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Electoral Organizing and Grassroots Organizing

fastforumlogo Welcome back to Fast Forum!  Consider it a “Plenary-to-Go” or, maybe an “Insta-Debate!”  We pick a hot topic and ask 3 – 6 organizers from across the country to weigh in. They will have about 500 words to make us go “….hmmmmm.” Our hope is to draw out new ideas and to encourage new voices to take a stab at the freshest challenges facing our community. This month, we asked four organizers for their reflections on the question:

How does electoral work support or undermine grassroots organizing efforts?


We have incredible contributions from: Mattie Weiss, Wellstone Action and Erik Peterson, Wellstone Action; Rishi Awatramani, Virginia New Majority; Charles Lenchner, Organizing 2.0; and Jessamyn Sabbag, Oakland Rising.

What should we talk about next time? Got something you think people need to hear? Email us: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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CCW me Mattie Weiss, the director of Campus Camp Wellstone (a program of Wellstone Action) is a long-time youth movement organizer, writer, and leader. Mattie wrote two chapters of the book, How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office, which she toured around the country, organizing and speaking on behalf of the League of Pissed Off Voters in the 2004 presidential election.

classic Erik move Erik Peterson has 25 years of experience as a community-based educator, trainer, and community and electoral organizer. He has served at all levels of campaign organizing in state and local races, most recently as the lead consultant for Mark Ritchie’s successful 2006 campaign for Minnesota Secretary of State, and as the northern Minnesota Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) director for America Votes.

Building Power

“Electoral politics without community organizing is a politics without a base.  And community organizing without grassroots electoral politics is a marginal politics. And electoral politics and community organizing without good progressive policy is a politics without a head – without a goal.”    - Senator Paul Wellstone

Wellstone Action is focused on building long-term, strategic progressive/Left power and enacting strong, resource-distributive, progressive public policy. We do this work within a framework we call,  “The Wellstone Triangle.”

wellstone

Grassroots Organizing

In one corner of the triangle we have grassroots organizing (encompassing community, identity-based, and labor organizing), where we grow our organizations and movements. This is the work of building relationships and trust within communities; finding common ground that ties our issues together so our collective efforts magnify each other; building commitment and infrastructure around a compelling vision; and recruiting, training, mentoring, and supporting new leaders.

Electoral Politics

Another corner of the triangle represents electoral campaigns, in which we elect decision-makers committed to our agenda and accountable to our communities. It involves investing in candidate recruitment and development with a long-term strategy for moving good candidates toward higher office; and investing in training a new generation of grassroots political campaign organizers.

Public Policy

The third component of the Wellstone Triangle is about setting an agenda. Ideas inspire us; values ground and center us; public policies are how we enact our ideas and values in the real world. Moving policy is not just about drafting good legislation. This is the place of idea work, where we develop strategies to shift values and debates at the level of mass consciousness. We also develop the new generation of intellectuals and policy writers who are connected to our two other corners of grassroots organizing and electoral politics.

Why?

Historically, progressives and Left organizers within each of these three corners of the triangle have operated in silos, away from and even disdainful of one another. This has seriously weakened us. For example, over this decade young people have gotten more powerful in their capacity to mobilize around elections. We were the heart and many of the limbs of the Obama campaign. But now that our candidate is in office and the battle over health care, war, civil rights and immigration is going down, our voices are noticeably absent. While we were building our capacity to work on elections we developed precious little experience mobilizing around local, state and national policy, such that the man we put in office has no reason to be accountable to us.

Similarly, policy and decision-makers without a grassroots movement of people behind them are frequently either ineffectual or create policy that is damaging to our communities (intentionally or not). At a training we did with prostituted women several months ago, a sympathetic state senator came to talk about the anti-trafficking legislation she had authored. She is a strong supporter of the rights of sex workers and has the capacity to move ideas into law, but she had drafted the legislation without the voices and certainly without the mobilization of those directly impacted by the policy. When the women sat down with the language of the bill, they immediately identified ways it would backfire and increase harassment by law enforcement.

And grassroots organizing and great vision, without a voice at the tables of power, is a stymied power. Paul Wellstone decided to run for office after years of frustrating fights around welfare, farm foreclosures, apartheid and veteran’s benefits—so that the people of MN would have somebody in office on their side when they mobilized their communities around issues that impacted them.

