This story was first published by The Forge.
Last year, I wrote an article in The Forge making the case for leaving Joe Manchin be. The argument went like this: Joe Manchin got elected by amassing a war chest of corporate money and influence. Because of how Manchin ascended to power, working West Virginans don’t have the leverage we need to persuade him. But he’s going to come around to vote on critical, big ticket agenda items on his own terms. Let’s not worry about him and instead build a ground game that can take on his machine in the long run. Otherwise, we’ll just end up chasing our tails (or rather, his tail) each week.
Nine months later, it turns out I was right about one thing and wrong about the other. Manchin is in fact loyal only to his corporate donors and wealthy friends — persuasion has proven futile. But I was wrong to hope for any movement on his part. It seems he won’t come around to vote on these big ticket items at all, even on his own terms. (I’d assumed the filibuster fight might last six months, not a year. Now, it appears a vote may never happen.)
To me, the important lesson remains: Manchin’s posture has shown just how weak we are when it comes to our ability to influence corporate-backed politicians who have spent their careers amassing power. The good news is, Manchin’s intransigence gives us the freedom as organizers to let go of mobilization work at the federal level and get to work on the ground.
The question my team in West Virginia has been grappling with is: how do we do that? What do we do when mobilization has reached its limit? And how do we continue to grow in power when we don’t see a strategic opening on the most pressing issues in our sights? The answer we’ve come to is: we build our institution. And not just because mobilization is proving futile. But also (and primarily) because mobilization will become a less and less effective tool if we aren’t building the sort of power that makes mobilization useful in the first place.
Institution building, on the other hand, is useful no matter what. When we find ourselves at sea — when we don’t have a clear route to victory — a strong, large, and steady boat, with a skillful crew, will help us stay afloat and gather the resources we need to chart our next course.
For the last three years, I’ve acted as Campaign Manager and now Co-chair of WV Can’t Wait, a young organization in West Virginia that’s out to build our own institution — what we call a political machine — in the mountain state.
Here, amidst the Manchin storm, we are learning to be boat builders and shipwrights. We are learning to gather the resources we need to grow in power, even as the winds howl. Here’s what we’ve learned and what we’re trying.
1. We’re making multiple strategic bets; we’re experimenting.
As organizers, we sometimes put pressure on ourselves to have the exact “right” understanding and analysis of a moment, so that we can then make a call about the exact “right” work to be done. I know this phenomenon — and I still go down the rabbit hole from time to time. Last winter, after the 2020 election, I couldn’t get my hands on enough post-election articles. I couldn’t stop trying to wring out of my mind some clear understanding of where our nation was headed.
The truth is, there is no perfect way of understanding any moment. And the political landscape is evolving so quickly that, even if we could, it would change. Instead of chasing the elusive “right” strategic answer, we at WV Can’t Wait embrace a different tack: make multiple bets, experiment, and then follow the energy of what we’ve created.
One of the things we were puzzling over after the 2020 election was how we could keep growing our base in the direction we wanted. That is, how could we keep growing to include more and more politically marginalized working people (as opposed to simply re-organizing the already-activated liberal part of our base). We threw a lot of darts at the wall. If we hosted town halls, we’d likely just get the already activated people showing up. If we hosted mass meetings, the same. So instead, we decided to take on a one-on-one organizing drive called the Hometown Hero project.
Our idea was to give out twenty-five $2,000 awards to people who were picking up the pieces where government was failing. Think: folks running harm reduction programs, folks who drop off prescriptions for their neighbors, folks who run backpack programs or offer up their homes as recovery houses. About three months in, we have over 120 nominees and — even better — we’ve racked up hundreds of one-to-one conversations with people who represent the part of our base we want to grow. Now, we’re beginning to imagine what sort of training or resources or team structure we can offer these folks after the awards are out so that they become a fixture of our work.
Other experiments from the last year have had more mixed results. At WV Can’t Wait, we recruit candidates to run as part of a statewide slate. In 2021, however, we tried our hand at creating local slates for the first time.
