CONVERSATIONS WITH PEOPLE I FIND INTERESTING: Amanda Weaver
Each issue of CALEXIT includes interviews with people who are doing constructive and inspiring things. The conversations tend to go on longer than we can fit in the paper comics, so we’ll be running the complete interviews here on the website.
I had the privilege of speaking with Amanda Weaver, a political activist and community organizer, for Calexit issue 1. Here is the complete transcript of our conversation. You can follow Amanda on Twitter @weavermanda
Pizzolo: Can you start by telling us what Reclaim Chicago is and how you became involved with it?
Amanda Weaver: Sure, Reclaim Chicago is a people-led grassroots movement. It’s devoted to reclaiming Chicago and Illinois governments from the grip of corporate interests and the very wealthy. It was formed with the support of an organization called The People’s Lobby and National Nurses United. So we’ve been organizing jointly together since 2014, and that’s why we use the word ‘collective’ a lot, because we have two brands and all of our leaders just wear different hats sometimes.
The partnership and Reclaim launched primarily to have an effect in the 2015 Chicago municipal election and our plan at that time was to affect ward levels– in Chicago we have alderman who are connected to wards that usually span one neighborhood sometimes two, and there’s fifty of them in the city
So we endorsed a bunch of candidates, and the way that we work is we activate members of the union, nurses, and our grassroots communities to knock on doors and get out to talk about the issues and the vision that we have for our city, and to connect a politician with that vision, and we talk about why we believe the politician or elected official is going to work for that vision.
That’s more or less how we got started and then we decided to expand, and we’re actually organized much further than Chicago. We’re organized well into the suburbs and into some of the expanded rural communities. I’ve been organizing with Reclaim and The People’s Lobby for about five years.
I started as a student organizer running a campaign against the administration where I was going to grad school. It was around the cost of meal plans and how that was directly tied to low-income students being forced to give their scholarship money to this corporation Aramark for a term’s worth of food that they likely weren’t going to eat. And that was something I care a lot about because I am a first-generation college grad, grew up really low income in New Hampshire, college for me was always the way I was going to escape and do better than my parents did… and instead what I ended up with is six figures in student loan debt.
I have a hundred-fifty thousand dollars in college debt, and I got activated into organizing as a grad student because I started reading Saul Alinsky and I was there in the birthplace of modern organizing… and I was just really angry. I wanted to do something about it and try and work with students so that they maybe would get a little less screwed than I felt like I had been.
MP: So with the protest you organized around the meal plan, what was the process? Was it like doing a petition or raising awareness about it? What were the tactical steps you took and was it effective?
AW: I had just come back from a weeklong organizing training program, which was where I actually completely became radicalized. I was not political at all until my last year of grad school. I found these organizers and I went to this training, and I came back furious.
The training was run by a national organization called People’s Action.
So I came back from that training and the core to the methodology that I was trained in is that you share your story and ask other people about theirs, we call them ‘one-to-ones.’ So I came back and said I want to organize on this campus, I’m totally ticked-off and now fully understand that my student debt is something I got duped into because I was low-income, I didn’t have resources and now these banks are making like thousands and thousands of dollars off of these interest rates, and that’s something I didn’t really totally get. I blamed myself a lot for my student debt before I went to this training, so that’s how I decided I wanted to organize on campus.
I said to the team that I was working with at the time that I was going to go do forty of these conversations, these one-to-ones, in a month’s time. So when I sat down on campus and I did these forty one-to-ones, in more than half of them people brought up the meal plan and how it was going to devastate the plan that they had for how to pay for college because it was going to cost them up to five thousand dollars more than they were planning. If you were a freshman or sophomore, not only were you required to live on campus (so you couldn’t even find cheaper housing), but since you lived on campus you were required to have this unlimited-access meal plan that nobody actually wanted. For some students, especially low-income students, it was going to cost them almost their entire scholarships.
