Centering the Most Marginalized is Necessary to Win Democratic Campaigns
The 2014 election cycle was brutal. Turn-out may have been down across the country, but in Florida turn out actually increased over the prior mid-term election cycle. As the Deputy Field Director responsible for the half of the campaign staff deployed in the other 64 counties not named Miami-Dade or Broward, I saw first-hand how the Rick Scott campaign spent presidential levels of cash on a gubernatorial election — even as our candidate former Governor Charlie Crist (now a Democrat) broke our party’s fundraising records. I witnessed Rick Scott write his campaign a check for $20 million to wipe out our lead in the polls in the final days of the Election (something I am very fearful we will see happen with Donald Trump). But most importantly, I watched in shock as the Republican Party did something Democrats have yet to do at a large presidential campaign scale — engage minority voters by designing outreach and grassroots programs that address the structural barriers to civic participation that our communities face. I realized then for the first time that Republicans weren’t as tone deaf to the needs of our community as we would like to believe and if we didn’t pay attention they would soon begin to regularly edge past their needed minimum engagement for victory.
One of the first things a good Campaign Manager does it look at all of the groups that naturally are good fits for their candidate and apportion what the needed vote goal is for those groups and how to ensure that number actually votes. For the past 8 years, Democratic candidates of all levels have been banking on the “Obama Coalition” to help them get elected without thinking about how their groups and vote goals differ based on the simple fact that he’s a biracial man with a very unique and distinct life story. The level of interest minorities had in his campaign based on the fact that he was a person of color is very different from the level of interest shown for white candidates. With less interest in the candidate, the candidate is not going to motivate people to volunteer, sacrifice sleep, and spend precious dollars in the same way President Obama did; there has to be a different strategy for increased civic engagement that lessens the impact of the very real reasons why someone would not be able to volunteer in addition to truth telling about what vote goals are realistic with President Obama not actually on the ballot.
Since leaving party politics to work full time in the LGBTQ Movement, I have gained additional insights into where we often go wrong in our organizing efforts — especially when President Barack Obama (a candidate and office holder of color wasn’t on the ballot). Below are some of my thoughts on where we’ve gone wrong and how we can fix it going forward:
Centering the Most Marginalized in Our Organizing Models
While we acknowledge and work to address structural barriers for minorities through policy, we have not sought to do the same in our organizing models. Our campaign strategies and plans are often written and led by people who create from a lens of whiteness being the norm. Essentially creating models that have worked with white people and using it for everyone else. This makes little sense because white people start off with the most access and privilege to civic engagement so very few systems have to be created to ensure their participation at levels needed to hit their vote goals. If instead we focused on centering the marginalized of the marginalized in our planning and strategizing we would create programs that worked for everyone because every system needed to hit our vote goals would have needed to be built by design.
Take the OFA (Obama Campaign) Snowflake model. It is a model that I’ve used for years and have used it with great results. While effective for suburban and rural communities, it is not as effective for inner cities and more urban communities. I have a few recommendations for how to improve the training and implementation of the model to be more inclusive.
The snowflake model is built on having a core team of leaders who specialize in one area each who then builds a team of people who work with them regularly to register voters, call voters, go door to door, or enter data. These core team members often put in 20+ hours per week on the campaign fulfilling these roles for several months. Most low income volunteers or people in communities of color who often are caretakers for elderly parents, kids, and sometimes kinship care don’t have 20 hours a week to volunteer to coordinate shifts of volunteers who take part in their actions. If we centered the most marginalized instead of whiteness or the middle class as the standard, our snowflake would be larger and possibly consist of day captains for each task or shift captains for each task as shown below having more core team members and perhaps even more co-neighborhood team leaders based on availability. The bench of one to two time only volunteers should also be deeper considering the realities that minimum wage workers have to deal with in our country. Shifts may not be filled by one person filling multiple shifts per week, but lots of new people who fill one shift per week or in some instances one shift the entire campaign. It will be important to use GOTV style shift sign up sheets for the entirety of the campaign and have a weekly schedule for people to select shifts based on the realities of their lives.
*In both the day and time/shift based models you can have as many CTMs needed to fill your leadership shift needs instead of one per area (you can even mix and match some CTMs as day based and others as time based as long as it doesn’t cause conflict or turf wars among the volunteers).
Investing in Communities of Color Early is Critical to Success
Additionally, every Election cycle communities of color feel like they are the last communities to be thought of or organized. Often even though it feels like they are the last thought, their communities have been organized since the start of the campaign. They just don’t get fully reached until the very last few weeks of the campaign because that is when capacity is built. In these areas people tend to move each year as rents get raised so their addresses and/or phone numbers are bad and campaign volunteers often spend the bulk of the cycle just cleaning data not having a good list of potential volunteers until it’s too late and the number of GOTV targets are too high for their tiny team to reach (example, having a neighborhood team of 15 people responsible for 3000 GOTV targets). So campaigns either deploy nearby neighborhood teams to assist or hire paid canvassers to do the work. If campaigns were thinking about the structural realities of people of color, they would pull the data from past election cycles to compare crosstabs of the areas where they have the most trouble building neighborhood teams against the areas where they traditionally have the highest GOTV targets and create a high priority canvassing team and Autodialer teams MONTHS before the Election to clean the data and have strong lists for organizers to start with to aid in building their teams. It’s a better use of money to pay for paid canvassers and phone bankers in these high priority areas earlier instead of later to set those turfs up for success and build teams that actually reflect the neighborhood and not carpool in white suburban teams to have to do the job the last two weeks of the Election. It also allows the campaign to show that they were in those communities early and prioritized them.
