Meet Ari Trujillo Wesler
Community organizing genius, campaign whisperer
Ari is a master teacher, a brilliant political strategist, and one of the most passionately kind people I have ever met. I recently talked with her about what she’s learned in her career and what advice she has for advocates, campaigners, and activists.
How did you get involved with politics?
I first entered politics because a woman in my public health department took me to a meeting. I met Lorna at my high school. She was trying to educate teenagers on the evils of big tobacco and I accosted her about a horrible experience I’d had at an STI clinic. She calmly listened to my story and at the end, told me that if I was angry, I should direct it somewhere. She took me to the HIV Community Planning Group for Santa Clara County. She encouraged me to ask questions and speak my mind. Within two years I was a voting chair and was building a network of progressive youth organizers up and down the Peninsula.
Listening to your supporters as people increases your effectiveness as campaign more than any model or consultant or app ever will.
What did you learn about the nature of 21st century organizing from your time working on the Bernie Sanders campaign?
My first electoral race was working for Barack Obama during the 2008 primary. We launched the neighborhood team model and really dug into what volunteer leadership could do during a compact campaign timeline.
Bernie’s campaign was an opportunity to take that initial idea — investing in volunteer leadership — and take it to it’s logical conclusion. We put the complete, rich, unique capabilities of each of our volunteers to work. Volunteers made everything from Facebook videos to training documents to entire canvassing apps. We even had sets of volunteers who ran entire field operations on their own before paid staff came into their states; folks who facilitated conference calls between state directors and the volunteers in their states.
Where volunteer roles were very strict and specific on the Obama campaign in ’08, they were endlessly expansive for Bernie volunteers once they were connected to our distributed organizing team. To be clear, all of our staff directed Bernie volunteers to whatever was the most helpful or crucial role they could have at any given point — which means that the majority of the volunteer work still involved field (phone calls, door knocks, etc,…). But the variety of roles available was incredibly different and, more importantly, once the election was done in your state, the fight would continue.
Instead of limiting volunteer actions and communities to where you were geographically located, the majority of our volunteers were connected to vast online communities as well. So, as soon we wrapped up in Iowa, you were fine with it, because you were already connected into a campaign and a community which operated overwhelmingly online — to such an extent that even if you only participated from field offices, you were already connected to the larger digital infrastructure. So, when Iowa was over, you already knew it was time for New Hampshire and exactly where to go.
It changed our overall volunteer engagement significantly. Instead of relying on the 1% of super volunteers in a single state, we were now connected to every super volunteer everywhere. It shifts the way you’re able to think strategically, because your capacity is radically expanded.
How does your experience guide your work at Wellstone?
I always center volunteers and community. I spent the best years of my career listening to a campaign’s best supporters — what motivated them, what their stories were, what their experience of the campaign was like. Because I did, I was much more aware of local political dynamics, the impact of internal campaign decisions, and most importantly, why people supported us.
It feels obvious, but listening to your supporters — not just for their support, but listening to them as people — increases your effectiveness as campaign more than any model or consultant or app ever will. No matter what you do, how good you are, campaign staff will always miss something and when you do, your saving grace will always be your volunteers.
I am lucky I have had the opportunity to see what volunteers and organizers can build when we are all working as one, both on Bernie and Obama. They were two very different campaigns, but the core principles of both operations created the opportunity for new waves of organizers to see what is possible.
You can’t replicate a campaign brick by brick. Everything has to adapt to your community and your candidate.
People all over the country are realizing they can’t sit around and wait for progressive causes to win by default. What advice do you have for aspiring activists over the next four years?
Do something. Not just run for office or call your Congressperson. Do something. Do something local and start asking questions. Learn how the decisions are made and who makes them and then who those people buy their newspapers from. Find out who owns your newspapers and then try to see which articles are missing (“Why isn’t there anything about fracking in the Merc?”). Understand what dynamics shape the landscape of your home. Then, follow your passions and join the fight wherever you fit.
Maybe that’s collecting trash with an environmental group or tutoring kids at an after school program or editing web segments or writing investigative essays or maybe it is running for office. But you’ll never know where you’ll fit, in the place you will have the most impact, until you start asking questions.
Not everyone is happiest or most effective giving their whole lives to the fight all the time. But find where you can participate in the way which fulfills you most and where you feel the most supported. It means you’ll do the work for a while.
Doing it for a while is the trick. There will always be work to be done. The front will always change. But in order to do this work and have an impact, it has to be sustainable, and you won’t sustain where you don’t feel effective and supported and that the work is worthwhile.
What would you say to someone who wanted to run a campaign identical to Bernie’s / Obama’s?
Everybody isn’t Bernie Sanders and everybody isn’t Barack Obama, but there are underlying principles which we uncovered during our work which can be strategically applied to any scale of effort. It’s important to focus on showing folks the ideology we embodied during those campaigns and express to them not only how they worked for us, but also why they worked for us.
You can’t replicate a campaign brick by brick. Everything has to adapt to your community and your candidate. But by centering communities alongside candidates, you’re able to make the most of whatever community support you receive and respect the investment your volunteers are making in you.
You don’t get Bernie 2016 without our robust under 40 support or our large contingency of supporters who were tech savvy and underemployed. The supporters of Hillary Clinton’s campaign looked different, so even when they attempted to replicate an effort of ours, it wasn’t as effective because it didn’t speak to their community.
The central principle of harm reduction — which is the public health philosophy that you work with people where they are at in a development cycle not from some ideal scenario — is at the foundation of how I teach. And so, when talking to folks about Bernie Sanders, it’s key to also talk about how those same principles could be applied to a different community and yield an even better set of strategic results.
Keep your community at the center of your approach and they will show you what’s best.