IN NOVEMBER, as you may have heard, we will have an election. This election is a big deal. Its consequences for the health of our country, for that of future generations, and for the ecosystems that we and other species depend on are so massive that it’s hard to sit down and think about them calmly.
Tackling the climate crisis is a problem that requires big, national, Green New Deal–type solutions: smart grids, renewable energy, public transit, and jobs programs that hire people across the country to retrofit homes and work on climate mitigation and adaptation. It also requires a big, nationwide push to register voters, to keep elections fair, and to support candidates at all levels of government who are actively working to make those big solutions happen.
But local organizing has always played a far greater role than the history books let on. For instance, I can safely walk across town because my neighbors (and former neighbors) mobilized against more freeways in the 1950s, standing outside San Francisco City Hall and holding up signs in their dress shoes and overcoats. The concrete stubs and truncated columns of never-to-be-finished highways here and in cities around the world are the public monuments to what they accomplished.
More recently, the Keystone XL pipeline was stymied for years by the tribes, ranchers, and others along its path working together to stop it, segment by segment. And in the face of the most xenophobic administration in a hundred years, cities and counties across the United States have refused to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and have kept countless families together.
The point is that if you know your local government and your neighbors, you can change the world from the bottom up. Here are a few ways to do that.
Start a Ballot Initiative
Jamie Lyons-Eddy was a high school math teacher in Michigan, a state where voters are pretty evenly split between Republicans and Democrats but where districts are so heavily gerrymandered by the Republican legislature that Republicans hold a disproportionate number of seats. Just after the 2016 election, she saw a public post on Facebook from Katie Fahey, a program manager at the Michigan Recycling Coalition. “I’d like to take on gerrymandering in Michigan,” Fahey wrote. “If you’re interested in doing this as well, please let me know!”
Lyons-Eddy and the small group of Michiganders who coalesced around Fahey’s post started holding conference calls and then meeting in person. They decided that a ballot measure to amend the state’s constitution was the way to go.
A committee of about 30 volunteers, whose occupations ranged from veterinarian to doula, worked with legal advisers from New York’s Brennan Center and Common Cause. They wrote a ballot measure that would take the power to draw voting districts away from elected officials and put it in the hands of an independent, nonpartisan commission. Not only would such a system be more fair, they thought, but it would also appeal to any fed-up voter, regardless of political affiliation.
The group began holding town halls in spring 2017, starting in the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula, which usually gets left out of the political process. Lyons-Eddy put a couple of thousand miles on her car. The town halls helped the group (now called Voters Not Politicians) explore potential plans, hear concerns, and gauge support—and left behind a network of volunteers at each site to gather the signatures required to get the measure on the ballot.
“We looked for advice anywhere we could get it from people who had done ballot initiatives before,” Lyons-Eddy says. “We were not afraid of picking up the phone and calling somebody.” One of the first things the group did with its limited funds was hire a company to verify the signatures as they came in; the company would send back information about which ones were rejected and why. Pages with ditto marks were tossed, for example, as were the ones gathered by a volunteer who had used a pen with purple ink.
News like this had to move quickly through the group to avoid having more signatures rejected. “I never really managed people before,” Lyons-Eddy says. “I found myself in the position of managing 18 direct reports, who were in turn managing 200 captains, who were managing a team of 4,000 people. But what I learned in my classroom teaching prepared me much better than I would have anticipated. I learned that you need to set really high expectations for people and then support them in order to reach those goals. I learned in the classroom that everybody brings their own unique strengths, and it’s important to find those strengths and use them. And I learned that if you don’t have really clear instructions, then people don’t know what to do.”
The group wrote a handbook and a 10-question quiz that new volunteers had to take online to make sure that they would collect signatures properly and not accidentally violate any laws by doing things like making and handing out their own flyers, which could get the group fined $1,000 per flyer. The paths of communication ran from the bottom up as well as from the top down. Volunteer-generated ideas—like putting a picture of a gerrymandered district on the back of each signature gatherer’s clipboard and collecting signatures at highway rest stops—were quickly pushed out to the rest of the network. “We heard later from lots of people that this was one of the most organized campaigns that they’d ever seen or been a part of,” Lyons-Eddy says, “and it was partly that we just didn’t know any better.”
Even though many of the volunteers communicated on the internet, they were also organized into more than 150 teams around the state that met at local homes, libraries, or coffee shops every two weeks. Those in-person relationships helped when the group, after turning in the 428,000 signatures that qualified their measure for the ballot and then some, had to transition in 2018 from a signature-gathering operation into a political campaign that could get the ballot measure—named Proposal 2—passed.
“The people who collect the signatures are not the same people who want to knock on doors,” Lyons-Eddy says. But once Voters Not Politicians had a measure on the ballot, other groups (including the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter) began mobilizing their own networks in support of the proposition.
