Is it too much to say being a Democrat in 2020 is to bear a cross of mixed emotions, anxiety, and perhaps, a loss of purpose? I think any of us who join, follow, or volunteer with the DFL or the Fighting 41st, are striving to build a just, equitable society. But we see that work eroded by adverse forces seemingly beyond our control. It’s time to wrest back control.
When I began coming to the senate district meetings I was searching for effective, worthwhile ways to help my community. Voting was unfulfilling. It had never been enough. Now, after two years of being involved, I still feel unfulfilled. This is not to say I have wasted my time. I have met many passionate, caring, hardworking people. I have shared my story and I spent many nights in 2018 knocking on doors, which I believed was the “gold standard” for organizing and building power. But, the nagging in my head tells me I am still not satisfied. How effective have I really been? How can I maximize my impact here at the Fighting 41st? And don’t the problems I see in society demand that I work harder, or more effectively to build the power necessary for our leaders to seriously tackle society’s problems?
Before I discovered how the DFL organizes on a senate district level, my interactions with politics were almost entirely focused on national politics. As a young person I was not very politically involved. I was, however, politically aware, and I consumed plenty of news. I had campaigned for Barack Obama, helping to raise money for the campaign throughout the summer of 2008. But that relationship never led me into the deeper and more important insight about political involvement. I was yearning to apply the history I learned about society in a useful, positive way, but my initial campaign work never placed me on the pipeline to my local DFL unit. I spent many years without an outlet for my activism. After the 2018 caucus I discovered the Fighting 41st, the cornerstone for democratic power near me.
I imagine this story is similar for many young people. We all travel along our own intellectual journey, continually searching for our place in society. Democrats all have a story of why we feel passionate about Democratic values, and we all seek to improve the society we live in.
Perhaps I was naïve in my younger years, but the dirty secret I have discovered about politics is that it is only partially about ideals, but more importantly about power. This insight has been burning in my brain since I started my involvement with the Fighting 41st, but it has only recently crystallized. In hindsight, I have witnessed a clear example. I went canvassing with Connie Bernardy before the midterms in 2018. I watched as she knocked on a door of a couple who supported Jeff Johnson (Tim Walz’s Republican opponent), who she knew would still split the ticket and vote for her. She knocks on their door every cycle and she knew what they cared about. She was building power one person at a time and she was willing to listen to anyone.
And here the rubber meets the road, so to speak. I feel that I need to search for more effective and meaningful ways for our senate district to organize.
At first, I thought maybe I needed to find a different group to volunteer with, maybe Indivisible, or a local climate group. But, to me, SD41 seems uniquely situated to build long-term power on the local level. Of course, the pandemic will not allow us to canvass this year. But even in normal years, our canvassing through the VAN system only haphazardly reaches those who have already voted. Phone banking is another option, but it is becoming increasingly tough to reach people. There is also social media engagement. But the shallow nature of social media rewards someone for a post or a hot take on an article, rather than for a concrete action. We can create daily action items that focus on calling legislators. Yet, they are only effective for certain types of offices. Most often daily action items are nationally focused, which means they will not engage voters in meaningful organizational objectives. Driving turnout in local and state elections, as many of our members know intimately, is the road to change that we can effect.
This brings me back to Senate District 41. Our SD41 has an excellent track record of informing members about local elections, including non-partisan elections. We have committed community members, who really understand what is happening locally. Since joining, the local relationships I have made motivated me to further action with the DFL.
What I want, is for every other Democrat in SD41 to develop and depend on the relationships he or she has with other Democrats in the district. I think our road this deeper form of participation in the Senate District DFL should begin with a precinct organizing system.
I came across this idea in a recent book, called Politics is for Power, but the National Democratic Training Committee also has resources dedicated to it, which you can check out here. The basic framework involves recruiting precinct organizers to reach out to each household in their area. For example, in my city of Columbia Heights, we have eight precincts, so we would find eight precinct captains who could each manage a group of organizers. Each organizer would be responsible for reaching out to a reasonable number of households in their immediate area. The benefit of a system like this, is that we would have concrete, meaningful ways to plug members into our senate district. We could establish a pipeline for local leaders to identify and activate people who might otherwise never find a way to marshal their politics toward a purpose.
Yes, it would take time and effort to grow a system like this. But that is the reason it must be the senate district that takes on a project of this scope and vision. Campaigns do not have that capability, though they can help plug in volunteers.
I would like to start this year by having precinct captains write a letter to a number of the households around them, offering to listen to their opinions and help them get involved. Not only is this a social-distancing organizational technique, workable in the time of Covid-19, it is also personal. And it is hyper-local. While this might be slightly out of my comfort zone — and maybe yours too — I believe the gains will far out-weigh the pain.
I want to hear what you think about SD41’s role in organizing and building power. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would also like to follow this blog with some concrete actions, including interviewing some of the people doing sustainable organization in our district to really learn what motivates people to turn their politics into a purpose.
This is our time to build sustainable power in Senate District 41.