“It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.”
Those were the cautionary words of Horace Mann, whom many regard as the founder of American education. Although spoken in 1848, his words are profoundly relevant today as we precariously inch our way into 2021, reeling from the January 6 attack on the Capitol and questioning how 2020’s devastating events will define our future under the new Biden administration. Media sources daily debate how we will overcome our political tribalism, racist past and present, government distrust, and rampant disinformation campaigns. It’s heavy. Why didn’t we heed Mann’s warnings?
Whatever happened to civics class? You know, the study of the rights and duties of citizenship?
What if you got an email today asking you to click a button because there’s a terrible problem? Rather, what if you got 40 of them? Total fiction, right? Even so, if that were to happen, you have a few options. You can click on all the ones that are urgent (That’s all 40), or ignore them, or spend the day unsubscribing. But,maybe you really wish you could make a difference. Maybe you take this stuff seriously, and don’t feel you can just stand by or click buttons any longer.
Good. Now, do something. If we want better lives we can’t sit on our hands. That is easy to say and hard to do. I know; I have been there.
When I first realized it was time to act, I pushed myself out the door to a rally. I didn’t actually think it was going to help anything, unless 10,000 people were planning to join me, but I had to try something and didn’t know what else to do. So I went. I signed in, and as a result I began getting notices of local MoveOn meetings. I went to one. It was awful—truly a waste of time. At this point I could have felt justified in throwing up my hands and going back to clicking online petitions. Instead, I realized how desperately needed we all are. I remained engaged, and was soon invited to attend a leadership training. It didn’t take long until I took over those meetings and began to build progressive power by working with others in Seattle who wanted to make a difference.
For busy people, and we are, on average, busier than we’ve been in several generations, it is important to get it right. Since one of the major features of this crap economy is how it sucks away so much of our time, what we choose had better have a good chance of making a difference.
So that you can spend more time doing something you feel is effective, I’m offering a run-down of the organizing landscape as I see it. This way you don’t have to flail around like I did.
First, I am going to assume you want to work to solve the underlying problem rather than treat the symptom. In other words, do you want to feed the hungry, or fix the structure that causes hunger in the first place? Obviously I have no problem with feeding hungry people. This is important work, but thousands of people across the country happily ladle soup, and too few are actually attempting to make soup kitchens obsolete. We need you in the latter group–badly.
Here are some ways of engaging:
Electoral work: For those of you who still think we should be working to elect progressives, who will then pass laws that benefit regular people, you can always jump in on the action around election season. Pick a favorite (preferably local) candidate or issue this way: 1. Do you share the same values? 2. Is this a winnable fight? (Seriously. Please don’t squander your precious time on things you know are a lost cause, no matter how noble. You are not getting that time back.) 3. Is this candidate or issue mounting a serious campaign? (See #2) Since you are inclined to do electoral work, you may also enjoy making sure the people you help elect know your views. You can write letters to the editor, you can call the elected official’s office and talk with their staff, send email, and you can even meet with him or her either in-district or at the capital, with an appointment of course. Many issue organizations have staff on hand to help you to make the most of your communications. Reach out.
Community Organizing—three vantage points:
Coordinated Left: It is a good thing and a bad thing that there’s coordination among left wing money and power. The mainstream groups rely heavily on phone banks and other tactics people don’t enjoy delivering or receiving. The pros are that they can work together, and avail themselves of strategy and communications experts who have been doing this work for a long time. Some cons are that they are often stuck in a rut; they ask people to do things they don’t like to do, and so struggle to hang onto volunteers. They also chip away at their own success by negotiating too much. This can be illustrated by the faction in the Seattle minimum wage fight that claims a small business is defined by having fewer than 500 employees. Yeah.
Uncoordinated Left: There are many organically grown organizing groups, who reside outside of the left’s mainstream. They have pros and cons as well. They are often more democratic and welcoming of new ideas, but they are not backed by much money. They struggle to carry on. Often, they run with ideas that are less strategic, but at the same time, there is some promise to having no constraints. This group can be characterized as the ones who want the $15 minimum wage to go into effect immediately, no exceptions. This stance is admirable but dismisses out of hand some legitimate concerns. It is a breath of fresh air, though, to those of us who are tired of watching one disastrous negotiation after another.
Highly Trained Grass Roots: This is the style of community organizing pioneered by Saul Alinsky in the ‘40’s, and continues with the work of the organization he founded, the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation). A well trained organizer becomes embedded in the community s/he wishes to engage. S/he finds out what people are struggling with, what they would like to see addressed first, and what the options are. Local people who have the most at stake are trained in breaking problems down into their parts so they become solvable issues. The strategy for tackling those issues arises from a careful assessment of the resources available, where the opposition is to be found, and what opportunities are present. In this way, for instance, a group can go from being upset about a for-profit prison in Pierce County, to realizing it depends on ICE detainees for funds, to asking local county jails not to comply with ICE requests (holding onto detainees until their immigration status is determined, it turns out, is optional), and asking local municipalities to refuse to send their prisoners to the local jails who do continue to comply with those requests. In this way, 60 local families have remained intact over the last few months who otherwise wouldn’t have. The work is ongoing, but this is winnable.
Whatever you decide to do, there are a lot of choices out there, so if your first run at making a difference doesn’t feel right, try something else. Just do something. Give me a call or send an email (I promise to click on it!) if you want to talk over the possibilities.
Sandra Vanderven is a Senior Organizer at Fuse Washington and Board President of the Backbone Campaign. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Amplifying the Authentic Narratives of South Seattle