When I tell people that I’m taking a semester off of school to do organizing, I get a wide variety of responses. Sometimes it’s “really?” or “is that a smart move?”. I even heard from a friend that one of their friends reacted “Did you know that Timothy DenHerder-Thomas DROPPED OUT?”. I found that pretty funny! But probably the most common reaction is something like “so how’s the voter registration going?” or some excited comment about how young people are taking over American politics.
It often surprises folks to hear that I’m not organizing around the elections at all.
You see, why I think this election is vitally important is not because we’re going to elect Barack Obama to the White House. It’s not even the more politically savvy dream of getting Obama AND a filibuster-proof majority of progressive Senators AND an overwhelmingly progressive House AND a wave of local victories stretching all the way from city council members and Governors to referenda like the MN Vote YES initiative (please do, if you leave the option blank, it counts as a NO vote against MN conservation funding).
All of that is pretty cool, and I want to say kudos to the thousands of people across the country who are pouring their heart out to make it happen. Every time I’m up in the SORC hearing Molly Griffard scheming about how to keep renters from being disenfranchised, I think ‘Thank God there are so many amazing people getting this done”. While I don’t think elections are the defining point at which we make decisions about our society, they definitely play a big role in determining who we get to play ball with. So keep up the good work!
But the real reason I find these elections so exciting is because of The New Organizers
What’s emerging is a new way of making social change – the author of the post Zack Exley says it the union of traditional community organizing and the netroots (an emerging organizing process that harnesses and is in its structure reflective of the web – distributed, decentralized, and endlessly expanding). I like the Obama campaign (and Obama himself) less for what they want to do (elect Obama, and then advance a series of policies) and more for the way in the way they operate – their process. They haven’t just mobilized people to get out the vote, they have built a solid infrastructure of well- trained community organizers with personally-defined roles empowered to support their communities in an internal process of reinventing themselves for a new future. And that’s important, since solving the complex mess of problems we face – a falling economy, the wild-roller coaster of peak energy, widespread social and economic disparity, and the impending threat of global warming – will require strategic and targeted action at all levels, not just from our elected officials.
The big question for me is: “Obama built this social infrastructure, what are we going to do with it once the elections are over?” Because ultimately our ability to harness new models of organizing to build the world we want to see from the ground up is what’s going to make the change. Obama has been saying that from day 1, and I sure hope he believes it. And I sure hope we do too.
You’re probably thinking: this is cool and I’m glad its happening, but I’ve got my life to lead, classes to take, a career to build, my own lifestyle. I’m glad our politics are getting fixed, but what does this new organizing thing really have to do with me? Well you see, the next few years as this new organizing ramps up are going to change the face of the global economy, and thus where all the jobs are (hint, hint, anything that can sustain its own activity over the long term while providing something valuable to the rest of the world, which excludes most of our current economy). It will revamp the values that shape our ideals about community, and thus over time, the entire structure of our cities and suburbs, affirming the personal connections at the heart of who producers our food, our energy, and other goods and services. It will put people back at the center of the way we make decisions, make a living, and make a world. The future that new organizers are creating is fundamentally about the world we’re going to live in – so its only to our benefit to get in on the act.
How do we sustain ourselves while empowering and supporting thousands of others to do the same? How do we conduct activism in a way that makes a living; in a way, in fact, that creates economic opportunities for local communities and creates new capital markets and new energy markets that are oriented around our communities? In this country and around the world, how do we re-develop for sustainable communities? And how do we make these ventures stronger, more resilient, and more competitive than the leviathan and often detrimental development strategies practiced by the massive corporations which we tend to see as the creators of value (jobs, profit, goods, etc). It’s time to think, say, and make real in practice that WE, THE PEOPLE are the creators of value.
That’s what I’m spending this semester trying to figure out. And I’ve got some pretty cool ideas that are becoming realities. And I want to hear your visions and help make them real.
From the beginning, one of Obama’s key campaign slogans was “I’m asking you to believe not only in my ability to bring real change to Washington [substitute any other spot on the globe], I’m asking you to believe in your own.”
That’s why this election is important. If we forget that message, we’ve missed the boat.
Let’s do this.