Sam Daley-Harris, an activist and author of “Reclaiming Our Democracy,” has always drawn interested crowds to his speeches. But in a post-election event on February 22 at the Princeton Public library about political protest tactics, the venue was standing room only. The American left wing is fired up, and Daley-Harris, an experienced grassroots organizer, has a more eager audience than ever.
With Democrats now smelling blood in the water over Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating Russian interference in the presidential campaign, Daley-Harris will return again to the Princeton Public library on May 24, where he will give a talk titled “Writing Checks, Signing Petitions, and Protest Marches: Is That All There Is?” The free event will take place at the library from 7 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.princetonlibrary.org or call 609-924-9529.
Daley-Harris, a Princeton resident, has been a citizens’ advocate for more than three decades. In the 1970s he was a politically inactive music teacher. But in 1978 he founded an influential RESULTS citizens group, which was dedicated to fighting world hunger. The organization promoted its cause primarily by influencing members of Congress. The group’s success, raising hunger funding from $25 million to $75 million a year by 1986, convinced Daley-Harris that connecting citizens with their government representatives could get results.
His work as an organizer continued over the decades. RESULTS is still active in politics, and since 2006 he has advised the Citizen Climate Lobby, a group focused on climate change. His book on advocacy tactics, “Reclaiming Our Democracy,” was published in 2012.
And to answer the rhetorical question of his lecture title, he believes there is much more that citizens can do beyond writing checks, signing petitions, and going to protest marches. Via e-mail, Daley-Harris said, unsurprisingly, that connecting with your member of Congress is the key to influencing the government:
Work with your member of Congress, not just sign petitions to your members of Congress or just write checks to advocacy organizations — both things we should do — but be with your member of Congress face-to-face.
Repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act will be approved or stopped by Congress. Providing a supplemental appropriation of $30 billion to the Pentagon this year and a $54 billion increase to the Pentagon budget next year will be approved or stopped by Congress. Cutting the EPA budget by 31 percent, the State Department by 28 percent, Health and Human Services by 17.9 percent and eliminating federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS and NPR), the Legal Services Corporation, the National Endowment for Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts, will be approved or stopped by Congress.
So now the question is: How do I work with my member of Congress? That brings us to the two overarching sub-answers: 1) face-to-face in more of a protest mode primarily working to stop bad things from happening and 2) working face-to-face in a bipartisan, relation-building, visionary mode.
In February I did a talk at the Princeton Public Library titled: Writing Check, Signing Petitions, and Protest Marches: Is that All there Is?” in which I talked about these two routes.
New groups like Indivisible and older groups like MoveOn are focused on the protest strategy. Here’s what I said in my talk:
Keep it civil, passionate, but civil. You don’t want to lose the support of the public because your protest sparks a backlash.
Start or join a group for support, don’t act alone.
Bring others in, keep it growing not static.
Plan your organizational meetings, don’t wing it .
Clarify your message(s).
Practice what you will say at Town Hall Meetings.
Join a national group that educates, trains, and empowers you.
Reach out to the media to spread your voice throughout the community.
Don’t give up.
We will not solve issues like climate change, global poverty, mass incarceration, or getting money out of politics with checks, petitions, or protests alone. We have to do the hard work of building bipartisan support and leadership.
We shouldn’t stop writing the checks and doing the other things, but we shouldn’t end there.
I wrote about the talk on Facebook and a friend wrote back saying she was a bit stuck on what to do next. I replied:
The trick is to get away from feeling wildly impotent on 10 issues or mildly impotent on three to the point where you feel profoundly effective on one and trust that others are getting to their ‘one.’ You can click away on the other nine but you are still feeling profoundly effective on one.
The challenge is finding an organization that can empower you to feel profoundly effective.
I coach Citizens Climate Lobby. Last month they played a key role in encouraging 17 House Republican to co-sponsor and introduce a resolution saying climate change is real and requires public and private solutions. Two-and-a-half years ago you couldn’t have gotten one House Republican to co-sponsor such a resolution.
RESULTS has led on a fiscal year 2018 letter asking appropriators for robust funding for Maternal and Child Health Account — including Gavi, and robust funding for the Nutrition Account in Global Health at USAID. The letter was led by three Republicans and two Democrats and signed by 143 members of the House of Representatives.
RESULTS has also led on a fiscal year 2018 letter to appropriators asking for robust funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria and PEPFAR. The letter was led by one Republican and one Democrat and also signed by 143 members of the House.
I [recently] led a national conference call training for American Promise, a group working to overturn Citizens United. Here are a few key ingredients from the training:
Purpose. Be able to share why you do this work. Write down some reflections on one of these three questions: a) what moves you to work to have a government run by people not money, (or) b) what values pull you to do this work, (or) c) share an experience that pulls you to work for a government run by people not by money?
Research your federal or state representative and find something you can thank them for: Go online and find something they support that you can thank them for be it work to end homelessness or some other issue. At a minimum you can thank them for meeting with you.
Be the peace. Let me read from the website of another organization I worked with, The Peace Alliance, taking about the peace we will bring to the meetings:
Remember in your meetings with Congress or their staff to hold yourself in the most peaceful manner possible. We want to embody the values and principles for which we are advocating. Get support beforehand if needed (maybe you are meeting with an office that is opposed to many of your values?). They are more likely to “hear” you and welcome you back if you can connect with them and be gracious. Speaking your truth doesn’t have to be done in anger. Anger most often alienates. Clarify with your team that no matter what your member of Congress or their staff says, you can seek to empathize with their perspectives, and ultimately regard them as your allies and partners. Aim to engage with them through a common inquiry: “How can we most effectively deal with money in politics, in ways that are uplifting and truly effective?”
A third group I work with, the Quaker lobby Friends Committee on National Legislation, is working to reduce the Pentagon budget. The group puts it this way when working with anyone including Congress or their staff: “We seek to find that of God in everyone.”
You might have a low opinion of your Member of Congress, but you have to decide whether your goal is to be right about that or to be effective in causing a transformation. It’s up to you, but we will never get Citizens United overturned with Democrats only or Republicans only — it has to be a trans-partisan/cross-partisan effort.
So the ingredients are: a) be able to thank them for something, even if it’s thanking them for meeting with you b) be able to share what values or experience move you to work for this issue, c) be clear that we are coming from wanting to be effective and wanting to cause a transformation not wanting to make our elected official wrong, d) be clear about our issue and learn the laser talk, e) be clear about your request — that they co-sponsor House Joint Resolution 48 or the bill in your state legislature and that they take further action like writing an op-ed for the local newspaper and f) ask when you can follow-up to learn their decision on co-sponsorship.
A few final thoughts.
Whether you are going the protest route or the relationship building, bipartisan route, find an organization that is committed to helping you dissolve feelings of powerlessness.
Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig said: “We did a poll we found 96 percent of Americans believe it important to reduce the influence of money in politics. 91 percent don’t think it’s possible. That’s the politics of resignation. But the politics of resignation gives you a perfect strategy for winning … how do we thaw that resignation because once we do then I think we have a real chance of winning.”
Most non-profit organizations don’t acknowledge the toxicity into which they send their volunteer advocates. Consequently, they don’t create a deep enough structure of support that can serve as an antidote to all the toxicity. Instead they offer mouse-click activism, thin gruel for anyone hungry to make a difference.
Any resistance has to truly let in this statement from futurist Alex Steffen:
‘Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy with a large population of people who think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience. What’s really radical is being willing to look right at the magnitude and difficulty of the problems we face and still insist that we can solve those problems.’