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Five quotes for the surging populist socialist movement

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Agitate, Educate, Organize by Josh McPhee https://creativecommons.org/2017/03/08/just-seeds/

When he spoke in Toronto, Steve Bannon opened with, "It's not a question of whether populism is on the rise and whether populism is going to be the political future. The only question before us: Is it going to be populist nationalism or populist socialism?" Whatever I think about the Munk Debate and about the racism and fear mongering which underpin the "nationalist movement," they are organizing Canadians across the country. As we fight back, here is some great advice I have learned from organizers.

1. Get local

"I find it hard to get enthusiastic for the Green New Deal, as much as I love it, when none of these folks show up at local planning and zoning meetings for solar farm permits. That is the frontline of the climate change crisis today in some ways -- replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. Those meetings are full of solar opponents who have traditional views and  prefer to watch the planet die. Supporters are few and far between. No Sierra Club. No League of Conservation Voters. Nobody. The Green New Deal will die in a permit office, not in Congress."

- Tom Matzzie, CleanChoice Energy

It is important to have a vision, to have an overarching document, but it sometimes feels we have too many overarching documents, accords, compacts, and manifestos -- and not enough people implementing them and tracking opportunities to win change down to the permit office.

2. Develop agency

In an article published in Harper’s Bazaar entitled "Women Who Risk Everything to Defend the Environment," Sarah Hurtes talks about the courage of women environmental activists in particular. One of the people she profiles is LeeAnne Walters. She writes:

"Walters, whose citizens' movement was one of the first to test tap water and expose Flint homes as having lead levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency's safety threshold, says her need to defend the environment doesn't stem from a philosophical conviction to save the planet. Rather, it stems from a desperate need to save her family."

Walters worked with other citizens and they went through a long process of trying to get action, expecting it, and being incredulous at how they were ignored as their families and children got sicker.

Rangel Ramos, a trade union leader from Colombia, introduced me to a book called Organizing for Social Change, published by the Midwest Academy. One takeaway was at the start of a campaign people often feel that if they just bring the issue to the authorities' attention, change will happen. If you want to organize a movement, you have to try those meetings with local reps and watch, perhaps incredulous, as nothing happens. If something does happen, the community won easily. Too often veteran organizers come in with our cynicism and our solutions, jumping ahead to the end of the story, but perhaps the cynicism needs to be justified by experience to fuel a movement.

3. Maintain connections

"The toughest thing for me is having to move on after a campaign. I feel, as I have become a better and better organizer, all across the country are people who feel I broke my promises to them."

- Laphonza Butler, Organizer and SEIU 2015

Being employed as an organizer or activist during union campaigns and election campaigns, we hear people's issues and we commit to working on them together. Then we are assigned to a new campaign and have to leave.

In 2004, I got to talk to a Republican organizer on the plane back from Wisconsin after the U.S. election. He was my counterpart but had been assigned a city and a few exurbs and was there for six months, so he built connections and friendships in the community instead of having, say, a state or a province to manage. When he left Wisconsin, he left a listserv in place with a few people to staff it. They fed stories to the list to keep it active. However, they knew their posts were unimportant and were meant to generate posts about complaints which were organizable (a bus stop lost here, a pothole there). The staffers then contacted the person with the complaint and worked to address the issue. If they won, it was because of the responsive Republicans, if they lost it was because of the "useless government," but the Republicans still responded.

It was easy, low-cost and effective and the party maintained the connections and he did not have to move to Milwaukee (which is cold). The Democrats had just spent millions to start out data-mining work in 2004, but we were beaten by simple technology and old-school organizing.

4. Grow the movement 

"Ladies you have saved me this week!  Let's organize at the local level and rally in person. Grassroots is the way to go. I volunteer to lead my local chapter but not sure how to start. Help!"

- Member, Pantsuit Nation after the 2016 election

So someone new wants to get involved as a leader. Now what? Do we make her pay her dues, understand the history of the movement as written by us "the veterans," drown her enthusiasm? Does she get to come blundering in with enthusiasm and push out the veteran organizers? As a part of a private network organizers created to stand against Trump, we heard about these conflicts so often as new energy came into organizing and wanted to be leaders. There is no facile answer to how to welcome new energy and the desire of new participants to lead. It is however integral to develop ways for people to feel like leaders, and chafe against nationalists, fascists and their selected targets, rather than "seasoned activists." We cannot just order newcomers to listen (to paraphrase Cat Stevens' "Father and Son").

5. Be bold

And finally from my former boss Dave Mott:

"These are difficult and dangerous, desperate times. The labour movement is in serious trouble, which means workers are in serious trouble. We owe it to the people we lead, no matter what level of leadership we are at in this movement, no matter what frustrations may afflict us, to not become cynical. That is the boss' weapon; we should not contribute to it. We will make mistakes. We will win and we will lose. Sometimes decisions made will disappoint us; sometimes we will disappoint. The point is to learn from our mistakes and keep fighting. Workers will forgive us our mistakes if they are made fighting to go forward, to win. They do not forgive mistakes made in retreat, or even standing still. Nor should they. It is we who must keep hope alive, to keep the union strong, edgy and itching for a fight. It is we who must shine the righteous light to encourage people to join this struggle.

Our place is at the centre of the field of battle."

[drop the mic]

Maya Bhullar is rabble's Activist Toolkit Coordinator. The Activist Toolkit Blog is the place to catch up on what's new with the Toolkit. With roundups of newly added tools, highlights of featured tools and extra multimedia content, you'll get up to date info on grassroots organizing.

Image: Josh McPhee/Creative Commons

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