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Sulma Arias: Building Multi-Racial Democracy From the Ground Up

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Posed photo of a group of people in front of a low building with a banner reading "LUCHA Blue"

“In order to build power and sustain it, we need to train thousands of organizers and to prioritize the essential aspects of relationship-building in organizing. None of us can get that kind of power by working alone.”

The midterm elections demonstrated once again the power of year-round grassroots organizing groups to mobilize large numbers of voters, champion progressive candidates, and potentially expand their bases, engaging more people in collective action beyond election cycles. To better understand how People’s Action is using their electoral work to build multi-racial democracy from the ground up, Convergence’s Sandra Hinson talked with their new Executive Director, Sulma Arias. For most of her career, Arias has been a part of the network’s decades-long fight against Wall Street’s predation, against voter suppression, and for a people-centered economy and authentic, multiracial democracy. She emphasizes the power of hope, connection, and collective action to transform communities.

Sandra Hinson: There’s a lot of talk these days about what it takes to build a multi-racial working-class movement that can win elections. How would you describe the approach People’s Action takes to the challenges that come with bringing these constituencies together into a larger “we?”

Sulma Arias: Our member organizations bring together multi-racial, cross-class (but mostly working class) bases. And we are well-grounded in a shared understanding of how power works in this country. Back in the early 1970s, when bankers were engaging in redlining, one of our founders, Gail Cincotta, said: “We have found the enemy, and it is not us.” We build this into how we organize, how we engage in political education, and how we understand the politicization process. We meet people where they are. We listen to their concerns. We acknowledge their pain. We share the ways we experience the hurt and pain together.

For decades, this philosophy has taken us into a lot of places that official Democratic Party structures and some of our peers won’t go, including into rural America. There’s this perception that rural America means white America, and that’s wrong. Rural America is getting more diverse, and in some ways revitalized, even when the numbers say rural areas are in decline. Giving in to a caricature of rural America and walking away is also a huge strategic mistake if we actually want to win governing power because the Senate has a massive skew towards rural voters in less populous states. When you add to that the fact that these are exactly the areas being targeted by white nationalists, it makes rural America an essential front in the fight for a real multiracial democracy. We have to go deeper in rural America, meet people where they are, and build towards the vision of a more just society together.

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Meeting people where they are does not mean avoiding difficult conversations. It makes it possible to use those conversations to get below the surface, to the root of the problems, to clarify who and what is standing in our way, and point people toward collective solutions.

We talk about immigration in farm communities. The Dobbs decision compelled us to talk about reproductive rights with conservatives. We talk about LGBTQ issues. We do this from a place of empathy, and we lift up what we share: the pain as well as the hopes, and what we can achieve when we come together.

The surprisingly positive results of midterm elections–which we and our member groups played a major role in creating–provide a lot of validation for this approach.

In Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan, we saw the right bring out their dog-whistles (and bullhorns) about crime. We took on these dog-whistles. We talked about race, class, and the real issues that would help promote public safety in every community. We’ve used these conversations to go deeper into the ways we can address the underlying issues. And we’ve seen how it can move people who are susceptible to the dog-whistles.

The deep canvassing methodology includes trainings that help volunteers have these kinds of conversations. For example, a canvasser is likely at some point to hear something like “I don’t believe in same-sex marriage.” The trainings prepare canvassers to listen to that person’s concerns and help them understand the root of the problems they are facing. The skilled canvasser shares their own stories related to the problems––health care, layoffs, disappearing jobs, overwhelming loans, problems with addiction, housing problems––and they sit together with the shared pain and shared wishes. This is very powerful.

SH: Your organization endorsed well over 200 candidates at the state and local level in the 2022 midterms. What was the significance of having a people’s slate? How did it guide the electoral work? How will it guide the post-election follow-up?

SA: We are trying to practice, through our electoral work, the kind of co-governance we’d like to create. We support movement-oriented candidates who are committed to our values and moving our platform. Our affiliate members and leaders get to interact with candidates through trainings and strategy sessions. These can be very animating because they speak to people’s real needs, and give them a sense that, together, they can address those needs. The members and the candidates experience the promise of co-governance on the ground. Our training sessions inspire people to run for office, or to get involved in supporting movement champions who run for office.

I got a message from a woman who ran for School Board in Baltimore. Her “thank-you” note said she took a PA training and was so inspired she decided to run.

When I talked with the slate of candidates in Chicago, I could see how they recognized who they were accountable to. They were thinking like organizers, and they were working as a team. You hardly ever see candidate forums that get folks thinking as a team, whether they are running for city council or as state representatives. Once elected, these leaders are already familiar with the idea of co-governing with organized communities. The relationships are already there.

