In the summer of 1995, after I’d wrapped up my very first paid organizing job at the national office of the United States Student Association (USSA) in Washington, DC, and then spent several months on an extended trip to visit with family in India, I was exploring what would be next for my role in organizing. Through the deep network of USSA alumni, I had gotten to know Jane McAlevey who has remained a dear friend and comrade to this day. In one of the most important future-shaping moments of my movement life, Jane introduced me to Anthony Thigpenn and encouraged him to get to know me and consider bringing me onto his team at the then two-year-old South Los Angeles grassroots organization called AGENDA. I made several trips to L.A., and Anthony and I talked about what the member leaders and staff of AGENDA were trying to build as well as the broader power and bigger vision they aspired to achieve. He also tested me a bit through some assignments I could do remotely.

Thankfully, it seems I did well enough on those tests – or else he didn’t have anyone better to recruit at the time! Anthony eventually asked me to come to L.A. and join the organizing staff team at AGENDA. A few months later I packed up my car and drove from Ohio to Southern California.

As many readers know, Anthony is the creator of the particular “power analysis” framework and tool that has guided my movement work (and many other people’s across the country) for decades. He and the framework are in many ways the true inspiration for this “What’s Your Power Analysis?” series. The methodology itself, and the very way of thinking it engendered, were and still are a vibrant part of all of the work of AGENDA (which was renamed to SCOPE in the early 2000’s): the organizing, political education, leadership development, campaign strategy, and long term visioning work with members, leaders, staff, and coalition partners.

Sabrina Smith has been a senior staff member of California Calls since its inception, and she has served as its Chief Executive Officer since 2022, when Anthony transitioned to his current role as President. I first met Sabrina in the 1990’s when she was a leader of the progressive student movement and elected student government officer at UCLA. She became a key national leader as a board member of USSA where we organized together, and our collective scheming has never stopped. Soon after I got to L.A., I helped connect Sabrina to Anthony and she quickly became part of our growing AGENDA staff organizer crew in the late 1990’s. She’s been a central player in every step of the local, regional, and now statewide organizing, power building, and alliance strengthening that has led to what California Calls represents today. She is also one of the smartest, most clear-eyed, and genuinely unassuming leaders of a powerful base organization that you will ever meet.

One of my long-term assignments for most of my 8 years at AGENDA/SCOPE, in addition to being local organizer then lead organizer, was working with Anthony on many of the external training, capacity building, strategy, and coaching projects we did with other organizing groups across the country. These ranged from one-off trainings on base-building or campaigns, to facilitation of sensitive alliance processes, to multi-part capacity building programs with many local and regional organizing formations. These projects usually included teaching the power analysis framework to the members, leaders, and staff of these organizations as one tool for grounding whichever aspect of their movement work that they’d asked us to support.

One of the most comprehensive examples of this external work was a multi-year project called Strategic Trainings for Education and Power – or STEP. Anthony and I worked with Sandra Hinson and Richard Healey of the Grassroots Policy Project (GPP) to co-design and co-lead STEP. The project, which was also co-conceived and supported by the forward-thinking French American Charitable Trust, was a year-long in-depth program designed to help organizations (1) build more power informed by power analysis, (2) craft more strategic campaigns that advance both short and long term social change goals, and (3) develop a larger and more deeply committed, politically conscious base and leadership. Each organization would carefully identify a cohort of 15-25 grassroots leaders and staff who would then devote a year and participate in 4 multi-day retreats with intense practical application of the STEP tools and concepts in their day to day work before and after each retreat. The first phase of STEP was a national program in 1997-1998 with four participating base organizations: AGENDA, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN, in the Bay Area), Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), and Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG).

The second phase of STEP in 2000-2001 focused on 17 base organizations all from within California. The shared analysis, common framework for power, and the relationships among the members, leaders and staff of those groups that were deepened through the intensive STEP program made it one of the initial ingredients in the eventual formation of the alliance that became California Calls.

