Find Your Political Home

Thanks to the Grad Engage fellowship, I have had the opportunity to over the past few months to strengthen my commitment to Durham For All. I have been able to dedicate more hours and energy to our work, diversifying my contributions to building our movement by learning new skills and moving in new ways alongside others.  D4A is my political home, following adrienne maree brown’s definition of political home as “a place where we ideate, practice and build futures we believe in, finding alignment with those we are in accountable relationships with, and growing that alignment through organizing and education.” D4A has been the place where I connect with others and build relationships and an organizing practice to advance social justice.

Through the work, I have furthered my understanding of the public narrative framework and how to write, load and send targeted emails to Durham For All’s list.  I have also practiced identifying, designing, and executing an issue campaign. I have grown as a facilitator and phone bank trainer.  Through one-on-one and group meetings, I have deepened my commitment to our movement and had many opportunities to reflect on my motivations for doing this work.  I have been able to communicate with thousands of people over email and through weekly phone banking about urgent issues our community is facing and contribute ideas and time to our 10 to Transform campaign, organized in collaboration with Durham Beyond Policing. The campaign calls for Durham’s elected officials to move money away from policing and toward community safety, care, education and healthcare.  With D4A, I have the opportunity to work towards a vision of a Durham with homes, education, economic opportunities, sanctuary and democracy for all.  While we are currently focused on safety, I have learned more about and worked on each of these areas during my fellowship.

Throughout my fellowship with D4A this semester, I have had the opportunity to explore organizing as a vocation.  In addition to contributing to digital organizing and as a member leader at D4A, I also completed an MFA thesis titled “Gathering my people: movement-based relational organizing to dismantle white supremacy.”  Working on these projects alongside one another helped solidify my interest in investigating how a focus on the body through dance and somatics can strengthen organizing practice.  The following excerpt from my thesis abstract illustrates this interest:

Organizing is learned by doing as people meet, in person or virtually, to hone skills, grow in relationship, develop leadership, and engage in intentional action to shift power. The long hours and commitment that organizers dedicate to building and executing campaigns requires intense bodily engagement. The exhaustion, concern, hope, and elation involved all fall on the body. Race, class, gender, and nationality differences also mark bodies, impacting who organizes, from what standpoint, and with what stakes, as well as the issues and urgencies evoked. Paying close attention to the body can strengthen and deepen organizing work by providing insight into how to ground in presence in order to build relationships and earn trust, to expand political education through embodied proposals, to better assess the balance of power within and beyond campaigns by considering who is moving and how, and to provide resources to counter burnout and increase care.

My biggest challenge has been balancing the interrelated commitments to D4A, to other local groups and projects, and to my creative and academic work. While time spent on each of these projects strengthens the others, I longed for more hours in the days and more days in the week of this semester to work on all of them.  There is so much work to do and it all feels urgent. One of the biggest lessons I’ve been learning has been how I can rely on the resources of my body to stay grounded and focused on the small steps I am taking toward realizing larger goals.

Through the fellowship, I have been able to contribute my time and efforts to our 10 to Transform campaign and to the digital organizing that keeps D4A members informed and calls them to action. I have been on the phone bank training team and encouraged others to get involved with the work. I have used my research and writing skills to amplify the aims of our movement. I’ve contributed by inviting others to become involved and to commit financial resources D4A.  I encourage everyone to find a political home like D4A, a local group with whom you have shared values and vision, and where you can dedicate your time and resources.  You can act right where you are with people you know, making sure to always keep learning, growing, and moving. I knew that D4A would be engaged in very exciting, critical work this year, but I did not imagine that it would be so closely as aligned with my values. I am thankful for the relationships I have built, the work I have had the opportunity to do, and the ways my vision of what is possible has expanded through this time with D4A.  I hope you will check out our amazing organization and consider becoming a member, signing our letter to city council, or joining us at an upcoming phone bank!

Stories of Safety

In my role supporting digital organizing at Durham For All, I am learning about the importance of storytelling for mobilizing people to take action. As I have crafted email communications, participated in group meetings and made phone calls to Durham residents about our 10 to Transform Campaign, I have seen how a compelling story can effectively evoke the emotions that make agency and action possible in conditions of uncertainty.

Durham For All re-introduced me to an approach to communicating and organizing called public narrative, a framework developed out of Marshall Ganz’s work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers in the 1980s in California.  Public narrative teaches that stories can draw out action-motivating emotions including urgency, anger, hope, solidarity, and ‘you can make a difference’ that help overcome the action inhibiting emotions of inertia, apathy, fear, isolation and self-doubt. Working with Lead Organizer Bennett on drafts of emails to send to different segments of our list of over 6,000 people, I learned that the most compelling stories are those that illustrate choice points and outcomes with concrete details including sights, sounds, and smells. These stories can show, rather than tell, how the values of the storyteller influenced their choices and present opportunities for readers or listeners to act in alignment with their own values, too.