After hearing this time and time again, I got all the folks who were really angry about this into a room together and we talked about why this is happening, we talked about the fact that the university had cut a deal with Aramark, which is a very big corporation who was making money off of us and making money especially from the low-income students. We were really angry about that, and so we started a campaign at that point. There were about twenty-five people in the room, half of those folks formed a core team. We did several different things, we didn’t win… what I learned very quickly from this campaign was just how much corporate power is entrenched on our college campuses. The contract had already been signed before students even got wind of it. But we got a lot of news coverage, we got the community involved, and the students we organized went on to continue protesting and achieved some pretty significant victories on campus after my time there.
MP: So when you transitioned from organizing at your university to organizing political campaigns, was it similar approaches on a larger scale?
AW: After I graduated, I got hired by the organization and I started doing very similar things, but on more community-based issues.
I organized the Section 8 in the neighborhood that I live in and I was working to form a Tenants Association, which was also just a really cool way to screw with corporate power because it was public housing being run by a private corporation, so we were able to target them and target some of the State Board—and we were able to get people’s broken stoves replaced, get working locks and security cameras, just things people needed for basic living conditions. We’ve also been working on some statewide policy, and I was doing direct actions like recruiting membership and building leaders, doing some lobbying around state revenue bills. And then, after my first year of organizing, we started doing direct political work.
We started a 501(c)4, which gave us the legal entity to be able to endorse and work for candidates. And that’s the first time I ever worked on an electoral campaign, first time I ever knocked doors, and for me it was just contagious. I loved it. I loved being able to connect with people and have a deep conversation in five minutes, and talk about vision and values and either try and recruit them or at least get their vote.
And so that’s when I started moving more into doing electoral work, which is primarily what I do now: recruiting grassroots leadership to actually run for local and state office. And building grassroots power, so that they’re able to combat some of the huge money that we see in our elections in Chicago and Illinois.
MP: And so, when you were organizing in college, it started with doing one-on-ones to find out what people’s concerns were and then using a variety of tactics to force them to be heard… is that the same basic set of skills and tactics that you used with the Section 8 stuff?
AW: Yeah, it’s sitting down with people and asking about their concerns–immediately connected to their housing but also getting to know them, and where they came from and what are their visions for themselves and their family. And what do they wish their community had.
Really our main push is getting to know people, and I think society just beats us down to believe that we’re not leaders and we’re not smart enough or good enough to be in the public arena. So a lot of an organizer’s jobs is to hear people’s stories, share our story, and push people to take up space in the public arena and actually become a leader.
That can mean you organize your block, you organize your building, maybe you organize your entire ward and run for alderman. No matter what the level is, we want people to have power and to be building it and to be heard in our organization and be heard in society at large.
MP: And then you started participating in electoral politics? As a 501©4?
AW: Yes, and now as a PAC. Reclaim is a PAC.
MP: And how is a 501(c)4 different from a PAC?
AW: They’re all nonprofit statuses. 501(c)3 is just a typical nonprofit, you can do a certain amount of lobbying but you can’t work for a candidate or be partisan in any way. With a 501(c)4, you can do as much lobbying as you want and you can endorse and work for candidates, it just can’t be your primary purpose, so for the majority of a year your budget needs to go towards non-candidate activities. And with a PAC, you can do as much coordinating and as much candidate work as you want.
MP: But I thought a PAC can’t coordinate with campaigns. Or is that just a SuperPAC?
AW: It depends on the state. So in Illinois, with our PAC we can coordinate with state candidates, we can’t coordinate with federal. So for example, when we endorsed Bernie, we couldn’t coordinate with the Bernie campaign. But we had also endorsed a number of state legislators, and we can coordinate with them. The laws are different state to state, and it also depends on if you have a federal or a state PAC.
MP: So you went from being an independent organizer to then being part of 501(c)4 and now you work as part of a 501(c)4 and also a PAC?
MP: Is it still ultimately similar tactics? Like knocking on doors would essentially be a version of one-to-ones? How does it all scale up?