The California Calls alliance of grassroots organizations has built and wielded serious power over the last decade-plus in the most populous state in the country. Their mission is to “​reclaim the California Dream of equality, opportunity and prosperity for all Californians,” with a focus on 4 broad long term goals​, including guaranteeing funding for public services, ensuring a good government that meets community needs, a fair tax system, and economic growth through good jobs. They, along with their labor and community partners, have won the allocation of billions of state dollars a year to critical public services. They’ve built a clearly measurable base of over 1 million supportive voters across the state who they regularly communicate with multiple times a year, during and also in-between elections.

Let me say that again. They don’t just “attempt” to knock on 1 million doors every election cycle; they have an identified base of over 1 million actual individual voters who have expressed support for the agenda over the years and who they talk to regularly. They’ve demonstrably and positively shifted the landscape of the progressive movement toward mutually respectful and deep alliances among labor and community groups. They have coached, trained, and helped launch a new network of over 40 Black community based civic engagement organizations now called the California Black Power Network.

They have done all this while remaining relentlessly focused on understanding and measuring concrete power as it operates in the real world – theirs and their opposition’s. Despite their objective successes and their growth trajectory over the past decade, they also have a rare degree of self-awareness about how far they still are from the real power needed to achieve their vision and a healthy and honest self-critique about how getting to the scale of power and the size of infrastructure they’ve now reached can itself result in contradictions and barriers to creatively and doggedly getting to the next level.

I am biased. These are my people. But I hope you’ll agree their analysis, discipline, and candor hold lessons for everyone organizing for a more just world. And not just in California.


I spoke with Anthony and Sabrina together over Zoom for this conversation. This transcript has been condensed from the video interview and edited for clarity.


Deepak Pateriya: What's your power analysis of California? Talk about the different dimensions, both quantitatively and qualitatively, of that power you’ve set out to build to achieve your vision.

Sabrina Smith: I’ll share some of the origin story of California Calls. I was an organizer at SCOPE [a local grassroots group in Los Angeles, and the founding anchor group of California Calls]. We had been waging really innovative policy campaigns at the local level around corporate subsidy accountability. We also won a model “Los Angeles City Jobs” program that was a pipeline to place people on public assistance into full-time paid and unionized city jobs.

But there were real limits to the scale of our victories, largely because of California’s broken tax and fiscal system and state structural barriers. So after the “Strategic Trainings and Education for Power” program involving 17 California groups, a number of organizations came together to explore a path to build power for low income communities of color in a state as big and complex as California. And what would be a shared long-term agenda that we could align around as multi-issue organizations.

Some of the assumptions that led to the development of California Calls included: (1) There were state structural barriers like Prop 13 [severely restricting tax increases and imposing super-majority vote requirements] baked into the state constitution that really prevented us from transforming the conditions locally. (2) Our movement was fragmented, siloed, and often on the defensive. In fact, the broken tax and fiscal policy system really fueled that fragmentation in the face of deep budget cuts and austerity. Folks really retrenched to protect their piece of the pie. (3) The composition of the electorate did not reflect the population of California or our communities. It was older, whiter, well educated, and largely homeowners. The dynamics of Sacramento were such that decision-making and power were based on position and money. Traditional power brokers shaped policy and didn't take low-income communities or communities of color into account.

Anthony Thigpenn: The original experiment was ALLERT (“Alliance of Local Leaders for Education, Registration, and Turnout”) starting in 2002. It was an attempt [on the local level in Los Angeles] to build a labor and community ongoing alliance, building electoral power beyond election cycles.

The pattern had been building labor-community work around a particular election cycle, then going back to what we were doing separately, and then coming back together again [for the next election].

Smith: After several years of exploration, looking at different issue areas and beginning to build civic engagement muscle together, we organized around a long-term agenda that's focused on: (1) making government work for our communities by increasing the civic participation of underrepresented communities, (2) shaping an equitable tax system, to fully fund schools and local services, and (3) expanding equity and justice for people of color, women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people.

