Building Power and Capacity

An ALLERT organizer trains door-knockers in Los Angeles.Integrated voter engagement is not about dulling your edge – it is about increasing your power.

When popular movements of poor people and people pushed to the margins of society have engaged in election work, they have won actual power for their members. In American society, a lot of power resides in government. There is a tale of a bank robber who was asked why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is,” he replied. For community organizations, integrated voter engagement is about working where the power that their members need can be found and seized. But many community organizers have an understandable resistance to electoral work.

Cracking the System

Community organizations are sometimes proud of being outsiders to U.S. society. They serve as the voice of people who are shut out of the mainstream. Henry Serrano recalls that the membership of Community Voices Heard, many of whom viewed themselves as “militant outsiders,” had doubts about engaging in electoral work. They wondered how a political environment would “compromise people’s values, goals. What does it do to an organization to go to bed with politicians in that direction?” Robby Rodriguez, a lead organizer with the SouthWest Organizing Project in Albuquerque, recalls that their members were similarly distrustful of the electoral process. “One of the realizations that we’ve had is that we’re fighting with one arm tied behind our back if we don’t engage in the electoral process,” Robby says.

In order for organizations like CVH and SWOP to be responsible and effective vehicles through which they empower their members, they need to figure out how to advocate for their values and gain ground in the electoral arena. “We see the electoral process as a strategy and Election Day as a day of mobilization, like a day of action,” Robby explains, adding, “and so I think that helps folks feel better about engaging in this work.” Likewise, CVH made the decision that electoral work would be “a tool to help the policy work,” Henry says, and not “an end in itself.” In the video, Robby explains that SWOP’s staff and membership have embraced electoral organizing. Their achievements have imbibed the organization with a renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment.

The Native American Voters Alliance is a statewide organization that was born of SAGE Council’s civic engagement work. The first time NAVA held a conference, politicians didn’t pay much attention. But over time, as Bineshi Albert reveals in the video, a member sporting a NAVA button gets noticed in the legislature. Lawmakers know that the issues that are important to NAVA should be important to them. Henry Serrano has put it this way: “Votes are a language that politicians understand.”

But to build power to the scale that will get your community listened to after Election Day, you need to build capacity. This is about forging working relationships with allies; widening your base with each election cycle; developing the organizing and leadership skills of your members; and acquiring and using a database system and other technologies that will streamline the project and keep organizers where they belong – out talking to voters, not chained to a desk.

Building to Scale

Anthony Thigpenn reminds organizers new to the election game that SCOPE didn’t get to making thirty to sixty thousand contacts in one election cycle. It’s been a work in progress since the late 1990s when they began by painstakingly entering voter data from a hard copy of the voter file into their database – by hand. Anthony says you “have to stick with it over time and build it a step at a time” He points out that it’s important to not let the election work drive the organization, but to use it to complement the base-building and policy work.

Don't Go It Alone

As Anthony explains in the video, SCOPE could not have achieved its current scale without alliances with unions and other organizations, which together form a 501(c)(4) called ALLERT. They pooled their resources – members, databases, expertise and funds – and have built a movement that crosses boundaries of class and color. 

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Robby Rodriguez describes the ways that IVE work has motivated SWOP's staff.
Robby Rodriguez: electoral work inspires and energizes SWOP

Election work brings political credibility to community groups, as Bineshi Albert explains
Bineshi Albert: long term electoral organizing brings NAVA credibility with lawmakers

Anthony Thigpenn says that SCOPE considers alliances part of long-term movement-building plan Anthony Thigpenn: Stick with it and build it a step at a time

Anthony Thigpenn says that SCOPE considers alliances part of long-term movement-building plan Anthony Thigpenn: strategic alliances help SCOPE build to scale