Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Call to Action: From Outrage to Activism: A Step-By-Step Guide to Forming a Political Action Group

Sarah Carvill holds a PhD in Environmental Studies and has worked as a policy analyst and legislative aid in the California State Senate. She currently teaches, writes, and resists Donald Trump in Berkeley, California.

For several days after the election, I had a hard time peeling myself off the carpet. I stopped cooking, washing my hair, and answering my phone. Listening to NPR inevitably reduced me to tears, and I couldn’t face any article of clothing that wasn’t made out of jersey. Part of my grief was for my own future, since my short-term career plans depended on my being able to buy affordable, high-quality insurance in the state marketplace established by the Affordable Care Act, but I knew what a Trump presidency would mean for communities of color, undocumented people, LGBT folks, and climate policy. And I remembered well how the shock and outrage that gripped the left in the wake of the 2004 election faded into depression and apathy. I was afraid the same thing would happen this time around.

Three months later, Donald Trump is performing the duties of the Presidency with even less care, sense, and compassion than I had imagined possible. My fears for my own future and for the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our country and the world have not abated, but in many ways I feel better than I did before the election. Why? People are outraged, people are organizing, people are resisting, and I am one of them.

Last week, I sat down and wrote to Tom and Wendy because I wanted to share the process I and my close friends initiated that has helped us, individually and collectively, plug in to the growing movement against Trump and what he stands for. Essentially, we've formed a "political support group," and we're getting things done because of it. I think this process is replicable, and could be of use to anyone who is concerned about the direction the country seems to be headed, but has limited time, money, and/or organizing or political experience. All you need is a few friends who are interested in sharing ideas for action and supporting one another.

There are five steps to our process: (1) Gather those people together in person; (2) decide what’s important to all of you; (3) share resources electronically; (4) as you digest these resources and develop ideas, take the time to write and share a personal activism commitment with your group; and (5) keep talking.

1. Gather your people.

If I was behaving like a bereaved person in the days after the election, my boyfriend Jae was the one making arrangements. We had intended to go away for the weekend, so he canceled our trip. He started calling our mutual friends in the area, looking for a time and place that we could all get together. Something that mattered to us all had died, so he planned a wake.

That’s sort of what it felt like on Saturday, November 12: There was a pile of take-out food on our friends’ dining room table, a palpable sense of shock and despair, and an understanding that no one was going anywhere for most of the day. Everyone agreed that we wanted to get together on Sunday, as well, so we did that, and we met again the next weekend.

Our group consisted of a handful of Jae's best friends from college, the partners of the two of them who are now married, and my best friend and her partner. Among us we have three PhDs, a medical doctor, two writers, a professional facilitator, a therapist, four educators, a former legislative aid, a federal agency employee, a social media expert, five environmental professionals, four people with at least one immigrant parent, and three people who grew up in red states. One of the things that struck me immediately was that together we had a tremendous and valuable diversity of education, work, and life experiences that could be leveraged to affect real social and political change.

The contrast to 2004 was evident, too: When George W. Bush was reelected, I was in college, and so were most of my friends. We had no income and very little education or work experience, so we waited for the real grown-ups to tell us what to do. And told us to sign online petitions. No wonder the resistance fizzled.

Now and my friends are as equipped as anyone else to identify ways of resisting Trump strategically. We realized almost immediately that we couldn't just leave that work to other brains if we wanted to be sure of making the most of our investments (of both money and time) into resistance. 

2. Decide what’s really important.

So what started out as an opportunity to process the outcome of the election together evolved into an effort to plan our response. This happened naturally: Anguished rhetorical questions like, “Why did people vote for this guy?” prompted real conversations about what data we had on who “they” actually are, whether it was possible to change their minds, and whether we even needed “them” to win back Congress and the Presidency. We didn’t try to steer the conversation too much; what we did do was make note of the major issues that came up in our discussion.

After a couple of get togethers, we mapped out what we perceived to be the key problems. While we did talk about specific policy issues (e.g., climate change, racial justice, healthcare, abortion rights), our conversation drifted toward the institutional and cultural factors that are giving conservatives a disproportionate voice in our government— things like voter suppression, gerrymandering, the primary system, reactionary white nationalism, industry change and economic stagnation in rural America, geographic segregation of conservatives and liberals, Republican willingness to break informal norms that promote bipartisan policymaking, and the Democratic Party's apparent failure to apprehend and adapt to the changing political landscape.

