Upswell Exchange: From Activism to Running for Office, We Need to Do it All

As a refresher, the May 11 Upswell Pop-Up, “You Cannot Change Systems Without Advocacy,” focused on how organized advocacy efforts have resulted in huge changes in our society, especially over the last two years.

Voter turnout. Civil unrest due to state-sponsored violence. Mutual aid movements as COVID-19 devastated the country. Immigration. Workers rights. National leaders lent their voices to discuss advocacy driven policy solutions to these issues, how youth lead in advocacy spaces, how boards of directors have to transform to support change, and how we all need to be healthy to do the work.

Community leaders who attended the May 27 Upswell Exchange were asked to weigh in on these issues and did not disappoint, asking pointed questions about how big picture advocacy ideas would work at the community level, and what strategies were being employed around the country to influence policy and achieve societal change in an era when accountability and system change is a rallying cry.

As facilitator of the Upswell Exchanges, I reintroduced the concept of the “Breakroom,” where community leaders join a Zoom call for uninhibited conversation about the Pop-Up topic, real issues impacting their lives and communities, and innovative solutions.

Helping me facilitate the Exchange breakroom discussion were:

  • Jamil Bey, president of UrbanKind Institute, a Black research firm and think tank;
  • Miracle Jones Esq., director of advocacy and policy, 1Hood Media; and
  • Vanndearlyn Vong, field organizer and representative from the California Young Democrats (and student at Cal State).

There were “real talk” conversations about:

  • Inspiration. Vanndearlyn Vong discussed getting young advocates and organizers to the table and shared her impressions of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a young Asian student, she said she recognized the power of joining other like-minded youth organizers who have modeled successful political and policy campaigns, and spoke of intersectional identities that both stereotyped her and made her strong.
  • Organizing for Impact: Miracle Jones has been heavily involved in advocacy and recently launched a 501(c)(4) that seeks to build power by educating the public in political processes and using electoral politics as an equity and justice tool. She shared her organization’s successes, and strategies they used to empower people during the last election cycle. Her organization adopted and adapted their strategies and support networks focusing on transparency and accountability, and their engagement helped Pittsburgh nominate their first Black mayoral primary candidate.

There also were discussions in the panelists’ breakroom about partnerships and trust, and how Black and Brown people are often co-opted, having their passion and oppression mined for nonprofit fundraising that rarely scratches the surface of community issues, and with money rarely given to those most in need.

The need for multi-generational organizing was discussed, as well, calling out that while tactics may change over time, combining efforts usually results in a meatier strategy.

Breakout Rooms

Then, it was participant “breakout room” time! People were asked to enter breakout rooms for smaller group conversations, and were given two questions to consider:

  • As advocates, can you speak to the barriers and setbacks you encountered along the way in your community and/or organization?
  • What learning has occurred that has helped you address and overcome these issues?

These thoughts were among those shared by breakout room participants:

  • Vote! Many of the break out conversations focused on the power of the vote and how seeing it demonstrated has fired up bases on the national and local levels, helping people believe that change can happen.
  • “Organizing is key, solidarity is hard to build on an ad hoc basis.” This really honed in on the need for consistency in building solidarity in social justice movements. The discussion was about the finite nature of building an advocacy movement that is singularly focused, missing out on intersectional support and how for those efforts to fizzle. The breakout room group focused on longer term community building with multiple prongs and success measures.
  • The narrative – who is talking about what? It is critical that those who are most affected control the narrative on an advocacy topic. Too often, fights get watered down or messages are lost in translation. This can be averted by building broader caucuses to help create narratives and understand the cost of losing their voices in the fight. “There are shared histories and narratives that have shown historical solidarity and alignment [that have been impactful].”
  • Inevitably and rightfully so, the breakout discussion turned to funding advocacy operations. Suggestions included building coalitions that clearly understand at the beginning that collaborative funding is a part of the plan, and how that funding is to be used. It was finally emphasized that organizations cannot wait on those most harmed by racial inequity also having all the answers about how to fix it.

Chat Box Discussion

As you can imagine, the Chat Box conversation was also active, with advocacy tips, links to information and training, and comments about:

  • Political engagement and not waiting for the “right” political candidate, but making yourself a candidate. The idea was around “we the people” and taking back the political space from those who can only run if they are rich and powerful. The call for a collective political course of action was stressed repeatedly.
  • Restorative justice and the idea of advocating to reduce the number of people incarcerated by promoting restorative justice practices and reducing the use of punitive judicial practices, and how this can be done was a part of the conversation.
  • Creating training at large conferences in the nonprofit sector that include training on how to run for office and build political infrastructures.

With dozens of responses thanking organizers and appreciating the opportunity for these conversations, we know you’ll want to be on board for our next Upswell Exchange to dig deeper on Thursday, August 12 at 2:00 pm ET. Register for it today.

Dr. Cheryl Hall-Russell is the Upswell Exchange facilitator and President of Black Women Wise Women, LLC.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Civil Society