Our strategy looks like this: we build a local platform in a place through a multi-month organizing drive. (For example, here’s our most recently ratified one.) Then, we ask candidates to sign on to that platform to get our endorsement. Once they sign, we act as their campaign team and back their run. We’ve now tried this model in five towns. One was a huge success, with two-thirds of our candidates getting through. Another flopped when local team leaders burned out, needing a break from their last big push. Another team decided to kick the can down the road to the next election. Another team is growing, with what we imagine might be our biggest local slate yet. You get the idea…
We’re not sure that we’ll keep this structure in the long run. Whether or not we do, the experiment has been deeply valuable. We now know a great deal more about the conditions necessary to pull off this kind of local organizing model, and we’re using those insights to inform our next experiment.
2. We’re investing in work outside of our organization.
The nature of social change funding — which often comes through foundations and membership — can mean that we’re set up to compete against our would-be partners for critical resources. Organizers in our state have felt this deeply during the Manchin era, with funds newly at our doorstep and all sorts of formations vying for it.
Even with this wealth of resources — or maybe in part because of it — competing for funding can get us into a posture of scarcity. We worry about the next fiscal year or the next donor drive. (We are primarily funded by large grant awards, as well as hundreds of monthly donors, who we’re thinking about converting into formal members.)
Ironically, in the precious moments where we step out of that sense of scarcity and financial protection for our own work, many of us know quite well that our fates are bound up with each other. At WV Can’t Wait, we know we’re better able to identify, recruit, and assist pro-labor candidates if our state has a stronger labor movement. We know we’re better able to pick meaningful fights in local races if other groups are waging issue-based campaigns on the same ground.
The reality is, for our own power to grow, for us to win, other organizations also need to be successful. Put another way, investing in the success of other institutions can be a way of investing in our own.
One way we’re doing this is through a new Organizer Apprenticeship program. In 2022, we’ve awarded six up-and-coming organizers $30,000 each to put toward growing their own fledgling organizations. Together, they represent organizing projects that focus on labor rights, harm reduction, Black youth development, and common land ownership. In addition to money, we’re offering those same organizers administrative support (payroll services, a way to make purchases, a way to receive donations) and a year’s worth of training and coaching in the form of six day-long workshops and twice-a-month coaching calls.
Our bet is that these organizers and their institutions will get stronger with this help. And that, over time, we’ll find more and more ways to be in successful cahoots with one another.
3. We’re doing one-on-ones as drives.
Attuning ourselves toward building often requires us to go more slowly than some of us are used to. Many of us come to social change work out of a sense of necessity — or acute danger or looming precariousness — that we feel must be addressed.
Building, on the other hand, requires us to take that feeling and temper it with patience. That’s because there are no shortcuts, especially when it comes to the relational part of institution building.
Beyond recruiting candidates and other volunteers into our work, one-on-one drives allow us to teach hundreds of people our strategy in a deep way.
At WV Can’t Wait, we grow in this way through one-on-one conversations — paced, attentive, scheduled, focused meetings. We treat these conversations like their own mini-campaigns, which allow us to build our organization and systematically track our growth. For example, we’re mid-stream on a new candidate recruitment cycle. By our estimation, it will take about 200 one-to-one conversations for us to build a slate of 30-35 candidates this year. We’re about 150 conversations in right now and can map about 15-20 candidates who are likely to run with us and another fifty or so who we might align with.
To pull this drive off, we have a team that meets every two weeks to come up with more potential candidates we can have one-to-one meetings with (or more volunteers and organizational leaders who themselves might have suggestions). Then, we go have those conversations. We track all of the relationships in a big spreadsheet and refer back to it for follow ups. It’s tedious. It’s grinding. It’s also where the vast majority of our candidates come from.
One-on-one drives are a numbers game. Not everyone says “yes” (and not everyone who does say “yes” is a person we decide to back). But there is a payoff. Beyond recruiting candidates and other volunteers into our work, one-on-one drives allow us to teach hundreds of people our strategy in a deep way. They also allow us to build and strengthen hundreds of relationships — ones that will stick. If we give these conversations the attention they require, they will become a fixture of our institution — the foundation of our boat.
4. We’re creating specific roles and pipelines.
Speaking of people, most organizing groups I know have a solid core of volunteers or staff but often struggle to build outside of it. Maybe the group has a core team of eight or so volunteers, maybe a staff person, all wondering why they’re struggling to grow their team.
