Los Angeles City Council candidate Nithya Raman ran an underdog campaign against the incumbent David Ryu — and surprised the establishment when she won enough of the vote in the March primaries to force Ryu into a runoff election this November. Raman has the support of a number of progressive celebrities, including Jane Fonda and Natalie Portman, but her campaign is powered by hundreds of volunteers and a coalition of community groups like Ground Game LA and the Democratic Socialists of America. The Forge sat down with Raman and her co-campaign manager, Meghan Choi, to talk about their vision for a community-based city government, the challenges of running a field operation during COVID, and how they’re using the tactics of community organizing to build more “resilient neighborhoods” for the long term. 

Tell me about yourselves and what led you to this work.

MC: I'm a community organizer with Ground Game Los Angeles. Ground Game LA started out of a City Council campaign for District 13, running against the current councilperson Mitch O'Farrell, and we had a complete grassroots movement. A lot of folks were inspired by Bernie and his directive was to get local, so the whole campaign team had done amazing volunteer recruitment and collected all these young, very newly activated folks. [We] decided to roll over into a community organization and continue doing community organizing and electoral organizing. We were fortunate to be connected with groups like Food and Water Watch and POWER Los Angeles, and they helped us get to a place where we could do multi-issue work in the city. But we've always had an investment in the electoral politics of the city. I got to know Nithya through her work at SELAH.

NR: I am an urban planner by training, Most of my career has been working on urban poverty issues. I spent a number of years in India working with people who lived in slums and informal settlements who were fighting for things like running water, toilets and land rights, and [I] started an organization that supported their existing advocacy efforts. In Los Angeles, I've done a lot of work on homelessness, which was the issue that propelled me to think about running. But before I decided to run for this seat, I was actually the executive director of Time's Up Entertainment Affiliates. Time's Up was the organization that came out of Me Too activism and that started in Hollywood in response to [Harvey] Weinstein but quickly became a global movement for change. I headed — for its first year — the division of that non-profit that was trying to make entertainment industry workplaces safer and more equitable for women of all kinds and free of sexual harassment.

I left that job to run for this seat because of my experiences with homelessness. I worked at City Hall a few years ago and had seen that the city's response to homelessness was one that was primarily focused on policing and enforcement, as opposed to one of service provision. I left that role and, while I was at home with my twins on maternity leave, I started, with my neighbors, a homeless services organization and called SELAH, which is what Meghan referenced earlier. [We] initially did outreach work in our neighborhood to people experiencing homelessness but then quickly transitioned into actually advocating for better services, not just here but across the city. And we created a drop-in center for folks to get access to showers and bathrooms and case management services.

But we were all doing this in our spare time, on nights and weekends, applying for grants for this work, raising money. And we kept running up against the barrier of the city. I, as an Urban Planner, really understood the potential of the City Council in Los Angeles to be a force for change because of its incredible power. Each council district has 250,000 residents. There's 15 council members in Los Angeles — for such a big city, [which is] very different from other cities. We have a strong Council, weak Mayor system. So each particular council member has a significant amount of control over what happens, not just in their district, but in the city as a whole. And what we saw over and over again, when we looked at the city was a city that looked away from their responsibilities to protect the vulnerable, to help people get out of homelessness. And not just on homelessness, it was on every issue. Homelessness is one aspect of a broader housing crisis, which has broken Los Angeles, I mean, it has broken it. And they didn't act there, they didn't act on transforming our city's climate responses, despite, again, having huge levers of power that they control. And so, over and over again, we saw a city that looked away from its powers and was really at odds with the very progressive and expansive visions of its residents. 

A coalition of groups is pushing for a People’s Budget that moves money out of policing and into services that people really need. Can you talk about how you'd like to see the budgeting process in the city change?

NR: So the people's budget came out in response to this particular budget proposal from the Mayor of Los Angeles. Obviously, we're in a time where the pandemic has erased a lot of economic activity in the city on which a lot of our revenue is dependent. Because of Prop 13, limiting our property taxes in California, a lot of municipal revenue here is dependent on economic activity. We knew that we were looking at far less revenue than what we were expecting to have last year. [But] when the budget proposal came out, it was a real shock. The budget proposed furloughs for every department in the city except for police. All of these departments saw significant cuts, except for the LAPD, which saw some furloughs for its civilian employees, but actually saw increases in overtime in the budget. It saw increases in salaries that had already been put in through a new agreement from last year, but those increases were allowed to be continued. And bonuses — $41 million in bonuses — were allowed to continue.

So despite the fact that we were looking at a city that had seen absolute cratering in revenues, the budget that came out only increased budgetary allocations for the LAPD. They did it at a time when the need for every other department is staggering, absolutely staggering. So Black Lives Matter L.A. and a coalition of organizations, including Ground Game, came out with a document called the People's Budget, which challenged this allocation of funding. 

