Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez credits “organizing everywhere“ as a key factor behind the big wins for Democrats this past Tuesday. In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Perez drew a sharp distinction between the approach taken during the 2016 presidential election and the strategy employed this year: “We were good at mobilizing—mobilizing is that sprint up to the election—but we weren’t good at organizing. Organizing is the marathon. It’s talking to people 12 months a year, it’s building relationships with people.”
Here in Vermont, I’m part of a young organization that has spent the last two years building a system for “organizing everywhere,” every month of every year. A group of Vermont political activists founded Rights & Democracy in 2015, around the time that Bernie launched his presidential campaign, in recognition of the need for a new type of political strategy in the state.
The philosophy behind Rights & Democracy is that we cannot make meaningful progressive political change by focusing only on elections, or only on issues. So we do both. We recruit, train, endorse, and support candidates who are aligned with our values and we organize around a broad range of issues that affect people and the planet, from labor rights to healthcare to climate change.
The foundation of the organization is distributed grassroots organizing—volunteer member-leaders across the state-run county-level teams that organize in their communities in concert with statewide campaigns. Members drive the agenda and do the work, with support from a small group of paid staff who provide logistical support and training (not to mention critical moral support). Making this all work requires a commitment to:
- Empowering people to lead
- Fighting intersectional oppression with intersectional campaigns
- Working with candidates who champion our causes, regardless of their party affiliation
- Building an organization that integrates our democratic values
- Collaborating with other organizations to amplify our power
I Wanted To Help
I’ll admit that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I first started volunteering. I didn’t fully understand the rationale behind multi-pronged organizing, and I didn’t know what went into running an electoral campaign. All I knew was that I liked what I was hearing from staff and other volunteers, and I wanted to help.
My first project with Rights & Democracy was supporting an electoral campaign, helping Mari Cordes run for a seat in the state legislature. I started by helping with some data entry. Soon, I was sending out campaign emails, researching issues, talking with voters, and organizing events. I learned an incredible amount in those first few months. What I did not anticipate were the deep, meaningful relationships I developed with the campaign team, bonds that helped me build confidence in my capacity for political engagement and infused our efforts with a surprising amount of laughter. Although she did not win, 20 of the 37 candidates endorsed by Rights & Democracy did win their races.
Within just the last year, our efforts are paying off. Rights & Democracy staff organized the Women’s March on Montpelier, our sister march in Vermont’s capital on the day of the Women’s March on Washington, which became the largest single political event in Vermont’s history, filling the streets and shutting down the interstate due to unprecedented traffic. Our members helped make legislative progress on issues like universal primary care, which advocates see as an important first step towards universal health care. And we’ve built a strategy for endorsing and supporting candidates in the 2018 electoral season.
Together We Will Win
As we look ahead to 2018 and beyond, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the work ahead of us. The reality is that a true political revolution won’t happen if people limit their political activity to voting and calling their representatives. Those are fundamentally important, but we need action that goes beyond basic civic engagement.
The thing that gives me hope is the knowledge that our movement has people on our side. When people are empowered to act, when we come together to work alongside each other—when we organize—we win.
I know that not everyone wants (or is able) to run for office. That’s ok. We also need people willing to make just a little time in their lives for making calls, knocking on doors, and organizing events. It’s not always glamorous work, and it rarely provides immediate gratification, but it is the critical, ongoing work that builds a true democracy.
Beyond how politically needed it is, I have also found this work personally rewarding. I love working alongside my friends and neighbors on issues that are making a difference. My experiences have only strengthened my belief that it is never too late to act, and that every action, no matter how small, is an investment in our own well-being and in the future of our country.