Why Organizing is an Exercise in Real Ground-Changing Hope

Photo Feb 21, 10 23 30 PM

When I first decided to join Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign as an organizer, a friend asked me why. Why Pete, why now, and why as an organizer.

I’ll circle back to Why Pete but I’ve been reflecting on the other two pieces during this strange moment of hysteria. When each incremental piece of news seems to ratchet up our collective anxiety, how do we stay sane and useful? At times, it’s been tempting to throw up my hands in immediate resignation. Yet off the heels of a campaign that ran to the tune of high hopes (literally!), I know I can do better.

A Reflection

5 months ago, my reasons for joining a campaign were pretty straightforward. 2020 is an important election year, I wanted to play my part in electing a new President. And for all my love of city life, I was ready for a taste of life outside the NYC bubble. Nevada, where I was offered an organizing role, was about as far west as I could go before hitting another coastal bubble 😉

Photo Feb 22, 9 11 47 AMAs for organizing, it seemed to be the most realistic entry point into a campaign for someone with no prior political experience. It was also the most immersive. I was told that I’d be talking to people – lots of people – about issues they cared about. This is what I wanted.

Be prepared to operate in 110% extrovert mode”, a mentor and campaign veteran told me.

Never mind that I’m an introvert and that the thought of knocking on strangers’ doors gave me real anxiety.

Signing up for something out of my comfort zone seemed to be the perfect antidote to my own mental malaise and selfishly, a way out of my unproductive self talk when thinking about the state of our country.

Pete’s historic candidacy is now well-known lore: a small town mayor with a hard name to pronounce surged to the top of the field as a leading presidential candidate. He did this by centering his campaign in lasting values – “Rules of the Road” – and never shying away from his identity as an openly gay Harvard intellectual and veteran from the Midwest. Internally, our campaign culture also reflected these values.

When you feel safe, motivated, and know that you’re called to bring all of yourself, you’re in an environment to thrive. That’s what it felt like to be on the Buttigieg campaign.

Photo Nov 17, 2 25 08 PM

Since the campaign ended what seems like forever ago, I’ve been admittedly less optimistic. It’s been difficult to process the influx of emotions that come with being on a campaign so vested in a particular candidate / lifestyle, only to return to “normal life”and realize that “normal life” is turning increasingly “abnormal” with each passing day.

I’ve tried to compile some key lessons and takeaways from the campaign as a means of organizing my thoughts and moving into some new norm meaningfully.  It’s not the most concise or organized, partially because there’s no neat ending to all of this. But if there’s anything I learned so far, it’s to be ok with the discomfort of the messy unknown.

So, what did I do on the campaign?

I was part of the field organizing team in Southwest Las Vegas. Our job primarily was to turn people out to support Pete Buttigieg at the Nevada Caucus and recruit volunteers to amplify our efforts. Nevada is a caucus state, so we were also responsible for training precinct captains. These captains were designated leaders in their precincts, trained in caucus rules and persuasion techniques to convince undecided voters (or those in unviable groups) to join Pete’s group on caucus day. This would then maximize our delegate count. Our win in Iowa is largely attributed to the fact that organizers had successfully secured and trained captains in nearly every precinct.

Photo Feb 22, 10 15 15 AM
Just a small taste of the energy that Team Pete precinct captains brought across the state of Nevada

What did I learn?

Among many things: the hard ask, caucus math, how to cold call, cut turf, seamlessly slide into gated communities (shhh). Perhaps the biggest lesson was recognizing that what happens on the ground is far more important than anything else. Pundits and distant observers of a campaign may use polls and televised appearances to gauge a campaign’s success but only the people who are *in it* know exactly where there is traction and where there isn’t.

This, to me, is the biggest advantage of an organizer: you see the small wins (and gaps) firsthand. You know who is showing up to organizational meetings, and who is noticeably missing. You notice the quality of attention at the doors, how many people know what’s going on, and how many people do not. These micro-observations are not measured or covered by the media, but they are real indicators of how effectively a campaign is reaching everyday people.

Photo Dec 04, 9 53 53 PM

I’ve had my fair share of professional experiences, but the level of unpredictability in campaigns is pretty unparalleled (and would be anathema for most). Uprooting yourself to a different part of the country and knocking on strangers’ doors requires a degree of courage that some would call nonsensical in an overly optimized world. But let’s acknowledge its boldness. Organizing is not for the faint of heart. Learning to find a way forward amid discomfort & disagreement is one of the most valuable skills anyone can learn – and organizing is the best training ground for it.

What was the hardest part?

