According to many historians, the phrase “Each One Teach One” originated during enslavement times, when enslaved black folks were forbidden by law from learning how to read and write. Those who learned to read stealthily took on the dangerous task of imparting stolen knowledge to others.
“What do we do now?” is the question filling my phone and email inbox. The plea comes from young people, former students, and family members who are angry, frightened, depressed, and at a loss about what to do now that we have a white supremacist and his minions taking over the oval office.
After talking about this with friends who are veterans of activist political struggle in multiple communities, they concur that now is the time to take action—to make a commitment that we are in this for the long haul. Some of them have not been Democrats. All of them are united in the resolve to give Republicans the boot across America.
Here are some suggestions that were a result of those conversations. Please join me in comments, and add your thoughts to help refine or expand on these. The one thing that’s certain is that taking action is a good cure for feeling hopeless and helpless. And even if you are feeling isolated, know that there are other people who are with you in spirit, even if they’re not locking arms with you in person.
Make a Democratic Action Plan. Write it down. Make a pledge that you will follow through.
We have two years until the midterm elections of 2018. We have only four years until 2020, when the new census will determine congressional reapportionment and redistricting, which is determined by state legislatures and governors.
I asked my students to take a pledge to vote in mid-terms and to enter future “voting date alarms” into their smart phone calendars.
* Immediate action — there is one Senate seat still out there and there is a Democrat running who has a shot to win—Foster Campbell in Louisiana—if we do the work. The election is Dec. 10. You can make phone calls.
Why am I calling for “partisan” action?
I wholeheartedly support groups and organizations who have been working to register voters and get out the vote, like Project Vote, Voto Latino, Rock the Vote, and the NAACP, to name just a few. When I can I make small financial donations. I also support groups that are fighting voter suppression, like the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. They are all 501c3 not for profits. So are the churches who turn out “Souls to the Polls.” They have to adhere to certain nonpartisan rules and regulations in order to maintain their status.
This guide provides your 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization the knowledge you need to promote voter participation and engage with candidates on a nonpartisan basis. It begins with a review of the prohibition against partisan political activities. It then discusses the many nonpartisan activities 501(c)(3)’s may engage in to assist their constituents, staff and local communities to register and vote or connect with candidates.
Each year on my campus, someone from the New York Public Interest Research Group comes to each classroom to get students registered to vote. They cannot answer any student questions about candidates. Campus organizations who would like to have a candidate speak directly to students can only do that in a “balanced” forum, so if a Democrat running for office is invited, so is the Republican opponent.
We need more Democratic cadres who are not constrained from speaking and organizing and educating by 501(c)3 status. It is not enough to simply get out the vote: we need to educate people about who to vote for and why. We need to counteract the false equivalence hyped by the media. We need to find out what folks want, and help that shape our agendas which will begin to address the issue of lack of interest and involvement.
Many groups have spoken out post-election, in spite of the constraints placed on partisan messages. They are issuing calls for more community organizing, more efforts against voter suppression, and more standing up against the forces of hate. Michael Slater, president and executive director of Project Vote wrote, “Now we go to work: An Open Letter to the Civil Rights Community from Project Vote’s President.”
The consequences of this election will likely be severe and long-lasting for the entire nation, in every way. But what it means for our work is that we have greater legal and policy fights ahead of us than we’ve seen in generations. We can expect newly emboldened lawmakers to double-down on policies that disenfranchise and disempower black, Latino, Asian, Muslim, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ Americans. We can expect rhetorical and legal attacks on these populations, and all efforts to expand their access to the ballot. We can anticipate a Justice Department that brings assaults on civil rights, rather than defends against them. We can expect new efforts to make it harder to vote, and new attempts to strip Americans of every federal voting rights protection.
There is nothing certain now, except this: we will be needed. The American people will need every lawyer, every organizer, every advocate for their voices and their rights. We as a nation have endured and triumphed over every kind of challenge, and we must now commit anew to fight harder than ever. We must rededicate ourselves to the struggle: to persevere through this dark chapter, to push back against a discriminatory agenda, and to prevent ideologies of hate from being institutionalized into American democracy.
We need community political education
Community political education and the development of political literacy should be a cornerstone of our efforts. We see protests taking place across the U.S. and that’s a good thing. Protests and demonstrations raise awareness, help create solidarity, and apply pressure on politicians. They should never be looked at as the end gam—they are a tactic. It is important that the energy from the protests is taken into communities and used to engage non-protesters, some of whom may not really understand fully why people are out in the streets, or what they can do to be part of the struggle. We used to call this “Community PE.”
Here’s an example from my past, illustrating how action can initiate community involvement in political education.
