You Are Being Called to Greatness in the Face of the Apocalypse
Listen to the voices of veteran organizers to light the path forward and then organize for the power to change everything
“Another death tree? (back to the apocalypse session)” by Giampaolo Macorig is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
I am an optimist, so it takes a lot to get me down. But what is happening in the United States right now is a weight I am struggling to bear. If Democrats are defeated in midterms by candidates who openly reject the results of the last election, we may be close to the end of our democratic experiment by 2024 - replaced by authoritarian, white patriarchal minority rule.
We’re in year three of a global pandemic, with no end in sight and more than one million dead from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone. The Supreme Court removed the hard won right to abortion and self-determination for women and birth parents. We are winning battles but not the war to get the United States and the world off of fossil fuels. World War Three may have already started. The increase in mass shootings, racist murders, and police violence has us all in a state of permanent panic.
Even for an optimist like me, it’s hard not to feel this is an apocalypse. So what’s an organizer to do when the last drops of hope evaporate from our half-full glass? The answer is simple: organize. Because coming together is all we can do, and as organizers, we know it can restore hope. So let’s get back to basics and get to the roots - grassroots and root causes.
This spring, after thirty-two years of organizing and campaigning with local organizations in Chicago and the Bronx and nationally with People’s Action and Greenpeace USA, I returned to my local organizing roots to see if I could rekindle a spark of hope. I took it to the ground. In New Rochelle, NY, I helped organize an Earth Day environmental justice rally and walking tour that turned out more than 150 people. I co-managed the successful school board campaign of a racial justice champion and prevented a far-right white supremacist from getting on my local Board of Education. I helped high school and elementary school students prepare and run a meeting with our school superintendent to negotiate an end to single use plastics in school cafeterias.
Organizing - especially good, old-fashioned face-to-face, on-the-ground organizing like this - is a balm that soothes tired souls, mends frayed dignity, and builds a sense of power and agency for everyone involved.
I also find inspiration in the stories of fellow organizers, workers and community leaders who are the front lines of today’s most important fights. Channel your anger, fear, hope, rage, love, everything you have into organizing. But in what direction? For that, we turn to many of today’s most brilliant - primarily BIPOC, women, gender non-conforming, and people from low-wealth communities - organizers whose work blazes the path forward in a thin and winding road out of the apocalypse and toward the world of our dreams.
We are fortunate that two new books by veteran organizers can help light the way forward in these dark times. In The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the 21st Century, Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta deliver a transformative vision for the future of workers, along with innovative strategies to build an economy that works for everyone. The bounty continues with Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections, edited by Linda Burnham, Max Elbaum, and Maria Poblet. This is a collection written by, and featuring, organizers who are building toward governing power in states through electoral and community organizing. Taken together we have a strategy to build a much bigger labor movement and organize a multiracial movement to win governing power. That is what it is going to take to change the rules of society to match progressive and justice-based values. There are no shortcuts.
I appreciate how many of the strategies in The Future We Need are available to us right now, even when government at every level is captured by big corporations and the 1 percent. To realize our full vision requires taking the additional step toward building a movement that can win governing power and make structural change. Right on time, this is the focus of Power Concedes Nothing.
The book is cleanly organized into five sections: Building Progressive Power in States; Communities of Color Drive the Win; Workers on the Doors; Bernie, Democratic Socialism, and the Primary Battles; and Mobilizing Voters Across the Country. The twenty-two chapters are written by organizers or through interviews and roundtables edited for coherence.
Burnham, Elbaum, and Poblet weave a governing-power orientation and critical analysis of racial capitalism together with stories from on-the-ground organizers, who write about their own experiences, in their own words, building long-term power using elections, narrative shifts, and organizing.
This is essential reading for everyone turning toward state and local work after bouncing off the neoliberal ceiling of the Biden Administration and a divided Congress, and now reeling from the hard right majority Supreme Court and their spate of backward rulings.
Power Concedes Nothing tells the inside story of the 2020 elections in key states and constituencies that were critical to defeating President Trump and electing President Biden and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. How this happened and what it will take to build on this work is the central theme of the book. We know that voter turnout was up across the board in 2022 - for the left and the right. As Maurice Mitchell writes in the chapter Protest, Politics, and (Electoral) Power: “After four years of near-unspeakable levels of corruption, more than 74 million people went to the polls and essentially said, “I’d like more of that.”” That’s what we’re up against.
There are bright through lines to Power Concedes Nothing that every organizer should take to heart.
First, there is no substitute for relational organizing. The editors describe how “high-quality work on the doors, in union halls, places of worship, schools, and community centers—unmediated human connection—brings out leadership qualities in canvassers and volunteers, identifies potential activists and allies, and produces experiences that can be mined for lessons that shape future work in ways that other forms of outreach cannot.”
