Citizen Engagement Lab (CEL) is an Oakland, California-based 501(c)(4) social welfare and political consulting group that organizes left-of-center groups for the purpose of advocating on a range of liberal political issues. CEL was founded in 2008 by Ian Inaba and Daniel Souweine, left-wing political activists and organizers active in Democratic Party politics.
As an IRS-defined social welfare nonprofit, CEL acts in tandem with its 501(c)(3) affiliate, CEL Education Fund, to provide consulting services and financial resources to politically active left-of-center not-for-profit organizations.
Citizen Engagement Lab is subdivided into several branches, each of which operates a distinct role in the umbrella organization: Engagement Consulting; Acceleration Services; the 501(c)3 CEL Education Fund; and two “Innovation Labs,” the Climate Lab and Culture Lab.
Engagement Consulting is CEL’s primary instrument for political engagement, and lists its primary focus as helping clients “plan, staff, resource, and execute innovative social change projects.” CEL works with media producers, philanthropic organizations, and social entrepreneurs on “development consulting, fundraising, website and digital asset creation, software platform development, content creation, data analysis, and tactical project execution.”
CEL lists the following groups as its Engagement Consulting Partners:
- America by the Numbers
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC)
- The Ford Foundation
- The Kapor Center for Social Impact
- Open Society Foundations
- Years of Living Dangerously
CEL’s Acceleration Services department lists its goal as supporting “startups” that are testing new solutions to liberal issue areas like climate change, economic inequality, and democratic participation. Like CEL’s other clients, they are broadly left-wing and often have ties to general progressive outlets and influencers, such as George Soros. A number of CEL’s Acceleration Services clients are also CEL projects or are managed by current or former CEL employees, including Presente.org, Faces of Fracking, and ClimateTruth.org. Many clients also receive funding and resources from the CEL Education Fund, which is permitted by IRS rules to donate to politically active organizations, but limited in its ability to engage in political activity directly.
CEL lists the following groups as its Acceleration Services Partners.
- Arts in a Changing America
- Climate Parents* (a project of the Sierra Club Foundation)
- Climate Relief Fund* (formerly named Forecast the Facts)*
- Colibri Center
- Demand Progress
- Faces of Fracking*
- Faithful America*
- Latino Startup Alliance*
- MPower Change
- Open Summit*
- Transform Finance
*Beneficiary of the CEL Education Fund
The CEL Climate Lab was launched in 2011 to “strengthen the U.S. climate organizing and communications landscape.” It is currently directed by CEL co-founder Daniel Souweine. The Climate Lab hosts a number of online multimedia projects, including ClimateTruth.org, the Climate Reliefe Fund, Climate Parents, and Facees of Fracking. Cumulatively, these projects work to influence environmental public policy and advance a global warming ideological agenda, while mitigating the use of petroleum and natural gas as energy sources.
The CEL Culture Lab, which describes itself as a fusion between an “action center” and a “think tank,” was created to “use tech-savvy strategies to fill the gap in culture organizing… to help changemakers leverage culture and advance social progress.” Tracy van Slyke, a progressive culture author and left-wing activist, founded the Culture Lab in 2014. It offers multimedia and strategy consulting and conducts field audits of how left-of-center social issue clients invest and operate. The Culture Lab caters to left-wing LGBTQ organizations with social media, television, film, and music content.
Controversies and Activism
Citizen Engagement Lab had a long-standing relationship with the now defunct and controversial public relations shop FitzGibbon Media, which shut its doors after sexual assault allegations. FitzGibbon, a major progressive Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm, had worked with the major left-wing activist and feminist groups including MoveOn, Center for American Progress, NARAL, and AFL-CIO until female employees accused company president Trevor FitzGibbon in December 2015 of committing sexual harassment and sexual assault against them. FitzGibbon denied the allegations, but promptly closed the office.
CEL is connected to the Democracy Alliance (DA), a network of liberal donors who fund Democratic campaigns and progressive political infrastructure. CEL is one of the DA’s recommended organizations for member donors to underwrite—a list that also includes CEL-linked groups including Color of Change, Center for American Progress, and Organizing for Action.
The CEL Education Fund has several main funding sources, two of which (Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program and Fidelity Investment Charitable Gift Fund) are donor-advised funds, vehicles condemned by liberal activists as supposed “dark money”:
- Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation: $4,500,029 since 2013
- Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program: $875,000 since 2013
- Open Society Foundations (formerly Open Society Institute): $1,320,000 since 2012
- Fidelity Investment Charitable Gift Fund: $1,180,000 since 2013
- Schmidt Family Foundation: $725,000 since 2012
Ian Inaba is a co-founder of CEL, film and music video director, and former journalist for the now-defunct Guerrilla News Network (GNN). In 2006, Inaba co-founded Video the Vote with John Wellington Ennis of Shoot First, Inc., and James Rucker of Color of Change. Video the Vote is a left-wing documentary nonprofit aimed at promoting liberal voting and election policies, and has ties to various far-left agitation organizations, including MoveOn.org and the Brennan Center for Justice. Inaba earns a reported compensation from CEL and related organizations of $174,259.
James Rucker is a co-founder of CEL, and co-founder and executive director of Color of Change. He has an extensive history in far-left political activism and identity politics, including Presente.org, a progressive Latino activist group. Ian Inabe previously served on the board of Presente.org. Rucker has worked as Director of Grassroots Mobilization for MoveOn.org. He is also a former advisory board member for New Media Ventures, a Democracy Alliance- and George Soros-affiliated angel investor company aimed at funding far-left political causes.
Jackie Mahendra is the former executive director of Citizen Engagement Lab. Since April 2018, Mahendra has served as a senior advisor to the Omidyar Network. Prior to that, Mahendra served as a senior fellow at MoveOn.org. She previously served as director of organizing at the left-wing petition website Change.org, worked at the pro-immigration group America’s Voice, and was a board member of Netroots Nation, a left-of-center networking organization.
Daniel Souweine is a co-founder of CEL, and currently serves as director of CEL’s Climate Lab and co-director of the Climate Relief Fund. An activist in Democratic Party politics, Souweine previously worked as the director of the national texting program for U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vermont) 2016 presidential campaign, which he launched in February 2016. Souweine has also been active in environmental activism for various left-of-center organizations, including ClimateTruth.org (formerly named Forecast the Facts), a climate change agitation group identifying itself as a “project of Citizen Engagement Lab.”
Vanessa Fajans-Turner (Board Chair)
Ian Inaba (Board Member)
Cheryl Contee (Board Member)
Sojeila Maria Silva (Board Treasurer)
Shannon Baker (Director of Development and Communications)
Casey Harrell (Director of Climate Lab)
Susannah Hook Rodgers (Chief of Staff)
Many of the organizations CEL supports at its various levels are run by current and former CEL staff:
- Jay Costa, formerly CEL’s Campaign Director, serves as CounpterPAC’s executive director.
- Royce Chang, formerly an associate at CEL, serves as CounterPAC’s research and operations associate.
- Julia Rhodes Davis works for Vote.org and CounterPAC, CEL acceleration partner, and has been listed on tax documents as one of CEL and CEL Education Fund’s board members.