a better position to realize the threat and know how to organize against it. But with so many ignoring their warnings, we were largely unprepared when the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling finally came down in the summer of 2022.

Political violence may be the next Gray Rhino that will cross our path. Communities that have been under the threat of state-sanctioned violence are keenly tuned into the warning signs of authoritarianism and anti-democratic actors. All the warning signs in our election environment are there, including an alarming rise in threats against front-line leaders, election administrators, and public officials. Movement leaders are raising the alarm and lives are at stake should we continue to ignore their warnings. We need to not only prepare for this very real threat but protect the organizers and communities that are most directly in the path of this Gray Rhino.

Invest in Readiness by Taking Cues from Communities

Listening to marginalized communities doesn’t just help us identify threats. It also provides insights into effective solutions.

The signs and effects of most threats are felt first at a local level, which is also where the groundwork for solutions is often laid. As funders, we must look to local organizers and community-based solutions to understand what is most needed and likely to be the most effective. These efforts often embody the resilience we need — flexible, adaptive, and community-centered, rather than brittle and dependent on external forces.

For example, during COVID-19, mutual aid networks emerged to provide essential support where top-down responses fell short. Similarly, research shows that social connection and cohesion directly aid a community’s ability to recover from natural disasters and public health crises. Communities with a deep sense of connection that adopt a sustained, shared response to threats are more resilient than those relying on temporary, external interventions.

As grantmakers, we can fuel what works. For example, the Trusted Elections Fund has invested in state-based networks to prepare for the dual threats of election sabotage and political violence. And organizations like the Center for Tech and Civic Life are ensuring that under-funded local election offices have the resources they need to carry out a well-run election.

Just as the fields of natural disaster and public health response have developed coordinated strategies, pro-democracy philanthropy can apply this same resilience-planning mindset to prepare for future threats.

Resilience in the Face of Charging Rhinos

Planning for resilience requires us to look clear-eyed at Gray Rhinos and listen intentionally to people who know the signs before they begin to charge. We must listen to those who can see chaos factors on the horizon. With senses heightened to these threats, we may begin to realize that what looks like chaos is complexity. And where chaos can cause us to lose hope, complexity is something we can tackle together.

This preparation involves asking crucial questions: Who are we bringing to the scenario planning table? Whose voices are we listening to and prioritizing? What strengths and solutions already exist at the local level that we can further support?

The more that the grantmaking community can invest in planning and the more we shift resources to community-led efforts, the stronger the pro-democracy field will be. Together, we can weather what is ahead by investing in resilience, engaging in shared preparedness, and building trusted relationships with people who can identify these threats.

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