2014: The year organizing came back

December 17, 2014

Looking back on 2014, a few big defeats jump immediately to mind, and just seconds later, a few really inspiring lessons about organizing, storytelling and people power.

There’s the big, obvious, beautiful success of the #blacklivesmatter movement. So many folks have written so gorgeously about that, so we’ll just direct you here, here and here. (And yes, all three of these pieces were written by Black women, and will have you ready to jump up and dance, after a good cry.)

And then we’ll turn to three smaller stories that demonstrate one clear truth: Even in the age of unlimited corporate money washing through the streets at every election cycle, communities can fight for and win critical victories against incredible odds at the ballot box. We’re particularly interested in three of these victories garnered in November 2014. (For now, let’s not even go to the amazing Wal-Mart campaigns, and the seemingly mundane but hugely important victory at the National Labor Relations Board).

The ballot box, isn’t that, like, so 20th century? Well, read on.

Story #1: In Berkeley, CA voters passed a soda tax by 75% despite $2.4 million in big soda money.

Story# 2: In Richmond, CA, a scrappy, multi-racial band of progressives fought off Chevron’s millions and won several city council and school board seats, and scooped up the Mayor’s office to boot.

Story #3: And in Denton, TX, as you’ve probably heard, Frack Free Denton passed a fracking ban despite being outspent 10-1 by Big Oil.

Victories on soda, fracking and racist pollution – what’s the common denominator here?

We see three trends at play that progressives and greens around the country would do well to take notice of.

  1. Campaign on the issues that people care about. Turnout is only a problem when the issues are selected, framed and talked about in ways that don’t matter to the people they affect. But when progressives campaign on the values and real-world concerns of communities, turnout isn’t a problem. In all three communities, the progressive campaigns weren’t worried about pleasing their own big donors, national interests or some kind of watered down Democratic party line. They campaigned on the visceral issues of childhood obesity and illness, contaminated water, and environmental injustice – and they won.
  2. Multi-racial coalitions matter. People power is only powerful when it reflects the diversity of our communities. And that doesn’t mean last minute phone calls to leaders of color. It means building multi-racial coalitions from the ground up, from the beginning of the campaign. And it means dealing with the tensions those coalitions produce, but working hard to find common ground and smart solutions that work across communities. In Richmond, Asian American, African American and white community organizers built on a legacy of environmental justice organizing to build a resilient, powerful coalition.
  3. Organize, organize, organize. Money can buy a lot. It can definitely suppress turnout. But with enough regular folks knocking on doors and getting the word out (which of course will only happen if you honor #1 and #2, above), money starts to lose its power.  All three communities mentioned here did the legwork to reach voters at home and at work and in church. They also networked with other communities of support for lessons learned. As Meleah Hall of Berkeley said: “Without the wisdom we gained from Richmond (where a soda tax failed last year), there is no way we would have been successful here. We knew the tactics of Big Soda ahead of time. We went to the people and warned them: ‘They are trying to buy you out. They are trying to buy your vote.’ This is Berkeley. We don’t do that.”

And that’s not just something we don’t do in Berkeley – apparently we don’t do that in Richmond, Denton (or maybe your town!) either.

Belinda Griswold

Above image: Children pose outside a Yes on D sign put up by Jan Cecil outside her house on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley — one of many efforts in a city-wide pro-soda tax campaign that led to its overwhelming victory. Photo: Berkeley vs Big Soda