We agreed on a shared strategy that centered integrated voter engagement, working together both during elections and in between, building shared infrastructure to scale our reach, and aligning on a strategy.

Thigpenn: Part of our initial power analysis, and another piece of the puzzle, is that organized labor operated statewide; community organizing groups didn't so much. Part of the rap was that community based organizations were too small, didn't really deliver anything, and they had 1000 different decision-making structures. They're messy to deal with.

So that was part of the reason for establishing an ongoing alliance of community organizing groups across the state. No one organization could really be big enough by itself, but an alliance could bring the power of the community together in a way that labor could recognize and see as a partnership.

Pateriya: I'm glad you started there with the origin story and context, the early development and formation of the strategy, and the collaboration to carry out that work in those early years. One thing I want to take further is how California Calls is doing more than just looking at the traditional electoral math about how to win the next election?

Say a bit more, from a power analysis standpoint, about the strategy to broaden the alliance to go into constituencies and geographies in the state where there wasn't the same degree of progressive infrastructure. What is that work and why was that a necessity in the power you are building?

1988 Presidential Election Results


Thigpenn: Certainly one thing that was part of the original analysis was the right wing's “fish hook strategy” [and map] for California. They are organizing the inland counties [along the eastern half of the state] and then wrapping around and up to San Diego County. [If you draw that line down and curve back up to San Diego it looks like a fish hook.]  That would counter the liberal bases in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Their strategy was to increase votes in that “fish hook,” and depress the vote in LA and the Bay. That's how they won statewide.

It's very self-conscious on our part to try to dismantle that fish hook. Our strategy was to begin building power in those areas because the demographic was changing in the Central Valley and Inland Empire, and at the same time boost turnout in our base communities. Some say all we need to do is work in the red counties. Some say work in the blue counties. Our plan was to do both.

One more thing about the origin, and this is instructive. We were very self-conscious at a point to abandon the “Y'all Come” strategy, which is trying to get everybody in the room and build the broadest coalition possible. Instead we tried to build an alliance among those that had sufficient agreement on strategy and on the kind of power we wanted to build.

That's an important distinction because for the first few years we were chasing our tails trying to get everybody to agree. And most of the people who took up the most space had no power. Really concentrating on a smaller set of stronger groups, and having actual written agreements among them, was a game changer in our ability to think multi-year.

The last thing I would say, in terms of integrated voter engagement, is you really have to have a self-conscious attempt to combine traditional community organizing and electoral organizing. In the past, you either did one or the other. Sometimes you did both but it was very tactical; it was for one election cycle. This really was about trying to develop a model that combined both.

Pateriya: Picking up right from there, what else were you measuring and holding yourselves accountable to in those other geographies and constituencies where you were self-consciously trying to expand? In addition to the vote counts, registration, election results, what other measures would you be making as the years went by about whether more real power was getting built in these other geographies and constituencies?

Smith: We started with six organizations in three counties. We called the question around… this is what we're going to build, who's in? And did the work to really build relationships and also the capacity of organizations in the Central Valley, in the Inland Empire, in San Diego.

In addition to the voter base and turnout metrics, we also measured the growing capacity and power of our local partners in direct organizing and engaging a base. Now we are 16 anchor organizations working in 14 counties of the state with deep commitment and alignment around fighting over multiple years, advancing the long-term agenda, and building power together.

Thigpenn: On your question of how we are measuring, one measure was the building of anchor organizations: stable, ongoing organizations committed to both community organizing and base building and building electoral power. That was pretty fundamental. Before we could measure how many voters we could talk to, we wanted to build those kinds of anchor organizations that could actually carry out that program on a consistent basis and grow over time.

Another piece of the puzzle for us was movement building versus empire building, because part of the fracture of our movement was everybody doing their thing in competition with everybody else as opposed to seeing each other as colleagues. A lot of our work early on with California Calls, and then eventually with the Million Voters Project, was changing that culture. No one of us can ever be big enough to have the power alone so we had to build together. We were actually proving that we could raise more money together than apart and that we could actually share that. That was fundamental in building trust and building a united program.