MC: Just to add, from an organizing perspective, [there] has been a huge growth in the campaign to do civic education around the financial priorities of the city. For a really long time, BLM-LA and allies have been digging into the city budgets and trying to uncover this, but there's a moment right now where it's really starting to connect that there's a deep, deep relationship between what's done with the city budget and the priorities that are being exercised by current leadership and what the priorities of actual residents are. [The coalition has been] able to pull those figures in a very strategic way to make a comparison between, this is how much we allocate for things that we consider to be basic city needs and this is what we allocate for policing. This is the only area of the budget where we as residents are supposed to have some kind of say in what happens. We elected these officials and these officials are making decisions around that spending. And this is what has happened because of that.

Connecting those dots has been really effective, and we're seeing [that] people are really responsive to realizing how much the daily lived experience of Angelenos is impacted by what's happening behind closed doors at City Hall. [We’ve] seen incredible participation in the City Hall Budget and Finance Committee meetings. All these meetings that happened before in person down at City Hall during work hours, where most folks were unable to go because they had other obligations, are now more accessible in a different way. There's this huge growth in education, and there's a massive uptick in participation, and it's been really great to watch. It’s packed, [the meetings are] so long, the comments are really passionate. It's wonderful.

NR: I think there were hundreds of callers into the Police Commission meeting, into the Budget Committee meetings. It's a big change from what was happening before, and the level of education has really transformed.

MC: The campaign has always had a really strong digital presence, fortunately, so now in this moment, we're actually well positioned to communicate about issues surrounding this moment. There've just been like crisis after crisis after crisis, as we all know. So we've definitely done a lot of messaging through Twitter threads and Mailchimps, and we have a pretty big reach for a City Council campaign. And I think that too is a really good indicator of what people want right now.

NR: One of the things that's been interesting is that, often, particularly during the primary — before the pandemic and before these uprisings against police brutality — people would always ask me, how do you push for things that are not easy to push for? How do you push for challenging changes for the city? Because a lot of the policies that we were talking about involved — and involve — some measure of transition or some measure of hardship for residents or some changes from the way that they live their lives now. So, talking about getting people out of their cars into public transit or using other modes of transportation to get around, this was a question that we would get all the time. And I think the thing that our campaign did was to use digital platforms and face-to-face interactions (when we were able to have them) as places where we could talk in detail about policy and places where we could talk in detail about trade-offs, about the goals that we wanted to have for the city and what it would really take for us to get there. And we've continued to do that through the pandemic. While I think social media can be a challenging space, we've used it as a place to have very in-depth policy conversations. I think that's been a very rewarding aspect of our campaign’s communications.

How have your campaign strategies changed over the course of the spring?

MC: We're very much a volunteer-powered campaign. Definitely, in the primary, we were a field operation. We've put a ton of our energy, if not most of it, into door-knocking and canvassing, into those deep conversations at the door with residents. [The general election campaign] is a little different [because] that was our bread and butter, but we're looking into more digital organizing, strategies around how to do neighborhood organizing with social distancing, and how we can get folks to reach out to their neighbors. So what we have been doing is onboarding volunteers into our team and we have several different types of things that they can do: phone bank, text bank, things of that nature. But also we're hoping to create these networks of organizing that exist within neighborhoods, basically taking a lot of the ideas of community organizing and then just implanting them into this electoral net. And that way we're also building resilience in that community, and those folks are engaged in the needs of their neighbors for the long term. So, there's just an investment there and folks are getting to know each other, which is really nice, because for many people, L.A. can be a hard city to be in socially. Creating resilient neighborhoods is a really good way of going about achieving the goals of electoral organizing and neighborhood power.

How are you doing that? Especially with people mostly being in their homes right now.

MC: We have folks who have begun the process of digging into their neighborhoods and finding the services that are already available. So part of that is a research resource collection and then that information is going to be distributed out. So we'll be encouraging people to phone bank [their own neighborhood] and inform their neighbors, get connected, get to know folks and build those relationships that way. 

NR: [We’re] also thinking about using our phone banking and text banking efforts, as well as this neighborhood resource collection, as ways to inform one another. Currently, a lot of people feel a little bit trapped in their homes, unless they're going out and protesting, and [then] they may feel less so. But many people across the city still feel very much confined to their homes or confined to very limited areas. 

But there is [also] a real hunger to be involved locally and to contribute to your community. We envision these neighborhood resources as ways for people not just to receive resources that they need, but also to be able to give back within their own neighborhood. So, if a food bank is running in your area, we will, by calling them and understanding their needs, be able to funnel volunteers there. If there's a jobs program that's being run out of a particular center, or if a religious institution is reaching out to their older residents, but needs more volunteers to be able to provide services, we might be able to funnel people there. We've already been doing that connecting work, and we are going to be doing much more of it as we start doing a lot more outreach. 