AW: As we scale up, a lot of it is training people how to have those conversations. We’re mostly volunteer-led. In this last primary in 2016, we ran twelve staging locations. So if you think of your typical campaign office where you’re getting your turf packet, you’re getting trained and all that, we ran twelve of those throughout the county that were entirely run by volunteers. We had no paid staff. Volunteers were cutting the turf, writing the scripts, training people… so part of what we do is we give people a lot of responsibility for the program. And we trust them because they’re committed to the work and the vision that we’re trying to build together. That’s part of the scale, to staff up.
Part of why we started doing the electoral work is because we felt like the first campaign we worked on, as much as I really loved it, people were treated terribly. It was the middle of Chicago winter, we’d walk into the office and they’d throw a clipboard at you and send you out into the snow. No one ever asked your name or explained to you where you were going. I’d get lost in a strange neighborhood in the snow. I drove an hour to volunteer because I believed in this candidate. And when we started running our own campaigns, we were bringing fifty people from our organization into this office and we decided we’re never going to let our people get treated like that again.
We actually think that our members would be way better elected officials than the ones we currently have, and so we want to co-govern with them. We think our ideas and the ways we want our community to be taken care of are way clearer and would work way better, and we want to elect our people so that we can get them to pass our policy.
But also, running elections in a way that people are disposable is just not something we’re okay with. We have these volunteer-run staging locations, and we do a lot of investment in people, we do really in-depth training to make people feel really comfortable. So they know exactly what they’re doing once they get on those doors, they’re not like getting lost and feeling abandoned. We ask people’s names, we put people in leadership roles and ask them what they want out of the campaign, rather than just turning people out for numbers.
You’ve got to make the numbers to win elections, but I think that you can do that without using people. So that’s part of what our model is.
Typically when you go to knock doors for a candidate, the script says very little about you as the volunteer or the person you’re talking to… it’s just say ‘here’s this person, you going to vote for them?’ We try and base our conversations on the volunteer who’s at the door: their story, what they want to see in the world. We want the volunteer to try and engage the voter about what they care about. And lead with issues and the work that we’re doing, and then say we believe this candidate will get us part of the way there. But we actually have much longer conversations than many campaign consultants are comfortable with because we actually want to invest in people for the long term.
MP: Is knocking on doors a major component?
AW: In all of our turf we do at least one canvas a month–and that’s even in like the dead of winter. So when there’s no elections, we’re just going out and talking to people about either an issue campaign or just a general like ‘hey how’s it going.’ Because people catch on to election cycles and if you only hear from people every four years in the city or every two years connected to our state election, you’re just using people–you don’t actually care for what they think outside of the vote.
We go talk to folks and then we invite them out to meetings in their community. We have been doing a lot of political education, especially around the facts like that Illinois hasn’t had a budget in almost two years—which is a record for the country. So people are devastated, our communities are literally dying. We have some something like twenty thousand or more college students that didn’t come back to college in our state after the break this year, because they lost all of their grants.
We have millions of dollars of unpaid bills. We’ve had to cut social services by over half. Our organization and a few others just did a two hundred mile march from Chicago to our state capital in Springfield to call attention to the real cost on people’s lives of this. And then we did a seven-hundred person takeover of the capitol, and thirty-five were busted for civil disobedience, shutting about the governor’s office. So we’re still doing all of that, and even though we’re electing people, we’re still holding them accountable when they get into office. Because we don’t do all this work to have you sell us out, and for the most part the people that we’re electing are great and co-conspiring with us. We’re still doing the deep relationships, the direct action, shutting shit down when it takes that. Elections are the newest tool in the toolbox of what we’ve been doing over the last five years.
MP: The door knocking thing is so interesting to me. I mean, I don’t even like answering my own door, let alone walking up to a stranger’s door and knocking. What was it like the first you did it?
AW: Yeah, the first time I did it was really terrifying.
I think it’s really scary because overwhelmingly people don’t want to answer their doors or knock on stranger’s doors. But after the first good conversation, it almost becomes addictive. The first good conversation where someone engages with you, when it’s like ‘yes I’m totally down with your vision, I’m totally down with your candidate,’ it’s just a mini-victory and I feel like right now we’re in it for the long haul, so every little mini victory feels great.