Pateriya: One more question on how your own power is really measured and how you know it's real in the world. If you put yourselves in the minds of the powerful elected officials or the state Democratic Party or even labor leadership in the state, what are the things that are now in their minds – about what you all are able to do and how the power is manifest – that make them think of you differently now than they did 10 or 12 years ago?

Thigpenn: First and foremost is the ability to run statewide field programs that didn't exist in the past for the community. It was a statewide field program that was mainly driven by labor and then had community components to it. But there was no such thing as the ability for community to build a statewide field program of substance – and not just in the Bay Area, San Diego, and L.A. Over the last several years, our programs are among the largest in the state. That's one metric.

Another is the ability to be consistent over multiple election cycles and to have metrics that measure that. Are we reaching more people? Are we able to increase the turnout among our target voters? That's important both for organized labor and for donors and funders in terms of measuring our power.

Another was our ability to raise resources and not just be dependent on organized labor. Sometimes in the past we had disagreements, and we were actually able to raise the resources to run our programs and not be dependent on one donor or any one union. And then the pinnacle of that was in Prop 15. We actually raised, on the community side, $15 million that we contributed to the campaign, which was unheard of for the community being at the table. Typically, the community brought the people power but we didn't have the ability to raise any resources to contribute. And so all that changed people's opinion of us and respect for us and willingness to partner with us.

Smith: The only other thing I would add is the relationships and trust – and our ability to convene a broader coalition. For Prop 15 we had a steering committee of 30 organizations and 1,600 endorsers. In the debriefs of the campaign folks felt a lot of pride and just reflection of the power of the breadth of the coalition that we brought to bear. Those relationships and the trust that we have is another piece of the power we've built over the years.

Thigpenn: Also the power to be strategic. By that I mean to look ahead to multiple election cycles. Where other forces were just starting to look at something, we had already been looking at it for two or three years. We had already built a coalition, we already had an agenda, and had begun to raise money for it. So we weren't reacting to folks, they were reacting to us. That power of having the high ground, and having taken the initiative first, was very important.

Pateriya: Let’s turn to two very concrete examples of the major proactive fights you have picked and run over the past decade –– and talk about what they each tell us about how your power, and your power analysis, have been evolving over the past decade.

Prop 30 was the so-called “Millionaires Tax” ballot measure that you launched and won in 2012. It was an overall progressive tax increase that resulted in approximately $7-8 billion of additional revenue for the state each year. That money is largely for preschool, K-12, and community colleges, but it also created space in the budget to protect and fund many other key public services.

Prop 15 in 2020 named the “Schools and Communities First” initiative – was your first direct attempt to start to undo the infamous Prop 13 from the 1970’s, the “third rail of California politics,” which has baked a lot of terrible anti-tax and anti-democracy measures into the system for decades.

Can you talk about – and compare – the power dynamic around each fight? Not just that you won the first one and lost the second. But more so what the dynamics were around the development of each and the negotiating and the positioning and what that said about your movement’s evolution and power from 2012 to 2020.

Thigpenn: What made Prop 30 possible was some of the things that we talked about. The track record over many years of building anchor organizations with real capacity and an ability to deliver in ways that others measure. We always have, inside our movement, some aversion to metrics. But to the outside world – funders, organized labor, elected officials – there are certainly metrics they look at. Our ability to meet those metrics was one piece of the puzzle. Another critical piece of the puzzle was key labor leaders and unions who were strong allies and essential partners. I also want to say that there were some forward thinking unions that were key partners for us. It wasn't community versus organized labor, it was sectors of organized labor that actually did partner with community. That was decisive for us at that time.