Integrating the Triangle

When all three pieces of the triangle are working in concert, we build long-term movement and institutional power. Of course, at different times during any given cycle, certain actions and pieces of the triangle rise to greater importance.  Last year elections took greater precedence.  Our work on local, state and national races and ballot initiatives was an incredible opportunity for us to expand our base and engage people in conversations about their lives and what matters to them.  These new relationships and conversations are the foundation from which we build our issues and policy campaigns moving forward. And in the next elections, new people we have brought in and leaders we have developed through our issue organizing will be instrumental in winning victories at the ballot box.  That is how we build real, sustainable power.

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rishi Rishi Awatramani is Lead Organizer at Virginia New Majority (VNM). VNM is a member of the Right to the City Alliance. Rishi is on the US Social Forum National Planning Committee representing Leftist Lounge, has previously worked as a union and community organizer, and is a long-time activist with several organizations.

The dual objectives of 1) winning improvements in the lives of oppressed communities and 2) challenging US-led imperialism from within the US find their best chances for success if we are able to organize communities in not just effective and creative campaigns, but also if we’re able to organize in large numbers. Social movements in this country, therefore, have the responsibility of 1) building fighting organizations made up of leaders and members that will struggle in solidarity with oppressed peoples of the world, and 2) organizing the majority of people in their communities, and ultimately in the country to support political change that progressively builds social justice.

Yet, most grassroots organizations struggle to organize more than a few hundred active members, leaving the objective of organizing large numbers of people unrealized. The labor movement, in theory is less interested in organizing politically advanced members and more in growing the sheer numbers of organized workers, continues to lose members instead.

Ground Shifting Beneath Our Feet

There are unprecedented opportunities in this moment to grow our mass-based organizations in the number of people involved, and in the scale of impact we have. For example, in Northern Virginia, where I organize, over 45% of the voting population are People of Color, and that number is growing. Many U.S. cities are majority or near-majority non-White. This is unprecedented in most big metropolitan areas. Additionally, Communities of Color, along with many White (in particular progressive White) people united around the issues of the Barack Obama campaign on a scale not seen since the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988. Both of these trends show a budding new majority (based on both demographics and political beliefs) that fundamentally changes our organizing terrain.

These changes are mirrored by the mobilization of right wing consciousness amongst White communities that has cut across class. While many communities were already organized, the virulence of their racist, anti-socialist attacks have recently grown in response to our first Black president and his perceived progressivism.

New Tasks for a New Majority

To effectively transform these conditions into advantages for building social movements in this country, we must make it a priority to converge this growing majority of people into sustained political action through the electoral process. In this moment, electoral work provides us with the opportunity to engage people in a form of political action they are more likely to engage in than any other. We have to build new organizations (like Florida and Virginia New Majority) that can organize communities on a large scale through the electoral process to shape the future of their communities and the country in a way we haven’t before.

The objectives of this work include involving thousands, if not millions of people in conscious political action, winning office for progressive candidates (including those that emerge directly from our base), training communities in direct accountability of elected officials we put into office, and sharpening our skills at running campaigns. The success of this work hinges on 1) using non-election time to organize communities to understand the electoral process as one step towards deeper forms of political change; and 2) involving the leadership from grassroots organizations in providing political leadership to the broad spectrum of people that will be mobilized through this work.

There are several challenges to this work: it requires massive resources; it’s difficult to develop other campaigns because of the frequency and intensity of electoral cycles; voters are less likely to get involved when there are not exciting candidates; many people, including undocumented immigrants and felons can’t vote; and it’s possible to develop false hope in our ability to eradicate exploitation with our votes. We need creative solutions to these challenges.

We must not mistake the political power we might win through this process as analogous to the power people might win through deeper forms of political change. It is equally important that we recognize the potential to create real benefits for oppressed people in the US and beyond through this type of political work. And more than anything, we have to build new organizations for the new emerging majority in this country that can build towards deep, lasting social justice.

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n559405964_1574584_9063 Charles Lenchner is co-founder of Organizing 2.0 and 20 year veteran of electoral and advocacy campaigning.

