Last weekend, I met the present and future of education justice in Utah.
Parents, students, organizers and activists came together to find consensus on the most important issues in their communities and build their organizing muscle to win.
My privilege was to facilitate sessions about understanding power and building an organizing framework. The curriculum was a mix of organizing theory and practical applications. Woven throughout the workshops were discussions of how white supremacy culture shows up, dealing with out-of-touch (but powerful) community leaders, and the difference between organizing and mobilizing. While I have led sessions on all the topics we covered, this weekend became more about mentoring junior facilitators than teaching. It was 🔥🔥!
In Spanish and English, these emerging and established leaders role-played, asked questions (and then answered them), connected dots and laid a foundation for progressive power in Utah.
After a bootcamp day and a half of workshops and a mega house meeting, they came to consensus on the first issues to take on:
A new high school in the historically excluded neighborhood of Glendale (Salt Lake City)
Belonging and Representation in Schools
School-based Safety, including trauma and mental health care
Over the next few months, they will continue to fine-tune their organizing skills, reach out to neighbors, conduct research meetings and identify specific levers they can pull to make a difference for students and families.
“Yes, it’s good, but sometimes politicians will do that and think they’ve solved racism.” – My mom, circa 1979
Once, when I was about 9, my family was driving through a city that renamed one of its major thoroughfares after Martin Luther King, Jr. Recently chosen by my fifth-grade teacher to write a special report on King, I was pretty excited to see the street sign.
“Oh, that’s good. They named a street for Martin Luther King, Jr. He was very important,” I said as we passed.
My parents gave each other a look. Then my mom dropped that knowledge about performative justice.
Whenever I hear of surface-level anti-racism measures, I think of that conversation. Symbols are important, but not as important as action.
Is it justice if a city renames a street, but doesn’t invest in the communities that street runs through?
If a city paints Black Lives Matter across an intersection but doesn’t curb police power, do Black lives really matter?
Is it justice if a district names schools after Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta, but systematically underserves the Latinae students at those schools?
The legacy of white supremacy has such a strong hold on our culture that it’s sometimes hard to see past the performance.
Even though most of us in the dominant culture (white, middle class, etc.) didn’t establish it, we benefit from it and therefore are responsible for dismantling it.
If we want to establish true justice in our communities, we must address the white supremacy culture below the surface, even in our own organizations.
Have you ever wondered if a gesture toward justice is enough?
For a deeper dive into these issues, check out my upcoming workshop, “Intro to Disrupting White Supremacy Culture in Nonprofits” this spring. See all the dates and RSVP here.
Trigger warning: there is some graphic language about the violence of slavery and the treatment of Indigenous people.
The bedrock of the American economy is the belief that everyone can be rich if we just work hard enough. For example, if you’re poor, you must be doing something wrong. Are you too lazy to get a better job? (See also: health care.)
Why? Because. . . slavery.
Not Just the South
As Matthew Desmond writes in the 1619 Project, American capitalism is based on the plantation economy. His essay is titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” In it, he details the unholy alliance between enslavers, creditors, northern textile factories and the US government. This alliance developed the US cotton market, on the backs of indigenous people whose land and culture were stolen and enslaved Black people who were brutalized, all in the name of profit.
How did these people live with themselves? How did they sleep at night, knowing that they’d exploited millions of people for their own gain? Where was their conscience?
That’s where American capitalism collides head-on with humanity. If we can deny the humanity of people, then we can do whatever we want to them. Kidnap them, ship them across oceans in horrid conditions, sell them like livestock, torture, rape and kill them. We can spread disease and violence across thousands of miles, uproot people from their ancestral homes and rip children from their families.
Aren’t We Done With Slavery Though?
This capitalist denial of humanity is the root of oppression in the United States. It continues today in the form of police murder of people of color, denial of health care, the school-to-prison pipeline, the emotional labor we expect from people of color, dangerous border camps and so much more.
To believe in brutal American capitalism is to deny the humanity of people. For example, if we truly respected the humanity of immigrants, we could never force them into dangerous limbo in tent camps in Mexico. If we truly respected the humanity of Black people, the police wouldn’t shoot first and ask questions later (if they ask questions at all). If we respected the humanity of Indigenous people, thousands of Indigenous women wouldn’t go missing every year. (Talking about women, if we respected the humanity of women, there would be no rape.) Here’s one I bet you didn’t expect: If we believed in the humanity of rural, conservative people, we wouldn’t categorically dismiss them as ignorant and write them off.
