On Day 2 of the Take Back the American Dream conference in Washington, D.C., activists first discussed strategies for building a stronger progressive movement in general. Then, finally, they dove into how exactly they would channel their renewed energy.
One early session looked at how issues championed by many liberal groups — gay marriage, racial justice and reproductive rights — often become swiftly defeated political wedge issues by their opponents. A diverse panel of activists, however, shared how those same issues can gain traction when organizers (à la the Tea Party) seize control of the conversation.
Don't let your opponents define you. Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Taskforce, said that same-sex marriage has had wins on the state level by pushing back against fear-based media campaigns warning that same-sex couples will corrupt children and force churches to act against their values. "In dealing with the public, it meant showing up as ourselves to say, 'Yes, I'm a lesbian, but I'm also your neighbor, your teacher … and a whole list of other roles in society beyond our sexual orientation and gender identity," said Nipper, who is African American.
Focus on effecting change, not reprimanding people. Rinku Sen, publisher of ColorLines and president of the Applied Research Center, cited a Minnesota Organizing Apprenticeship Project initiative — an annual "racial equity assessment" report that measured the impact that state legislation would have on people of color. The Legislature, and the Minnesota Star Tribune newspaper, initially balked because they found the report divisive and accusatory. Sen said that the organizers pushed on, eventually winning support from both the press and lawmakers, by focusing squarely on the impact of laws. "The goal was not to root out racists but to look at what causes racial disparities and inequities,'" she said. "Are we about pointing out people's racism, sexism and homophobia? Or are we about making the actual changes, and then letting people's thinking follow the changes? Those are the choices that we have to make."
Speak broadly to bring more people into the fold. Carol McDonald, director for strategic initiatives for Planned Parenthood, described how, when House Republicans threatened to shut down the government over Planned Parenthood funding, it presented the organization with an opportunity. Instead of being defensive about abortion, they galvanized people around comprehensive reproductive health. "We had to keep the women we were serving every day … at the center of everything that we did," she said. "We got on a bus and went from town to town … and just talked to folks. We put out all the services that we offer on a yearly basis, highlighting what people would lose if funding were cut for Planned Parenthood and Title X. For us it's 4 million STI tests, 830,000 breast exams, 2 1/2 million birth control patients and 1.8 million cancer screenings." As a result, the organization gained 1.2 million new supporters.
But with the conference hosting session after session focused on various activist silos — labor organizing, the role of NetRoots, an immigrant rights strategy workshop — the questions loomed: How is this all supposed to come together as one movement? And how is any of this different from the usual modes of advocacy, organizing and communication strategies?
A plenary session called "We Have a Plan! Battles and Victories to Come" distilled the answers (and riled up the crowd) in three main action steps for the next 18 months:
Run 2,012 American Dream candidates on the ballot in 2012. "Here's our plan," said Gloria Totten, president of Progressive Majority. "Defeat them. Get them out of office at every single level — the school board, city council, the mayor, state legislatures, U.S. Congress. Get them out. These are dangerous times which require ambitious measures." Under the slogan "2012 in 2012," their idea is to get thousands of liberals running for office by recruiting and training candidates in all 50 states. Totten, whose organization has helped to elect nearly 500 liberal candidates over the past 10 years, clarified that she was referring to politicians across the board, not just Republicans. "Putting hundreds of people in office isn't enough," she said. "And it won't be enough to put thousands in if they're not people like you. … If we keep electing the same old kind of Democrat, we are not going to get the kind of change that we need."
Put pressure on the congressional super committee over budget cuts. American Dream affiliates plan to open up shop in every district of the 12 members of the super committee, tasked with reducing our deficit, and pressing them against wholesale budget cuts. "We are putting them on notice to say that we need jobs, not cuts, and that if the wealthiest corporations and people in this country pay their share, we can create jobs and reduce our deficit," said Natalie Foster, CEO of Rebuild the Dream. On Nov. 17, a week before the Super Committee's plan is due, they're mobilizing a collective day of action around the country. "We need to maintain outside pressure," said Gabe Gonzalez, national director for the Campaign for Community Values. "That is our fundamental strength as a movement. Nov. 17 is an opportunity for all of us, regardless of where we come from, regardless of the size of our town and the number of people who have our back, to stand up collectively and say ‘We want jobs, not cuts.'"
Change the culture. The more nebulous part of the plan was a call for 1 million people to step into leadership positions in their communities to engage others. "We started in churches and synagogues, in union halls and living rooms, and that's exactly where we're going to grow this movement," said Foster, who cited house meetings and teach-ins as examples. Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner said that this final step was critical. "We have to reconcile with ourselves this day … to do whatever it takes to take back our states and take back America," she said. "The power is in your hands. It's not just about looking for folks with fancy titles like myself; it's looking at folks like you in this room. … You are the hope that we are looking for."
The plan is big — and requires progressives to do things they haven't done lately on this scale. Do you think it will work?
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.