The hard ask. I remember being petrified the first time I had to cold call and ask people to sign up for a canvassing shift.

One helpful suggestion my regional director Nick offered is to to think of my ask as a gift, and to never assume a no before you ask. A simple but revolutionary reframe! I went from thinking I was asking people for a favor, to giving them an opportunity to get involved in something meaningful. Once I started thinking of the ask as an act of giving (instead of taking), it became much easier.

Though I’m still not great at it, I know that many people gave what they could (especially busy working parents and older people with limited physical mobility), and I’m proud / grateful for their efforts.

What was most surprising?

Empathy shows up when you least expect it. Some of my most fruitful conversations were with people who weren’t the most eager to engage at the outset.

Take Tracy, a former Republican who survived two bouts of cancer. When I first called her, she quickly hung up. Most people on our call lists were registered Democrats, but registered Republicans like Tracy would occasionally slip in. I continued to call her every few days.

One day she called back (with the intention of telling me to stop calling) and I asked for her genuine thoughts about the election. I figured she’d hang up on me again; instead, she confessed that she wasn’t a fan of Trump and wanted him out of office. She’d seen Pete on TV and liked his calm, even-keeled approach but wasn’t sure if she was ready to do anything more. I invited her to a caucus training to learn more about the process. No pressure to do anything, “just come and learn” I said.

Tracy came and brought her sister Teri (a Biden supporter). They were both a bit confused by all the caucus technicalities, but grew to love Pete, his vision, and moral courage. Shortly after, Tracy asked how she could help. She couldn’t knock doors because she had a hip replacement. So she tried phone banking. When that wasn’t quite her cup of tea, she and Teri helped put together caucus training packets.

Though Tracy didn’t talk to as many people as some of our other volunteers, each time she came, she gave what she could. I enjoyed talking to her because she wasn’t an obvious Democrat supporter, and it wasn’t easy for her to carve out time like this.

She told me that her friends would say that it was impossible for Pete to win.

Her response: Of course it’s impossible if you don’t try.

I will remember Tracy for her willingness to choose agency over resignation  — despite it not being the most obvious or easiest choice. Tracy ended up becoming a precinct captain and winning delegates for Pete. Her story mirrors that of many others on our campaign who came, not because we rammed an opinion down their throat, but because we gave them space to reflect on their lives and listened.

What’s next?

As much as I’d like to hole into self-isolation (and we all should physically do so), now is not the time to look away as a community. There are some really big things happening in the world with monumental consequences. In times of uncertainty, it is more important than ever to support one another and to stay informed.

“We are struggling for the survival of humanity, and I don’t mean that in a hyperbolic way. That’s the struggle against autocracy. That’s the struggle against the climate crisis. That’s the struggle, now, against a fast-moving pandemic.” – Sarah Kendzior, Gaslit Nation 

And this is the only the beginning. At at time of so much disruption, we need leaders who can organize: people who can communicate, reach people with critical information, give time and space for conversations, and keep hope alive. I’m reminded of the wise Krista Tippett’s words:

Culturally, we are the generation of our species that is redefining elemental human fundaments like community and marriage and gender. We are, that is to say, retreating famously into either-or, tribal feeling or productive organizing. – On Hope

One final story: on Super Bowl Sunday, I was knocking doors in SW Vegas and feeling somewhat dejected. Most people weren’t answering and those who did, gave me little time. About to call it a night, I knocked on the door of a woman who graciously stepped out during the game and thanked me for what I was doing. We talked for a bit about the election. She told me she was committed to supporting Elizabeth Warren but would support whoever the Democratic nominee is.

Towards the end of our conversation, she asked if she could pray with me. A bit taken aback but thirsty for some spiritual counsel, I agreed. Together we prayed for the welfare of the world, our nation, collective spirits, and everyone campaigning on ‘the front lines’ – for our energy levels to be sustained, our efforts not to be in vain, and grace no matter the outcome.

Then she bid me goodbye with scripture:

“Never grow weary of doing good.” – Galatians 6:9

I didn’t know how much I needed to hear those words then, now, and well… every day.

Joining a campaign was an act of hope. Choosing to reach out in the face of continual disruption will always be an act of hope. At a time when our system seems to be spinning out of control, it’s easy to forget that in every moment we have a choice. We can either submit to our most primal impulses or pause, draw a long collective breath, and…organize.

Photo Jan 11, 10 04 33 PM
Here’s a photo of some great community organizers. But whether or not you’ve ever been involved with campaign, we can all step up in this time of need.

Some immediate ways we can all help, specific to the coronavirus:

Democracy future generation

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