Harnessing Virginia’s Grassroots Resistance
Posted in News Story
Published on March 4, 2021 in The Forge.
In March 2017, at the monthly meeting of my local Together We Will group (previously part of Pantsuit Nation), there was a sense of frustration in the crowd of primarily suburban white women and a few men. Many of those gathered were unsure about how best to spend their time as hundreds of small grassroots groups — including Indivisible, Swing Left, Huddle, Sister District, Together We Will, and Our Revolution — popped up throughout Northern Virginia and nearby neighborhoods in Maryland and D.C. in the months following Trump’s election. “How are we supposed to choose which grassroots group to join?” they asked. “It seems like you are all trying to do the same thing but with no coordination.”
We had taken a number of actions — attending the Women’s March, reading the Indivisible Guide, contacting congressional representatives, and protesting outside of legislator’s offices — but none of them seemed to move the needle. In spring 2017, a new opportunity for engagement presented itself: the House of Delegates elections in Virginia. There were many new Democrats running for office, including for 17 districts currently represented by Republicans but won by Clinton. Getting the right people in office was critical to stopping the cascade of bad policies from the Trump administration to the state and local levels — and working directly with candidates’ campaigns would give us a far more tangible way to make change than the anonymous phone calling and email writing we’d been focused on to date.
We knew that we needed to start collaborating if we were going to make a real impact. After the Together We Will meeting, leaders of Virginia Democracy Forward, another local grassroots group, approached me to discuss how we might get our various groups to start working together. So began the Virginia Grassroots Coalition.
Over the past four years of leading the Virginia Grassroots Coalition, I have learned a lot about how to create a space that helps build leadership, encourages ongoing learning, fuels innovation, and increases collaboration. Below, I share five key challenges the coalition has faced over the past four years and how we have addressed them. In some ways, the lessons I have learned are organizing 101: relationships are the key to everything. But the coalition has also built a unique organizational structure in response to some of these challenges, and we are considering new ways to adapt as we look forward to the next four years.
Building Leadership and Trust
The first big challenge was bringing new groups together such that no one’s leadership felt threatened. National organizations had already swept into Virginia encouraging these groups to follow their lead and adopt their strategies. It was clear that the new grassroots leaders in Virginia wanted to determine their own direction. We did not officially name the coalition until after the 2017 elections, and this signaled to the groups that they would be able to maintain autonomy and use our coalition meetings for collective learning and strategy discussions.
During our first meeting, we created working groups that would structure our learning for the next few months as we prepared to work on the 2017 elections. Some of the questions that the working groups addressed included: 1) What are the most effective ways to get out the vote? 2) What are best practices in campaign fundraising? and 3) Which technology platform will work the best for our volunteers and the campaigns we are supporting? The working groups provided a space for the grassroots leaders to get to know each other and begin developing trusting relationships.
The coalition’s ongoing focus on learning allowed for individuals and groups to build their expertise and share it with others. For example, member groups began to specialize in different campaign functions, such as: analyzing polling data, holding fundraisers, organizing canvassing trips, and writing postcards. They would share their best practices with other groups at coalition meetings and take the lead when needed. Individual groups also quickly learned that they could be more successful when they partnered with other groups. These opportunities to collaborate helped develop the social bonds that have sustained the coalition for the past four years.
Developing a Strategic Focus and Adapting Over Time
After a recent coalition meeting, someone texted me: “I cannot believe how little DRAMA and disagreement there was!” The lack of drama is a result of our initial decision to have one clear goal for the coalition in 2017: flipping as many seats in the State House as possible. This laser focus allowed group leaders to build relationships and trust. Our strategic focus on elections continued through 2018 and 2019 (Virginia has either statewide or federal elections every year). It was not until we flipped the State House and Senate blue in 2019 that we decided to expand our focus to include legislative advocacy.