Capitalism with Guardrails
Our capitalism needs guardrails precisely because we don’t respect fundamental humanity.
(Hint: a federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour and laws that permit employers to fire workers for organizing a union are not guardrails.)
I suspect that if you read this far, you were hoping for some neat resolution. For a happy ending where there’s an intersection between American capitalism and humanity.
But there isn’t. The two are incompatible.
If we believe in the humanity of all people, we couldn’t possibly exploit them enough to maintain our capitalism without guardrails. Guardrails can look like unions, restrictions on the greed of giant corporations, a living wage, universal health care, student loan forgiveness, an end to subsidies for planet-killing industries and more.
I prefer to deny American capitalism (which is a difficult position for a small business owner). I don’t really know what the alternative is, but I know that when workers and working families have power, things get better.
So let’s get busy building guardrails and building power.
A few months ago, I met with the co-executive director of a statewide organization that has been instrumental in transforming his state. It hadn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, then voted blue in every cycle since 2008. They’ve also legalized marijuana, restored voting rights to thousands of returning citizens and passed a voter’s bill of rights.
His organization is thinking through some local action strategies to complement their state political work. In the course of our conversation, he mentioned several campaigns they’re brainstorming.
💡organizing with parents to establish safer routes to school for students who faced gun violence at a bus stop
💡challenging the terrible working conditions of gig workers
💡regaining control of a city council from the rigid grip of developers
Build Power In Addition to Winning
Each time he mentioned a policy idea, I thought about the wider impact they could have if the focus was on building power in addition to winning.
✊🏻The opportunity of bringing parents together could build power for systemic change in the school system.
✊🏻Bringing gig workers together could create momentum for structural changes in the exploding economy in the region.
✊🏻Bringing residents together to challenge the grip of developers could bring much-needed transparency to city government – and all the improvements that come with sunshine.
This organization has been part of dramatic wins in this state for decades.
Powerful Questions: What Does It Look Like When. . .
Just think of the impact they will have when they add bigger questions to their planning:
❓What does it look like when parents have the power to create schools that provide an equitable education?
❓What does it look like when workers have the power to negotiate with their employer as equals?
❓What does it look like when low-income residents have the power to hold their elected leaders accountable?
True equity and justice depend on power. We can win every campaign we launch, but if we’re not building power, we’re always going to scramble.
That’s why I organize with the objective of bringing people together to build power, using the opportunity of the campaign to do it.
To be strategic, every campaign, training, coaching session or disrupting white supremacy culture program should have two purposes: winning in the moment and building power for the long-term.
What would you transform in your community if you could build power in addition to win?
The end of the year is often about taking stock, regrouping and refocusing.
While election work this cycle was important, it reminded me that the real work of Organizing to Win is about more than winning elections. It’s about building power. That’s why in 2023, I’m doubling down on outreach to organizations that want to build or strengthen organizing infrastructure.
Organizing requires holding two sometimes contradictory ideas at the same time.
Creating the Vision
On one hand, we keep a vision in mind. I’m working with a staff person from an organization that is in the beginning stages of transforming their organization from direct-service provider to power-builder. To keep us focused on this transition, I often ask her “what does it look like when workers have the power to hold their employer accountable?”
That question conjures up inspiring, visionary answers.
Planning the Work and Working the Plan
On the other hand, even the most meaningful vision won’t become reality by magic. That transition requires a plan, with specific steps, goals and metrics. Planning the work and working the plan isn’t always glamorous or inspiring.
Working that plan is what creates the magic.
The two concepts are sometimes hard to hold at the same time. There’s a risk of getting caught up in our own visionary rhetoric and forgetting the reality of work on the ground. There’s a corresponding risk of getting mired in the details and forgetting why we do this work in the first place.
Visions and Plans in 2023
In 2023, I’m looking forward to working with organizations on creating visions for power and building their organizing infrastructure to achieve them.
If you or a colleague is thinking about how to expand your organization’s vision, let’s make 2023 the year we work some magic to make our visions of justice into reality. Comment below or get in touch to find a time to talk.
May your 2023 be filled with visions and reality of equity, justice and happiness.
You’ve heard all the election recaps right? Democrats did better than expected. Some races still too close to call. No red wave. Blah, blah, blah. Let’s move on. . .
. . . . to runoffs. No, not that runoff.
The Organizing to Win runoff!
In addition to working with clients on organizing structure, I worked with two candidates this cycle, both in local races.
Stephanie Wade – Seal Beach
Stephanie Wade is running for city council in the lovely, little beachside city of Seal Beach, CA. She made it to the runoff and will face her main opponent again in January. We’re confident that Stephanie’s lead (at press time) of 56 votes will hold up – if we do everything right.