One reason groups can stagnate like this is that they haven’t created ways for more people to plug in beyond joining the core team (which, for many people, because of time or relationships or skill or interests, isn’t a good fit). The antidote is creating more options.
At WV Can’t Wait, we currently have seven standing roles — outside of staff — that any new leader can step into. They include: Candidate, Slate Team Member, Ballot Team Member, Apprentice, Hometown Hero, Elected Official, or Work Team Member.
To assist folks getting into these roles, we create uniform pipelines. Want to be a Ballot Team Member? You’ll do a one-to-one meeting with my co-chair, get a hand-off email to our field director, and be invited to a team call in March. Want to be a Hometown Hero? You’ll fill out an application form and set up a one-to-one interview; a Work Team will consider the notes from that interview and then invite you to an event.
For many of these roles, we’re recruiting and on-ramping folks all the time: we’ll make pitches in press interviews, town halls, and social media posts, and, of course, we’ll do one-on-one drives.
The culture of urgency is a trap because it keeps us from building enough power to win and it keeps us playing defense.
To be clear, we don’t add roles casually. Instead, before creating a new role and pipeline, we ask ourselves: Is the role coherent, meaningful, and long-standing enough that it can feed a campaign/project over time? What’s the system that we need to create to support folks to occupy the role and do it well, and can we pull it off? How might this role serve the whole — and how can we design it so the people who occupy it can step from this role to another as they grow or as their interests evolve?
We first honed the instinct to get sharp about role creation and role pipelines during our governor’s race in 2020. During that campaign, one of the central roles we created was County Captain. County Captains were responsible for organizing the field work in their counties. Each quarter, we gave them a project to execute and training and coaching to do it effectively. For example, they might be charged with hosting a Town Hall Tour day complete with four one-on-one meetings and a large community event.
These teams were essential to fundraising, getting local press, and, ultimately, winning in rural counties that seemed unwinnable. And because the role was so clear and the work we gave these teams was so meaningful, our organization became known by volunteers as a great place to go.
5. We’re letting go of perpetual urgency.
Building institutions is slow, and it’s hardly headline grabbing. That means it can be difficult to build a sense of momentum or excitement around it. Sometimes, it can be so tedious that we wonder when or whether the payoff will ever arrive. Enter: the culture of urgency.
We’ve seen this before, right? Some bad news comes down the pike and an organization (maybe our organization) drops what it was doing to host a last-minute rally or send a bus to Washington, D.C. There’s a bad thing about to happen. We get alerted. And then we hop into action, often without regard for whether we actually have enough power to influence the outcome.
The thing is, the culture of urgency is a trap because it keeps us from building enough power to win and it keeps us playing defense. It’s also exactly what the corporate news cycle, digital media platforms, and the race of capitalism teach us to do. That’s why it’s so hard to get out of. It’s a culture.
Creating a new culture around your work takes time and a great deal of intention. It requires saying “no” to many urgent asks. It means telling partners that you will not send people to a rally. Or get on a last-minute strategy call. Or get folks on a bus in two days.
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And it means sticking to your guns and teaching your base a different sort of posture. Here’s an example. This legislative session is already shaping up to be abysmal in West Virginia. Very, very little of our state platform will make it through. And many, many bad bills — ones that hurt poor and working people —will get through instead.
Rather than chase each piece of bad news, we’re using the bad bills to build power. Specifically, we’ve created a fundraising page where any time a bad piece of legislation comes up, folks who are looking to take action can financially back the legislators who are standing their ground. That means we’re converting folks’ frustration about an inevitably bad thing into resources that we can use where we have a fighting chance: in the next round of targeted campaigns. The payoff is slow. But this sort of posture puts us in a better position for there to be a payoff at all.
We are living in difficult times. And we have good reason to believe things will get worse before they get better. My great hope for us is that we will see the storm coming. And that instead of sailing right into its winds, we will grow our ability to discern what’s needed. My hope is that we’ll know when our power can effectively be mobilized — and when building will better serve our movements. If we don’t, we run the risk of depleting our power in the long run. We run the risk of staying at sea.
Lucky for us, many organizations are already showing us the way. We have boat builders and shipwrights among us, getting our vessels in better shape. We have people attuning themselves to the wind, becoming storm-predictors. Allies and friends and volunteers, maybe even you, summoning the wise patience that the emergency we’re in requires.
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