Can Everyday Voices be Amplified in Politics?

by Cliff Cawthon

Power, statistically, in our legislature is very White, male, older and well-to-do. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Washington State legislature is 91 percent white, 14 percent more than the actual white population of the state. Additionally, representation from every community of color has decreased in recent years despite the state’s changing demographics and victories; such as, Representative- elect Kristine Reeves in the 30th LD.

Amplify, a new organization, wants to change that by making representatives look, talk and walk-the-walk of the communities they serve.

Amplify, founded last year by the former Executive Director of Progressive Majority, E.J. Juárez, is leading towards ‘changing dynamics of power’.

Biased candidate recruitment is a part of this cycle of homogeneity. Those who already have a say in government recruit others who relate to them, so Amplify’s goal of changing the face of politics is not just timely given the national outcry at Trump’s election but a game-changer here in the Northwest.

A month before the election, I met Juárez at Island Soul a popular Black-owned restaurant in Columbia City to learn more about his organization and why their work is potentially game-changing for politics here in the Northwest.

What is Amplify?

E.J.: Amplify is what’s next and now. It’s an organization that is entirely focused on shifting the power dynamics in politics by helping find, support and develop the next great leaders from communities around the state and then helping promote better public policy at the local level.  We’re working to find bold candidates for real wins that help our families and communities thrive.

 

Which communities of people are you focusing on?

E.J.: The communities with people that are mostly shut out of the political process. We are working primarily with people of color, women, people under 35, and LGBTQ individuals. Furthermore, we want to find people to tackle structural racism and protect working families. We need them to run. There is no shortage of leaders. Our job is to help move people into elected and appointed office to make the change they seek.

 

What is the history that led to Amplify?

E.J.: Washington State is a place with a massive progressive political infrastructure. We are rare in that for over a decade we had Progressive Majority here that elected over 200 Washington State. When that organization passed the torch to Amplify we realized that we could really build a new organization that could change the face of government by moving away from transactional politics and building a relationship based model, accountable to communities, not political parties to get new leaders in office.

 

Who are these leaders?

E.J.: We have people who are expected to run and those who aren’t. Lawyers, business people, and doctors are recruited to run for office by political insiders. We’re out to recruit people who have been homeless in the past and now advocating to end homelessness, people who have had to go miles to get food and who understand how being a food desert affects their community. When everyone in the legislature or your city council has a similar background it robs us of the diversity of experience that can produce real solutions.

Governance can’t live in a very certain and narrow identity, It needs to be brought to a space [and place] that every one can take part in it.

When I grew up in Central Washington, I never saw anyone with a name like mine on the ballot. When I finally saw a Latino name on the ballot, I realized that [legislative politics] was not a place I saw people like my family embraced. I thought to myself, ‘who snuck him in?’; I don’t want others to grow up with that experience. I want, and Amplify is focused on, making democracy look like and represent everyone.

 

Where is your office located?

E.J.: Our office was downtown and now we’re actually moving to White Center. We wanted to be accessible for the people we want to serve, living our values. Downtown isn’t where we are going to connect with people. We want to go where people are. There are enough downtown types in office. I’m not going to meet the next great State Senator downtown, but down here at a place like Island Soul I might. Part of this work is decentralizing where we operate and this is a small step in the right direction.

 

What kind of work are you going to be doing in the community?

E.J.: We’re going to be focusing on this community and others because there are opportunities. There are a lot of community leaders who are siloed into that label and not considered viable for elected office. That mentality has given us politicians that support police militarization while the community they represent shows up to protest it. Bridging that gap is central to a more representative democracy. I’m looking for activists, organizers, parents, students, to run because we shouldn’t have to spend time pulling our electeds to our issues. They should be there from the beginning. And we’re going to provide trainings and workshops to people for free to eliminate barriers.

 

You mentioned when we started this conversation that Amplify is “a pipeline with a promise”. What does that mean for the leaders whom you want to build?

E.J.: Candidate recruitment organizations are rare and especially ones who are doing the kind of work that we want to do. They are rare nationally, not to mention here in Washington State. Its hard work and we largely function behind the scenes. The pipeline is about moving and developing people so that they can win elections. We want to build a bench of folks ready to step up and run. That pipeline is well developed in politically connected circles, we want to democratize the process and bring more people in.

The Promise is that once they’re elected, they deliver on the policies and expectations of the community. It shouldn’t be the exception that elected officials are great. It should be expected, but it takes help. Amplify is committed to helping our candidates be successful once elected.

It’s about personal relationship and it isn’t an easy ask for someone to volunteer to be in the public eye. Just being on the ballot from underrepresented communities pushes the ball further down the field for everyone. And it’s an act of resistance every-time a woman, a POC, a LGBTQ or young person or all of the above runs. It says not about us without us.

 

How would it be different in Washington? What kind of experience are people who are recruited bringing to the table?

It’s no surprise to your readers, I’m sure. The people who spend their career recruiting are only looking at who votes currently, and what type of person best appeals to that existing group of voters. It’s a narrow appeal that keeps us fighting for fewer and fewer voters.