Now that we are focusing on specific issues, there is definitely more disagreement, but the mutual trust and respect we’ve built over the past four years means that these disagreements can typically be addressed through constructive conversation rather than dramatic arguments. In January 2020, the coalition drafted its first letter of priority bills for the legislative session. The letter was mailed and emailed to every Democrat in the State House and Senate. I was apprehensive about how groups would respond if all of their favorite bills were not included. But, while a few people really pushed back, most groups signed on, even if the letter only highlighted one of their priorities. There was an understanding that success depended on lifting all boats. We have also acknowledged that those who are putting in the work get to have the greatest say. For example, when we determine our environmental priorities for the year, I turn to our Climate and Clean Energy as well as our Gas and Pipelines working groups and ask them to make recommendations rather than opening discussion up to the whole membership.
Deciding on a Structure for Working Together
In 2018, after about a year of loosely organized collaboration, we formally defined our working relationships. Most of the coalition member groups had already defined their own leadership, operating, and decision-making structures (see table).
Yet, most people did not have the bandwidth to take on leadership roles within the coalition in addition to their roles in their individual groups. As a result, the coalition does not have a formal leadership structure beyond my service as the coalition facilitator. Instead, we provide tools and the space for member groups to operate collaboratively. For example, before a campaign season gets into full swing, we identify key districts we believe can be flipped from red to blue, or that need to be defended, and provide the opportunity for groups to sign up to work on a given district. These groups coordinate efforts with each other, report back at our monthly meetings, and invite the broader coalition to participate in their fundraisers and canvassing efforts. We also have legislative issue committees, which are led by individual members and work to advance priority bills each General Assembly session.
The decision-making structure we have chosen allows for the greatest amount of group autonomy. Member groups can show their approval for a legislative action by signing on to a coalition letter and/or contributing volunteers to lobbying efforts. In our campaign work, groups similarly indicate their support by contributing volunteers. I like to describe our coalition structure as a marketplace of ideas. During our meetings, everyone can share their ideas, strategies, and activities. While coalition members do not officially vote for or against specific strategies, they are encouraged to contribute volunteer time to the efforts they support. Thus, individual groups are responsible for determining how they want to contribute to reach our collective goals. Roles are not assigned; however, people frequently step up to help when support is requested.
Clear and frequent communication is what holds this loose structure together. At monthly coalition meetings, presenters are asked to specify what support is needed and how people can contribute. Weekly coalition emails provide a common calendar of upcoming events and more urgent calls to action. Finally, the coalition facilitator serves the role of connector, making sure that groups know who is working on the same campaigns or legislative advocacy.
There are times when this limited structure can become frustrating for our members. For example, in 2020, Virginia legislators and voters had the chance to consider a new redistricting amendment for the state constitution. There were many discussions within the coalition about the benefits and limitations of the amendment. It seemed like the same concerns were reiterated at every meeting. In the end, the coalition did not take a stand since there was not a clear consensus for or against and we gave up the opportunity to have a say on an important piece of legislation. While I personally regret that we did not get more involved, from the facilitator perspective, I believe that we made the right choice because the highly charged issue could have really torn the coalition apart.
As we continue to engage in more legislative work, we have considered the need to add a voting component to our decision-making structure to allow us to take a position on issues where there is not an overwhelming consensus.
Working with “The Establishment”
In 2017, the coalition and its members had trouble working with the local- and state-level Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). The resistance groups were angry that the national Democratic Party had lost the 2016 presidential election. This distrust of the party’s strategy was reflexively applied to the state and local party structures in Virginia, even though Clinton won Virginia in 2016. Without taking the time to understand the history of Democratic successes and failures in Virginia, the resistance groups developed their own strategy. As new activists joined the resistance groups, local democratic committees were dismayed that the new volunteer energy was not helping build the capacity of the party. The growing tension between the party and resistance groups resulted in uncoordinated approaches to the 2017 elections.