If (when!) she wins, Stephanie will be the only veteran on the council in a city with a major Naval installation and the only surfer on the council in this surfer town. Her progress is historic, as she would be the first trans woman elected in Orange County.
Our biggest challenge is showing Stephanie’s deep commitment to a community where she’s lived for just a year. (She jokes that she’s so Seal Beach that she’s like a Soviet dissident who reminds us how much we love America.) With a side of transphobia. The good news is that she is a master at building relationships. With her charm, my strategy and a powerhouse team of volunteers, we’ve built a winning campaign.
Zekiah Wright – West Hollywood
I also worked with Zekiah Wright, a quiet star on the West Hollywood leadership scene. They take on issues with a values-first approach, accepting the challenge of talking about their bold, progressive views. They are one of the most authentic and uncompromising candidates with whom I’ve worked.
Z was one of 12 candidates running for 3 seats on the WeHo city council. For two weeks after election day, they were in 6th place and I thought “we ran a good race, but it wasn’t enough this time.”
But wait a minute now . . . .
In one day, they leapfrogged into fourth place! At press time, they are only 18 votes out of third place. And counting.
Z would make history as the first non-binary person and first Black person on the WeHo city council.
So how did these two relative newcomers make such an impact?
Relationships and communication.
Stephanie never met someone she didn’t want to get to know better. Zekiah never met a hard question they didn’t want to answer. Both candidates focused on building relationships – and the rest comes naturally. Win or not, they are both well-positioned to have impacts on their communities from now on.
“I like being weird. People remember you that way. They say ‘Hey, I remember you. You’re the weird one.’”
-Sylvia Gordon (aka my mom) circa 1980
You know how there’s one kid in every school that no one likes and everyone bullies?
Yep. That was me. Every day from 3rd to 8th grade.
Because I was one of three Jewish kids in the district (including my sister)?
I was a girl with opinions?
In third grade I was the new kid and it just stuck?
Because a popular girl got in a fight one morning with her parents and took it out on me?
Who knows? (Before you ask, teachers were no help. My third grade teacher said I was too sensitive; I needed to develop a “thick skin.”)
Somewhere around sixth grade, I started to realize that there were other people who were treated badly just for being who they were. And then blamed for it.
Let’s be clear. Six years of bullying is not the same as six hundred years of oppression.
The experience did give me an affinity for other people who struggle with acceptance because someone thinks they’re “weird.”
My mom’s “weird” quote was partly about embracing uniqueness. However, the stronger message was that bullying was more about the insecurity of the bullies than it was about me.
Bullying and White Supremacy Culture
Just like racism and antisemitism aren’t about people of color or Jews. Hate is about the insecurity, fear and inhumanity of the haters. It’s about their discomfort with questioning a version of “normal” that rejects everyone else. The return of antisemitism, rise in extremist violence and rehabilitation of hateful rhetoric all point to a return to a Jim Crow culture.
When the dominant culture puts the burden of undoing racism on people of color, we are blaming them for being “too sensitive,” just like my third grade teacher.
White supremacy culture should not be normal. If we’re going to build the culture that our value statements say we want, we have to question what’s “normal” and what’s “weird.”
Janedra Sykes, Catherine Shieh and I offer customized white supremacy culture disruption programming to explore these questions in nonprofit organizations and campaigns. Programs could include training, facilitated employee resource group conversations, white supremacy culture review and relationship-building exercises.
Not sure what a new normal could look like? Drop the word “weird” in the comments and I’ll reach out to talk about it. For an example, see the Services and Client Anecdotes page.
Don’t you love Halloween? The costumes. The adorable kids. The candy. (The day-after-Halloween candy sales.) The silliness.
I especially love all the witches. And by witch, I mean:
Since June 24, there are a whole lot of witches out there. We’re marching, raising money, speaking out, knocking on doors, making noise and running for office. We’re also organizing.
When women, or members of any historically excluded community, take control of ourselves, big things happen.
And that’s what organizing is all about. Every organizing campaign is about more than winning. In the very process of organizing, we transform ourselves and our communities. We take control of our lives and our future. Ask any worker who has organized a union at their workplace. The change is not just about the legal ability to negotiate a raise or better hours. The victory is in the transformation of the workers and the workplace into one where workers have some control.
When I worked with women union members in Florida during an election campaign, it was immediately obvious which members had organized their union and which had inherited it. Many members at long-time-union workplaces already participate in campaigns and contract enforcement.