As organizers in Georgia and North Carolina describe in their chapters, they were canvassing in rural areas where the only other door-knockers were from the Republican Party. No one from the Democratic Party nor candidates saw fit to invest in these voters, but smart, strategic organizers did, and their efforts demonstrated the efficacy of long-term power-oriented grassroots electoral organizing.
In LUCHA’s 10-Year Road Map to Victory César Fierros Mendoza explains the learning that LUCHA and their allies gained in the fight against SB 1070 and the recall campaign of far-right Republican Russell Pearce: “organizing can be tedious, but it is fruitful. It requires one door knock at a time, one conversation at a time, and one registered voter at a time. There are no secret weapons or tricks. It takes hard work and grit to make progress, and this type of organizing is what propelled us into the next phase of our work.”
Second, engaging “low propensity voters” (or low-investment voters as one of the authors reframes) takes real investment of time and money together with “culturally savvy messaging.” Each chapter in Power Concedes Nothing describes the successful engagement of low-propensity/low-investment voters who were the margin of victory for President Biden and in Georgia for two Democratic Senators. No matter how you slice and dice the data, the organizers and groups featured in this book were the difference in holding the line against Trump and the right.
Third, centering joy and culture in conversations with voters is as important as validating people’s righteous anger. Many organizations, particularly those in the South, made the choice to meet people where they are at, listen to their concerns and ideas, and reflect back hope and joy. Over and over again they demonstrated that love and respect are a recipe for moving people to reclaim their dignity, vote, and join the organizations knocking on their doors so that we are stronger in the next campaign and election.
Fourth, invest in long-term multiracial organizing. As Art Reyes III and Eli Day describe in The Battle for Democracy in Michigan, “multiracial organizing against authoritarian forces is possible even in one of the most segregated states - but only if we are intentional about campaign structure, deliberate about state strategy, explicit about race, diligent in preparing more than the right, and clear that we must build trust early before the stakes are high.”
Jon Liss outlines the questions that lead to long-term strategy in New Virginia Majority: We Win By Expanding Democracy: “Who are the key sectors who are motors for change and racial and social justice within a given state? Where are these areas on a map? What are the demographic and political economic trends within a given state? Very specifically, which districts are in contention now and which will be in contention in three or five years? Can you build toward and support a Democratic trifecta (the executive branch, and House and Senate majorities)? Which areas and which candidates are likely to support your most far-reaching demands?”
Fifth, investing in political alliances and alignment tables pays off immediately and in the long-term. In Florida’s Rising Majority Learns from Its Wins - And Its Opponents, Andrea Cristina Mercado shares how “Dream Defenders, Faith in Florida, the Florida Immigrant Coalition, Jobs with Justice, New Florida Majority, Organize Florida, and SEIU came together as the Statewide Alignment Group…We invested in long-term visioning and relationship-building and were able to overcome distrust, with a shared purpose, and long-term plans. Our approach to electoral engagement was year-round, linked to local and state work on progressive policy campaigns to advance our long-term goals…We had two aims: 1) break the back of Jim Crow by systematically challenging structural racism and reimagining public safety, and 2) advance nonpatriarchal co-governance by electing people who would go to bat for Black and Brown communities, often from within our ranks, and then create community–government partnerships to advance the policies, budgets, and representative democracy our communities deserve.”
Sixth, we have to build our forces while simultaneously dismantling the other side’s coalition. We have to “both to advance a people-first agenda and to counter-organize against the right’s corporate and white supremacist program,” Mercado continues, “Without the latter, the former will be nearly impossible to achieve.”
Seventh, make meaning with people (or the right will happily do it for you). Jacob Swenson-Lengyel and Jules Berkman-Hill emphasize making meaning and narrative strategies along with strategic long-term organizing in Pennsylvania Stands Up: Stepping Into the Whirlwind. They share how “we aimed to build authentic connections with voters around shared values, but we didn’t shy away from embracing voters’ anger with the status quo. Instead, we promoted an inclusive populism that redirected voters’ anger away from immigrants, protestors, and China, toward those who are actually to blame: big corporations and political elites who have sold out working-class people for decades.”
Eighth, we have to organize beyond the choir in order to build majoritarian multiracial organizations and movements. PA Stands Up “used a technique called “deep canvassing,” which involves long, empathetic conversations (20 to 45 minutes) with conflicted voters…Training volunteers to persuade voters using the deep canvass method is difficult. Persuasion requires listening, empathy, and compassion. Volunteers must maintain a non-judgmental attitude and be vulnerable in sharing their own story. It can be incredibly challenging to share your own hardships with a stranger and maintain a nonjudgmental attitude when a voter shares beliefs you may find offensive.” Ryan Greenwood shares more about deep canvassing and its efficacy in People’s Action: Building ‘Movement Politics: “Two independent researchers, Josh Kalla and David Broockman, determined that our deep canvassing methodology was 102 times more effective than the average presidential persuasion methodology.” Deep organizing works, and when done with volunteers it is scalable and allows us to reach people who should be with us but aren’t yet.
