Lessons From the Field: Building Power Through Electoral Organizing

In the wake of the election, organizing and advocacy groups around the country have grappled with how to best take on the Trump administration and its policies. For statewide groups like New Virginia Majority and New Florida Majority, both of which focus on grassroots organizing and building power through strategic electoral work, they have doubled down on local campaigns and issues. For them, building local power and winning local campaigns is what will set them up for long-term, transformative victories.

“We’re clear that we’re not an organization that’s going to be centered on Trump,” said Jasmine Leeward, 2017 ReFrame mentee and the communications associate at New Virginia Majority. After the election, New Virginia Majority “made the decision to only respond if there’s a way we can center our folks on the state level,” Leeward added.

That doesn’t mean New Virginia Majority hasn’t been running campaigns that target the policies pushed by the Trump administration — since January, the organization has campaigned on everything from the need for immigration reform and the attack on DACA, to criminal justice reform, to environmental justice campaigns that target companies in the coal industry.

“We’re clear on who it is we’re fighting for, and who our audience is,” Leeward said. “We’re building a movement and building an electorate that can be sustained for the long-run.”

Renee’ Mowatt, the communications coordinator at New Florida Majority and a 2017 ReFrame mentee, has a similar mindset.

“Part of the good thing about New Florida Majority is that we don’t disappear once the election cycle is over,” said Mowatt. At New Florida Majority, their focus has been on local organizing campaigns, with an emphasis on affordable housing and climate justice. At the end of July, one of their campaigns scored a victory when a bond initiative the organization had been pushing for was added to the November ballot. Known as the Miami Forever Bond, the proposal would, if passed, earmark funds for both affordable housing and climate resiliency programs in Miami. Getting this proposal on the ballot has allowed New Flordia Majority a seat at the table as they look to ensure that the potential funds don’t further facilitate gentrification in Miami neighborhoods.

According to Mowatt, crafting a communications strategy that highlighted the relationship between climate change and gentrification was critical in pushing that campaign forward and shifting the debate around climate mitigation in Miami. “A lot of times, what I’ve seen in Black and Latino communities is that people don’t necessarily see the links between climate change and their lives,” she said. “Making the link between climate change and gentrification has made the biggest impact.”

Spotlight: Responding to Hurricane Irma

When Hurricane Irma hit the Florida coast, New Florida Majority was prepared to respond. In 2016, they had already begun working with residents of low-income communities like Liberty City to prepare them for future hurricanes. In the days before Irma landed, New Florida Majority worked with organizations to create talking points and other communications materials. And immediately afterwards, they sprang into action, using communications tools like text messaging services and social media to both identify communities that were being neglected by local and state disaster relief authorities and to recruit volunteers to help with recovery work. Mowatt explained: “As the storm was happening, we started using the text platform to run polls and ask people if they were okay. And afterwards, using data from the poll, we set up in those vulnerable communities and sent people to those areas. We also ran social media ads to get volunteers and used our text platform to see who wasn’t in crisis and who could help out.” Those efforts had some impressive results: over the course of a few days, more than 300 volunteers showed up and knocked on doors, serving meals to more than 21,000 people across the state.

Through the door-knocking, said Mowatt, “We found a lot of people didn’t have the means or the transportation or the resources to get to a shelter. People didn’t have money to board up their homes, to buy food, to buy water, so we’re really holding up equity as the solution.” In the long-term recovery work, New Florida Majority will be pushing for more equitable disaster response and climate change mitigation policies. “The work that we did was great and awesome, but it’s not work we should have to do,” Mowatt said, adding that local, state, and federal agencies need to do more when it comes to preparing and strengthening low-income, immigrant, and Black and Latino communities in the face of increasing climate change. “We filled a gap that we shouldn’t need to fill. And that’s the narrative we’re pushing — not that government agencies did nothing, but that they didn’t do en​ough. We’re really trying to hold them accountable for both what happened and for ensuring that they have an an improved plan for the future.”

To donate to the Hurricane Irma Community Recovery Fund, go here: http://newfloridamajority.org/wp/get-involved/donate/irmacommunityrecoveryfund/.

The support of ReFrame has been essential in deepening their strategic communications skills. “The way we think of how to integrate communications has shifted in my organization,” Leeward said. One example is the campaign that New Virginia Majority is running targeting Norfolk Southern, a Fortune 500 company based in Norfolk that has a coal processing plant near a Black community. Where previously, they might not have thought of their media work strategically, they are now coming up with tactics that will directly put pressure on the company’s CEO. “We’ve thought differently about where to place articles. instead of the local paper, we’re thinking of journalists in a national business magazine, where that might be more important to him,” Leeward said.  

Both organizations are also gearing up for upcoming local elections. In the case of New Florida Majority, they’ve been pushing voter registration, hosting neighborhood forums, and creating candidate surveys. “We’re tired of our elected officials being dominated by money and business. It’s time for us to invest in candidates that represent our communities and have our communities’ best interests in mind,” Mowatt said. And New Virginia Majority is rolling out a targeted media strategy highlighting the importance of mobilizing the Black and Latinx electorate and ramping up their get out the vote efforts.

“We were here before Trump, and we’ll still be here after Trump, fighting the same fights,” Leeward said. “This isn’t just a fight that’s going to be over in one day.”

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