What was your first step into campaigning?
I grew up in the urban centre of LA, where every day it was very clear what inequalities looked like. When I went to university I wanted to concentrate on understanding why life in a city like LA can look so different depending on your wealth.
After university, I worked with an organisation called SAGE, which focused on tenants’ rights, anti-gentrification and neighbourhood development. SAGE believed that people who live and work in the neighbourhood should be at the forefront of making decisions about what the community looks like. I joined to help on the communications side, but it also introduced me to grassroots campaigns in the US.
People would come for practical assistance, for example if they were being evicted or harassed by landlords. They started with one specific need and we then connected them to the larger movement. That same person would come door-knocking with us and talk to their neighbours. Once we’d done that enough times, it became obvious that they weren’t individual problems. We would build campaigns around some of those issues and figure out, based on everything that we saw, what would be a good policy for the city of LA to enact that would help people in a concrete way.
After LA I worked as an organiser at Make the Road, which focused on housing and environmental justice in a predominantly Latino neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It had a similar strategy to SAGE, though we had more regular weekly meetings. This was very effective because people knew they could find a community there. I think the community aspect is a really important part of organising: you’re creating a space for people who otherwise might not have one, and that gives the campaigning a sense of purpose.
Do you see on the ground organising as the most effective way of campaigning?
Organising is hugely important, but you also need to support campaigns through policy. I worked with the Center for Community Change in Washington DC, trying to get a comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill passed. My role was to work out what that should look like and what concessions would need to be made for it to pass. I did a lot of research and policy analysis trying to understand all that: tracking Senate debates, going up to Capitol Hill and talking to Senators. What was really interesting was that we were working in policy and also connecting with grassroots organisations, gathering information from them and keeping them updated. Most small community organisations didn’t have the capacity to monitor federal legislation as it developed, so we became a hub for connecting many immigrants’ rights movements across the country and thinking through strategies together.
I think a lot of young people feel disillusioned with politics and that they aren’t able to make changes in society. What would you say to those people?
When talking about campaigns, people often think about huge campaigns, not the everyday organising work. Small policy changes can have a big impact on people’s lives. When I was in New York, tenants were having trouble tracking down their landlord; there was no actual way to know who to address concerns to. We persuaded the City to make it that anyone who owned at least 25% of a property had to have their name listed publicly, and that way at least somebody was accountable.
Also, the process really matters: if you win a campaign but everyone that you worked with has no idea how you got there, you haven’t built up their capacity. Those issues are not going to go away after one victory, so the whole point is that, while you’re working on one specific issue, you’re also developing social consciousness. By giving people the skills and tools to take those on themselves, hopefully, you’re getting to a point where it’s not just about the small wins, but also about a much larger movement. There has to be a way to do both.