Proposal 2 passed with 61 percent of the vote. Currently, Voters Not Politicians is working on implementing the redistricting commission (3,033 people applied for 13 spots), dealing with legal challenges (“People who have the power to gerrymander don’t let go of it except kicking and screaming,” Lyons-Eddy says), and assembling a package of ethics, transparency, and accountability reforms that the group hopes to win legislatively. “It’s a huge undertaking to go get signatures,” Lyons-Eddy says. “It shouldn’t be really easy to write your state constitution. It’s when government is broken—things like campaign finance reform, things like gerrymandering—those are the times a ballot initiative looks appropriate.”
Pass a Law
Passing local laws might seem small potatoes when our environmental challenges are so large, but Helen Holden Slottje says that they can be a way of laying the groundwork for larger victories. She should know—she won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2014 for her work helping towns across New York State ban fracking.
Holden Slottje and her husband, David, had zero experience writing legislation before they learned that the oil and gas industry had designs on the Marcellus shale under their home state. But they’d been to law school, and they knew how to write laws that wouldn’t be overturned in court.
Figuring out how to pass those laws was a learning curve. Holden Slottje’s advice? Just go for it. “You might have a town of 5,000 people, but only 1,500 people vote. So if you go get 750 signatures on a petition for the law, you will get their attention.”
Getting those signatures can be nerve-racking, Holden Slottje says, but it’s also an excellent way to get to know your neighbors. “Everybody was telling us there was this big silent majority of people who were pro-fracking.” It took a lot of signature gathering and town halls to find out otherwise. She advises that the figuring-out period be spent listening—not even interrupting people to tell them that they are absolutely right.
It’s not easy to use local laws to protect a large landscape. (There are 932 towns in New York.) But five years after Holden Slottje and other New Yorkers went to work on their bill, more than 170 towns and cities had passed local bans, making 63 percent of the state’s Marcellus shale legally out-of-bounds. When a report commissioned by Governor Andrew Cuomo also found potential health risks from fracking, Albany finally passed a statewide ban.
Another side effect: There are now more than 170 towns and cities with organized, determined residents who are fans of clear air and clean water and know how to keep them that way.
Help People Get Voter IDs
“I think I’m the only person in the country who is happy that Real ID is a thing,” says Kat Calvin, founder and executive director of the national nonprofit Spread the Vote, “because everyone is going to remember this year how hard it is to get an ID.”
No state requires Real ID to vote. Yet new, more restrictive rules on what documents are required to get a driver’s license or state ID will make it hard for some people to get a photo ID (or renew their old one) before the 2020 election.
“We’re already getting a bunch of people who are not our typical client demographic,” says Calvin, whose organization helps people who are homeless, or in other circumstances that make it hard to get an ID, by tracking down documents, filling out paperwork, and in some cases paying off fines that are blocking them from getting the photo ID that they need to vote.
As a law student, Calvin studied the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Only a few years after she graduated, the Supreme Court overturned key parts of the act in Shelby County v. Holder. “Very quickly, within literally hours, Texas and Alabama started passing voter ID laws.” In the 2016 presidential election, voter disenfranchisement caused by strict voter ID laws was credited with helping Donald Trump win.
Calvin felt that there were already plenty of organizations working to combat strict voter ID laws from a legal standpoint. She decided to take a complementary approach: “It just seemed to me that if you need IDs to vote, we should just get people IDs, right?” In 2017, she quit her job and organized the first chapter of Spread the Vote.
Requirements for getting IDs are fairly similar across the country: birth certificate or passport, Social Security card, two proof-of-residency documents. But helping people assemble those documents and, if necessary, order new ones is very time- and labor-intensive. For example, Washington, DC, won’t issue new identification to people who have any pending fines on their record. Not everyone has access to a phone or the internet, and it takes an average of three to four weeks to get an ID.
That’s why volunteers set up tables at the same homeless shelters at the same time every week, so would-be voters can find them. “Holding on to any type of documents or having the money or ability to get a document that you need is almost impossible when you are homeless,” Calvin says.
There are many factors that can lead to someone not having an ID. “We work with a lot of returning citizens,” says Calvin. “When you are let out of jail, they don’t give you an ID—you are supposed to get a job and get your life back together without that piece of identification. We work with a lot of students, because kids are not getting driver’s licenses at the same rate that they used to. We work with domestic violence victims, because one really common tactic of abusers is to lock documents up so the victims can’t leave. Many people—especially in storm-heavy states like Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Florida—have lost documents during natural disasters.
Calvin says that at first she was getting people IDs to help them vote. “Then I realized that if you need an ID to vote, then you need an ID for jobs and housing and medical care. For food banks and a lot of shelters. We need IDs for everything and for life. It’s so much bigger than voting.”
This article appeared in the May/June 2020 edition with the headline “Small Is Beautiful.”
This content was originally published here.