SH: Could you say a bit more about what you mean by “co-governance”?

SA: It is about how we govern ourselves in relation to others, holding power together. It starts with the ways we work together before the movement candidates are elected and continues as the ways in which elected leaders stay grounded in the communities and constituencies they represent. And, when they run as a slate, they can also keep those relationships going, with other progressive elected officials.

Running for office as part of a slate is great for the candidates. They get to interact with people on the ground, share their passion, and take that passion into their campaigns.

SH: How do you balance the intense and fast mobilization efforts of electoral campaigns with the need for more deliberate and long-term base-building?

SA: Elections are a vehicle for engaging with large numbers of people (this time around, over a million), with opportunities for one-on-one, deep conversations. We can get more people involved beyond elections, through our grassroots organizations. But we need the capacity to absorb them, and to keep them engaged.

We don’t want to get caught up in the whiplash electoral cycle where hastily assembled mobilization efforts drive out our long-term organizing ones.

This is why we are calling for an Organizing Revival to remind people that our work is to meet people who are going through struggles in their communities, and to bring them together with other people to make changes that they didn’t know were possible.

Our electoral work has to feed into our base-building work. This election shows us that people are hungry for change. But we have to have grassroots organizations that can channel that hunger into collective struggle and collective power.

SH: How did your electoral work, with candidates, through trainings, and through the deep canvassing of thousands of volunteers, impact down-ballot races in the states?

SA: In critical battleground states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, we deployed so many trained people, making over a million contacts. A lot of this was focused on state elections. These campaigns offer great opportunities to test out the deep canvass work. People are able to connect the local and state races with the issues they care most about.

Working with movement-oriented candidates helped energize and compel people to show up and turn out up and down the ballots.

These local and state elections will help us build collective power and transform governance over the next 10 years. We are close to the ground, and we are able to focus on the elections in places that have been overlooked, nationally, for too long.

This is a long-term fight. The right has been doing this work for decades, steadily taking over local offices and state legislatures. We are catching up. And this election shows us that we can do this, we can shake loose the right’s grip on state and local power. Look at Minnesota and Michigan.

SH: We hear a lot of talk about working towards more alignment so we can build progressive governing power and the broad front to fight the right . How is PA thinking about greater alignment across networks and sectors?

 SA: For almost 50 years, this has been a delicate topic across the organizing networks because of our histories, organizational forms, competitiveness, egos, etc. We have new leadership in the networks, mostly people of color and women. We are in a moment where we have an opportunity to rethink old relationships and old patterns.

I see the organizing revival as part of the next steps. We want to have a series of conversations about the future of organizing.  The one thing most organizing networks can agree on is that we don’t have enough power. The rigor and discipline of strong community organizing is and has been in decline for the last decade. In order to build power and sustain it, we need to train thousands of organizers and to prioritize the essential aspects of relationship-building in organizing. None of us can get that kind of power by working alone. We need better coordination across sectors. Too much is at stake.

While the election results should give us more confidence, given that we beat back the predicted red wave, it should not give us less of a sense of urgency. Democracy is still on the line. We still have corporate Democrats. The right is still in charge of several states as well as the Republican Party.

The change must start with us as new leaders of these networks, it’s up to us to build the legacy of the next 50 years. 

SH: How are you harnessing the energy of all the folks who got involved in canvassing, phone-banking, etc.?

SA: Absorption of volunteers in a great test for us. We have learned a lot from 2018 to 2020. And we’ve tweaked our approach from 2020, so that we can be better this time around with bringing people into the network organizations in many ways: on the ground, through national work, through digital organizing, etc.

Absorption of volunteers was a challenge after 2020, in part because of capacity issues. We’ve been through a hard 10 years, building cycle after cycle, improving the deep canvassing model, and now prioritizing base-building. We know that strong organizations with a healthy base of leaders and volunteers are key to being able to take advantage of the large amount of engagement during electoral cycles.

People who are trained in deep canvassing, who get a chance to practice it during an election, are transformed by the experience. They could be lifelong movement actors. It’s a lot of work. And it works! Since we established the Deep Canvass Institute, we’ve trained hundreds of leaders in national networks and engaged thousands of volunteers who are using this methodology on a number of issues and electoral campaigns.  We know the methodology works, but it builds power when done within an organization that has a goal of building power by growing their membership base.

As we build more organizing capacity on the ground, we build greater capacity to absorb volunteers. From what we’ve learned in the past few cycles, we will create an even stronger political home for the vast numbers of people who got involved during the mid-terms.

Featured image: People’s Action groups around the country reached out to voters by every means available, seeking to have the conversations that could counter the Right’s dog-whistles. Here, members of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA).

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