Ninth, long-term power requires a long-term commitment to people and place. In States of Solidarity: How State Alignment Builds Multiracial Working Class Power, Maria Poblet sums up the first section of Power Concedes Nothing, “The breakthrough levels of voter engagement that state and local groups achieved in 2020 reflects 10 to 20 years of base-building, building solidarity across various constituencies, using integrated voter engagement and long-term strategy development.”
Tenth, we must be intentional about institutionalizing leadership from the frontlines. Poblet continues, “State power-building groups amplify the political voices of communities who need transformational change the most—Black, Indigenous, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latin American, women and gender-oppressed people, disabled people, youth, workers, and more. State organizations are positioned to work more closely with communities.”
Poblet then summarizes the four components of long-term power building featured in the first section of Power Concedes Nothing: 1) building new solidarities among and across historically marginalized communities; 2) challenging the transactional culture of elections; 3) forming an alignment to build governing power; and 4) developing long-term strategy.
That’s ten key lessons just from the FIRST of five sections in Power Concedes Nothing. And the rest of the book is just as good. There are several centuries’ worth of shared expertise about how to build long-term independent political power across geographies and constituencies. Just read the book, you’ll see.
The point of all this incredible work? Winning governing power, here defined by Poblet: “Governing power is the ability to win and then sustain power across a broad set of sites of governance to shift the power structure of governance and establish a new governing paradigm…To win governing power, state power-building groups need the capacities to design, drive demand for, legislate, enact, and defend agendas for progressive reforms that serve the needs of low-income, working-class, and historically marginalized communities…In doing so, these power-building groups will not only help hold electeds accountable through their terms in office, but fundamentally reshape the structure of the government itself, creating the conditions for more authentic and multiracial democracy…With the goal of governing power as our compass, we use each arena of contestation as an opportunity to shift power, change the political climate, and take steps that get us closer to transforming governance.”
And what to do with governing power? Change the rules to reflect majoritarian progressive values. How to build more power and wield it in the public arena to transform our society and economy is the focus of Smiley and Gupta’s insightful writing.
The Future We Need first grounds us in the history of worker organizing then moves quickly into a crisp explanation of the history of worker organizing and collective bargaining, before transitioning into chapters that describe today’s most innovative strategies to expand collective bargaining and economic democracy. Along the way we are treated to vignettes of workers that lend the book its emotional weight.
Smiley and Gupta quickly set us free from calcified thinking about workers and labor organizing. Asserting that a healthy democracy is “a system in which the majority of people have the ability and mechanisms in place to consult, confer, and collectively govern themselves,” they liberate collective bargaining from its modern regulatory framework and share an expansive vision of collective bargaining that “applies democratic practices to economic relationships.” All of these relationships.
This is a refreshing reality check, and the wide view we need right now. It includes bosses and workers of course, but all workers, not just those legally allowed to form unions. Platform, contract and gig workers. Tenants and homeowners. Consumers. Debtors. Students. Pretty much everyone except those who control the means of production can benefit from this perspective. This is you and me and everyone we know.
Smiley and Gupta are quick to note that collective bargaining is the means to an end, not the end itself. We collectively bargain in order for our families and communities to “achieve agency, dignity, and joy” in our lives. The theme of workers as whole people is a through line in The Power We Need.
With breathtaking clarity, Smiley and Gupta set out the task for today’s organizers: to finish the yet-unrealized project that our forebears started to build a multiracial democracy in the United States. This will take traditional bargaining, but also direct action and worker organizing that colors outside current regulatory lines. It also requires this new perspective to rethink and reconstruct institutions that have served many workers, but less so today as capital has evolved beyond last century’s labor frameworks: it’s time to move past individual rights into the “realm of shared responsibilities.”
“Organizing people as workers is not enough,” they explain. “As the strategies deployed by capital change, the specific mechanisms working people access must also change to apply to all the ways in which humans relate to capital.”
As one might rightly expect from these two racial justice leaders, Smiley and Gupta center race in their lessons for today’s organizers. They know the faultlines all too well, and say that “without confronting both the individual and systemic discrimination present in our society and movements, working people will be vulnerable to the temptation to bypass the issues of people of color, immigrants, and women—ultimately weakening any agreement and creating a pool of unorganized workers who can later be mobilized to undermine whatever improved standards were won.”
Centering race and helping workers find shared self-interest in economic democracy, they explain, is a strategy for everyone to win: “When white supremacy, patriarchy, and xenophobia are allowed to flourish, workers’ rights suffer; when workers centralize the struggle against these forces, they are able to win stronger agreements that work for everyone and are harder to undermine using tactics that divide workers from one another.”