Workers who had organized their union felt the collective power because they had built it. They were the first to sign up for volunteer actions. Every single member in that unit joined the political action fund. They surpassed their goals for engaging their co-workers and friends in the campaign. They were in total control of themselves.
Organizing is bringing people together to build power. When we have power in our communities, we take control of the decisions that affect our lives.
Please meet Zekiah Wright! Z – as they’re known – is running for the city council to protect the unique culture of West Hollywood. Their vision for the city includes more affordable housing, stronger renter protections and more accountable law enforcement. Their experience as an employment and housing attorney means they are ready to take on the toughest issues that California cities face, especially housing.
Did you catch that? “They?” That’s right. Z would also make history as the city’s first nonbinary and first Black city council member. Even in famously progressive West Hollywood, there is work to do.
I’m particularly proud to work with Z because of their outlook on campaigns. When we first met, we connected over our shared belief that campaigns should be about more than winning. They should be opportunities to bring people together to build power. We are totally in sync about the power of a good field campaign!
Want to invest in this emerging leader? Here’s their donation page.
During every campaign I’ve ever worked, the field team faces a consistent problem:
Someone calls the cops on a canvasser of color, for nothing more than walking through the neighborhood with a clipboard and some door hangers.
Every. Single. Campaign. And it doesn’t happen to white canvassers.
Some resident, usually white (although not always), calls the cops about suspicious characters roaming the neighborhood. In the best case scenario, the cops roll their eyes at Karen or Chad, notify the canvassers that they’ve received a complaint and move on.
These cops are few and far between.
In my experience, most cops agree with Karen and Chad that Black and Latine people walking through a white neighborhood are up to no good. They track down those canvassers and demand that they leave (and not politely). Not wanting to cause trouble and following our instructions, the canvassers usually do.
By now, you may be thinking “What’s the big deal? The cops ask them to leave and they do. No harm. No foul.”
Lots of harm. Big foul.
There’s the pervasive belief that the cops only talk to someone if they’re doing something wrong. As soon as that person shows they’re not doing anything wrong, all is well, right? Wrong.
Any law abiding citizen who is stopped by the cops for no reason will feel a stigma. Pile on law enforcement’s terrible record of violence against people of color, and we have a recipe for lots of harm and a big foul against justice. Many people of color have lived a lifetime of “the talk;” getting stopped by the cops for no reason must be terrifying.
This throw-back to Jim Crow literally prevents you and the team from getting the work done. More importantly, it’s a manifestation of white supremacy culture that we, as progressives, are committed to disrupting.
Many of us who aren’t people of color automatically leap into “savior” mode and try to fight the power (the cops, the racist residents) right away, before considering the needs of the people who have been harmed.
Shout-out to Izzy Goodman of Better Outcomes Campaigns for her suggestion to call the local precinct at the beginning of the campaign. Let the leadership there know that canvassers will be in the neighborhoods exercising their first amendment rights to free speech and getting out the vote. If your campaign has a relationship with the union that represents officers in that jurisdiction, let them know too.
When it happens in your campaign anyway, there are three steps to take.
1: Protect the Well-Being of Canvassers
Your first priority is the well-being of the canvassers. If they don’t feel safe – both physically and emotionally – they can’t do their jobs, the campaign can’t get contacts and our equity values have been undermined. Talk with the canvassers to ask about their experience and how they feel about it. Ask what would make them feel safer, both physically and emotionally. (And remember, if you don’t share identity with the canvassers, their experience will be different than yours.)
2: Talk to the Cops
Next, call the local precinct to report the incident. Spoiler alert: they will get defensive. However, it’s important to talk to them about it anyway. The cops have to know you’re watching and it will send a message to the canvasser that you took them seriously. (Be careful not to identify the canvassers to the cops. Don’t make it worse.)
The cops will also probably insist that if a resident calls them, they have to respond. Really?!?! There are lots of residents “on the wrong side of the tracks” that might disagree.
If your campaign has a relationship with the appropriate law enforcement union, try asking a union staff person or leader to communicate with their members or counterparts in police management.
3: Report Back to Canvassers
Finally, report back to the canvasser. Tell them what you said to the cops and how you will protect their safety going forward.
Is this really hard?
Yes. Does it take time away from everything else you have to do? Yes. Will it give you anxiety to talk to the cops (on purpose)? Probably.
Not doing it undermines the campaign work, and even worse, our values of equity and inclusion. Disrupting white supremacy culture means disrupting it everywhere, including in our campaigns.