Why Organizing is an Exercise in Real Ground-Changing Hope
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.
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 😉
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Two weeks ago, I checked a major item off my life bucket list: running the New York City Marathon.
Words can’t quite capture the experience of running through the streets of New York City with 50,000+ other runners. What I can say is that running through the five boroughs — from the mass exodus in Staten Island across the Verrazano bridge into Brooklyn (admittedly, my favorite borough), followed by Queens and a stampede of supporters on 1st ave in Manhattan, into the toughest miles in the Bronx, and then concluding with the final stretch along Central Park West — evoked a powerful sense of unity.
Somewhere in the Bronx between miles 21 and 22 when my legs began to give way, I also began to meditate and pass the time by drawing a line of comparison between the race itself and the race of life. (This is what happens when your neurotic brain calms down!)
Though I am far from seasoned in either race, here are a few racing takeaways that emerged along the path:
- Pace yourself. You’ll burn out by going full blast too quick, too soon. As an all or nothing type of person, this level of control is something I’m still trying to learn in life.
- And yet, you’ll inevitably get tired regardless. It’s ok to stop and take a break when you need it. Recognize when to stop because it’s not about crashing and burning; it’s about finishing the long game.
- Be prepared to lose some shit along the way. I threw out an old hoodie and a jacket as it started to heat up, and allowed my headband to fall to the ground. Some things you’re better off without, for no better reason than to simply lighten the load.
- Go with the (ebb) and flow. There are various phases along the course: times when you’re riding high and filled with determination, and times when you’re on the major struggle bus near drunken stupor. During miles 3–9 in Brooklyn, I felt like I could run forever, as well as miles 17–19 along 1st avenue in Manhattan. The energy on the streets was infectious; when you see people from all walks of life cheering, you can’t help but feel like the whole city is on your side.
Reality hits during what I call the ‘desert miles’; these were miles 12–15, while crossing the Pulkalski bridge into Queens, and miles 19–22, while crossing the Willis bridge into the Bronx. The crowd peters out. You’re alone and doing everything in your power to not give up. The going gets really tough.
We all get by a bit easier with a little help. That said, we don’t always have the luxury of a personal cheering squad which means we ultimately need to rely on our own beating hearts to charge towards the end goal.
- Get over yourself. Just when you think you’re struggling hard, you’re reminded that everyone else is running the same race while facing a battle of their own. People are overcoming challenges beyond what you could ever imagine. Towards the later stretches of the marathon, I found myself running next to a a group called Achilles International. Not knowing who they were, I was a bit irked when one of the runners ran into me. I think I gave her a look, only to realize that she was blind and guided by a volunteer with Achilles International (awesome organization btw, they pair those with sight with the sight-impaired so that they can participate in marathons and running events). Life is filled with humbling moments like these.
- Everything is in your head. We are capable of more than we think. Running a marathon is highly mental. During those moments of immense pain and perspiration, the only thing that kept me going was sheer will, not athletic ability. The physical act of putting one foot in front of the other is easy compared to quelling the brain’s desire to quit. Conquer the mind’s restless chatter and truly, anything is within reach.
- Have fun. A marathon is not something people generally do for leisure. But willpower is in short supply. As with all things in life, if you opt to train for something, you need to do it not because you “have to” but because you “want to”. Develop a strategy to make it fun. It will make the journey a lot more enjoyable.
The marathon is one of those milestones that puts everything in perspective. I actually wrote this post two weeks ago without publishing, in between the marathon and our presidential election, but decided to post now because its lessons seem particularly trenchant to our current state of affairs.
Two main takeaways:
- What a gift it is to be alive and healthy. Training and completing the marathon makes me more cognizant of the gift of the human body and all the elements that allow me to move, particularly my 2 legs, 2 arms, 2 eyes, and healthy lungs.
- Unity is possible. If people of all backgrounds can show up on the streets of New York and cheer a simple act of human endurance and resilience — running — why are we so divisive in other areas of life?
Which leads to one final thought about the topic on everyone’s mind –
Though we may not all be on the same page politically, may we aim for simple civility in the days to come. As we enter a potentially transformative time in our nation, let us remember the freedom we are afforded and use it wisely. Fight in the way that matters most, which is inside. And just like the long and winding path on the marathon, press on towards the victorious finish.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
3 years ago, I stumbled upon a small but cozy restaurant in the Lower East Side that beckoned me with its rich brown decor and aromatic Indian spices. The owner – let’s call him MasalaWala – welcomed me with a cup of signature Masala Chai and warm naan. This gesture, accompanied by amazing food, was fuel for my hungry heart to continue the relentless job search amid the throes of a jobless winter.
When I officially moved to NYC a few weeks later with a job, I became a regular. Nursing a warm cup of chai, I wrote:
“I can’t stop raving about how great NYC is. Call it naive wonder or puppy-eyed love, the novelty of this glorious concrete jungle hasn’t worn off…yet.
Several natives have warned me that when I move here permanently, the dazzle in my eyes will fade as quickly as the fast-talking New Yorker who snaps at missing her train.”