These authors are clear that we cannot afford to ignore poor and working class white workers, while the right actively seeks to organize them: “Clarifying workers’ shared self-interests against common corporate exploiters is the only way to motivate white workers who have legitimate worries and fears to act in their shared interests with workers of color.”
Smiley and Gupta share an electoral map that is a touchpoint in the book that they return to again and again to make the point that we cannot give up on entire states or constituencies if we want to build a new and inclusive labor movement. As sharp organizers, they know we have to meet people where they are at.
“Organizing people is not about their ideology. It is about appealing to the values that drive them,” they say. Once we are in a relationship with people we can engage them with “a bold vision aligned with their shared values, including issues that go beyond their immediate wants and needs.”
Smiley and Gupta describe this organizing approach: “Movement leaders must build campaigns that are sensitive to what working people have lost while helping them accept that the old system did not work. Such efforts can yield small victories to rebuild momentum and morale while also building organization, especially as communities in these regions recognize and relate to various traditional cultures of organizing. This is the necessary foundation for creating a new framework for organizing and collective bargaining.”
The latter half of The Future We Need describes innovative strategies to organize workers as whole people, starting with community-driven bargaining that addresses economic relationships outside of the workplace, such as renters versus. corporate landlords, debtors versus big banks, and consumers versus corporations.
Smiley and Gupta explain that “community-driven bargaining uses the economic relationships of any constituency to exert leverage on the corporate executives who are the direct cause of their grievances. At its best such bargaining can enable working people to play a permanent, direct role in governing the institutions that impact them rather than merely winning occasional concessions or policy improvements.”
Additional strategies include community benefit agreements, coenforcement, procurement strategies, and bargaining for the common good. There are definitions and examples of each strategy, with the common thread that further innovation and experimentation is needed to change the structural relationship between today’s workers and capital. All of these are pathways to bring “greater numbers of ordinary people the opportunity to participate in processes that lead to them governing themselves and their conditions, thus helping to expand the practice of economic democracy—one of the crucial goals of the twenty-first century.”
In addition to context and strategy in The Future We Need, Smiley and Gupta also share misconceptions and challenges that need to be overcome. The conversation on the future of work in the movement and philanthropy is reframed here as the future of workers. The rapid advancements in technology, data collection for private gain, and artificial intelligence are problems for workers but “the greatest threat is the concentration of wealth and power by those who do not want a future where working people have an equal and democratic role in governing.” Keep your eye on the ball - capital.
The Future We Need ends with a call to action: “We need a movement that can evolve the legal, policy, organizing, and cultural frameworks of the last century. A movement that can design a new social contract for the twenty-first century. A movement that understands the necessity of centering the fight against white supremacy and white nationalism. A movement that can engage working people as whole people and imagine a new set of supports and systems that allow people to live as their full selves. And a movement that is deeply rooted in the values of respect, dignity, agency, and collectivity.”
As I read The Future We Need and Power Concedes Nothing alongside each other, I find myself energized, inspired, and ready for the long haul in front of us. If you don’t know how to organize, it is time to learn. If you are an organizer, it’s time to mentor others. Every community is on the frontlines in the fight against the right’s attempts to take over school boards and cities. Local power is the building block of state and national power. You can start where you are.
We can stop the apocalypse, but there are no shortcuts to doing so. It’s going to take a progressive long-term agenda with radical implications for our present work to build power, shift the landscape, change the narrative, and win stepping stones that build toward structural reform and structural transformations. Sometimes we will spark movement moments that allow us to make rapid progress, other times will feel like we’re taking two steps forward and then one step back. It will take millions of us organizing to realize our long-term goals and we won’t see the full fruits of our labor for decades. That is how the right took over, and it is how we will liberate ourselves and build a world based on our values. Let’s get to it.
First published in Social Policy: Organizing for Social & Economic Justice, Summer 2022, Volume 52, #2. Reprinting with permission is welcomed.
Smiley, Erica, and Sarita Gupta. The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century. Cornell University Press, 2022.
Burnham, Linda, Max Elbaum and Maria Poblet. Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections. A project of Convergence: A Magazine of Radical Insights. O/R Books, 2022.
Thank your for these timely reviews. I'm hearing too many folks on the Left lately arguing that focusing on elections is pointless; that we should put our energies into building mass movements instead. But why would we leave electoral power on the table? Yes, the Democrats were not able to stop the rightwing take-over of our judiciary. This means we need to be even smarter about our electoral strategies, which must be linked to building our bases and building other forms of power. The electoral strategies featured in "Power Concedes Nothing" should be absorbed by all who want to want to build progressive/left power today.
I enjoyed and appreciated this helpful set of reminders of what works, though I also wish that you would weave in your own experiences. With all the great organizing you’ve done here in New Rochelle and beyond, how have you seen the lessons you shared in those contexts? Keep up the great writing!