Also seizing the high ground, actually being the ones to initiate something was very important so that we couldn't be dismissed. We had to be dealt with in some kind of way. Then the ability to raise enough resources to stay at the table, including community resources and resources from key allies. When the more traditional liberal power players (where resources are typically gotten from) weren't here to throw down with us and they were doing something very different, we couldn't be brushed aside because we had the resources. That created the possibility of a negotiation with the liberal power players that eventually led to Prop 30.

Pateriya: Let’s go a little deeper there on the “traditional liberal power players,” as you refer to them. Jerry Brown was the Governor at the time, and some of those liberal forces were aligned with him, as I understand it. What was motivating them and what power did they have in that situation? And what power did you all have? What was the lesson about power from that experience?

Thigpenn: I don't want to make life harder for Sabrina by naming names now. I would say in general traditional liberal power players – and this is not unusual – wanted something that was safer. That wasn't as risky. Something that the business folks could rally around and not have a lot of opposition to it.

Pateriya: Safer as in winnable? Or safer as in less people will be mad at us?

Thigpenn: That's it, the latter, because it actually wasn't about winnable. Our measure, the millionaires tax, actually polled better. But their measure was safer in terms of the way Sacramento operates, which is you find the common ground between various forces, including business, and you cut that deal.

Typically, the more radical or progressive measure doesn't poll as well, but it did in this case. But it was riskier and obviously business was not enamored with that. The powers that be took a safer course. They actually filed an initiative. We had already filed ours and they essentially said, “step aside, stand down.”

We had enough of our coalition, enough union partners, enough resources, enough momentum with saying, “no, we're not going to stand down.” And our measure polled better.

There was a pretty intense battle in terms of us being blacklisted and them going to our funders and going to our board members to try to get us to stand down. We were resolute and did not. That became the basis for a negotiation that became Prop 30.

Pateriya: And to a significant extent – you and your allies won that negotiation – the “compromise” measure was more progressive and had much of what was in your original measure, and then that initiative passed.

Now, I would love to get the naming names part, but I hear you...

Let’s turn to the more recent Schools and Communities First ballot measure that you ran as Prop 15 in 2020, but which lost by 52%-48%. What were the dynamics there and what's the takeaway? Again, not just about the election result, but the data points that experience gave you about power.

Thigpenn: It's actually interesting. By the time we got to the “Schools and Communities First” Prop 15 in 2020, we had a lot of things going for us. The community side was much more developed and much stronger than during the work on Prop 30. Night and day. The Million Voters Project (MVP) had come together and been working for several years. MVP is a broader collaboration of 7 statewide and regional organizations including California Calls, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Asian Pacific Islanders for Civic Empowerment, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of California (CHIRLA), Power California, PICO California, and the Orange County Civic Engagement Table.

We actually had forged partnerships with some of the key unions who had been on the other side of the battle with Prop 30. That wasn't smooth, but eventually there was an actual partnership between community and labor in a way that really didn't exist in terms of Prop 30. And as I said earlier, the community side raised $15 million for the Prop 15 campaign – unheard of from our side – toward the total “Yes on 15” budget of approximately $58 million.

The decisive difference is that the opposition spent $80 million; they spent very little against Prop 30 back in 2012. And secondly, the liberal institutional power players didn't throw down with us, by and large. In Prop 30 everybody was on the same page, right? But here you had folks sitting on the sidelines, coming in late, or coming in just from a symbolic point of view and not really throwing down.

With Prop 15 in 2020 we were also making a much, much, much more systemic play with overturning Prop 13, and that was a factor in the amount of opposition against us.

Smith: We also had a pandemic to contend with which just upended our strategy and our messaging. We had to pivot the entire field operation to a remote system and we couldn't send our troops out on the doors.

And just the volatility and unpredictability of voter sentiment and attitudes which also fueled skepticism. Folks thought we were going to be crushed which made it challenging to raise the resources we needed to contend with the opposition.

Pateriya: Let's shift gears and talk about your power analysis of your opposition in California. They spent $80 million to beat this ballot measure. Obviously that's a very important measure of power. I want to try to get deeper about the different forms of power that they exercise.

