Impacting Systems with Campaigns

Oakland          As a special East Bay treat, I helped Francis Calpotura and Lisa Castellanos, run a fascinating workshop organized by In-Advance as part of their series of working with community-based organizations on impacting systems.  The topic for this session focused on developing campaigns.  My piece was to layout the scenario for a campaign on reigning in payday lenders and their predatory practices in lower income neighborhoods, using Oakland as a setting for the campaign.  I had shared pieces from ACORN Canada’s successful campaigns there with some additional material on the ACORN Hamilton bylaw effort going on now.  In-Advance had also distributed articles on ACORN’s H&R Block campaign as examples of another successful case study.

The biggest problem I had was the usual.  Doing some research while I was in Milwaukee early one morning on the law in California and the state of the industry so that the organizers would have some local context, I found myself getting angrier by the minute, especially since California legislation is often among the most progressive in the country.  Yes, Virginia, there was a law, but no Santa Clause except in the gifts it gave the industry through its toothless passivity.  The industry was licensed and capped at 15% directly on a maximum loan of 31-days with only one loan permissible every 90-days.  Sounds like it might work, doesn’t it?  But it allowed 360% APR on the loan once the rest of the fees were larded on.  There was also no central database that would determine whether or not a consumer did in fact get multiple loans, and the reports turned into the oversight board made it clear that there were frequently repeat loans.  The industry had beaten back an effort as recently as last year in 2018 to create a central database.  Furthermore, there seemed to be no penalties.  Listening to the small groups later describe their proposed campaigns, I wanted to do the campaigns even more than I wanted to hear about their excellent proposals about how such effort might be able to succeed in Oakland!

Francis Calpotura

The best part of the session was being challenged to be helpful on the issues the various groups were grappling with.  KidsFirst was trying to restore funding for healthy feeding programs in the school district with a share of the money coming in from the sugar sweetened drink tax.  Neighbors for Racial Justice were incensed that the city was spending $300 million on policing and didn’t make other issues a priority.  Mujeres Unidas y Activas, composed mainly of Latino domestic workers, found itself caught in constant defense of its immigrant members being deported and seeking asylum in the caldron of the Trump administration’s draconian policies. The Ella Baker Center was trying to bridge many of these issues as well as was the APEN and Mandela Partners, one that deal with economic justice for Asian-Pacific populations and the other that was a food coop trying to promote food justice.

At the end of the day as everyone went around, we all hoped we had pushed the needle forward enough to make not only a difference but create some power and change.

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Building Political Clout from Scratch

San Francisco    The last session on this tour of Milwaukee and Amani United’s steadily progressing leadership development had a curious title:  platform.  Curious, because the organization had a fairly detailed issue agenda formed over recent years.  Much of the scope of my work with them initially had been helping them construction programs and campaigns to put the platform expressed into action.

Once the leaders were assembled, it became clear that the real topic was how to get others, especially public figures, to take the organization and its issues seriously.  Elections for city and county offices from the top executive posts down the ballot, including alderman and county council members, were set for early in the coming year.  Filing was right after the beginning of 2020 followed by a mid-February primary and an early April general election.  The question before Amani United was really the classic one:  how does a nonpartisan community organization build power for the powerless.

A default option is usually holding a community forum, and that made sense here as well.  It’s an opportunity to showcase organizational issues and ask candidates to respond and make commitments.

As usual, easier said than done.  The organization had tried one with partner organizations in the past and watched as two critical problems developed.  At one level, the meeting was hijacked by an outside group whose questions then sucked up all of the air in the room, allowing all candidates and officials to walk out glad handing.  At the other level, the outreach effort was weak, giving outsiders and officials the opportunity to ignore the community because it was disorganized and not present in force.  Lesson learned, get ready for the next test!

The plan became to utilize the regular monthly meetings on the first Saturday of every month to invite existing elected officials including the three aldermen who represent different pieces of the Amani neighborhood to come to a portion of each meeting in the last half-hour to answer questions.  With seven Saturdays between now and filing, members would have an opportunity to measure responses of existing candidates in advance and by the invitation, their new unity, and clear questions send a message that there’s a new game in town this time around with Amani United.  There’s also a regular meeting on a fixed Tuesday every month, which would give Amani an opportunity to also invite rumored and perspective candidates to come to meet the members and get on record on Amani issues as well, offering more bites at the apple.  Additionally, killing two birds with one stone, it would help attendance.

Once the outline of the plan was fixed, then the discussion became about voter registration deadlines for the election and how to take advantage of new legislation in Wisconsin allowing same day registration as the election.  Amani produced 98% turnout of all eligible voters in 2008 when Obama was on the ballot, so it has already proven that when it cares about issues and candidates, they are unbeatable.  The emerging platform plan will allow them to remind officials to pay attention.

This plan isn’t enough to build power for the powerless, but coupled with a steady diet of campaigns and actions on the drawing board and already being put in practice, look out Milwaukee, or whatever community and city that is willing to do the work to win with people power.

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