Much has been written and shared about what liberals and Democrats should do after the election and inauguration of Donald Trump. Playing out in the press, online and on social media are ongoing arguments about the effectiveness of marches and other protests, and what the next critical steps should be to bring the country back from the brink of destruction.
For those whose profession requires being on the front lines daily, the current atmosphere provides an opportunity to engage new people in the struggle and provides increased access to resources.
For those who are not afforded the opportunity to protest daily or are new to political engagement, be forewarned that the daily (and sometimes hourly) notifications of what the new administration is doing or dismantling can be daunting to digest. Those of us on the front lines are constantly bombarded with texts and email requests to “CALL CONGRESS NOW” and “JOIN THE PROTEST TONIGHT,” which can be overwhelming.
Still, protesting is a privilege. Some of us dedicate our entire careers to organizing against attacks to our constitutional freedoms, while strongly advocating for changes in policy and legislation to strengthen our democracy. It’s our day job, it’s what we get paid to do. This gives us an advantage and allows flexibility and resources to leave the confines of an office to participate in a protest or other actions.
The day after presidential inauguration protests and the Women’s March, I tweeted a wakeup call to veterans and unseasoned protesters: “The political and organizing landscape is about to be like the gym in January.”
For thousands who participated in the protests, the election result was their wakeup call, their first activist action other than voting. To take advantage of this moment, we must see ourselves like personal trainers in the gym and guide people through the process. Those of us with years of the struggle under our belts will need to be patient and inclusive of the new folks who are ready to learn and work. We will need to make actions relevant, local and be honest about the battle ahead.
While we need to keep an eye on what’s happening in Washington, more often what’s happening in the halls of our state legislatures, city halls, and our schools have more of a direct effect on our daily life than any executive order the President will sign.
Make no mistake, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a Justice Department that possibly will not act on cases of voter suppression and police misconduct, and changes in education and housing policies will certainly be felt. The legal system is based on state and federal sovereignty to assure checks and balances. But courts intervene in instances of overlap in cases like President Donald Trump‘s contentious immigration executive order and concerns about sanctuary states.
Republicans not only have control of the White House and Congress, but they also control governorships or state legislative chambers in 32 states. In addition to having numerical majorities in state government, Republicans also have majorities among Secretaries of State (who administer state elections), have large representation on school boards, on the bench and among the leadership of local law enforcement agencies across the country. We need to rebuild our resistance in the states and in our local governments.
Before the next presidential election in 2020 or the midterms in 2018, this year there are school board elections in 33 states, judicial elections in four states, 16 of the 100 major cities have municipal elections, 6 congressional special elections, 2 state legislature elections and 2 gubernatorial elections. Off year elections like these traditionally have low turnout, include non-diverse and majority male candidates. One of our main ways forward must include transforming presidential election voters into every election voters.
Turning quadrennial voters into midterm or even every election voters requires increased resources and multiple interactions with potential voters. I know because in 2014 during a midterm election, I led a pilot campaign in two states targeting Black women who had only participated in presidential elections. The campaign wasn’t focused on electing a specific candidate but solely focused on increasing Black women’s participation in the election. Contacting Black women multiple times in multiple ways about their voting power and engaging them on the issues, we increased enthusiasm and turnout by over ten percentage points.
The main takeaway from Election 2016 is that most races were hyper-local positions. We simply focused on empowering registered Black women with the information on their collective vote power and engaged them on the issues that mattered to them in the election. It resulted in these voters making a decision for themselves on the candidates who most represented their interests. Polling these women at the end of the campaign, they not only voted when according to projections they were the least likely to vote, they were more enthusiastic about participating in the election.
We will need to commit the resources necessary to empower and educate the newly awakened citizens to take a greater role in participating in our democracy. Yes, some of them have been inspired to run for office, others are fired up to participate in protests and other actions, but the effectiveness of our work will be on full display when they are empowered to participate in more than just a presidential election. It further builds the forces we need to resist attacks on our economic stability, public education, housing affordability, reproductive choices, natural resources and more.
We cannot sustain a perpetual state of defense. If we remain in this stance, we will never advance and expand the American promise. We will only continue to swat away attacks one-by-one, instead of creating an impenetrable barrier around our constitutional freedoms in the form of a proactive and informed citizenry.
L. Joy Williams is a Brooklyn-based political strategist.