Simple Rules for Building a Grassroots Advocacy Group or I am Not Your Minion

I received a concerned note from a former political acquaintance. He said he wanted to know how I was. I thought he was referring to COVID-19 and that he was checking up on people from his past. A lot of people are doing that and recently I’ve had some nice exchanges with people from my past, so I answered.

Turns out that wasn’t it at all. After my response, a simple (and cautious) hello, he revealed that he’s building a group to politicize on an issue and wanted me to join his group. I guess it seemed expedient to pretend he was looking to connect in this time of great uncertainty and fear. Not a great start when asking for a huge favor. See, I’ve been there, done that, joined the political group with him and others.

That brief exchange that ended with my hard no, got me thinking about why I don’t want to work in a group on anything political ever again, and he was no no means the only or the worst culprit.

  1. The Pyramid Scheme. In the past, I thought I was recruited to work on important issues to actually get something meaningfully passed, make change that will help people. I’m a lawyer, have some knowledge of law and government that I thought might seem helpful to someone seeing to make meaningful change. Nope. I guess I was slow on the uptake here, but I came to realize that political people build groups to build a power base for themselves from which they can catapult to media attention or get a big job for themselves. Once the status, fame or job is acquired, the relationship devolves into “who are you?” Then, later you learn that you were “one of so-and-so’s people.” Honey, you’re not Abraham or Moses. I’m not one of your people.
  2. The Bait and Switch. “It’s going to be okay, there will be a public option at the very least.” Nope. The public option is gone and now you’re working for the failed Republican plan formerly known as Romneycare. Another Nope: The candidates we supported in the past didn’t win so the group leader decided to change course (without anyone’s input). We started the group from the seed of the anti-Iraq War movement but our new candidate, a real winner, is pro-war. He’s also pro-bank, pro-corporation and pro-Netanyahu. He’s basically the Republican we’ve been trying to defeat for years but with a D next to his name. I was one of the main policy writers for years and was censored and kicked out.
  3. Friendly Fire. Don’t use your grassroots member for target practice. Once, I was invited to talk about a bill I knew something about. I thought my part of the discussion was supposed to be a neutral discussion of the bill. Turns out the plan was to use me as the counter point to help the main speaker (I hadn’t been told there was a “main speaker”) make his points. They cut me off in mid-sentence after a very short time and the main speaker then made up stuff he assumed I’d say (and didn’t) using that as a springboard to make his points. He intentionally tried to embarrass me. Lucky for me, it backfired on him. I studied and knew more about the bill so I could answer questions. The attack was so outrageous and uncalled for that the audience came to my defense.
  4. I’m the King/Queen. You’re the peasant. I was in a group where her royal highness was hours late for an important event setup. I knew what to do so I got it started in her absence. When she showed up hours later, she made everyone take everything down that had been done under my supervision. I left and cannot imagine why anyone stayed. The big reward was meeting Amy Klobuchar. I won’t give up my time and dignity for Incremental Amy, or anyone else really.

If you want people to work with you to make meaningful change, you might want to start respecting the sacrifices of grassroots advocacy. People who do this work give up their time, often money, and lost opportunity in all the things they could be doing while they’re helping you organize. Here are a few simple rules for building groups of grassroots volunteers.

First, volunteers are exactly that, volunteers. They’re not your employees. You’re not their boss. You shouldn’t order them around and you shouldn’t think of them as some feather in your cap to be used and manipulated into a launching pad for your own ambitions.

Second, things change, battles are won and the war is usually lost, particularly if you’re truly grassroots. However, if the group changes course, people who didn’t sign up for the new course should be informed and respected, ideally consulted. I’m not saying group members should be inflexible to reality, but if people sign up to support a reasonably progressive candidate, don’t expect they’ll be there for or want their own name attached to the right-wing extremist candidate you’re settling for because a victory, any victory, suits your personal ambitions. Don’t berate and threaten those who disagree. If you showed some respect, everyone might come up with a compromise everyone can live with.

Third, be professional and mindful of your words and actions. You have an effect on those who support you or your cause. If your behavior or strategy is hurtful or harmful to group members, don’t expect a long term working relationship. On that theme, don’t generally disrespect group members. Don’t yell at people or berate them in front of others. Don’t waste our time blathering on and on and then cut others off. And don’t be late for meetings.

Also, be mindful that you, particularly political candidates, affect group members’ reputations. If you do something wrong or illegal, your actions reflect on those who supported you. John Edwards made me glad the Illinois delegation wasn’t in the room for the 2004 Democratic National Convention VP vote. We heard from the grapevine that the party was mad at us for staying at the Obama Harvard party that night. We missed the aerial photo and the VP vote — as if our votes mattered and weren’t already set in stone. I imagine that photo is somewhere to be found. I don’t have a copy of it but I’ve seen it and there’s a big hole in the picture where the Illinois delegation sat. I think this is it. I don’t care that the party was mad. They didn’t do a good job vetting their guy and I was glad my name never got attached to John Edwards. I didn’t like him when I met him. Too fake earnest.

2004 DNC at the Fleet Center in Boston

More. I wasn’t one of them, but Jeff Smith, the Missouri politician who ended up in jail for campaign finance violations and lying about them to the FBI, had supporters and his downfall was too bad for him but also devastating to those who supported him. I’m empathetic to those supporters because I once supported a local candidate who ended up having to resign over alleged criminal activity. It’s hard enough fighting for the least powerful when you’re constantly embarrassed by the candidates you support.

If you gather up groups for political action, you shouldn’t be grabbing benefits as a group leader without showing some respect and responsibility toward group members. They are not your minions to use, control, disrespect and throw away when no longer useful.

Written by

Lawyer, Teacher, Mediator. Worked on many political campaigns and learned nothing will help until we enforce our laws, particularly laws against corruption.

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