While we do that, share what's different in California compared to how people may experience corporate forces or right wing forces or the Republican Party in other states. That opposition coalition, obviously it’s a fragile coalition. Who are those forces in California, what power do they exercise, and how does that play out differently in California? Part of that difference I assume is that for you in California the battle is inside the Democratic Party, in terms of how stuff plays out in the legislature or with statewide elected officials, or electoral politics. Also, what are the other forms of their power that you see – not just money spent on elections, not just shock and awe of lobbying in Sacramento – what else do they do and how do you see it?

Smith: We have incredibly powerful corporate lobbies in the state. Largely real estate, oil, pharma, and tobacco with interlocking vehicles that allow them to exercise power in the legislature, on local and state ballot measures and local and state candidate battles. They do have the shock and awe army of lobbyists building relationships and taking legislators on fancy trips across the globe. The corporate lobby really does work in lockstep with the anti-tax lobby in the state as well. Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has been around since 1978 and is determined to protect Prop 13 at all costs. They've also been working over the past several decades to really change the rules of the game and make it nearly impossible to raise taxes at the state or local level.

In terms of the forms of power they exercise they're are two new developments. One is the GOP has really atrophied in the state. So the opposition’s strategy now is to elect corporate Democrats which has muted the super majority that the Democrats have in the legislature. Even with the progressive legislation that's passed, they attempt to overturn it through referendum. We've seen that with bail reform, we saw that with a ban on e-cigarettes, and with the plastic bag ban. In 2024, we're looking at two referenda. One that would overturn a new “Fast Food Industry Worker Council” that is set to negotiate wages and safety benefits for fast food workers, and another that would overturn a ban on oil drilling. So they're using the ballot box, which is expensive. They have deep, deep pockets. When they fail there they take it to the courts.

Thigpenn: So that's a three prong approach. First, in terms of legislation: because of the army of lobbyists and also their relationship with Democrats and campaign contributions they’re able to mute legislation. Let's say it starts out very progressive, by the end it's been watered down to such an extent that it doesn't matter.

Second, where they can't do that they go to the ballot box and overturn it through a referendum because of the power of money in that arena.

Then third, if they can't do that they're going to go to the courts.

There are ways in which they try to seize power. To reiterate what Sabrina said, a strategy here in California – that is coming soon to your neighborhood – is electing moderate and corporate Democrats. To the degree the Republican Party becomes so extreme and isolated, corporations shift without missing a heartbeat to elect moderate Democrats to slow any attempt of progress from the Democratic Party itself.

The last thing, which we found has been very powerful and we saw this a lot with Prop 15, but in general they co-opt our messengers. When they do their campaigns, it's people of color on their commercials and it's small businesses who they're promoting. They've really perfected the art of co-opting our messages and our values in their narrative in a way that completely confuses people by design.

Pateriya: For California Calls and your core partners, what portion of your energy is in the legislature and with the governor – separate from the ballot measure context? How much of your energy is in the legislative policy making or state budget process?

Smith: Most of our energy has been really expanding the electorate and engaging battles at the ballot box. We've tactically engaged in the legislature mainly in a supportive role. In 2017, we joined forces around the legislative fight to declare California a sanctuary state and prevent law enforcement from cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We've done work to protect the Affordable Care Act.

It is an arena that we're looking at. We just completed a long-term agenda process with our Million Voters Project partners with a focus on progressive revenue, progressive budgeting, as well as social housing. We are looking to flex more power in the legislature, but we typically have followed our allies who have been organizing within Sacramento.

Pateriya: Is that a strategic, power-analysis-driven choice? Is it about the state of affairs and the moderate/corporate Democrat dynamic? That you're more likely to be able to make progress at the ballot over the long term, rather than digging in and becoming focused on legislative policy making? Is that a priority choice for you? Or is it just a division of labor in the movement?