In some ways, I’ve morphed into that snappy person…but the dazzle has yet to fade.
In the city that never sleeps, our options are truly endless. Part of this, of course, is branding. New York City, to this day, remains the world’s greatest brand. It may sound a bit goofy, but you need only look up at the skyline to feel like anything can happen.
It can also completely demoralize you with its intense, all-consuming culture.
I moved to New York City, wide-eyed with a lion’s mane of hair much in need of taming. I quickly chopped it off, resembling something like a mushroom head for the next 18 months. “To hell with it!”, I said. I was going for radical transformation.
And that’s what I got. Living in 5 apartments with a dozen different roommates will quickly make you a much more interesting/crazy person. You learn to appreciate your alone time. Between weathering job dismissals, writing furiously to meet deadlines, and navigating bureaucracy, I now know what people mean when they say this city “chews you up and spits you out”. Yet there’s only more gravel-digging ahead.
I know, because I have yet to set foot in all 5 boroughs. I have yet to learn what it’s like to be committed to a cause larger than myself.
I have yet to truly understand the inequality, strife, and deep-rooted fears that befall many of New York City’s most hampered communities.
Moreover, while my persistence has gotten me thus far in NYC, I am aware that my hard-earned diligence was hardly work compared to those who can’t afford (financially or logistically) to spend time at hip co-working spaces and coffee shops to network while searching for a job. Let this be a reminder to all who are highly-educated, connected, and culturally literate that we have a vast amount of resources on our side, including the most basic: access.
So, on my 3rd anniversary in this great city where anything is possible, I give thanks for all of the above: the many opportunities I have been afforded, the goodwill of those who have believed in me, and the valuable lesson of “struggle”, though it pales with the real struggle of the 21% of New Yorkers who live below the federal poverty line.
I am here to to see what this city will be when every New Yorker is activated to meet their full potential in a truly inclusive economy, and everyone can tap into the vast number of resources available without jumping through impossible hurdles.
I’m here for the imagining…and the becoming.
On Thanksgiving Eve, while most New Yorkers eagerly shuttled out of the city, I befittingly found myself glued to my couch in Alphabet City, alone, milking a bottle of wine. Solitary gulps couldn’t replace my family’s embrace but somewhere between the self-pity and nostalgia, I found a silver lining. This week marks my 2nd year of living in New York. Bottoms up!
Should the occasion warrant celebration or consolation? In the past month a number of authors have written emotionally wrenching tales about their breakups with the city. “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York At Age 24” likened the city to the overrated “prom king”. Most recently, “The Long Goodbye“- a NYT commentary on well-known writer’s broken love affairs with NYC – prompted me to ask whether it was time I cut the cord soon too.
2 years is not a long time, but it’s enough to begin embodying characteristics unique to a place. Certainly, my expectations of the city have evolved since day 1. I still remember arriving on a bus with an oversize suitcase that could barely fit in the aisle. Scurrying to the dinner I was late for (the beginning of a recurring New York theme) only to have my dinner date keep me waiting for an additional 30 minutes. Within 24 hours, I had learned an important New York lesson: never wait longer for someone than they will wait for you.
The rest of it reads like a once-poignant-now-trite Thought Catalog riff. But in New York’s defense – or perhaps I’m stuffed with Thanksgiving propaganda at this time of year – I’ve learned lessons which can only be attributed to New York’s hard-knock teaching style. Here are a few:
1. The city moves fast, but you still need to wait at the station.
*applies to more than just commute times.
People can respond to your emails in a heartbeat, but getting anyone to do anything is like moving a mountain. When you’re young, resistance finds you at every corner. You have to pay your dues.
In a literal sense, you need to add at least 20 minutes to a projected commute time because the R or F train will likely be delayed.
The moral is that plans, ambitions, and dreams often get derailed by unforeseen obstacles but usually (God willing) you get to where you need to be. It just takes patience and waiting for the train to come.
2. The city gets smaller, while the world gets bigger.
New York City is the center of the universe and there’s always people to meet. But as my network has expanded, I’ve experienced a shrinking of the “center”. This simultaneous shrinking and expansion of worlds is interesting. The more people I meet, the fewer degrees of separation I am from other people in the city (and the more I treasure my close circle of friends). Neighborhood establishments become part of the routine and former strangers become friends. New York City essentially becomes one big town and way more manageable.
Then I flip to an article on Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe and never does anything seem farther away.
3. The hero is redefined.
Few places embody beauty, wealth, and status more than New York does. I arrived here as starstruck as the worst of Bieber groupies. But after meeting a handful of personal role models- some as impressive as I imagined and others rude as rats – I’ve had to destroy my gods. Working in media taught me that so much of what we see is a marketing blitz and once all the fluff is stripped away, well – celebrities are mere mortals too.
Perhaps because of the preponderance of celebrities in this town, titles and money are a dime in a dozen. What’s harder to find is genuine compassion, a desire to listen, and an ability to think deeply about meaningful issues. While I’m not immune to the allure of wealth and its impact (we all need to make a living), New York’s in-your-face inequality reveals the inflationary value of certain attributes and a gap in appreciation for the everyday heroes who display value beyond the short-lived hoopla of models, millionaires, and moguls.