It was never just about this race, it was always about creating a culture of civic engagement at the local level that would ultimately hold whoever is in office accountable for creating a better city. And I think that has become all the more important now, but parallel to that, I think [it] has also become clear to so many of us that we all need to do it together, it cannot just be the government's job. We also need to come together at these moments and support one another, help one another and fight with one another for the changes that we need to see. So I think it is very much in keeping with the reasons why we moved into that electoral space. We hope that, again, no matter what happens in November, that our campaign and the way it works will support long-term change in the city.

How has volunteer engagement been during COVID? Have you been able to continue to grow your volunteer base? 

NR: Yes, we've actually never had an issue with volunteers. We've been very fortunate to have the largest volunteer base of any local campaign that we know about in the primary. We had over 600 unique volunteers come and knock on doors for us over the course of the [primary] campaign. And already we've had hundreds of new volunteers reaching out to us who want to be active — first spurred by the pandemic and now spurred by all of the activism that's happening right now to beg for more just America. We haven't had to fight for volunteers. It's almost like we're providing people who are newly activated a way to plug into their city. That's really what our role has become.

MC: The foundation that we started on was really helpful for building this [field operation]. This is an activist- and organizer-powered campaign. I think about 80% of our staff in the general [election campaign] are actively involved with community organizing in some issue area or another. [When we created] our policy platform, we made a very concerted effort to broaden the network of grassroots groups that we're connected to and institutional community organizations that we’re connected to. And that really helped in terms of bringing people in. We have very strong ties to groups like Sunrise and DSA and Ground Game, and a bunch of other groups that are very active in the city, so that definitely helped start the ball rolling on volunteers.

How have you been working to maintain a sense of community among your volunteers?

MC: We've been doing a lot of digital organizing, so we have large Zoom calls where we onboard volunteers and they get to see the faces of all of the other people who are involved, which I think is very meaningful. But I will just say that the way that we had to organize in the primary was also challenging. We have a very geographically distributed district, and so it wasn't that all of our volunteers would come to one place. So our organizing was always in that sense hyper-local, and it had to be because of the way in which the district was set up. So yes, it is challenging now to create community. We're trying to do that through a Slack channel, we had a book club, we have other opportunities for people to engage with the ideas and the individuals involved in the campaign that are not just focused on volunteering for the campaign. So we are trying to maintain a sense of community, but I think this is not a new challenge for someone running in a district that’s as oddly shaped as this one.

Given your location, you’ve not only been able to build a community-powered campaign but also to tap into the communications skills of people who work in entertainment.

MC: What we tried to do in the primary was to make municipal politics fun. We wanted to make it matter for people, we wanted to make it vital for people. You can take a lot of different approaches to that, you can tell them about why these policies matter, you can tell them about the power of the council, or you can put a community of people together who are all caring about the same issues, who have a powerful energy and bring individuals into that community. And I think our campaign did both.

Now, we're at a very different moment, I don't think anybody needs to be told at this moment that who is in power in City Council matters for your values, for the city expressing your values, for the city's budget being distributed in ways that match with your vision of how your city should be run. I don't think you need anyone to make that case anymore. I think we were able to use the particularities of our location and the network of people who were involved in our campaign, which involved a lot of folks from the comedy world and from the music world, to support that case in the primary. And I think now we are just in a different moment.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

MC: One of our ideas for being in office is basically having your district offices be a hub of community organizing. And we're based around this principle of movement politics and co-governance. For us, that means the organizers and activists and community groups that we work with come into office with us. There's a huge movement in L.A. right now, that's always been under-resourced, [not] listened to, underfunded ... and it's incredibly important that the people who are closest to the issue not just have a seat at the advocacy table but have a seat in governance as well. That would dramatically change the way in which the city has been handling issues.

It's always been the case where groups have to go lobby or consistently go banging on the doors of power and asking for change. And I think we're at a moment where we just really want to see those efforts put directly into having the real reigns of making direct change in the city.The end goal [of running this campaign is] having community groups sitting at City Council basically. And that's exactly how we've crafted all of our policies. For each of our platforms, we reached out to the groups that are the frontline groups on those issues, invited them in and co-created our platform with them — and that's a relationship that we want to see carried into office.

There's no City Council office that works like that, and you really see it if you go to visit any district offices. They're just terrible. You're separated by a ton of glass, you're in like a dentist waiting room, it's impossible to get a meeting. Nithya has a really good story about SELAH developing a community access center and not being able to get a meeting [with their councilperson] about how to replicate something so successful and a model that was obviously so needed. So I think that there can be a big cultural change in how the movement interacts with elected office and with power.  

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