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.
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.
Some immediate ways we can all help, specific to the coronavirus:
- Assist COVID-19 Taskforce Efforts – this task force, organized by a friend, is an amazing example of pulling together resources to mobilize an effective public-private response
- Attend a disaster preparedness workshop
- Make an emergency checklist with relevant resources
- Set up a group text with your neighbors to see if one of them has something you might need later instead of putting undue stress and chaos at the store (source)
- Check in with neighbors and loved ones
- Read this for unrelenting hope.
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.
For starters, this post is not about crepes. And it’s actually a pretty obnoxious and superficial post. But I can promise that I’ll get you outta here in less than 3 minutes (4 minutes if you’re multi-tasking) , so we can all get on with our merry royal baby-stalking lives.
This post is really about the 5 things I learned from my 2-month journalism internship. In reality, I learned a lot more than 5 things- not just about writing, but about technology, multimedia, and the way we consume information . Most likely, you wouldn’t have the bandwidth to read it all (nor I to write it). About 40% of you have already clicked away. Half of you will dart off after this paragraph. And I understand: there are more exciting GIFs waiting to be explored.
For those of you remaining (thank you), here are some lessons I learned from Business Insider that are invaluable not just for writers, but for anyone looking to leverage some influence in our modern, distractible, cyborg world.
I. Inflict emotion.
Why should anyone care? Ultimately, it boils down to framing: picking a nugget of information that will resonate.
The age of objective journalism is gone. A headline like this will get clicks, Dunkin Donuts Hired Psychotic Credit Card Thief Carolyn Kravetz As Director Of Communications ,
These headlines sound like bullish statements made at the bar, which is exactly the point. Read them, and you’ll see that they’re actually marvelous stories: the first being a serious piece of investigative journalism, the second a creative integration of new media.
We act on our instincts which are guided far more by emotion than logic. So, appeal to the audience with colorful adjectives , and the way YOU feel about something. It’s not completely PC, but I guarantee it will leave an impression and get people to bite into an important issue worth reading.
II. Simplify simplify simplify.
Humans like to digest information in compact bits, so any sort of list you can compile will be dopamine for the brain.
III. Pictures are (sometimes) more important than anything you’ll write.
I hate to use this story, but it’s a telling example of how superficial we are.
I manned a daily business advice column which averaged about 200-300 views per post. Each post had a picture of the person offering the advice. One particular post came from a businesswoman who shared an uncanny resemblance to Kim Kardashian. (Before you ask for the link, it wasn’t her.) Within a day, her post received over 1000 views, more than most of these posts receive in a lifetime.
Several commenters admitted the only reason they clicked was because of the “hot picture”. Admittedly, this post was not written better than any other post, but having a fair face certainly got people to care.
IV. Brother, be brief.
V. And clear.
I love a good story that weaves its way to an unforeseen ending in novel form. But theres a time and place for that, and the web is not that place. Albeit a few exceptions, a modern reader (or friend, colleague, whatever) wants to learn something new (with some context) fast.
Thanks to Henry Blodget, CEO of Business Insider, along with my editors Vivian and Gus, who helped elucidate these insights along the way.
I’m not saying page views are all that matter. I’m going to work for a government agency which isn’t exactly known for provocative, click-baiting headlines. Impact will be measured by relatively dry economic initiatives. But, for every silly story out there, there are a myriad of other stories that matter. If you can figure out how to get people to care about really important issues, you can maximize your impact and maybe, just maybe, increase your chance of doing something truly world-changing.
Got really vulnerable, y’all.
Last week, I had the fortune of meeting Christina Vuleta, founder of 40:20 vision, a website that offers advice from 40something women who have been there, to 20something women (like me) who are trying to figure it out. Christina was a panelist at a 40:20 Highwater Women panel where she, along with some other incredibly accomplished women, offered invaluable tidbits on how to navigate this thing called life. I feel extremely lucky to have made a connection with someone so willing to pass on her experiences and help the next generation weather through the rocky 20s.
I wrote a guest post for her site about a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: failure.
Read it, but if you’re busy here’s the Cliff’s Notes version straight from the last two sentences:
Embrace failure as relentlessly as you pursue success. One is not better than the other, as they both simply bring us closer to the goal.
