Welcome back! Spiffy here, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs working to make a difference in the world. Today I’m talking to someone who is passionate about UN SDG #11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, Kenrick Ross, the founder and Chief of Everything at CONSTITUENT, an app that provides key information about local elections.
Spiffy: Welcome Kenrick, I’m excited to hear about the challenges you’re addressing. What can you tell me?
Kenrick: In American politics, you will often hear the phrase “all politics is local”—and this is mostly true. Most policies that impact our daily lives are made on the municipal and state levels, especially in a federal system like the United States where political decision-making is shared among 50,000 different bodies. Yet voter turnout in local elections is extremely low and has been trending downward for decades. Sometimes, as little as 5% of voters determine election winners. There are many factors that explain this lackluster participation, but some of the simplest is information and access—the when, who, and what of local elections.
Spiffy: This sounds stellar! What exactly motivated you to provide information on local elections?
Kenrick: Having worked on issues of inequity and inequality in urban communities for nearly 20 years, I know how important local politics is and how byzantine and inaccessible it can be. Most people don't know who their local elected officials are, what they do, or who is running to replace them. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to make it easier for constituents to get more involved in local politics, in simple, easy, and free ways. Ultimately, the more that people are educated about policies and are participating in politics, the better. It’s a great thing not only for our communities, but for the practice of democracy in general.
Spiffy: How would you say that you’re working to make the world a more equitable place?
Kenrick: Well, Spiffy, local politics is not only about who gets put into office, or stays there, but how their policy preferences come to impact our daily lives and those of our neighbors. Our local elections impact every aspect of our lives. The CONSTITUENT app is a free, simple, easy-to-use way of accessing local politics for anyone with a phone. Anyone can find information about voting in our community, deadlines, important dates, offices, races, candidate details, and articles. We feature every race and every candidate, and include a candidate feed so any campaign can instantaneously post information to their pages. We are not fixing all the structural or social barriers to local voting, but we are creating a crucial gateway to access to information and participation in the voting process.
Spiffy: Can you tell me about a recent milestone you’ve achieved?
Kenrick: CONSTITUENT was recently part of the Blueprint Fellowship of New York Impact Hub, which was an awesome experience to ground us in the capacity and technical aspects of a lean startup. The experience also provided us with a community of fellow social entrepreneurs at different stages of development, from ideation to expansion. CONSTITUENT is my entrepreneurial project, and I became Executive Director of NQAPIA, an LGBTQ API federation, earlier this year. So far, it has been an intense but incredible 2021.
Spiffy: I have to ask: have you ever faced failure? What did you learn?
Kenrick: For a long time, particularly much of the past decade, I worried that my whole "life's work" thing had become a failure. I didn't know exactly where I should be in life and a career, but I was also convinced that I wasn’t there yet. I had these doubts, despite contributing to and building things that I am incredibly proud of. I learned that it’s not a zero-sum approach of failure and success—it’s not all about the big things, like career or life's purpose, or the small things like specific projects. It's a process, and often we miss the incredible present as we pursue amorphous perfection. This is especially true when you are incredibly hard on yourself.
Spiffy: I’m curious if you’ve learned anything surprising from someone recently?
Kenrick: I am in a household of three—me, my partner Joe, and our cat, Kitty—and I am the least wise among us. Joe always says, "everything is terrible until it's not"—especially when things are pretty good, but your unreasonable standards make them seem terrible. And Kitty shows me that simple things, like a box, or fighting a piece of lint, can make someone's day. These kinds of lessons have helped me develop a practice of gratitude during this pandemic and it’s yielded so many more things to be grateful for.
Spiffy: Before we sign off, is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?
Kenrick: For much of the early part of the pandemic and living in Brooklyn, the epicenter of the American pandemic, I often thought: “if these were the final weeks of your life, how would you want to live them and what would you want that life to mean?” It's a question that I come back to every time I think of something that is overwhelming or out of reach. From tackling issues around local civic engagement to becoming executive director of a national organization, if there is one thing I've learned during this pandemic, it’s to do the thing—DO take opportunities.
Spiffy: That’s an amazing lesson, right there, Kenrick! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, it’s been an honor!
Kenrick Ross is the Executive Director of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, and the founder of CONSTITUENT, a civic engagement startup. He previously founded Urban&Out, an LGBTQBIPOC professional network, and worked in a broad range of social impact leadership roles. Kenrick serves on several boards and plays as much tennis as he can. (Nominated by Impact Hub New York. First published on the Ladderworks website on May 26, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s interviews of founders building a more equitable world here.