With primaries in battleground states at the top of the news cycle, upcoming congressional upsets and emerging national leaders are the centerpieces of public political debate. But this focus makes it too easy to overlook the driving forces behind local efforts to deliver effective turnout for high-stakes primary and midterm elections.
As a professional social impact strategist and senior advisor of grassroots-focused Action Together Network, a national network of progressive leaders, we are long overdue to acknowledge the infrastructure that makes political action possible. Speaking from experience as a Black lifelong community organizer, we owe far more than thanks to grassroots community organizers. These people sustain woefully under-resourced movement work that consistently drives civic engagement above and beyond the election cycle.
Who are they?
Grassroots progressive and nonpartisan community organizers are transforming the political landscape in the run-up to the midterm elections. Every day people who show up for their communities drive this change, not political consultants. These types of organizations have some of the highest impacts on voter engagement and turnout for primaries and midterms.
Most of the people involved in on-the-ground voter education and GOTV programs are volunteers with day jobs who make time to contribute between 15-40 unpaid hours a week doing voter engagement for issue-based groups and projects. They are skilled professionals who use their transferable knowledge, skills, and access to resources to support local civic organizing.
Only a quarter of grassroots volunteers have a background in politics and organizing, yet they helped put Biden in office and flip the Senate. We are now seeing their impact on the 2022 midterm elections.
Why is this work important?
The work of grassroots organizations complements national initiatives to guide public participation in the democratic process. Broader engagement provides on-the-ground volunteer work at this level, elevates new ideas, and sustains voter education work. Previously, work in creating voter guides and discussion panels with officials were led by labor unions.
These organizations reshape the broader political landscape at the state level and set the tone for the upcoming midterm elections. Grassroots coalitions organize local and hyper-local groups, register voters, canvass for candidates, meet with legislators, and march and protest in their hometowns and in D.C., all necessary for achieving meaningful voter turnout.
What do grassroots community organizers do?
After many years of organizing in Southwest Georgia, Black voting rights activist and community leader Delinda Bryant founded the nonpartisan Albany Voter’s Coalition. The new “Capturing Early Voting” program engages registered voters to participate in early voting via phone banking and canvassing. Bryant and canvassers are reaching 200 houses per day and providing rides to the polls.
In eastern Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Stands Up, led by executive director Carrie Santoro, trains and mobilizes organizers across nine local chapters covering 12 counties. Their grassroots mobilizing base includes more than 2,000 members who actively organize in difficult-to-reach areas where civic engagement has been historically low or inconsistent. Through the Defend Our Democracy program, PA Stands Up trains working-class community leaders to run for local office and mobilize get-out-the-vote campaigns. With fewer barriers to entry and regardless of previous political experience, more Black candidates are able to effectively cultivate strong support for their campaigns through programs like this one.
The New Rural Project encourages rural North Carolinians to become civically and electorally engaged at all levels of government. The organization focuses on the counties within the Ninth Congressional District, previously targeted by a GOP-led election fraud/ballot-harvesting scandal. For the midterms, they are “deep canvassing” in Anson and Scotland counties, phone banking, and recently launched a “Barbershop Conversations” series of civic engagement events focused on young Black men.
The New North Carolina Project aims to create a more equitable state by increasing voter turnout with Black and Brown voters, with the broader goal to expand an engaged electorate to create lifelong voters. The organization is modeled on Georgia’s New Georgia Project and is led by Aimy Steele, a Black former N.C. House candidate.
Community groups working with Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC) have been canvassing their own Milwaukee communities to encourage voters to head to the polls for Wisconsin’s four 2022 elections. Volunteers answer questions from thousands of voters and hand out flyers with information on polling locations.
What’s their impact?
According to a 2021 report issued by Nonprofit VOTE, a robust ecosystem of trusted, consistent community messengers, or “anchors,” leads to the most successful outcomes – especially when deployed in historically marginalized communities. Coalitions that include active, well-trained and supported grassroots organizers drive campaign success and deliver consistent results over time across partisan demographics.
From organizing and staffing community-based phone banks to building benches of local candidates, trusted relationships between citizens and legislators are built through grassroots volunteers’ consistent and tireless mobilizing work. They understand how to meet people where they are to drive change.
Niq Johnson, Ph.D., (they/them) is a senior advisor at Action Together Network and co-founder of Keyframe Illumination, a space dedicated to movement infrastructure and capacity-building.