In the late 60’s, a group of us from local New York colleges, inspired by the Panthers and the Chicago Young Lords, went into East Harlem—New York’s predominantly Puerto Rican community— to talk to people in the neighborhood to find out what their top concerns and issues were, so that we could move to take action on a people’s agenda.
We didn’t want to be a “top down left” pre-determining what “we” the educated leftists thought was best for folks. We wound up being surprised. It wasn’t police brutality. It wasn’t even jobs or education, though all these things were brought up. What topped the list was “garbage” or in Spanish, “la basura.” Looking back, you could list this under “environmental racism” or name the cause as “environmental justice.” We were all between 18 and 20 years old and didn’t have that political vocabulary yet, but the message was clear: garbage. The streets and back alleys were flooded with piles of rotting garbage, breeding rats and roaches, and those same alleys also hosted mosquitoes.
We found out that the NYC Department of Sanitation did not do regular garbage pick-ups that took place only 20 blocks away in the affluent, white Upper East Side. So we took action. We swept the streets and picked up garbage while people in the neighborhood watched with skepticism. We kept coming back. People from the tenements joined us, one by one. Sanitation still wouldn’t pick up the garbage. We wound up tossing it all in the the middle of a main city thoroughfare that runs through East Harlem. We set it on fire. This snarled traffic in the economic center of the city. We called this our “garbage offensive.” The newspapers called it the East Harlem garbage riot. But sanitation started picking up the garbage, because the economy of downtown had been disrupted. We won.
This action gained us respect in the community. As a result, people young and old started coming to our community political education meetings. In those meetings, neighborhood folks would raise other concerns, and we would work out how we could take action, and also how we could pressure the city government to make changes. Community PE, as we called it, was an essential part of the work of the Party. We also talked politics to the children we brought to our free breakfast programs. We talked politics at health clinics. We talked politics as we delivered free food.
This was true of the Black Panther Party and other radical groups at the time. Political education, not just for cadres, but also for community members was a key component of all that we did.
There are now many groups of mostly young people across the U.S. protesting Trump, protesting for Black Lives Matter, protesting deportations, protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, protesting sexism, protesting for the LBGTQ communities.
How do we, as members of the Democratic Party, make the point that we need to not just protest, but that we also need to shift legislative and judicial power to have any justice or resolution of the problems we face?
Join the Party
I got a call from my mom’s well-educated niece, who was despairing about Trump. She said all of her contacts on facebook were asking, “What can we do?”
I asked who her state elected officials are. She didn’t know. I asked her what electoral district she is in. She didn’t know. I asked her if she was a Democratic Party member. She said “Yes.” I asked where are the meetings? (she’s in Wisconsin) She was confused. “What meetings?,” she asked. She went on to assure me she is a registered Democrat. I explained that there are Democratic voters and there are active members of the Party. I told her to find out when the meetings were—and to go, and to take a friend. I also suggested she take a look at the electoral map in her area, see if she is represented by Democrats or Republicans. I’ve been through this same scenario too often. While we will probably never get massive numbers of people to join the party, unless we make a concerted effort to expand our ranks we will never be able to combat the successful activism of the tea party, evangelicals, and other groups who have swelled the ranks of the right.
During my late teens teens and young adulthood I was a member of several political parties, but none of them were “the big two.” All were very left of center. I wrote off the Democratic Party as irrelevant to my revolutionary ideals. I can identify with those young people today who take a similar stance. However, at this point in time, I no longer agree. A strong and healthy Democratic Party will protect the rights of those who wish to protest. Getting our country out from under a group of Republicans whose interest is in suppressing votes and smashing dissent has to be a priority—for all of us.
All of those parties I belonged to did stress their platforms and programs, and they were not difficult to absorb and support. I wish the Democratic Party had a simple, clearly articulated synthesis of its platform and agenda.
When I became a Democrat, it wasn’t very clear how to be a party member. I decided to learn. It wasn’t easy, because my local Party had not one active member who was a person of color. I had to go, and show up, over and over again. The meetings were hard for me to get to—they are all at night—and I can’t drive in the dark. The group had no young people, and most of the membership of the group was my age or older. The group had no immigrants. I raised the issue, but it wasn’t addressed.
When I joined I didn’t have a clear idea of how the Party functions. I knew nothing about “carrying petitions.” I had never known how people actually wind up running in a primary, and how party endorsements work. I learned. I wish that I had had access to Chris Reeve’s excellent “Nuts and Bolts” diaries, which are a handbook on how the party and campaigns actually work.
We need a simple, easy to read handbook and videos which address what we stand for; why to join the Party; how to join the Partyl and how the Democratic Party works. I mention video, because we too often forget how many people cannot read (this is addressed further below).