The new American Majority, progressive people of color (23% of all eligible voters) and progressive whites (28% of all eligible voters), already is a powerful block, and one we want to hold close with our candidates, but more importantly what candidate is appealing to those not registered or not consistently voting that we can bring into the process? We want that person. The key to long term progressive victories is not fighting smarter over a sliver of the electorate, its activating folks not currently engaged. The demographics are on our side. We need better leaders and campaigns to reach them.

We’re not just thinking about winning this election, but we want to think about 6 elections down the road.

We want to use less transactional methods and more relationship based. It has to be more hopeful, and it has to be more authentic. Its amazing that when you’re not using talking points crafted in a high-rise miles away and speaking from your heart about a topic you know loads about, voters respond. Voters are smarter than current campaigns treat them. And it just so happens that authenticity motivates people vote!

Amplify isn’t just concerned with candidates but, it’s focused on community. We’ll help people get elected and onto development and community boards. We need more People of Color and women to do politics as well. I want to open it up. Those who have the privilege of making politics a career are not necessarily representative of our state.  We have a political industry that is changing, as more women and POC are elevated in to consulting roles and policy leads, but the bulk of political consultants are white, and live in major urban centers.

 

Why the racial disparities? 8/9 out of 10 policy staffers being white certainly isn’t a surprise but it is a big disparity.

E.J.: I think privilege and access has to do with it. As a campaign manager no one comes to a campaign with all the experience. Most often they’re running campaigns with zero experience. They get chosen, they get access.

Politics doesn’t remove the real everyday experiences of the people working in it. I know as a Latino man working in predominantly white spaces, what it’s like not being elevated, invited, or taken seriously. This is no different from what’s happening in communities where people with non-dominant cultural or sexual identities are given visibility, but not power. Amplify is about power. Together, we hope to leverage our networks, access, and skill to actually re-imagine what power looks like and how it operates in our cities.

Democracy only really works when every person has equal opportunity and ability to govern. If those two elements are missing, then how can we say it’s a system that is adequately representing every community?

(I followed up with E.J. a few weeks after the election to get his thoughts about the results of the election and how this will impact his work. )

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From left to right: Mario-Parker- Milligan (Deputy Director of Amplify), Julia I Meier (Coalation of Communities of Color), E.J. (Amplify), Jesse Beeson (Amplify Board Member) [Photo Courtesy of Amplify]

How are you feeling post-election?

E.J.: It’s a question that a lot of people are asking. I feel really….I just feel. That’s the only way to put it and this is a difficult time for people. A lof of people are soul-searching right now, a lot of people are wondering what went wrong, and how shocked they were at this election.

There’s another set of people who are worried about their livelihoods and their security. We’re about to head into an administration that is about to realize a lot of the fears that we fight against.

 

What does the political landscape look like right now? What are some of the major issues that community leaders are/ will be wrestling with on the ground- from your point of view?

E.J.: Yeah, I think issues around law-enforcement are no longer optional for officials. When you look at organizations like ours that focus on municipalities, counties, and the statewide level; these jurisdictions budgets are incredibly down and they are the ones funding police, jails and services. City and county councils have a huge part in addressing what is going on in this country.

They have a responsibility to protect those who are feeling vulnerable and make sure that justice is being carried out in a just way!

For example, what does policing look like moving forward? We expect police to come but, maybe when you dial 911 you get mental health providers, or you get a whole set of support services customized to an individual’s call. That is something decided at a municipal level and it is apart of a trend that we’re seeing in both states.

 

In the face of all of these challenges, what is your strategy to recruit these people from the community to run?

E.J.: It’s simple, we are going to go into communities and meet people where they are and identify people who aren’t on that track, who aren’t approached. We’re going to ask them what they need, how can we help you elevate the voices who are here proposing solution.
It’s not about us creating our team, the people who champion the values that we share already exist. We’re not making elected officials, they’re already there. Someone just needs to ask them to run!

 

What were your thoughts when people declared their intent to run for office after Trump won?

E.J.: I’m incredibly happy and hopeful. In the face of this election, you had more people say, ‘I want to create more pathways to college’, ‘I want to create healthier communities, ‘I want to create all these things in my community to help people be their happiest and fullest selves’. I’m very happy and very encouraged and hopeful. What was a scary night for people, the next day brought moments worth grabbing onto.

Shortly before this article posted, Amplify NW sent an email to the Emerald with a list of its free trainings and networking events:

For Seattle Metro-Area residents, their next major training in Seattle is February 4th.

They will also be holding a training in Tacoma on April 22nd and a training session with Camp Wellstone in Seattle in May 2017.

For more information, check out their website at http://amplify.win/

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Harper Reed/Flickr

One thought on “Can Everyday Voices be Amplified in Politics?”

  1. White voices aren’t “everyday voices? Sounds like Amplify NW isn’t trying to “change the dynamics of power,” but simply the color of power. NEWS FLASH: The most powerful man in the world is an African American and he’s done very little to oppose racism in this country. Donald Trump is tossing out names of people of color and women for his Cabinet. We need to break this opposition between working class people of color and white members of the working class and understand that our enemies are those at the top of society, regardless of their race or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation. I’m a half-Mexican gay male. My allies are people of color in the CD, not Barney Frank.

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