It’s possible that these tensions kept us from flipping the State House blue in 2017. It was very difficult to strategically prioritize which races to support in 2017 because we did not know the strategy of the DPVA, nor did we have access to important data on canvassing, polling and fundraising. We believed that the coalition could have the greatest impact if we helped expand the map, focusing on races that DPVA did not have the bandwidth to support. But we could only do this if we knew what the party was planning.
With the experience of 2017 behind us, both the coalition and the party worked to establish a stronger relationship. I made sure to meet as frequently as possible with the Executive Director of the DPVA and candidly shared what the coalition could and could not deliver. During these meetings, I also tried to learn more about how the state party was run and highlighted areas, like digital campaigning, where the coalition felt more resources needed to be invested. Over time, grassroots leaders in our coalition have also joined and taken leadership positions within their local democratic committees. Coordinated campaign directors make sure to brief the coalition on their strategies and goals. And, in 2019, the coalition was given a seat at the Partners Table, which is typically reserved for big donors to the coordinated campaign.
I have spoken with the leaders of other state grassroots coalitions, some of whom still have contentious relationships with their state Democratic Party. I recommended that they try to develop better working relationships with the party because our coalition has found that:
- It is easier to persuade the party to consider your recommendations when using a collaborative rather than resistance approach.
- Working with the party does not have to be the same as becoming the party; the coalition has been successful in keeping our work separate, but complementary.
- In our state, DPVA has the best access to state-wide elections and polling data. It helps to be at the meetings where this data is shared.
- It is possible to influence local democratic committees by testing out new ideas and showing their success. For example, the highest capacity democratic committees are located in Northern Virginia, but they did not use their capacity to help support races in other parts of the state. After the Virginia Grassroots Coalition successfully helped flip seats in other parts of the state in 2017, the Arlington County Democratic Committee officially began its “Beyond Arlington” strategy, which recently expanded to work in North Carolina in 2020.
Expanding our membership
In order to maintain our blue trifecta in Virginia and advance our legislative goals, we still need to grow our coalition membership to include grassroots groups from across the state. As a predominantly white coalition, we have begun reaching out to BIPOC groups to collaborate on progressive legislative priorities. We hope that this first step will lead to our members joining their groups and vice versa. We also need to increase our support of activists in red and rural areas. A few of the ways that we have begun to attract new members include:
- Holding an annual summit that brings together activists from across Virginia
- Hosting “listening lunches” in different parts of the state
- Reaching out to groups to sign on to our Legislative Priorities letters
- Supporting candidates in red and rural districts
- Holding our coalition meetings online
Each of the benefits of our model comes with limitations. The coalition has decided not to incorporate as a nonprofit or a PAC, remaining a completely volunteer-led endeavor. This allows us to work directly with candidates and their campaigns, a strategy we have found to be very effective. Yet, it is distinctly more challenging to engage in the legislative session without full-time lobbyists in Richmond. Many of our coalition members work full time, limiting how much time they can devote to the work. One way that the coalition has tried to address this is by partnering with nonprofits that do have lobbyists on their staff.
Since volunteers lead all our work, burnout is a real concern. We try to keep our volunteers engaged and motivated by partnering with other groups on events to limit the work any one leader needs to take on; expanding our work to include legislative advocacy so members stay engaged even through election seasons when we are primarily fighting to hold our seats; creating space for innovative ideas so members can pursue their passions; and allowing people to tag in and out of the work so they have time to take breaks and re-energize.
With the new administration, we have the opportunity to move from defense to offense. While the coalition is already working to support H.R. 1 For the People Act and will likely get involved in other important federal advocacy over the next four years, the main focus of our work will remain at the state and local level. For many of society’s most pressing issues, the most meaningful change can be made locally. Rather than focus on “resisting,” our focus has shifted to building — building a more formal coalition structure, building a stronger grassroots network throughout the state, and building a pipeline of democratic leaders who can advance our progressive policies and values at all levels. We believe that the longevity of our work depends on building this critical foundation, which we hope will sustain the movement for the next four years and beyond.