Turning activism into electoral power

Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Such was the spirit of the community conversation on Oct. 26, titled “Resist. Mobilize. Win: Turning Activist Energy into Electoral Power.”

The discussion at Cleveland State University (CSU) took place at a contentious time, less than two weeks after anti-LGBT fliers were posted on campus. The conversation was not hosted by CSU or its student groups; the show of optimism and deep concern for local issues drew a stark contrast with the violent, hateful message of the fliers.

The event was hosted by For Our Future, a political action committee (PAC) focused on community issue advocacy and progressive values. Gigi Traore, regional director of For Our Future Cleveland, noted that the purpose of the discussion was to “bring local activists and organizations together to build a coalition” for the midterm elections in 2018.

Touching on various issues from economic inequality to racial injustice, the super PAC aims to “educate and engage voters on local, state and national issues and … elections” by mobilizing community members and organizing campaigns.

Dr. Timothy Black, interim director of the Social Justice Institute at Case Western Reserve University, was the moderator for the evening. Introducing the discussion topic, he invoked the legacy of resistance in American history—from the Montgomery bus boycott to Stonewall riots—and emphasized the significance of continuing the resistance in the context of the current political climate.

The panel included five activists and advocates, involved with different aspects of tackling injustices and encouraging community involvement. Questions included tactics for transforming the energy and passion of grassroots activism into electoral power in the local, state and national level.

Panelists shared their insights for a productive resistance and their successes in incorporating activism and advocacy into policies that directly impact their communities.

Steve Holecko, of Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, listed engaging volunteers, constantly reinventing the organization, celebrating victories and building social rapport among members as the keys to successful, productive grassroots organizations such as his. Started last July, following the Ohio Democratic primary, Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus has grown from 300 members in its early days to more than 1400 currently active members.

Deborah Gray, a community activist, stated her mission as helping to “empower and educate [her] community on voting” and emphasized the importance of voter turnout in shaping local policies.  Regarding voter turnout, Bishop Chui noted that there was a 7 percent drop in black voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election compared to 2012. As vice president of Northeast Ohio Young Black Democrats, Chui described his role was to mentor, recruit and empower young black voters by encouraging voter registration among members of the black community.

Gloria Tavera, president of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) and MD/PhD candidate at CWRU, described UAEM as an “action-based organization” that seeks “systematic solutions to high prescription drug prices…and health justice issues.”

UAEM publishes University Report Card each year, which evaluates whether the research focus at different universities is addressing neglected health needs worldwide. The evaluation also looks at licensing of medical innovations, to make sure that treatments arising from the research can be globally accessible at affordable prices.

Recently, UAEM has successfully lobbied the Cleveland Clinic to cancel its fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago last August. The CWRU chapter of UAEM also works with the Technology Transfer Office to advocate for making academic research accessible and fulfilling the university’s mission, which is to “improve and enrich people’s lives through research.”

The responses of the panelists were at the heart of grassroots organizing, which seeks to bring power back to the people and the constituents.

The panel was followed by discussion groups on the topics of legislation and policies, civic and voter engagement, human rights and equity and democratic progressive politics. Each group discussion, led by the panelists who had been answering questions earlier, offered an opportunity for other local activists and concerned citizens to share their thoughts.