For the past two years, I’ve raced to keep up with NYC’s speed, size, and glitz. It’s kicked my ass. But I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished overall: building a network within the tech and startup community, writing for one of the most-read US digital publications, working for the government of this grand city of cities, and most importantly, learning more everyday about this intricately woven world. While I have acquired certain archetypically New York characteristics, the hardest part about living here hasn’t been about becoming more assertive, professional, or socially savvy. It’s been refining the qualities that often aren’t associated with New York: patience, humility, and compassion. In its own prickly way, New York City has forced me to reconcile its somewhat contradictory nature (movement-stillness, expansion-shrinking, glitz-poverty) in a way that tamer cities simply can’t.
Saying “Goodbye to All That” is justified. For my friends wondering when I will leave, my answer is not yet. Two years ago, I came to audition. Two years later, I’m still perfecting my routine. I’m still naive enough to believe that, more than anywhere else, New York City is the place for reinvention. Tomorrow, I will say “Hello again, New York” – like I do everyday – and audition for the next month, year, future. The show is yet to begin.
One of the beauties of the city is its sheer diversity. With more than 3 million foreign-born residents and dozens of vibrant enclaves, New York City’s melting pot is golden lore.
But urban environments are inherently greater than the sum of their individually diverse elements. The advantage of the “melting pot”, arguably, comes less from the stew, and more from the cooks gathered round the brew.
The question then is, how do you rally the cooks? In a place like New York City where so many types of people and industries live, it should be easy to bump heads across-industry, ethnicity, and income, right? Mix and match, throw a dash of spice, and voila! Cross-pollination.
All possible, but easier said than done. In the span of a day, I could go from work in a government office, to lunch with a friend creating a fashion-tech startup, to a tour of Harlem Biospace (the city’s first affordable biotech incubator), to drinks with a rep at a wine distributor. Across ethnic lines, I have my pick of the pot: dining options in Chinatown, Harlem, Little Italy, or Williamsburg. And across income brackets, there’s no avoiding the homeless person asking for change on the subway.
I could do all of that, but I could also just as easily retreat into a bubble: spending all day at work, occasionally checking Twitter as my portal to the world (90% of tweets on my feed which come from NYT, FT, WSJ, BI [add other elitist news acronym]-reading journalists/techies like myself) and hanging out with my similarly educated, millennial friends after-hours. This happens about 4/5 of my working days.
I’m not saying one scenario is better or worse than the other, but I am saying that one allows for greater exchange of new possibilities. You be the judge of which.
It’s deceivingly easy to be siloed into little cubby holes. Even in a city that prides itself on diversity – by nature of our occupations, orientations, social statuses- it’s natural to find ourselves placed in certain environments, gravitated toward the same types of people, and engaged in conversations that fit neatly into what we already know. This is fine. There’s something to be said about consistency and comfort. But for those who have chosen a city life, ignoring the diversity around us is like having a bunch of fresh ingredients ready for a great meal, and never actually throwing them in the pot to cook. You’re better getting take-out and moving to the suburbs. A true urban environment is made for serendipitous interaction, fusion of opposites, and a little bit of discomfort. We must be intentional about seeking it.
I’ll end with a story that reveals how easy it is to fall victim to our own bubbles. During NYC’s September primary election, a well-known figure in the tech community, Reshma Saujani, ran for the office of Public Advocate. She had started an organization called Girls Who Code and was married to another well-known entrepreneur, Nihal Mehta. She had the backing of major figures including Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who threw a fundraiser for her. I even included her and her husband on a Business Insider list of 16 power couples. So of course, I thought an election win was a sure thing. Everyone on Twitter seemed to think so too.
Well? Apparently I trust Twitter too much. It turns out Reshma didn’t even crack 5% of the vote. Had I bothered to check the polls or venture beyond my Twittersphere/usual tech blogs, I would have seen that the winner, Letitia James, had been ahead in the polls for a while. Now that I work in government, I’m aware of how well-liked Letitia is among government and community circles, making it slightly embarrassing that I had no idea who she was 3 months ago. I also see how few people within government know Reshma, which is also a bit of a shame because her influence through Girls Who Code is significant. Either way, it shows that sometimes, beyond our better judgement, we’re stuck in our little bubbles.
I’m afraid that with the increased emergence of niche-based groups, the population is becoming further fragmented. We stick with what we know. Corporatis in cubed nation, free spirits in their coffee shops. What would our world look like if skills were vetted outside their typical context? Classrooms in restaurants. Bankers in public service. Could be a complete disaster (like the mishmash soup I once created with random leftovers), or a beautiful stew of possibility (when the recipe is meticulously designed to maximize skill sets and tastes.)
Today’s problems cannot be met by government, business, or civil society alone. Yet until we are willing to peek into other worlds, we’ll never know how to create the best mix. We’ll simply remain imagining, instead of living, the possibilities.