An extraordinary amount of time is spent here on Daily Kos and other blogs inhabited by political junkies fighting Hillary vs. Bernie wars, and bemoaning the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Just like my students have zero clue about state elections and why midterms are important, they also have no idea what the “DNC” is, though some have heard “it is awful.” But what it is and what it does is a mystery.
I am not going to blame the general cluelessness about how our party works solely on the DNC. I am going to direct some of the fault at us . We have not built the party from the ground up. We have looked for voters, but rarely involved them in running the Party we claim represents them. We are not bringing enough new folks into the political process and gearing them up to run for office on issues that connect with voters. If your local party group isn’t diverse and isn’t talking with a broad cross-section of people in the area about their concerns, we will not be effective in mobilizing voters in 2018 or 2020. No matter how much we reject their politics, at least the tea party got people involved.
We focus far too many of our efforts on top of the ticket races. People here at Daily Kos, like Meteor Blades, have over and over called for precinct to precinct organizing as a foundational part of a 50-state strategy.” Connect! Unite! Act! here at Daily Kos, with Navajo at the helm, is building party activism in every corner of the U.S.
We need to do more.
Expanding our membership and non-voter engagement
I’ve expressed strong opinions about where our efforts in the next two (and four) years to engage voters should be focused. We know we have to win statehouses and governor’s seats. There are people who fervently disagree with my lack of enthusiasm for going after “Trump voters,” those who voted for an openly supremacist candidate, no matter the reasons for it. We will probably never agree if it involves shifting or down-playing our strong support for civil and human rights. I do agree that we have to do far better outreach, organizing, and engagement in poor communities, whether urban or rural, to people of all colors and backgrounds.
What I find of great interest are the numbers we have on “non-voters” or “never-voteds.” According to much of the post-election data available, Trump had a lot of voters show up who were never on likely voter screens. What drove them out of apathy can be debated, and there are multiple variables that affected their decisions. But my own belief is that they were highly motivated by “taking their country back” from “the other.”
If history is anything to go by, we can expect 80 to 100 million voting-age Americans to sit out today’s presidential election.
Consider what happened in 2012. There were 241 million people of voting age, but only 130.2 million actually cast ballots in the general election — a turnout rate of just 58.6 percent. America’s turnout rate has been remarkably stable for the past 40 years, and the betting markets don’t seem to think this year will be much different.
Pew had detailed research data on nonvoters from 2012 (which they will hopefully update) that offers food for thought.
A plurality of nonvoters are independents (44%); 29% identify as Democrats and just 17% as Republicans. Likely voters include about the same percentages of Democrats (35%) as Republicans (34%); 27% of likely voters are independents. About half of nonvoters (52%) either identify as Democrats or lean Democratic; only 27% identify as Republicans or lean Republican. Likely voters’ leaned party identification is evenly divided: 47% identify with the Republican Party or lean toward the GOP, while the same percentage identify as Democrats or lean Democratic.However, just a quarter of nonvoters describe their political views as liberal; that is little different from the percentage of liberals among likely voters (20%). But nonvoters are far less likely than voters to describe their political views as conservative (28% vs. 44% of likely voters).
As might be expected, nonvoters express very little interest in politics or the election. A third of nonvoters say they are registered to vote. But they are far less likely than voters to give a lot of thought to the election and follow public affairs.
The question for us is: what would get non-voters who are not paying attention to “public affairs” to pay attention to us? That depends on who they are. Pew describes them:
Nonvoters are younger, less educated and less affluent than are likely voters. More than a third (36%) of nonvoters are younger than 30, compared with just 13% of likely voters. Just 13% of nonvoters are college graduates and about the same percentage (14%) have family incomes of $75,000 or more. Among likely voters, 38% are college graduates and a third (33%) have family incomes of $75,000 or more.While most voters are married, most nonvoters are not. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of nonvoters are unmarried, compared with 40% of likely voters.
Nonvoters also are much more likely than voters to be Hispanic: 21% of nonvoters are Hispanic, which is three times the percentage of Hispanics among likely voters (7%). About six-in-ten (59%) nonvoters are white non-Hispanics. By contrast, white non-Hispanics make up about three quarters (74%) of likely voters.
They also have an earlier piece, titled “The Party of Nonvoters,” from 2010 that focuses on Latino voters. Simply targeting Hispanic engagement is not a solution to our problem, but it can make a difference in the future in states like Texas and Arizona.
Political Literacy and Literacy
When we talk about community political education, in essence we are talking about political literacy—something which is not being fostered in our schools.
Back in 2011 I wrote “Whatever happened to civics?”
