Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Georgia(‘s Organizers) on my Mind

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February 17, 2021

In what felt like a miracle after the tumultuous past 4 years, Georgia went entirely blue for the first time since the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. Even with razor-thin margins and the government’s hallmark voter suppression, the voters of the peach state not only rejected the now ex-President but senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler as well. The significance of the first Black and Jewish senators elected from the South, as well as the flipping of the Senate, was not lost on the public with tweets coming from every corner of the nation. Much like after the calling of the state for Biden in November, liberals spent much time thanking the Black and brown organizers embedded in the state for their work. Kind folks reminded the base to give their gratitude in the form of coffee or small Venmo payments to encourage self-care for those who dedicated their lives to making this more than a dream.

This is a well-meaning gesture, it truly is. Black and brown organizers throughout the country worked like crazy in traditionally conservative networks to plant seeds that will grow into a better future for our collective humanity. Knocking doors, making phone calls, and building a base may seem trivial to those looking through the glass, but it’s a mentally taxing task that survives only on the passion and tenacity of the host. These people, consistently overlooked by the public, media, and even the candidates they work for, deserved to have their moment in the metaphorical sunshine they brought to a community thirsting for change. Even before Wednesday’s terrorist attack at the Capitol disrupted the praise, however, something rubbed me the wrong way about these calls for celebration and money sending. This something that had nothing to do with organizers not deserving the things they were requesting, but the perhaps un/conscious tendency of white liberals to overlook the bias, discrimination, and abhorrent labor practices that characterize the toxic environment we call political campaigns.

Many, if not all of us get into high profile organizing with a sort of naiveté on why we’re doing it. We believe in our candidate, of course, but we believe in a better future for our country and communities. The majority are young, most recent college grads, and have given up nearly everything to fight the righteous fight, showcasing the brightest and most optimistic that American politics has to offer. Organizers are dispatched to their various new communities to work as an embed, befriending local politicos and laypeople alike to build your base. The typical organizing job entails 10-13 hours of work a day, 6-7 days a week making hundreds of calls, knocking solo on countless doors, and attending every community event to spread the gospel of your candidate. I liken this job to that of a missionary, where trying to make everyone aware of your expedition seeps into every pore of your life. This egged-on obsession that’s designed by campaigns to make you more dedicated to your work is also what drives those same optimistic young adults into the ground. Missing family, having no time for friends or even for yourself, and having to take orders and reprimands from a boss that’s most often just a year older than you breeds a profound resentment that eventually comes to roost. The closeness in age, paired with a lack of resources and information, lends itself to a Lord of the Flies-like culture where many, regardless of their background, have their passions crushed, and many talented young minds move to the private sector in hopes their skills might be recognized.

It should come as no surprise that people of color in this work struggle with additional mistreatment in the communities they’re moved to as well. After moving from Los Angeles to rural New Hampshire to organize for a presidential primary as a Mexican American, it was almost as if the community was culture-shocked by my arrival. Microaggressive or straight-up racist questions were flung at me daily, usually asking how I learned to speak English so well and at what age I came to the US, even though I’m a second-generation American who doesn’t speak Spanish. I was accused of being a “government leach” for going to a public university on a full ride, and weapons were brandished several times as I canvassed – even being chased by a man with an active chainsaw on my first day working. Many in my community worked hard to make me feel at home in the unfamiliar culture I found myself in, but countless others worked to ingrain discomfort. Several voters took it as a slight when I replied in the negative to their inquiries on whether I’d move there permanently after the election, mentioning that they’d like some more “diversity” in the community as if my existence was a teaching moment for their racist neighbors.

What’s more difficult to swallow is the all-to-frequent response by campaign directors to profit off our past trauma and ignore our current. Black, brown, and disabled organizers were forced to recall the worst parts of their lives several times a day to try and get votes from an indifferent constituency. Stories about racially motivated violence, rejection of accessibility accommodations, and family separation at the hands of ICE were seen as positives for the campaign without consideration to the real-life ramifications these events had on the humans that tell them. After using us for our pain, the bosses saw us as dispensable. A black co-organizer was told to shake off one of her volunteers spread a false and racist rumor that she grew up in project housing without a dad, and our deputy organizing director didn’t bother learning the pronunciation of another black organizer’s last name until months after he was hired. When I requested my direct supervisor move me to a different area after a violent threat, she told me never to ask her a question like that again. They frequently flaunted us on social media to highlight the heterogeneity of our campaign, it was a transparent performative action that delegated us to the roll of simple props.