Thigpenn: No, from our point of view the strategy wasn't really about ballot box versus legislation. It's about creating a different center of gravity outside of Sacramento because of the paralysis and corruption in Sacramento itself.

Pateriya: And the ballot was the way to do that?

Thigpenn: It's one way of doing that. And spreading anchor groups all around the state is another way of doing that, spreading new relationships with organized labor. It's not just in Sacramento. That was the strategy.

Smith: Many of these structural barriers are baked into the state constitution and they have to be fought at the ballot box. There are real limits to being able to advance structural change legislatively, not only because of the composition of the legislature but because of these structural road blocks: whether it's Prop 209, Prop 13, needing super majorities to pass taxes at the local level, the “Gann limit,” which is an actual cap on spending at the legislature.

They've rigged the rules and really baked it into the system.

Pateriya: With this corporate Democrat dynamic, not just in the legislature but in the ether of the power structure of the state overall, how would you map the basic wings of the California Democratic party power structure? What's the calculus there? Do they have just enough to keep very progressive stuff from moving in the legislature?

Thigpenn: The corporate/moderate wing has enough to keep stuff from moving or to cause compromise. The  centrist/liberal wing is the largest bloc in the legislature and is often in alignment with the progressive/left wing, but the corporate/moderate wing is large enough to block or significantly water down legislation.

So a recent part of our experiment in California is with the Working Families Party as a way of putting pressure on those moderate and business Democrats and challenging or primarying them. Also as a way of building an identifiable progressive voter base that's much more difficult to do because of our C3 status and our C4 status even. And then pushing the Democratic party to the left. The experiment is: can the Working Families Party play that role for us?

Pateriya: Focused on the legislature?

Thigpenn: In electing candidates. Yeah.

Pateriya: What else would you say that organizers working in some red states or in some purple states could understand better about the environment that you all are operating in and therefore the kinds of power that you all have decided that you have to build and how that's going? What do you want people from outside California to grasp that they may not if they're really just familiar with those other kinds of places?

Thigpenn: I say this as I talk to my colleagues around the country: there's this illusion about California as a blue state, that we are in some sense on the borderline of doing something special. In my mind, we haven't done anything special yet because the big systemic problems – poverty, the carceral state, environmental poisoning, gentrification of whole communities – all those things are still happening. They're still going in the wrong direction. We are only on the boundaries of having the power to make those kinds of structural changes. That's the first thing, the illusion about California versus the reality of it.

Manuel Pastor, at University of Southern California, says California is the country just 20 years earlier. That's both because of the demographic changes, but it's also because of corporate strategy as it shifts toward electing moderate and corporate Democrats as opposed to just the Republican Party. I think you're going to see that elsewhere. This is coming and you want to be prepared for it, because it will surprise you if you're not.

Something that we have not figured out, and I don't think anybody really has across the country, is this term “governing power.” We have the ability to elect our own – sometimes in small quantities, sometimes in big roles like Karen Bass as the newly elected Mayor of Los Angeles. But I don't think we have figured out what that means in terms of governing power. What's the proper relationship between one of our own that's been elected and those of us still on the outside, in the movement.

They're not really targets any longer, at least they shouldn't be. But nor are we their cheering section, right? What's the proper relationship between those that we got elected and us, given the fact that we're not yet electing a slate that can actually govern.

We didn't elect 15 new city council people to go along with Karen Bass as the Mayor. That would be governing power. If we actually controlled the city council, too... But in absence of that, what's the proper relationship between the two? This is something we're still grappling with. The good news is we're actually in discussions with Mayor Bass about this now.

Peteriya: Are there power analysis and power building lessons you could share from the base building and leadership development and political consciousness development side of the work of CA Calls and your member groups? Is there an example you could share that would be valuable for other folks to hear about?