My time with Durham For All has deepened my commitment to relational organizing and the long-term strategy of building political power by bringing people together to work on campaigns. I’ve had the privilege of participating in Durham For All’s “Campaign College” since January and am now working alongside other Member Leaders on our 10 to Transform campaign. At “Campaign College” we went step by step through the process of building a campaign, from learning about the importance of planning campaigns around specific, measurable and meaningful goals to learning how to turn a constituency of people with shared interests into a base that takes action.  We also learned about Durham’s political landscape and identified and evaluated campaign opportunities until we landed on our current campaign to shift resources from policing to community care and safety.

In partnership with Durham Beyond Policing, D4A’s 10 to Transform campaign calls on the Durham City Council to transfer 10% of the Durham Police Department (DPD) personnel budget to a new Department of Community Safety that will hire 911 responders who are unarmed and trained to address mental health crises and de-escalate conflicts. Durham For All’s letter to City Council cites the recent RTI analysis of DPD’s use of force, which shows that 87% of 911 calls are resolved without an arrest. It explains that there are roughly 60 vacancies in DPD and presents the opportunity to hire 60 unarmed crisis responders to fill them, rather than 60 more police officers.

On weekly phone banks, my team is calling Durham residents to listen and share stories that illustrate what it would take for our entire community to experience safety, care and belonging. Engaging stories in this way helps re-imagine what safety and care can look like in Durham. On the calls, we listen and ask questions around our vision of shifting from a model that so often criminalizes people in crisis toward one that meets them with the resources and care they need. We also share information about the upcoming budget vote and invite people to sign on to our letter.

We felt the urgency of the campaign demands while making phone calls throughout the Derick Chauvin trial and as we learned of the deaths of Duante Right, Ma’Khia Bryant, Adam Toledo, and Andrew Brown Jr. at the hands of the police. Our campaign responds to the visionary call to imagine and build a world without police and prisons with concrete actions and practical steps. The deadline of the city budget vote on Jun 21 gives us a sense of the urgency and of the possibility of change. Almost everyone I speak with on the phones is enthusiastic about community care and believes that another way is possible with safety, respect, and dignity for all.  Please read our letter to City Council and consider signing your name. I’m on the Monday phone banking team and would love to have you join us there, too. Sign up here!

Organizing as Leadership Practice

Durham For All’s emphasis on leadership development has been one of the most inspiring aspects of our work.  One definition of organizing that D4A uses is drawn from the public narrative framework that I mentioned in my previous blog. “Organizing as a leadership practice based on accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose under conditions of uncertainty,” the training materials state, “identifying, recruiting and developing leadership, building a constituency around that leadership, and transforming the resources of that constituency into a source of the power they need to achieve their purposes.” Our organizing is stronger because of this commitment to build leaders and relationships. I have grown through the mentorship and support I have received as I work on our campaigns and communications with other member leaders and staff.

Conducting long interviews with Member Leaders as part of my work supporting D4A’s digital organizing and reflecting on my own experience, I recognize how D4A’s approach to developing leaders positively impacts our lives and strengthens our organization.  One colleague shared with me that for a long time, she doubted that there was a place for her in movement work because she didn’t think she fit into a narrow idea of what it took to be a leader. She told me that at D4A there has been space for her to wrestle with doubts. She has learned that we all have a role to play in organizing and building political power. We build the skills and analysis we need to achieve our goals by participating in D4A’s Leadership Academy and receiving mentorship and coaching from staff organizers. These trainings and our regular practice of working together help us better understand of how unequal systems impact us and our communities.

One-on-one meetings are a core piece of D4A’s relational work. I have the privilege of meeting with a staff member at least once a week to reflect on what I have done that week and to plan and refine my next steps.  When I first met D4A neighborhood organizer Ociele for a one-on-one, she shared a powerful story of why she does this work and asked me questions about why I was interested in becoming more involved.  We talked about my experience working as a field organizer on the 2008 Obama Presidential campaign, my commitment to public performance and activism that deepened when I lived in Brazil from 2013 to 2019, and how the tragic murder of city councilwoman Marielle Franco in 2018 set me on the path to move back to North Carolina to work for social justice in my home state. After asking questions to help me further my reflections, Ociele invited me to join the D4A member leader team and the training team for our phone banks last fall for the 2020 federal, state, and local elections. Now, I’m on the training team for the 10 to Transform campaign phone banks, building on what I have learned and taking on more leadership in our work to shift resources from policing to community care and safety.