While many of us have strong personal commitments to other issues, we agreed that checking the power of the right (and, increasingly, the extreme right) was a common goal that would ultimately help advance all of our other causes.

3. Share the work of staying informed.

Some important steps happened outside of our meetings, as well. Once we knew one another’s concerns and developed the habit of bouncing emails to the group, we started sharing resources electronically. There was no formal division of labor, but our very different schedules, subscriptions, and professional and social networks gave us access to diverse ideas, emerging groups, research, and articles. Each of us filtered our own feeds for the best and most relevant resources.

In this fashion, we monitored the news; investigated new nonprofits and organizing vehicles like Indivisible, Sister Districts, and the Injustice Boycott; tried new action tools like Flippable and Wall of Us; and attended meetings in pairs and threes. We learned about the strategies that have worked for past activist movements, the tools at our disposal to influence Congress, the tools our members of Congress have to obstruct Trump, and the various organizations and platforms that are out there to support sustained activism and organizing on the left.

Importantly, however, no single one of us has had to do all that work him- or herself in addition to his or her job. My contributions came largely from things I would have done anyway, and the return was more good stuff than I could have found on my own— at least, not without totally abandoning my other responsibilities.

4. Make a personal activism commitment— and tell the group how it's going.

As we shared articles and ideas, several of us wrote to the whole group to describe personal "activism commitments". These came in a variety of forms. For example, my boyfriend set up monthly recurring contributions to a set of organizations he particularly liked, but he also blocked out an hour each Friday morning that he uses to call our Senators and take other political actions at the direction of a suite of the groups that have recently emerged to harness this type of energy. Not all of his activism since the election fits within this framework (he has also attended protests, joined two local Democratic groups, and started writing and performing political songs with his band) but his formal commitment ensures that whatever else is going on in his life, at minimum he gives money monthly and makes calls to members of Congress weekly. 

Why tell the group? I'm not going to argue that announcing your commitments makes you more likely to keep them (social science research actually suggests that this is not true), but telling the group does force you to articulate your plan, and articulating your plan helps you work out the possible kinks in it. It also gives other group members ideas about how to formulate their plans, as well as advance feedback on what kinds of activities have and haven't worked well for their friends.

5. Keep it up.

Our group continues to meet, though not as frequently as we did in the first month after the election. Both in person and over email, we continue to share insights and progress related to our individual activism commitments and talk about work that we might eventually spearhead collectively. But we also talk about our own lives and feelings, and share the latest Saturday Night Live sketches mocking Trump, Conway, and Spicer.

This mix of serious strategizing and serious socializing ensures that our time together is always fun, but that’s not the only reason that I encourage people to establish a “political support group” among their own friends. Another reason is that it is much, much easier to share political resources with a group over email if you all have an in-person rapport and a sense of one another’s interests. I don’t agonize about whether or not to share something or reply-all to someone else’s message because our group has its own informal norms that I helped build.

Even more importantly, the fact that we are attached by friendship rather than professional affiliation or a strict mission means that the insights we bring to or crystalize in our meetings draw from and filter back into our diverse networks. To take just one example, after some of us attended a rocky initial meeting for one local Indivisible group and reported back, Jae was able to reach out to his Indivisible chapter before their first meeting and offer his suggestions about facilitation. That meeting went much more smoothly— in part because they knew what had gone wrong in the next county over. I regularly relay resources between our group and my Indivisible compatriots, or between our group and my mother and her business partner, who each have their own group of concerned friends who are becoming more politically active or changing the scope of their prior activism in the wake of the election.

Your friends may for the most part be activist newbies, but I can almost promise you that one of them knows someone who is not. You may not know the best place to get your news, but if you get eight friends together, one will have an online subscription to the New York Times, or show you how to subscribe to a good political analysis podcast like Pod Save America. If you decide to get on board with the Injustice Boycott and move your money out of a big bank, someone in your support group may know someone who did that during the Occupy years.

In all these cases, the person who provides insight or resources will likely feel as grateful for the opportunity to help as you are to receive it. Many of us are deeply troubled by what is happening in the country, but are struggling to find ways of resisting that fit within the constraints imposed by our commitments to our jobs and as caregivers, or by our finances. Not all of us can get arrested for what we believe in, but many of us can help someone else take an action that they might not feel empowered to take on their own. Getting connected is the first step. You may be surprised by where you go from there.

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