We know we have problems with the U.S. system of education. I’m not here to debate that. What I’d like to say is that each one of us, whatever label we wear—liberal, Democrat, progressive, activist—is responsible. Each one of us who does know how the system works, who votes, who has strong feelings about democracy and justice, has a responsibility to teach someone who as of yet doesn’t know this. Not everyone who is reading this is a teacher. But we all better become political educators and not make assumptions that what is common knowledge to us is to our young folks.
Not all of us have children or grandchildren. Everyone reading this today must know someone young—a niece, nephew, godchild, neighbor’s kid—or have co-workers with children. Take a time out from your favorite issue and each one teach one. The basics.
As a teenager and young adult growing up during the ’60s and ’70s, I remember nationwide campus teach-ins. I also worked doing community PE (political education) as an organizer to reach young folks who didn’t have the luxury to go to college.
I still remember this song.
You want “more and better Democrats”?
Then you need more and better voters. We had better teach our children.
Everyone reading this blog or a host of others, those of us who still read newspapers, who engage in endless political debates which are sometimes friendly and frequently acrimonious—is privileged. How often do we think not just about political literacy, but about actual literacy? How many of those people polled in America as non-voters or never voters may not be willing to tell the pollster that they cannot read?
My example is my padrino, born in Puerto Rico, who lived in this country for more than 30 years and didn’t learn much English. He started working in housekeeping/maintenance in a hospital and rose to become a supervisor.
He was sent to training programs in management, and never let on to almost anyone that he could sign his name, but he couldn’t read beyond a second-grade level. I used to visit him and read him his mail, and fill out forms for him. He gained his small fluency in English by watching movies on cable TV. Almost none of his close associates had any idea that he was not literate.
I wonder how many of the reported non-voters or never voters in the U.S., who number some 80 million, are also part of the 32 million adults who cannot read?
In Illiterate America, Jonathan Kozol wrote:
It is startling and it is shaming: in a country that prides itself on being among the most enlightened in the world, 25 million American adults cannot read the poison warnings on a can of pesticide, a letter from their child’s teacher, or the front page of a newspaper. An additional 35 million read below the level needed to function successfully in our society. The United States ranks forty-ninth among 158 member nations of the UN in literacy, and wastes over $100 billion annually as a result. The problem is not merely an embarrassment, it is a social and economic disaster. In Illiterate America, Jonathan Kozol, author of National Book Award-winning Death at an Early Age, addresses this national disgrace. Combining hard statistics and heartrending stories, he describes the economic and the human costs of illiteracy. Kozol analyses and condemns previous government action—and inaction—and, in a passionate call for reform, he proposes a specific program to conquer illiteracy.
Take a look at these numbers:
United States — Illiteracy Statistics
Percent of high school graduates who can’t read 14 %
Number of U.S. adults who can’t read 32,000,000
Percent of prison inmates who can’t read 70 %
Percent of high school graduates who can’t read 19 %
When examining these data, the breakdown by race and ethnicity tells us something about who they are: Hispanic 41 percent, black 24 percent, white 9 percent, and other 13 percent.
When I think of these massive numbers of non-readers, the first thought that popped in my head was “Cuba.” No matter what you may think of Cuba under Fidel, most people have heard of their massive literacy campaign.
More than fifty years ago, Cuba eradicated widespread illiteracy in one calendar year, and its literacy rate still leads the world. If Cuba can do it…why not Philly?
Cuba spends 10 per cent of its central budget on education, compared with 4 per cent in the UK and just 2 per cent in the US, according to Unesco. The result is that three out of five Cubans over the age of 16 are in some type of formal, higher education. Wherever you travel in Cuba, just about everyone can read and write, and many have one or more academic qualifications.
What can we do as Democratic Party activists to incorporate literacy into our efforts to motivate and engage voters? We talk a lot about college education, but are we addressing many of our fellow citizens who have no interest or need to go to college, but might want to learn to read to better negotiate daily living.
Summing it up: A pledge.
- I will become active, or more active in my local Democratic party activities.
- I commit to identifying voters in my area who have never voted, and to do outreach to engage them.
- I’ll fight like hell to take back state houses and “red districts” and to maintain and expand our “blue spaces.”
Since it is a Sunday morning, I thought I’d close with the power and passion of the Rev. William Barber, here speaking in his capacity as a minister, not under the constraints of his other hats.
Here is his Sunday sermon, delivered post-election. No matter your faith, or non-belief: give him a listen.
November 13th, 2016 – As many post-election Americans feel distraught and confused after the election of Donald Trump, Moral Monday Architect Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II provides deep historical insights that help make sense of the moment, while also delivering a powerful – moving forward – charge as he addresses standing room only and thousands online from the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As a non-Christian, I embrace his message. We must be resilient, take action and move forward.