I grew up in New Hampshire, I’m white, I grew up in an overwhelmingly white community. And the first election that I knocked doors was in the south suburbs, which is mostly middle-class African-American families. So it was really transformative for me, to be knocking on doors talking about issues that connected us. Like around gun violence, because the community I can afford to live in has a lot of gun violence. And we connected on budget and food stamps… and I had to take big risks to say that my family grew up on food stamps, and then to have people saying ‘wow.’ I think that there’s this assumption based on the dominant narrative that white people don’t use food stamps, so I just like taking those risks and having conversations and people moving and then seeing some of those people show up to volunteer because of conversations and invitations I was offering them. It felt like, ‘okay this isn’t just something we’re saying works, I’m seeing it happen in front of me’ and those relationships were really meaningful for me. So I just kept doing it even though it was really uncomfortable.
Also the big, new portion of voter outreach is texting, and there’s kind of a scale of how nasty people will be to you if you’re texting. People will say just about anything in a text message to a stranger, I’ve learned. And even on the phone, people will be much less friendly. But people on the doors… they may tell you they don’t have enough time or they can’t talk right now, but there’s very few times I’ve had a door slammed in my face or something incredibly nasty said straight to my face. So I really enjoy doors, especially when we can knock them in the summer.
We’re aiming for a five to eight minute conversation, whereas typically an electoral campaign will tell you to do a two-minute conversation. They really want you to get the talking points out and get the idea of how is the person voting, but we’re trying to build permanent infrastructure and a permanent organization for people to be a part of.
I think there’s this “Savior Candidate” dynamic out there. Like, ‘we have one great progressive idealistic person, if we elect them then everything’s going to be great.’ And that’s not the reality.
So it’s really important for us to have a longer conversation and start the politicizing process of ‘here’s what’s wrong with our state’ or ‘here’s what’s wrong with our city, do you agree? how is that showing up in your life?’ Like here’s some things we can do about it and one of them is electing this person, but there’s like three other things that you can be a part of, because we are going to elect this person–that’s the goal for these six months–but once we elect them, we have to support them and be in the streets and rallying support for the stuff that you know overwhelmingly the majority of people in elected office don’t agree with… we have to make sure we’re gonna keep them in office, so we have to keep our neighbors understanding that this person is fighting the fight but it’s a long way away. And then we have to elect more people like them, so they can actually start passing stuff we care about.
So for us that’s why we do the five to ten minute conversation, because there’s a longer term goal than just electing one person.
MP: Yeah and for most of us, just having the bandwidth to keep up with a presidential election and look for a Savior Candidate, it’s probably as much politics as a lot of us can muster… but I know that a lot of organizing focuses on down-ballot elections and midterms and you mentioned aldermans etc. Why are those smaller, less glamorous elections important?
AW: Yeah, I think it’s the only way that we can change anything. I think it’s very very important. It’s absolutely how we got to the place that we did now in our elections. There was a planned-out strategy to take over local seats and to build a bench to have what we have now–which isn’t working for people. We can’t take forty years to get there, but we have to be planning four and six and eight years out, so that we’re recruiting people who can build enough power to combat the big money.
You can’t just like run for Congress one day–I know people do that, but overwhelmingly those people aren’t successful. It’s usually people being a part of a system and moving up, and I think many of us want to create the world where people can run for Congress based on their values and merit and experience and just get in, but for right now I think we have to live in the world as it is and it takes building up your credentials and building up your people power.
And also, those down-ballot elections absolutely affect our lives. Much of the legislation in this very turbulent world that’s being overturned at the federal level will affect us, but, for example, the minimum wage is something that you can affect at your state level, actually many municipalities have the ability to do it. Your local school councils are extremely important, there’s a reason that big money and the Koch Brothers and other major corporations and wealthy folks have taken over school boards–because there’s power there to privatize. And I think that’s a big thing: that we need to elect people to school boards and library boards and local councils, because it’s the only way we’re going to be able to guard against privatization of every public good. And that’s what we’re seeing in the state of Illinois right now.