My colleagues shared similar journeys about their experience in regular one-on-ones with staff organizers. They spoke about how important it has been to them that Ociele holds space to ask questions, share concerns, reflect on mistakes, and refine actions. Our work together is possible because we prioritize strengthening our relationships and following through on our commitments to the campaign and to one another. At a recent phone bank, Ociele quoted Black Lives Matter organizer Mary Hooks’ ‘mandate for Black people in this time’ to remind us to “be willing to be transformed in the service of the work!” Our regular meetings and commitment to showing up for the work and for one another make this kind of transformation possible.

D4A’s approach to leadership allows for many different types of leaders, inviting us to draw on our unique strengths rather than insisting we all adopt a specific leadership style. Thanks to D4A’s ethic of welcoming and care and their commitment to creating conditions for member leaders like me to organize together, we are able to grow as individuals and as a team working toward a common purpose. We are invited to recognize our capacity for leadership and to act in accordance with it, taking consistent collective action toward strategic goals.  The blend of visionary and practical action keeps us committed to building and executing campaigns to transform our city into a Durham for all.

A Durham for All

Durham for All (D4A) is a grassroots organization that is building a cross-class, multiracial movement in Durham 10,000 people strong.  In D4A’s analysis, 10,000 committed voting people is enough to elect local officials and hold them accountable to a vision for a Durham where everyone can thrive politically, economically, and socially.  Through ongoing relational organizing and base building, D4A is sustaining progressive momentum after the November 2020 and working to win concrete victories that move us toward a future with affordable homes, quality education, good jobs, and real safety for everyone. D4A centers the leadership of people of color and working-class people as it works to build a new progressive majority. Founded by a multiracial group of Durham activists in 2016, D4A is a member-driven mass organization with over 600 dues-paying members. I am proud to be one of them.

I have been a member of Durham for All since the summer of 2020, when I joined as a volunteer on the Swing the State campaign. Our goal was to reach out to 17,000 voters of color in Durham who did not vote in the 2016 election, a segment of the electorate that most political campaigns write off as not worth the outreach effort.  In weekly phone banks held on zoom, I was invited to build community with other volunteers and given the opportunity to connect with and listen to voters in Durham. On our phone calls, we invited voters to a series of People’s Platform events held throughout the summer, shared our endorsements, and supported voters in making their voting plans.  As a group of 717 volunteers, we filled over 2,000 shifts and had 27,027 conversations! With other organizations in the Carolina Federation, the statewide organization with which D4A is affiliated, we built the largest volunteer-run Get Out The Vote (GOTV) program in North Carolina outside the Democratic Party. These efforts delivered a record number of votes in Durham County.

One of my favorite parts of phone banking with D4A was being invited into purposeful action by a brilliant, spirited, and very intentional team of staff organizers.  I looked forward to logging on to my Tuesday phone banks where I knew that Ociele, my neighborhood organizer, would be waiting with an amazing song playing and creative check-in question ready to open the session.  As volunteers, we were encouraged to express our personal stakes in the election outcomes and to name the people in our lives that we thought about when thinking about voting.  Rather than a merely transactional phone conversation with a voter, we were trained in how to connect and listen deeply around what was going on with them through these challenging pandemic times, listening for resonances with our own stories and ways of helping others understand the connections between what they were going through and the outcome of the election.  This approach to deep phone banking is one element in D4A’s broader strategy of relational and place-based organizing.  It invites volunteers like me to show up fully for the work and to meet voters where they are, not as actors to be convinced to change their minds or cast a vote, but as fellow community members with complex and worthwhile hopes and needs for change.

Through my work on other political campaigns and advocacy efforts, I can see that D4A is up to something really special with this approach. I’m excited to be contributing to the digital organizing arm of the work this semester as a GradEngage Fellow, keeping our members informed about the issues that we and our ally organizations are engaged around and sending emails calling people into action.   I am also deepening my work as a member leader with D4A and contributing to the strategic planning and execution of our 2021 action campaigns. These opportunities allow me to keep learning from and with D4A as I finish a thesis for the MFA in Dance focused on what embodied awareness offers to political organizing efforts like ours.  I am continuing to explore organizing as a vocation and practice, witnessing the daily rhythm of work at D4A and receiving mentorship from staff. This work is helping me identify my role in our movement and see where and how I can contribute to building a Durham for All. Please check out D4A here, and consider joining us as a member!