Elusively motivational? That’s how I like it.
Also, I haven’t said this before but to all who actually read these meanderings, thank you. I don’t get to see your faces often but simply knowing that there are faces is encouraging. It’s what keeps me typing. 🙂
I turned 23 yesterday. In the days leading up, I was asked what I wanted, to which I altruistically responded, “Oh, nothing at all!” Hm. A friend hinted that I write a wish list. Sp I jotted just a few things:
- personal trainer
- the new Mac OS
- iTunes gift card
- leather wallet
- skinny jeans (coral color)
- replacement pair of Gucci sunglasses
- bonus: a handsome smart young man
What a saint.
It’s not difficult to come up with things we could have that could make our lives better. There is always room for improvement. However, the second I start thinking about all the things I need, I start viewing life through a scarcity lens. An entity lacking this, needing improvement in that, and at its core, not good enough. Before I could finish my wish list, I had descended into a spiral of anxiety about everything I did not have and had not become.
I’m 23. There are many things I have yet to see or experience. Thinking about all the possibilities makes my mind whirl! The pressure to “make a difference” seems engrained in our generation. There is even an acronym for this affliction, outlined in this article by Priya Parker, “Millennials paralyzed by choice“. FOMO, or fear of missing out, stems from our hungry ambitions and desire for optimality. It happens when the media shows us cool images of what others are doing and where we could be, which almost always seems better than our own state. This is more than just an evil marketing ploy; FOMO trickles into our social media updates – “look, I”m doing this – how fun!!!” – tapping into our envious desire to one-up each other in life interestingness. Arranging our adult lives in optimal fashion is becoming a generational obsession. How do you get the best job in the best city, while keeping all options open?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always wanted to live in New York. But every once in a while – usually while I am stressing about running late or how my dress is squeezing tight in the gut, – I remember an old man in Vietnam. He sat on the side of the road, dirtier than dirt, beaming dimple to dimple, crooked missing teeth and all. While complaining about the heat and voraciously fanning myself, I barely paid him any attention. He smiled at me, which struck me as supremely odd, for what had he to smile about? It was hot and disgusting. He had nothing and I wasn’t giving him anything. Yet in a single moment, ever so fleeting, I realized how wrong I was. Indeed, the man had nothing but he, in fact, had everything simply because he was happy with what he had. My life, ever abundant in tourist pleasures, was intrinsically starved. I continued fanning myself.
That was three years ago. Yesterday, I spent my birthday with my parents. We went grape-picking, ate dinner at a local Italian restaurant, and attended a classical piano concert. I got calls, messages, and cards from a handful of friends. The day was a hodgepodge of simple moments with the people who mean the most to me. There were times when I wondered what I’d be doing if I were in New York. A night out in the city would have surely been a birthday production…and what a shame if it weren’t, with all the options available! The operation would have been documented, yielding picture-perfect moments against a beautiful New York City backdrop (perhaps with a touch of Instagram editing) – – surely worthy of double-digit likes.
Yet back in Tennessee, I was wading through thorny bushes, spider webs, and buzzing bees (only to find rotten grapes). For a few minutes, I yearned for some city grandeur. Then I heard my Mom’s Chinese shrieks. She had found a perfectly ripe batch of grapes. Her cute little visor bobbed in the trees ahead. Lest the vineyard owners call the cops on her for disturbing the peace, I had no other choice but to see what she was referring to. So I stormed through more spider webs, tripped, and got caught in laughter, wondering why I would ever in my right mind trade this comical experience for uncomfortable heels, birthday shots, and exorbitant tax fares.
I was in bed before midnight, which was glorious. As I went to sleep, I came to the conclusion that when faced with choices, I want everything. It’s selfish and causes unnecessary stress, not to mention incredibly self-deprecating. So, what do I really want? To be content with my one life, the way it is, the way I am- simple, true, and loving.
So, that is what I am giving myself: freedom. Freedom from FOMO. Freedom from the should-haves, could-haves, would-haves. Freedom to know I am not missing out and that, in fact, I have everything I already need.
Thank you to all my friends, family, and well-wishers who are shining reminders of life’s abundance.