And it’s also winnable. It’s really hard to knock as many doors and to raise enough money to get in everybody’s mailbox, but if you’re building your network and running for school council and now everybody in that school knows who you are and you build a reputation, then it becomes a little bit easier and more feasible in two years to run for your state representative or alderman. So we’re doing candidate training fairly frequently, and it’s very little about how to run a campaign but more like ‘let’s look at what you currently have as far as a network, and what can you build by the next election to run for something you can actually win.’
My other fear personally is, while I think everyone should build the power to be able to run, just saying ‘everybody go run!’ and a bunch of people go out and lose isn’t actually good for the movement overall. Morale tanks at some point when half the people running lose and lose badly.
MP: What are some things that have you excited or optimistic?
AW: I think the number of people who are getting activated and, instead of feeling hopeless, are figuring out something to do that is genuine to them has been really exciting. We’re building towards 2019 and our goal is to run twelve of our own members for alderman, which would get us close to a voting majority in the City Council with the current progressive caucus. And the number of people who have announced within our organization, who are parents and people of color and from low-income communities and who are building enough that I truly believe they have a shot to win, that has just been really overwhelmingly exciting.
Because something about this crisis is making people just get really serious, but also making the communal aspect of what we do just stick more. Like the quote “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” There’s been a lot more exciting, fun stuff happening in our movement and in our organization of just throwing stuff at the wall because clearly much of what we’ve been doing for the last forty to fifty years isn’t working, so let’s try some new stuff. And honestly, the consequences of it not working entirely right now are kind of low because we clearly have to figure something out.
There’s been something very liberating about the crisis that we’re in, that’s giving permission to people, and younger folks especially, to just try stuff and see if it works to bring in the people and the new constituency that we’re going to need to win for a long haul.
I was actually on the Planning Committee for The People’s Summit, and it was really amazing. We had people from every single state, and the lineup was fantastic. Bernie’s speech was really powerful. The event was double the size of the year before, and far more diverse.
I’m excited because I feel like there’s something happening. I ran a down-ballot revolutionary session where we mostly talked about ‘why do we have to run down-ballots?’ It’s going to take more than just good candidates, we need good campaign staffers and volunteers. And we actually broke people up and there were 85ish people who were committed to running for local office in the next two years. They got to dig in with a progressive elected and talk about their path and there was just a lot of that happening, people connecting and taking risks and talking about plans. I’m excited.
MP: If someone is new to organizing and they haven’t been super politically active before but now they suddenly feel the need to participate, what do you think are the best first steps for them?
AW: I think finding the thing that’s mostly in your backyard has been the best for me. I got to organize on my campus: I was comfortable there, I knew people and I got to know a lot more people.
So I think finding the thing that is in your neighborhood, that you’re not going to have a bunch of barriers or anything that’s going to make you stay out of the movement when it’s a little bit scary to jump in… I think local is always best and finding something that’s connected with an action.
Try to get people off of social media, get them to do an action step. Find a good meeting that’s local and that is connected to doing something after the meeting. Because there’s lots of places to talk about the crisis, but I think the thing that is giving me hope is that we’re moving, so we’re not just having meetings to talk about how bad things are or what we think we should do. We’re having meetings that are about the work, and then we’re going out to do the work. So I think the more you can find a place that provides that for you, once you take the first risk of showing up it just starts becoming a routine and a little bit contagious.
In addition to getting plugged in, for me… I grew up in poverty and now I’m in all this debt because of the way that the world works, and it’s not working for me and that’s why I get up and I do this work. I think it’s really important to find work that’s connected to your personal stories, because we all get busy–all of us have other things to do when it all gets really overwhelming, but if you’re doing something that’s really connected to what you’re angry about in your gut… it’s going to keep you going to that meeting or picking up the clipboards. If you can say ‘this is a thing that’s directly impacting me and I have to fight back,’ I think that’s the most important thing. The reason why I love working with this organization so much is because I’ve been angry for a long time and now I get to do something about that.