When I worked in Democratic politics, I never really thought of myself as a community organizer. Political organizing is something that is very short-term in a lot of ways: most field organizers are only in a location for three to six months at the longest, many field organizers are not indigenous to the area in which they are organizing, and the nature of political organizing is such that you discuss many issues within a campaign, and not just one or two. I always used the term “community organizer” to describe those folks that worked for non-profits or issue-based organizations like Clean Water Action or the ACLU.
Y’all, I was SO wrong.
The Democratic Party has many organizing levels and caucuses, but the level at which the Party really begins to connect with the people is at the local level. In Virginia, local units are organized by county and independent city. In Minnesota, local units are organized by State Senate districts in the urban areas and by county in the rural areas. And in Alabama, the local units are organized by county. It is at these levels where elections are won or lost. And it is at these levels where the Party should look for the leaders who will become the progressive champions of tomorrow.
(Now before y’all hit me with the “progressive ≠ Democrat” stuff, I just want to say that y’all have every right to y’all’s opinion. There are a lot of people doing good progressive organizing in the South that are not tied to one party or the other. However, I am a Democrat. A Democrat that is, at times, angry about his Party’s lurch towards the center and away from the progressive populism that made Democrats the “Party of the People”, but a Democrat nonetheless. We live in a system that is set up for two parties, so I am doing all that I can to make the Party more progressive by the day, especially in the South where it is very much needed. Also, I recognize that my critiques and solutions may not be applicable in every state, as some places might do better at the things that I am talking about, or they may not be an issue. Now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post, already in progress.)
In my time in working within the Democratic Party, I have seen state parties reach to the outside for organizers during the campaign season. Sometimes, that can be fine; the outside folks can do capable work, and they are bodies out in the streets helping candidates get to 50 percent + 1. But I have seen where the folks who come in just for the campaign season can have a real ignorance about the folks that they are organizing, and I have seen them alienate the people that they will need the most for executing the electoral road map to perfection. I have seen organizing jobs that could be worked by capable local Democrats given to organizers from areas that are completely different from the communities that they will be organizing, and I have seen some pretty painful stumbles in the process.
The thing that burns me up, though, is how state and local parties treat young voters. You would think that I would have a positive thing to say about the Democrats on this front, given that I was involved in my Party at 19, running a field office that year for the 2004 elections, elected Chair of my Congressional District Young DFL (the state party in Minnesota, where I did my undergraduate studies, is called the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party), and served as President of three College Democrats chapters. But what I have seen over the years is that young people are used as organizing tools for GOTV purposes every two years by the state party, and then there is a post-election disconnect until the next elections two years later (or if you live in Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the next fall). In the interim, state federations of the Young Democrats are left to falter and stumble their way through the interim with little support from the state hierarchy. Considering that the 18-29 vote has averaged about 18 percent of the electorate, and that they have given Democrats a majority of the vote for the last three Presidential elections, it would not seem wise to give our College Democrats and Young Democrats infrastructures as little support as we have been giving them.
Speaking as a progressive, bringing in new blood and raising up local talent will be what drives this Party to the left. My suggestions?
- More communication between local activists. In my blog post yesterday, I talked about the need for labor activists to be able to share their stories. The same thing is needed within the Democratic Party. We need to have more gatherings of Democratic activists, either from across the individual states or from across the South, to come and share their stories about things that they have done on the ground. No talk about lobbying, policy, or candidates; just regular folks gathering to discuss how they have done their work and making suggestions for how they can be better organizers.
- Bring more young people into party organizations. I have been involved at the local level in two states: Minnesota and Alabama. In both instances, I was the only young person involved with local Democratic organizations. That has to change. Local Young Democrats and College Democrats chapters can be fundamental forces for change (see: 2008 and 2012). In addition, the young people who volunteer today will be the Party leaders and policymakers of tomorrow. Whether it is providing state federations of Young Democrats and College Democrats with more support, or providing more trainings on how to be an effective organizer, or taking young people under the wing of the local Democratic organization, there has to be a larger infusion of young people in the decision-making process of the Party. Simply put: the organizational structure of the Democratic Party must look like its voters.
- More trainings in off-years. Instead of hiring people from outside to come organize communities that they will not have to live in regardless of the outcome, why not train up local activists and hire them on to work for Coordinated Campaigns? If we are going to be successful in the South, we must have neighbors organizing neighbors, and communities having a stake in what their Democratic Party looks like and sounds like. There is no better way to fill the time between elections than to have future field activists learning how to be more effective with their time and energy.
You might ask, how does all of this matter for progressivism in the South? Well, I just ask you to look to Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and North Carolina to see the destructive effects that the lack of an organized force for progressivism can have on communities and disadvantaged populations in the South. I have met some of the most committed progressives and social justice activists at Democratic Party functions, and these are the people that we should have calling the shots, recruiting the candidates, and training the next generation of progressives to do good work for their communities.
Making politics about communities and young people will be how the Democratic Party reclaims its populist roots in the South, and it will be how we can begin making the South work for all people.