Additional Investments in Staff & Resources for Super Volunteers
In addition to hiring paid canvassers and phone bankers early in the cycle instead of at the end of the cycle, there must be an investment in hiring more staff than the token statewide African American and Latin@ Directors. If minority communities are that important to Democratic victories the money needs to follow in both staffing, community resources, and constituency media (African American and Asian Pacific Islander media often get the short end of the stick). One of the brilliant things Gov. Scott and the Florida GOP did was hire regional African American Outreach Directors who were responsible for engaging Black pastors and their congregations, elected officials, and community members. Having regional staff ensured that more of the hundreds of Black churches in any region were connected to the campaign in ways that one staffer for an entire state just can’t accomplish. They also used those inroads to hire local community members which aided in his campaign’s message of “jobs and economic growth.” Rick Scott doubled his share of the Black vote from 2010 to 2014 winning with 12% of the Black vote. Just the 6% increase was just shy of the margin of victory for him over Charlie Crist.
Other investments that must be made are to support volunteers who work 2 to 3 jobs to make ends meet or are retired and want to volunteer but don’t have transportation include gas cards, laptops in staging locations and field offices for data entry, and bus passes. There are volunteers who could work every evening or even all day, but just can’t get to the action location for budgetary reasons. An investment in your super volunteers will go a long way in being able to build strong teams.
The Trayvon Martin Effect on Canvassing
One of the surprises of the 2014 cycle which should have taken no one by surprise was the hesitancy of Black staffers to want to canvass at night. In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida and the police murders of dozens of unarmed African Americans, organizers were terrified of being out after dark — especially knocking on a stranger’s doors. There were two publicized shootings that year of people killed by police after knocking on someone’s door to ask for help after cars broke down or generally needing help. These concerns should not be trivialized. These are very real fears for African Americans. Daily goals and shift schedules should be created with those fears in mind if brought up by your staff. This may mean they have canvasses during the daytime during the weeks to supplement really large canvasses during the day on the weekends. Their white colleagues may have huge weeknight canvassing numbers while their big numbers may come during the weekend. As long as they are still hitting weekly goals they should be applauded for their scrappiness in face of fear. As far as Black volunteers with the same fears go, I have learned a few things canvassing for LGBTQ prejudice reduction canvasses that Democratic campaigns should employ. Safety systems should be put in place for people during canvasses to use if they don’t feel safe that are explained during the canvass training. This will help in the unfortunate situation that someone has a gun pulled out on them while going door to door. This can look like a mandatory buddy system, a statewide helpline to call, a staging location phone number to pick up the volunteer, a whistle to blow to get the attention of another nearby volunteer, etc. Volunteers should also have the opportunity to debrief their experiences after each canvass and even to caucus with other volunteers of color to decompress their experiences during the canvass in safe space. This will allow the organizer or volunteer leader to understand what went well and what didn’t to refine practices and to ensure that volunteer feels comfortable and supported enough to come back and volunteer again.
Barbershop & Beauty Salon programs, Souls to the Polls, and Rides to the Polls are still important aspects of a good African American Outreach plan, but in order to win and maintain our edge with communities of color we have to design our field programs with them in mind and not as after thoughts for a plan based around realities for the majority community. If these ideas are taken to heart, our campaigns will be smarter, more strategic, and more effective. If employed sooner rather than later it may be the difference in a Trump or Clinton presidency.
Divesting in Whiteness as the Norm for True Inclusion Check List
· Reshape the OFA snowflake model by centering the empowerment of the most marginalized
· Invest in communities of color early by:
o Hiring paid canvassers and phone bankers early in the cycle to clean out data and identify volunteer prospects for future organizers and build out teams early in areas hardest to organize volunteer teams with historically high GOTV target goals
o Hiring regional constituency outreach directors & investing in constituency based media (Don’t forget AfAm and API in addition to Spanish Language media)
o Paying for bus passes and gas cards for super volunteers
o Paying for laptops for volunteers to do data entry at non field office events
· Create systems for physical and psychological safety of Black staffers and volunteers in the wake of increased police created violence and murder with systems explained in training and experiences debriefed post canvass
· Create more flexible shift times for African American staffers and volunteers canvassing programs to address safety fears that may arise in particular FO turfs.
· Continue staple programs like Barbershop & Beauty Salon Voter Registration, Souls to the Polls, Rides to the Polls, Divine 9, and HBCU Alumni Clubs
This article was written by Victoria Kirby York who spent 4 years organizing using the OFA Snowflake model as a Regional Field Director for President Obama’s campaign in 2012, followed by serving as Florida Director for Organizing for Action, the issue advocacy non-profit formed from President Obama’s presidential campaigns, and working as the Deputy Field Director for North and Central Florida + Palm Beach County during the 2014 cycle for the Crist for Governor Campaign. She is currently the National Campaigns Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force.