Smith: We've built a civic engagement infrastructure that's able to scale our reach. We're capable of engaging a million voters every year. We still have work to be done to really translate that scale into real depth. What we're doubling down on now is a rigorous organizing program that's not just scaling and mobilizing voters during elections, but it's coupled with year-round programs, more intensive organizing, and training and leadership development. There has been development of a cadre of organizers across the state that share lessons and the infrastructure and the systems: everything from data to tracking and evaluation so that we are really increasing numbers of folks to take action, both locally and statewide. The other thing we've done and built is a powerful leadership pipeline. Many of the folks who are running the civic engagement work at our anchor organizations started out as volunteers. They became a paid canvasser, then they were the team lead, and then eventually they get hired and move up as full-time staff within the organization. Powerful pipeline. We need to build a broader pipeline to be able to fight on multiple fronts and consistently mobilize grassroots leaders and volunteers to build that base.

Thigpenn: Marqueece Harris Dawson [current LA City Council member and formerly Executive Director of Community Coalition – one of CA Calls anchor groups in LA] said a couple of weeks ago, “Anthony, I don't recognize anybody at California Calls anymore.” I said, that's a good thing because we're in our fifth or sixth generation. We’ve now built multiple generations of leadership and staff. 


Pateriya: What else would you add, Anthony, about lessons from the effort toward building the “politically conscious base” – as I remember us calling it when I was an organizer at AGENDA/SCOPE?

Thigpenn: Our North Star is a formal identifiable voting base. Let's say we can engage the million voters, we can turn out folks and make a difference in an election. Those people don't call themselves California Calls members or members of any other one thing. That formal base is still elusive. It's one of the experiments with the California Working Families Party. Could that potentially be a vehicle to create a formal base?

The other thing I would say is there’s a real danger. A lot of our anchors and California Calls, they've gotten big. They've got big budgets and a lot of staff. I think the leadership development and base-building has atrophied to some extent. We have access to decision-makers now, right? That’s part of the danger of lobbying and legislation; we get so caught up in the mechanics of Sacramento or City Hall. So the real danger is that we are now becoming advocates. Our ability to build leaders and to improve multiple dimensions of power, which includes protest and direct action as well as elections and lobbying – I'm very concerned that part of our theory of change has atrophied as we become big.

Now there's even some of the new left that's critiquing us. They call us the “middle forces” now because we're big nonprofits with big staff. And we've lost the edge to some extent. I worry about that.

Smith: He's schooling us on how we've lost edge. We're doing “Operation Swords Sharpening.”

Pateriya: There's a danger in the election context as well, where we just become good at running the massive program in the last six or eight weeks and talking to a whole bunch of people and then nothing or very little gets built. With so much of the left, progressive, and liberal forces across the country we can do a big voter operation. People have had success on scaled turnout and, in some cases, affecting outcomes.

But there's just this upside-down notion that is so deeply embedded which is, okay, we're going to run a very big voter operation. We're going to touch a lot of people and then we'll go organize them into a base after the election because, oh look, we made contact with all these people.

What I learned when I was there with you at AGENDA/SCOPE, and what you all have been doing through California Calls, is the other way around, right? To use the terminology of our friend Jane McAlevey, the election should be a “structure test” about whether you have built a big leadership and base and can you wield that power in the electoral arena?

Thigpenn: That's absolutely right. The election should be the manifestation of our base building and power. But of course, the funding parameters and streams, the power players, they emphasize the opposite, right? It's all about the final 6-8 weeks of election time. So it is swimming upstream to try to combat that.

Pateriya: That's right. The funding. And we have unwittingly taught staff and leaders that the big election program is the thing that they need to learn how to do and get good at. Not, as you're saying, the stuff that's atrophying about organizing.

Any final learning about power that you’d like to share?

Thigpenn: This is in the theme of challenges and what is left to be learned from each other… We still need to get beyond the people who are already “woke,” right? We do get beyond that during elections, in the sense that we talk to lots of different people. But who is our base? Who are our leaders? It's still a pretty small woke crowd, right?

So the interest in narrative and all those kinds of things is really thinking about: how do we move whole social sectors? This has to do with political education and pedagogy and we're still figuring that out.



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