DC for Democracy was founded in 2004 to support Howard Dean’s campaign to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. As we all know, Dean did not succeed in his bid, but this grassroots group has grown and transformed into one of the District’s leading progressive organizations, with many wins along the way. Since 2004, DC for Democracy has led or supported over 100 campaigns, including community, electoral, and legislative efforts. Through monthly meetings, the group engages in robust political education and works to recruit, train, and mobilize members and volunteers to bring change to their community. The Forge spoke with Jeremiah Lowery — the organization’s Chair and a former candidate for an at-large seat on the DC Council — about how DC for Democracy is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, keeping pressure on policymakers, and engaging voters in the buildup to November. This interview has been edited and condensed. 


Tell us a little bit about yourself, what brought you into activism, and what sustains you as you do this work.

My family didn't have a lot of money, so we always had to figure out ways to survive: Dad and Mom taking different odd jobs and different ways to balance money and find food in the city. So from the onset, that was like organizing for survival. That's one of the reasons why I always say working people are the best organizers that you'll find because they've always been organizing: finding childcare, finding food in the city. They're always thinking about these things to ensure their family’s survival. So, I would say that was my first experience with organizing. My first [professional] organizing opportunity was with a teacher's union, the American Federation of Teachers. 


Do you remember the first time you took political action? 

I was in high school when 9/11 happened. It was devastating, but then we had a president who was taking us into war, and it was really confusing. And we were going to war with a country that wasn't found liable for 9/11. That was the first time I took action, with the massive amount of people who opposed the Iraq War. That was my first jump into political action, really: opposing George W. Bush.


Tell us about DC for Democracy.

DC for Democracy has been around since 2004. It started out with a group of volunteers who wanted to organize for Howard Dean. Dean did not win the nomination, but the organizers from that campaign were looking to do something else. Out of that, they formed DC for Democracy, which is a part of Democracy for America. It’s an all-grassroots, all-volunteer, progressive leftist organization. One of the top issues that we fight for is statehood. That's one of the top issues, but DC for Democracy has troublemakers, that is, volunteers who are involved in things like ensuring we have a progressive budget, ensuring that we push and hold Councilmembers accountable for campaign finance reform violations, ethical violations, ensuring that we have a stable democracy, local democracy here, and a District that will only elect candidates who reflect the voices of the residents in the District. They do that by not just holding Councilmembers accountable; they also help elect candidates. We support grassroots, progressive candidates to the DC Council. 

To sum it up, we're an organization of amazing troublemakers. Good trouble, necessary trouble. We're always looking at ways to ensure that we have an equitable democratic system here in DC.


You talked about how DC for Democracy not only works to elect progressive candidates, but also works to pass progressive legislation and hold folks accountable once they're in office. What does that look like in practice? How do folks show up in support of campaigns? And what does it look like to hold someone accountable?

We endorse candidates. We review their records, we review their statements, and then our members vote. If we endorse a candidate, we show up in many different ways. We usually try to have someone from DC for Democracy on the candidate's core team so we can keep our members informed about ways to get involved, from phone banking to canvassing. We hold meet and greets for candidates where we encourage our members to donate. 


And when someone's in office, whether or not you endorse them, tell us about how you work to hold them accountable.

We do that in a number of ways: we inform our members to email the Councilmember, call the Councilmember. We encourage our members to show up to protests at the Wilson building to lobby Councilmembers or protest in front of the Wilson building to annoy Councilmembers. We hit the doors, like we did with this last cycle with Councilmember Brandon Todd and former Councilmember Jack Evans. We knocked doors. We informed their residents that, "Hey, they've been doing these unethical things. Do you want to sign up to hold them accountable?" Or, "Do you want to sign up to push Chairman Mendelson to introduce a resolution to remove them from the Council?" That's the top tier level of accountability, knocking doors and saying, "Hey, this person needs to be removed."

We talk to the media. We have good relationships with the local media, so we're always ensuring that bad votes are covered. We're always ensuring that unethical behavior is covered. 


The centerpiece of DC for Democracy is really the political education, like the monthly meetings. There's always a topic, sometimes around an active campaign, sometimes about an issue. What role does political education play in the organization, and how do you use it to motivate folks to take action?

DC for Democracy holds monthly meetings where we educate our members on different political topics. Just this past month, we had leaders from the Black Lives Matter movement, Black Lives Matter DC, Stop Police Terror Project speak to our membership. One thing that DC for Democracy does pretty well is ensuring that the organizers who are on the ground fighting and pushing, whether they're organizing for immigrants' rights, whether they're organizing for childcare, whether they're organizing for police accountability — we give them an opportunity to get volunteers. So, we encourage our members to donate, to sign up to go to that protest, to sign up to send an email to Councilmembers in support of childcare, send an email to the Councilmembers in support of holding police accountable. That political education is key, because there's a lot of noise out there. 


Nationally, the fight for DC statehood has gained momentum in recent years. Congress held their first hearing in a couple decades. And elected officials across the country, some who had previously remained silent on the issue, are embracing it. It really feels like there's been a sea change. Why do you think that is, and what type of organizing do you think made that possible?

It's a huge effort. I have big beefs with the Mayor and I have big beefs with some Councilmembers, but, at the end of the day, it's like we're one big family when it comes to pushing for statehood. I would say statehood is DC for Democracy's number one policy [priority]. Since before that vote took place, there's been hundreds of workshops, hundreds of protests, from large ones to small ones, plenty of petition writing, op-eds around the country. There was an organization that bird-dogged all the presidential candidates and got them on camera, asking, "Do you support statehood?" while filming it live.

