BIG LEAP: Confessions Of A (Reluctant) Electoral Geek

Written by Mimi Ho

March 26, 2014

Big Leap Series: Movements must be big to have real impact — and they need to have depth to create lasting and significant change.  In our “Big Leap” series Let’s Talk invites movement leaders to reflect on their experiences, struggles, and questions about reaching scale through depth.

Math and science were never my favorite subjects in school, but the geeky left-brain part of me has always loved the science of organizing, even electoral organizing.

I’ve loved finding the formulas and methods to map turnout plans, to overlay electoral precinct maps with voting data, to sketch out a campaign strategy power analysis. I’ve loved the order and discovering the more predictable parts of our organizing work.

But it’s the art of organizing and electoral organizing that speaks to me. It’s what allows us to reach scale to connect and engage everyday people. The power of hope and vision for different values and a different world, the ambition for collective agency and power in the face of overwhelming crisis, money and politics, and the excitement and physicality of disciplined, forward moving momentum, is what drew me into elections.

I believe that the key to reaching scale is our ability to tap into and cultivate a vision for a different world and a yearning to be part of something bigger.

In other words, scale doesn’t compete with depth. It depends on it.

With 2014 state battles over everything from undocumented student access to college to fracking to drones, not to mention crucial local struggles on gentrification and minimum wage, the Congressional midterms, and a major school board vote in Los Angeles, we need to do what works.

I was lucky that my first substantial organizing work was with Californians for Justice (CFJ) during the initiative wars of the 1990s: Prop 187 that was trying to take away services from undocumented immigrants; Prop 209, the attack on affirmative action; Prop 21, the anti-youth initiative; Prop 22, another initiative to ban gay marriage.

I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but for the community organizing world and social justice left that I found myself in, the political project CFJ was undertaking was a level of scale, ambition, and entrance into “the system” that hadn’t been done in a while. I remember hearing whispers from some activists that electoral organizing was too “reformist” and one peer, who shall remain unnamed, who told me CFJ’s electoral work was “pink” — that is, not “red,” not left enough.

It took bold new thinking and people breaking from the pack – and an onslaught of Right wing electoral initiatives – for groups like Californians for Justice to be born. Last year, decades after its founding, CFJ was one of the key leaders in the successful fight for Local Control Funding Formula in California, making it one of the nation’s largest school funding systems to direct millions of new dollars to low income, immigrant, and foster students. Groups like California Calls, grounded in the deep neighborhood organizing work of AGENDA, took on the electoral arena with boldness and vision, and after two decades of disciplined precinct-by-precinct, alliance-by-alliance organizing, was a major leader in winning Prop 30 in 2013, infusing billions into California’s public schools.

Other groups across the country, from the New Majorities in Virginia, Florida, and New Mexico, to Oakland and San Francisco Rising in California, are also bringing together the silos of traditional grassroots organizing and electoral organizing to push the envelope on our scale and are forcing us to grapple with old assumptions and create new models.

Looking back now (both at CFJ and later as an organizer with other groups like Asian Pacific Environmental Network and the Alliance for a Just Society) I think breakthroughs in organizing paradigms and practice have happened, at least in part, whenever we stepped out of the safe realm of talking about our ideals into the messy world of actualizing them. I’ve come to believe that our romantic and confused ideas about democracy are holding us back from the scale we need.

The goal of CFJ was to build progressive infrastructure and political power for the emerging majority – people of color, low-income people, and young people. I will forever be grateful that a project at this scale was one of my first organizing experiences.

As a people person, I loved creating vehicles for people to come together to aspire towards and build something bigger than any one of us could do on our own. We built training teams to lift up the structural inequality and systemic racism behind the initiative attacks. We connected with students who were organizing amazing actions at their campuses, and channeled many of them into precinct organizing. We got hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions against Prop 209 at neighborhood grocery stores, check-cashing spots, and community events, from which we engaged 10,000 and then recruited over 3,000 volunteers for the electoral work. And this all happened before the Internet!

CFJ’s commitment to the leadership of people of color, scale, willingness to engage a broad swath of society, sharp but accessible politics, culture of heart and fun, and the melding of the best community organizing traditions with the lessons and approaches of the civil rights, women’s, and LGBTQ movements, was a level of experimentation that I did not fully appreciate until later.

