The Key To Creating Lasting Change? Mobilizing the People You Already Know.
Starting in 2019, most of my Saturday mornings were spent packed shoulder to shoulder with other activists at card tables plotting the ground game to flip Arizona in the 2020 election. I cringe now when I think of how close we sat in the borrowed rooms of local churches and libraries.
As volunteer chapter leader for Arizona’s largest grassroots gun violence prevention organization, I work year-round with hundreds of volunteers on legislative and cultural solutions to reduce gun violence. We go all in on elections. We knew that in 2020, we’d need to use the conventional philosophy of all campaigns: Flood the field with door-to-door canvassing—“doors” for short. “Elections are won on front porches,” says the wisdom and the data, which shows that door knocking increases voter turnout by nearly 9 percent. That can make or break any campaign, let alone the close races we were facing to flip in the Arizona legislature and our U.S. Senate seat.
We planned. And 2020 laughed.
Come March, the road to victory began to crumble beneath us. I told my volunteers to wash their hands and worry about the election later. But two weeks became a month. A month became a summer. Summer became a season marked by white people, hopped up on insurrectionist rhetoric and armed to the teeth, storming capitals across the nation because they didn’t want to wear masks.
Watching the reality of the pandemic erase our plans was like watching a bridge collapse in slow motion. The chaos, the rubble. Knowing the destination, but having no clear path to get there.
In gun violence prevention, we are used to wily opponents with no scruples, and it turns out that fighting the National Rifle Association prepared us to organize in the time of COVID-19. Many of the tools we’d used to win elections in 2018 were off the table completely. So we returned to the basics: what the experts call relational organizing. The lessons we learned are durable and replicable, in politics and life.
You already have everything you need to organize.
Relational organizing sounds fancy, but it’s not. You don’t need lists of voters. You don’t need a map, an app, or even a clipboard. Relational organizing relies on the power of one’s existing social networks: encouraging people to start conversations with people they know, and listen actively. A growing body of research suggests that this kind of peer-to-peer communication about voting, registering to vote, motivation, and perceived confidence in voting is more effective at turning out voters than even door knocking.
Every single one of us has a network. With gun violence prevention, we’ve reached out for years to build our groundswell of support from college roommates to neighbors to parents at our kids’ schools. Hell, I even recruited my mechanic to join our legislative advocacy day once. This is what activists do. We do the work of unifying like-minded people around an issue, and then we turn those relationships into votes.
Your story matters.
If you’ve never gone door-to-door, you know that most people who even bother to answer regard you with something between hostility and skepticism. You have to build rapport and trust. With relational organizing, you already have it. Your people know you. You already have connections. You can get vulnerable. You can tell them what matters to you and why.
My friends and family already know that five years ago, three of my former students—all young Black men—were shot and killed in three separate senseless acts of gun violence. Dismantling our nation’s pathological gun culture has been my mission ever since. My story brings urgency to my message.
Listening is bread and butter.
Listening is the most underrated organizing skill. Simply asking and being willing to hear what folks are concerned about reveals barriers you didn’t know existed. You may find out people you’ve known your whole life don’t vote or that they don’t vote past the top half of the ballot. You may learn that your cousin tried to register to vote but couldn’t find the right information. Or that your next-door neighbor feels so resigned or alienated that they don’t see a value in their vote. When you take the time to hear the problems, you can actually help overcome barriers and increase participation.
No victory without a sustainable movement.
The relationships you strengthen when you listen are building blocks of change. This isn’t a one-time thing; it lasts long after operatives who flocked to your “battleground” state pack up. Becoming a resource for your people (and guiding them to be a resource for their friends and family) is the difference between a moment and a movement.
If I’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s the importance of a movement. Later this month, we’ll send Senator-elect Mark Kelly to be sworn in in Washington. President-elect Joe Biden won Arizona’s electoral votes. But make no mistake: Arizona is not blue. We fell short of our goal to flip the legislature, and increasingly extremist Republicans will maintain control of both legislative chambers.
There can be no rest for progressive Arizonans. Our rights to vote and make our own medical decisions are on the line. And so is our right to not be gunned down by police in the streets or shot and killed by angry men in malls, schools, and our own homes. The same is true in legislatures across the USA.
While many a white liberal quote Gerald Ford and celebrate the end of our “long national nightmare,” it’s up to us to recognize that we are all organizers. We need to spread the word that Trump may be gone, but Trumpism is not. The results of the 2020 election are only the beginning of our fighting chance to defeat the root causes of injustice in our political and social systems.
Even when all else fails, the most important tool at our disposal is our relationships, our ability to talk with one another about things that matter. Relational organizing is something every single one of us can—and must—do.
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