There's been tons of lobby days on a yearly basis. There have been different PACs started to donate to candidates who support statehood. There's been campaigns to ensure that statehood is included in questionnaires. I used to be on the board of the DC Sierra Club; I went to the national convention to get the national Sierra Club to endorse it. And there's been other environmental groups that have endorsed statehood and labor groups that have endorsed statehood.

It's been a monumental level of grassroots organizing from all different levels, from all different organizations. And it's ongoing, and I think that's going to be the key reason why we eventually get statehood. And that's one of the stories we must tell, is that the grassroots, on the ground organizing for decades, from long-time Washingtonians, from residents who've been in the city for a long time, from people who just generally care about statehood who have been fighting for it forever... and the moment that is signed into law by the President of the United States, we should not forget it took a wild grassroots effort, a huge grassroots effort to make that happen.


How do you get someone in an organization in Montana or Connecticut or Arizona to start caring about this? What kind of work did it take to get folks across the country to care?

This moment right here, with Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America. And look  at the Kavanaugh vote. It was 50/48 with Vice President  Mike Pence standing by as a tiebreaker. So, people around the country who care about democracy or care about progressive policy are waking up to realize that, in some cases, things are so split that a lot of these bills that are passing and judges that are getting appointed, they're just sneaking in. I think that's one of the main reasons why folks from other states are getting involved, because it'll be transformative on a national level. It'll change the game.


How has your work changed since COVID arrived on the scene?

The coronavirus definitely changed the landscape, but the organizing has continued. We still hold monthly meetings over Zoom. Our members still phonebank for our candidates. We've done a lot of distributed organizing through social media to get people involved, to tweet at Councilmembers to hold them accountable. We held policy conversations through Zoom. During the primary, we showed up to the polls, but we did it in a safe, CDC-recommended way where we were six feet away, and we waved signs for Janeese [Lewis George]. We've been finding different ways to do more distributed organizing online, finding ways to support candidates, finding ways to contact our Councilmembers through email and through social media, and still showing up outside in a safe manner when we can. We can't do the traditional door-knocking anymore, but we still can raise hell. We still can inform the public through different means.


Even though we're in the middle of a pandemic, it seems like we're really in a moment. I don't know if I've ever seen the types of protests and mobilizations that we've seen in recent weeks in the District. What lessons do you think activists and organizers can draw from this, and why do you think it's happening now?

I think it's happening now because we're living in one of the most important moments of our generation, and of our lifetimes. Our generation has gone through a recession, it's gone through perpetual war, but this is something new. We’re going through a pandemic, but at the same time, we're going to eventually go through a deep recession. And we're going to go through an eviction crisis.

People are angry. DC has a nearly 17 billion  dollar budget, and DC is progressive, a place where you have residents who want to look after their neighbors. [But] we have a Council that's not thinking in transformative ways. Right now, it's really difficult to contact your Councilmembers, to lobby your Councilmembers, so the best way to mobilize is to be right in front of their homes. Organizers are ensuring that we put people in front of those houses around the clock, night and day, so the Council doesn't sleep until they do something about it because they can. This moment has shown us we have to be innovative as we seek transformative change during one of the most important moments of our generation.


What do things begin to look like as we make our way through the pandemic? I think for some folks, there's a desire to just go back to “normal.” But, as we know, normal's what got us to this point. We need to bravely and creatively imagine how we reconstruct after this. Do you have any thoughts in terms of what a radical reimagining could look like?

One of them is rent control. We have a rent control campaign and coalition that's been building in DC. The Chairman [of the Council] said on the Kojo Show on NPR after he reauthorized the status quo rent control for another 10 years, "Well, that gives us plenty of time to have a discussion." Are we going to have a discussion for the next 10 years when we're facing an eviction crisis over the next two months? So rent control is huge. We need to ensure that we utilize our tax dollars to build sustainable public housing and social housing that people can live in long-term. And maybe remove the profit motive  from housing.

We're going to face a childcare crisis as well, and so we need to find a way to transition to universal childcare. That's going to be key, especially when we get a vaccine and people start going back to work, we need to ensure that parents are able to send their kids to childcare. 

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the environment. I know we're dealing with a pandemic right now, and there's this sketched cartoon that I saw online where the United States was boxing the coronavirus inside a ring. And waiting outside the ring was a huge boxer with shorts labeled “climate change”, waiting to box the Earth next. So, it was trying to say that, "Yeah, once we beat the coronavirus, what's next to come into the ring is climate change." So I think on a local level, we've got to start thinking about things like a public utility system, so we could actually have a stable, environmentally friendly way to generate energy that's also affordable and that's not profitable for a few select companies. We need to transform our transportation systems as well, to make our cities more bus friendly, more train friendly. 

We need to rethink the way we're policing. DC's one of the most policed cities in America. We need to have universal mental healthcare, because we have to start thinking about violence through a public health approach. And that starts with having a universal mental healthcare system, where everyone has access to mental healthcare. 


Is there anything else that you'd like to add? Any parting lessons for other activists and organizers?

We're living in uncertain times. Going into 2020, none of us knew we'd be in this moment. There are so many different things that could deflate us right now, but my advice to organizers is, never stop thinking about our potential. We see it in the streets. We've seen millions of people take to the streets for Black lives. So despite the chaos, despite everything, there's still so much potential in our movements. I think we should never lose sight of that. We should never lose sight of that hope. Find innovative ways to organize people and make our voices heard because, again, despite it all, I think there's still so much opportunity.




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