Systems built around candidates do a poor job of recruiting and training leaders. Most campaigns don’t have the time or resources. Remember that much of what the Obama campaign did is not typical of electoral politics.

Electoral politics are rigged in favor of highly technical, top-down strategies that do not rely on mass participation. This holds true even when a relatively high proportion of money is spent on field work as opposed to advertising.

It’s a consultant and media based culture in which regular citizens and activists are often held in contempt as ‘amateurs.’ In most races, incumbents win with the same combination of money, power players and local grasstops that brought them into office. ‘Citizen empowerment’ often translates into the rise and fall of very specific community groups and sectors, not an ethos in which people simply matter. It’s a mindset that undermines small ‘d’ democracy.

That said, it’s also true that challengers and folks transitioning into electoral politics from other arenas draw on the skills and tools of community organizing. So organizers with a grassroots bent can see some local electoral campaigns as helping to strengthen the progressive movement. The election in New York City of Brad Lander, Margaret Chin and Jumaane Williams are cases in point. But they are the exception.

It’s also true that Presidential elections push a lot of money to specific GOTV efforts working with key demographics. The intersection of money, media attention and focus can be used to expand the circle of politically aware community members. I hope we see more career oriented grassroots organizers gaining experience in electoral politics to bring back some of the tools that work, especially online tools and databases.

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1362588225_m Jessamyn Sabbag is a Bay Area native, currently based in Oakland. Jessamyn has been active in progressive social change work for the last decade.  She cut her teeth in organizing through high impact anti-police brutality work in her hometown.  She is currently Field Director of Oakland Rising, an up and coming alliance of social justice organizations employing electoral strategies to move the issues and agendas of low-income communities of color to the center of city government.

Over the last 8 months I have run two electoral field campaigns and a civic engagement program that has collectively impacted over 14,000 Oakland residents. As Field Director for Oakland Rising, I spend a lot of time thinking about the possible marriages between electoral and grassroots organizing. It’s not an easy concept. 500 words is too short. But below I will examine three “marriages” that I have been trying to address in my work. And I’ll show how Oakland Rising is intentionally working to develop integrated grassroots and electoral organizing to build the power we need to win, to move the issues and advance the agendas of low-income communities of color to the center of city government.

1)    Culture Shifting: From Struggle to Winning

2)    Quantity AND Quality: One Hand Washes the Other

3)    Developing Leaders: Cross-Over Skills and Issues

1)  Culture Shifting: From Struggle to Winning

Since coming to Oakland Rising as Field Director, I’ve learned a bunch of quotes to describe our tactics and strategy.  One of my favorites is “We don’t believe in struggle.  We believe in winning.”  Oakland Rising is on the path towards developing a collaborative model that harnesses the scale we need for electoral power and the depth we need for grassroots progressive social change.   But shifting the grassroots base and intermediary organizations from a model and history of struggle to a model and program based on winning at all costs takes time.  We all agree theoretically that electoral organizing is different from grassroots organizing, including the realities of a short lead time for electoral planning, and a fast paced environment to achieve goals of significant scale.  Over the last 9 months, I have had the opportunity to usher in culture shifts by developing models that integrate the science of electoral organizing with the equation to build grassroots power.

2) Quantity AND Quality

Oakland Rising is committed to developing the quantity we need to win at the ballot box and the quality of voters we need to hold elected officials accountable. In our latest campaign, our scale nearly doubled when we contacted over 12,000 Oakland voters about local campaigns like the development of a local transit hub. In our 2-4 minute electoral style conversations we were able to engage in political education and get community feedback (outside of the social justice “base”) that helps redirect grassroots campaign framing and increase follow-up.  And our base-building organizations are currently doing more in-depth outreach with voters who were IDed as “hot contacts.”

3) Developing Leaders

Few things are more satisfying than a good win, right?  Fortunately, electoral organizing offers a couple opportunities a year to get a good win (especially here in California where it seems like we have an election every other month!). While phoners and canvassers can do quick-hit issue education and identify the supporters we need to win on election day, moving that win into a community of leaders takes strategic grassroots organizing.  Oakland Rising hires organizational volunteer leaders and community members to phone and knock as members of the electoral daily team.  Volunteer leaders who work on our Daily Team developed or deepened a new skill set which is continually used to help with grassroots organization-specific campaigns.

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