Word to Activists, Don’t Stop Now
| January 20, 2009
Even in the midst of the inaugural celebration, activists gathered in the capital to plan out their roles in the coming months.
Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt. Both Ellen Malcolm of EMILY’s List and Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky quoted Nancy Pelosi.
“I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it,” Aron quoted FDR as saying in the 1930s when reformers came to him with big ideas.
The most recent practitioner and preacher of real-politik power, House Speaker Pelosi, is quoted as telling women political activists: “know your power—know your power to make the changes you dream of.”
In this mostly euphoric political city on the eve of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, there is much soul-searching by the activists who helped elect him president.
It all revolves around what-next questions.
Malcolm, Schakowsky and Aron addressed standing-room crowds of grass roots activists who had helped elect record numbers of progressives, women and men, as well as Obama, in last November’s election.
Their message: don’t rest on your laurels. The real work starts now. Victory on issues is far from assured—and Obama can’t do it alone. As FDR said and Pelosi echoed, grass roots organizing is essential to help persuade politicians to back their causes. Democrats may have a stronger majority in Congress but that doesn’t mean they think alike—or that they agree with or even know much about the issues pushed by feminists and progressives. Activists will have to keep making their case—especially given the economic crisis and the trillion-dollar fast-track rescue plan that will be pushed through Congress on an emergency basis.
“What women need is not Barack Obama’s to give,” said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, a former chief of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “If we are not sophisticated enough to use the power of our numbers, then what we have talked about today will not go forward….You will know that Barack and the U.S. Congress are waiting to hear from you, to see how well you will work to achieve it.”
It will be a challenge to stop being reactive, to unify behind systemic changes.
“We’re in a time where we can think big and not only react, where we’ve got a generation of young people who are excited about moving ahead. And we can push for the long victories and raise the bar—for basic health care for women and families,” said Kierra Johnson, executive director of Choice USA, which mobilizes and supports younger women on reproductive issues.
Johnson and Norton were among the speakers at the “People’s Inaugural” Women’s Leadership luncheon on Saturday.
The next day, Malcolm presided over a victory luncheon of Emily’s List donors and the Democratic women they helped elect to Congress and to top state jobs. Today, there are 61 Democratic women in the U.S. House, five times the number in 1988, and there are a record 13 Democratic women senators. Three-fourths of the women in Congress are Democrats.
“We have made a historic difference but this is no time to rest on our laurels,” Malcolm said. There still are five times as many men as women in Congress and “our work is far from over.”
On Monday, Aron convened a seminar on “Driving Change”—trying to flesh out the role of activists in an Obama administration.
Corporate lobbyists are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to push their cases. The jury is out on whether unpaid grass roots lobbyists representing often disparate views can organize around issues of governance, even with a president in power with a background of community organizing and who may agree with them on many points.
The November elections certainly were historic, says Aron, but change isn’t a done deal by a long shot.
“I think of it as an opportunity for change, if only we take advantage of it,” she said. Those who worked in the trenches understand that a combination of grass roots forces—using telephones, Internet, Facebook pages as well as face-to-face meetings—made the difference in key states.
“Now, to make change, we have to work at the grass roots—now and from now on,” she said. “Corporate interests understand that very well.”
Just as FDR told New Deal visionaries in the 1930s that he agreed with them but it was up to them to provide pressure from below to enable him act, “Obama needs us to be independent allies,” Aron said. “He is going to face enormous obstacles and push-backs on his changes and we must push for big, systemic changes, on health care, education, green jobs, employee-choice in forming a union, the judiciary.”
Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, who spoke at the Alliance for Justice seminar, said the financial crisis makes it even more certain “that we can’t sit back and let go.” He said when “people fear for their own survival, these are dangerous moments…demagogues are active.” Onetime supporters can retreat, saying “I’ve got to take care of my own family.”
Organizing becomes even more crucial, not just to reach common goals but “to give a sense of ‘us’—that we can all roll up our sleeves, that this is bigger than one person,” Pariser said. With “more families on the brink of economic collapse than in the past 30 years,” the challenge is how to give people hope. “I would argue that the only way to build that sense of ‘us’ is through organizing. That’s what we have to do.
“Hope is also contagious. And it spreads through human contact. That’s something Barack Obama can’t do” but millions of MoveOn and movement activists can, which itself becomes a catalyst for change.
It’s clear that many activists are prepared to do their part.
At the People’s Inaugural women’s luncheon, two Illinois women, Tanya Briggs and Stephanie Jackson Rowe, also wanted strategic advice from the panel of activists, which also included Gloria Steinem, Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland and Malika Saada Saar of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights.
“We wanted to hear about opportunities for what women can do to affect changes…to see what chance there will be for us to organize,” said Briggs.
Briggs said she especially wanted insights on ways women could organize not just locally but nationally, “to be more than what they are.” She also said that women’s groups still are divided by race, despite the election of the first African American president. Rowe noted that a Washington, D.C., person at the lunch had said Obama’s election marked the first time blacks and whites looked each directly at each other. Rowe said that certainly wasn’t the case in her neighborhood near Chicago—but that, overall, there is much room for improvement.
“We have not arrived. There still are fragments between the groups,” she said, and she’d like to see more dialogue, more “action organizers” to move this forward.
Two cousins from different states came to the luncheon partly to see the interaction between veteran and younger activists: Jan Hampton, a former George Washington University professor who now lives in New Mexico, and Natalie Twyner of Jackson, Michigan, a retired school administrator now teaching computer skills to farmers.
Twyner said “there is a crisis right now from the middle class to those at the bottom. And “the issues that the country is facing are not women’s rights or civil rights but really are about human rights.”