Rashad Robinson, Zephyr Teachout, Sabrina Smith, Jonathan Smucker

The Power of Belonging: Organizing, Democracy, and Governance

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By: Sara Grossman

The “Power of Belonging” keynote panel kicked off with a discussion about the nature of power itself. Led by moderator Jonathan M. Smucker of Beyond the Choir, each panelist offered their own visions of power, including its opportunities and challenges, dangers and vulnerabilities.

"Power without love is reckless and abusive,” Smucker started off, reading a passage from Martin Luther King, Jr., “and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

The other panelists, Sabrina Smith of California Calls, Rashad Robinson of Color Of Change, and law professor Zephyr Teachout, a former candidate for Congress and Governor of New York, agreed that fully understanding—and using—power is critical to enacting the transformative change that Progressives claim they want to see.

“If you care about people being able to breathe, eat, and educate themselves then you've got to care about those formal sources of power,” Teachout said, adding that many on the Left are uncomfortable engaging with politics, despite the fact that politics is where life-changing policy is developed and enacted. Quite simply, she said, we cannot win without taking on power—specifically corporate power—and the most direct way to do that is through politics itself.

Smith, Deputy Director of California Calls, an alliance of 31 grassroots organizations that mobilizes marginalized communities in the statewide political process, echoed Teachout’s conclusion. Only by understanding power can we change conditions, Smith said, defining power as “the ability to achieve an agreed-upon goal.” She later added that changing conditions relies on the fundamental restructuring of institutions and structures.

“How do we build a sense of identity and belonging that is broader than our small community-based organizations or the circle of us activists?” she said. “We have to figure out a strategy to build our version of the Tea Party...a radical challenge of corporate power, of status quo, of racism—a sense of belonging.”

The Power of Belonging: Organizing, Democracy and Governance, a Keynote Panel by Rashad Robinson, Zephyr Teachout, Sabrina Smith, and Jonathan Smucker

Speaking on the final day of the Othering & Belonging conference, the panelists discussed the various ways each were bringing power into political organizing—and the importance of taking a stand in the political arena, despite politics being “square,” as Teachout joked.

“When institutions aren't concerned about disappointing the Black community, you're in trouble,” said Rashad Robinson of Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization that has fought since 2005 to change how people of color organize to demand change.

“Presence is important,” he said, defining it as visibility and awareness. “But it but can't replace actual power. Power is the ability to change the rules.”

Robinson shared his organization’s four-part strategy for moving from merely responding to challenges to actually changing the rules for tangible, long-term progress: respond, build, pivot, and ultimately scale. In the past year, Robinson said, Color of Change has pivoted to focusing on two main issues with this strategy: bail reform and the election of progressive district attorneys. Both emphases are intended as investments in long-term organizing that Color Of Change hopes will positively affect the lived experiences of communities of color for years to come.

Most recently, he said, Color Of Change had great success campaigning against Anita Alvarez, a Chicago district attorney who chose to ignore DNA evidence that would have exonerated 10 Black men who had been convicted of crimes as juveniles. The organization mobilized its network and hosted rallies seeking to pressure Alvarez to take action. After learning that President Obama was considering Alvarez for a federal judgeship, the organization released released ads targeting the president asking him to not appoint her.

“Five days later Anita Alvarez decided the DNA evidence mattered,” he said, demonstrating the tangible effects of Color Of Change’s organizing strategy.

“Oftentimes we focus simply on the issues, not on the structures that got us here,” he said, noting that the opposition has spent years strategically stripping away Americans of color’s access to the vote—because it understands that “they cannot win if we can vote.” Larger structures must be shifted in tandem with addressing smaller, more urgent challenges for lasting victory.

Robinson went on to argue that not only must this organizing strategy be used against those in obvious opposition, but within the Democratic Party itself, which he said often cares about the votes of people of color, but not their voices and needs.  

Still, argued Teachout, the fastest and really only way for tangible policy change is to continue to engage with the Democratic Party, despite its flaws, and help move the party forward. Ultimately, she said, the US is and will remain a two-party system for the foreseeable future.

“Getting involved locally is the way to shift the Democratic Party,” she said. “Instead of hiding from anxiety and the flaws of the Democratic Party, we have to confront them.”

Ultimately, Robinson argued, the key to success is having the right mix of fighters, mediators and insiders in any political fight. The “opposition movement should be made up of 5 percent mediators, 65 percent fighters, and 30 percent winners,” he concluded.

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