Also, with so many young people of color in leadership at CFJ, many of us just took for granted our 1995 mantra of “people of color are the emerging majority” and strategy of disciplined organizing of the occasional and infrequent voters (read “poor people of color”). We didn’t know how unconventional our electoral strategies were, nor could we have guessed that these strategies would only be fully recognized 13 years later in the Obama election.

Like most of us trained in organizing, I was taught that we need MORE people and that one of the main measures of success was how many people we could turn out. Of course in many situations and campaigns, larger turnout helps you get noticed, decision makers take note, and others see momentum and want to join. That is all true.

But, big turnout does not necessarily translate into deep, broad, or long lasting change. When turnout is based in transactional or situational relationships, it doesn’t build the momentum or energy needed for strategic change. Big change also depends on a quality and depth of relationship and the momentum and energy generated from that.

I am not saying that people should throw organizing out the window and just rely on the expert lobbyist. Nor am I saying to stay comfortable with the five leaders who are the spokespersons at every event.

But as organizers, we have to push ourselves to articulate the impact we are trying to make over the long term and in specific situations. If we are clear about our core values and the impact we’re trying to make, we will have more clarity about the strategies and tactics we need to emphasize in specific situations.

In some situations we have to be nimble and allow ourselves to go with “grasstops” strategies that allow Mrs. Jones, the influential charismatic community resident, to do her thing at the City Council meeting if it actually gets a strong message across. In other situations, we make sure that we do the long and deep work of engaging community residents, door to door, kitchen table by kitchen table.

Division of labor is also critical to reaching scale, especially if we want to do so with the time urgency of the crises we face. We need some of us to go inside so we can shift the political terrain and even the rules of the game so that outside pressure has leverage points. Or better yet, we can avoid certain fights and strategically deploy our fights to different fronts. Sometimes we may need to lead with communications to reach a broader audience or to shift narrative and culture.

The key to that division of labor is a politically clear and inviting vision, adaptive long-term strategy, and deep trust and real relationships of the actual human beings involved.

The point is that a vision and ambition for change that is big enough will require many different parallel strategies, roles, tactics, and people to get there. We need to employ all of them, artfully, in relationship to each other. We also have to be serious enough, and courageous enough, to think about what it would mean to truly lead from this vision, to be willing to let go of our attachments to confused notions about who our movements should be.

Our problem of “self-marginalization” and “thinking small” recently came up in the Ear to the Ground interviews with 150 people working in social justice. Veteran political strategist Bob Wing touched on this in his writing about social justice electoral strategy. “We must have a governance strategy, not a strategy just of ‘influence’ or ‘impacting public policy and debate’ and certainly not a strategy of staying on the fringe,” writes Wing.

“The people and the country need us,” concludes Wing, “but only if we take ourselves seriously enough to prepare to govern.”

So, how do we “take ourselves seriously”?

Building at scale requires us to pivot from marginalization to leading all of society, including building with unlikely allies, those who we perceive as our opposition, or those difficult friends. Leadership from communities of color and the working class – and seeing ourselves as leading the WHOLE of society and the “others” – allows us to reach the scale of the impact but also profoundly change who we are and how we relate to ourselves and others.

Rather than a stance of marginalization, building at scale requires a new stance — of community and the generative power and perspective it can unleash.

Instead of saying, “We’re not big enough” for the task at hand we need to ask, “What can we achieve with this set of people?”

Instead of critiquing all the ways that we are not complete enough, let’s align and move with those who are ready and share the core values of working with the most marginalized.

Instead of stopping with what separates us, let’s see what we fundamentally have at stake with each other.

Let’s take a stance that allows us to take action that builds momentum, creates critical mass, without waiting for the whole to be ready to move.

In the end, democracy and organizing are not just about converting X number of people to Y platform or simply winning elections, though that is absolutely necessary too. They are about unleashing the power of ideas and possibility in the broadest possible circle, and letting our creativity and leadership flourish. They are about engaging everyone in building and regenerating our society.

In the face of intense global crises, I’m deeply hopeful because our movements are reaching across our issue silos and geographies to come up with impactful solutions and break out of our habits. I see and hear it in all the people around me and in the bold new ways our movements are moving. There’s a readiness in the air to experiment with solutions that reach the scope and scale of the challenges we face.

Feature photo: Steve Pavey, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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