On top of these struggles, the general structure of campaigning doesn’t allow for many from non-privileged backgrounds to participate in such work.

In an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the 2016 suit filed by a DNC staffer who was denied overtime, a political non-profit director stated “I’ve watched thousands of people work on campaigns. People know these jobs are 80- to 100-hours-a-week jobs. No one asks for overtime. If they did, people would think they were joking.” He went further, claiming they didn’t need to adhere to labor standards because the number of fresh college grads who want those jobs is “infinite”. The arguments for poor campaign wages ring familiar to those who advocate for the continuation of unpaid internships: It gives you experience and a foot in the door. It doesn’t need to be said that those who can afford to take unpaid internships are the wealthy and almost always white people that can take full time organizing jobs for high profile campaigns. This attitude towards campaign work is a classist ideal that maintains a political aristocracy designed to keep poor people and folks of color out, with the threat that being instant replaced if we complain about our conditions dangling over our us like a knife.

In campaigns with union representation, the situation isn’t always better. Although many modern committees push their staff towards unionization, much of this effort is for display. Both parties’ struggle for the labor vote in addition to a recruitment tool for the growing campaign industrial complex makes unionization an optics tool rather than a legitimate protection for their workers. In Politico, my WOC colleagues on the unionized Warren campaign publicly disclosed were pushed out by those vocally in favor of more organizer protections, and Pete Buttigieg’s camp only recognized their union in December of 2019 – less than 2 months before the nation’s first primary. The campaigns that refuse to unionize don’t get credit either. Andrew Yang, an advocate for universal basic income, refused to pay staffers $400 severance in a timely fashion, leaving many staffers laid off after the Iowa caucus stuck in place. In a resignation letter from Kelly Mehlenbacher, a State Director for Kamala Harris’ bid for the presidency, she stated that in the 3 presidential campaigns she participated in over her career, she had “never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly…”

The argument I typically receive in response to my arguments comes from party loyalists, telling me that the tough conditions are part of the “fun”; organizers know what they’re signing up for and not only is it a privilege for them to work for the cause, but it’s a necessary cog in the campaign machine. Why is it, though, that while our candidates are fighting for workplace rights, workplace wrongs are being committed in their name? Why don’t we ever stop to think about why we see the abuse of young people in the workplace as an integral part of advancing our political causes, a part so deeply embedded in the occupation? This isn’t a persuasion on why we should end community organizing as a profession, but a call to reform the indentured servitude that characterizes so many people’s experiences. The candidate we dedicate our entire lives and mental wellbeing to will never see our sacrifices or most of the time even know our names, and we’re supposed to simply accept that. If we require the emotional turmoil of staffers to win campaigns, why aren’t we reevaluating our cause to understand why that’s needed? The fact that folks are even asking others to send snack cash to community organizers is a recognition that these people are overworked and underpaid. It reads as though it’s hush money to dull the pain that came before the victory.

While the tweets are well meaning, to my jaded retired WOC organizer self, they read as a phony attempt at absolving your complacency in holding campaigns accountable for their treatment of staffers. Sending $5 on Venmo to exonerate your liberal guilt isn’t allyship, and pretending so makes you a perpetrator in the vicious abuse cycle that campaigns at every level have utilized since the beginning of modern campaigning. You want to help celebrate organizers? Stop putting yourself on a pedestal for doing one phonebank shift in a “red state in need” (domestic and borderline racist volunteerism) and question your campaigns when you see an organizer being mistreated. Are they working 12 hour shifts with no weekends? Are you noticing them sleeping in their cars or offices? Do they avoid eating because they’re being don’t have enough money to pay for groceries? Use your privilege and call it out. If you don’t, you may as well vote for the other guy.

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