Reflections of a Strategy DIVA: strategy, diversity, and Shahid for Change

Jon Pincus
Jun 15, 2018 · 5 min read

Bardo (Skt. antarābhava, Tib. བར་དོ་, Wyl. bar do) — commonly used to denote the intermediate state between death and rebirth, but in reality bardos are occurring continuously, throughout both life and death, and are junctures at which the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened. (from the Rigpa Wiki)

On election night, after the polls closed in San Francisco and before the first numbers dropped, Shahid Buttar and I talked about the Tibetan Buddhist concept of bardo. I have to admit, though, that I didn’t expect this particular bardo to last quite so long. As I write this, they’re still counting the ballots in the CA-12 Congressional race.

Shahid’s in third at 8.5%, ahead of all the other progressive challengers, and less than 1200 votes behind Republican Lisa Remmer for second. It’s a surprisingly good result. Shahid was the last of four progressive challengers to get into the race, got almost no mainstream media attention, and still came out far ahead of the others. I ❤ grassroots activism.

Even more importantly, Shahid brought in a lot of new activists and voters, and the “Shahid for Change” network of supporters and volunteers is a solid base going forward. As he says in Establishing a new voice for San Francisco progressives

An expansive and inspiring coalition emerged around our 2018 campaign that will continue to flourish beyond this election cycle, represented by our volunteers, supporters, and the various social movements I’ve helped build over the years.

I’m deeply grateful for the support of all the writers, lawyers, teachers, students, nurses, hospital administrators, architects, state employees, environmental consultants, web developers, software engineers, user experience designers, graphic designers, startup founders, and established entrepreneurs who volunteered to help our campaign.

Whether Shahid decides to run again in 2020, or take the vibrant coalition that assembled around his campaign in a different direction, he’s in a very strong position.

So congratulations to Shahid and everybody involved in the campaign! It’s been a real pleasure working with you. I’m deeply grateful as well, and will express my appreciation at greater length soon enough.

Congratulations also to Nancy Pelosi, who finished first; let us hope that this campaign encourages her to move back in a more progressive direction and that she does as good a job in her next term as Speaker are as she did in her first. And congrats as well to Ryan Khojasteh and his team, who also ran a strong campaign, meaningfully impacted the conversation, and similarly built a good base for the future.

There’s a lot to learn from any election campaign — too much to fit into a single post, so this is the first of a series. My role on the campaign was Strategy DIVA (diversity, inclusion, and values advisor), so let’s start there.

Strategy and diversity

He’s the son of Muslim refugees, a civil rights lawyer, an activist, a grassroots organizer, a DJ, a spoken word artist, a writer, a musician and music producer, among other things.

- Is Congress Ripe for a Renaissance?

As well as being the most qualified challenger in the race — the only one with experience including Congressional testimony, working with local coalitions to get police accountability legislation passed, a visionary theory of change and rich body of work, and by far the best guerilla poetry and rapping skills — Shahid’s biggest advantages were his multi-faceted identity and the talent, energy, and diversity of his supporters.

Leveraging these strengths pushed us to a strategy of reaching out in multiple formats (in-person, video, social media) to multiple communities: digital rights supporters, Muslims, police accountability and peace and justice activists, the post-Occupy crowd, cannabis legalization advocates, nightlife enthusiasts, burners, artists. Building on Shahid’s 15+ years of movement building, we combined traditional on-the-ground campaigning (in-person presence at movement actions as well as nightlife events, lit drops in key neighborhoods and at cannabis dispensaries) with a very diverse social media team and a strategy of leveraging Shahid’s and his supporters’ creativity.

And it worked, too.

Compare Shahid’s results to Stephen Jaffe’s. Stephen, an older white male who thinks progressives pay to much attention to identity politics, was first in the race — announcing almost a year before Shahid. Stephen got early mainstream media attention, including an LA Times article; raised 50% more money than anybody else in the race; and thanks to the SF Berniecrat network picked up some early endorsements. Despite his early lead, and the money to pay for consultants, by the time the election came around Stephen finished almost 5,000 votes in back of Shahid — and barely ahead of Ryan, whose team was also quite diverse.

Diverse teams outperform.

That said, diversity is hard. Diverse teams perform best when they establish an inclusive environment, make sure everybody has a chance to participate, and get good at looking at things through others’ eyes. It’s not like this defies the laws of physics, but it does require a lot of attention.

So one suggestion to progressive candidates, campaign managers, or grassroots activism groups are reading this: consider including a diversity and inclusion advisor to your core team. Many progressive candidates have a natural advantage here; but most progressives campaigns don’t do as much as they could to leverage it. The Intersectional Techniques for Grassroots Activism page from the Open Source Bridge wiki has a good list of resources; but you also want somebody with at least some experience, and some time and energy to focus on the challenges and opportunities.

First things first! The code of conduct

Related to this, another strong recommendation to any political campaign or grassroots activism group: put community guidelines or a code of conduct in place up front, including a strong anti-harassment policy, and make sure everybody is aware of it. We based ours on Geek Feminism’s model anti-harassment policy, adding in some additional cost of conduct language based on Indivisible Plus WA State’s guidelines, and started out our weekly by reminding people about it — and why it’s important. There are still plenty of “progressive” groups out there where sexist, racist, ableist and anti-LGBTQ+ language and behavior is shrugged off or even normalized, so you want to make sure people know it’s not ok in your group.

To be continued …

Other topics to highlight about the campaign include our social media strategy, based on leveraging our strengths; the sorry state of tools for grassroots activism and opportunities for improvement; and recognizing and appreciating the dozens of people who helped with the social media campaign.

So stay tuned for more!


First they came for the Muslims, and we said “not this…