Phara Souffrant Forrest is a maternal health nurse and tenants’ organizer who decided to run for New York State Assembly in Central Brooklyn’s District 57 after taking part in a civil disobedience while organizing her tenant association against a luxury condo conversion. Outraged by the violence of the police during the civil disobedience, and the failure of the politicians in Albany to stand with the protestors, Souffrant decided to run for office. She quickly got involved with the Brooklyn DSA to run a people-powered campaign centered on tackling the range of issues creating severe inequalities in the state. 

Her campaign manager, Tascha Van Auken, has been working on campaigns since Obama’s 2008 race. A member of Brooklyn DSA’s electoral working group, Van Auken also served as the campaign manager for Julia Salazer’s successful 2018 New York State Senate race. Souffrant and Van Auken each sat down to talk with The Forge about how their campaign strategies have shifted over the course of a tumultuous spring, what they hope to achieve through electoral politics, and why they see investing in a robust field operation as critical to building the long-term strength of the movement. 

Below is our interview with Van Auken, which has been edited and condensed. Click here to read our interview with Souffrant. 

 

When Bernie ran in 2015, I decided that I wanted to get much more involved in politics again. I read This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein and, for whatever reason, that had a big effect on me. I met this person at a Bernie meeting. It wasn't organized by the campaign, and he and I lived close to each other so we decided to have a Brooklyn for Bernie meeting. It was June of 2015 and 100 people showed up. And I just remember thinking, "This is crazy. It's more than a year before the election….” It very quickly felt like Obama in Pennsylvania in 2008 two months before the election, which was really weird to me. But I was like, "People are really, really dying to work on something and get plugged into something."

And that turned into a bigger grassroots group called Team Bernie NY, and what we did was set up a citywide infrastructure so that when people popped up on Bernie's map to help a phone bank or a tabling or do voter registration, we would go and meet them and then pull them into the network and teach them how to collect data from the people they were talking to so we could reach out to those people closer to the election and have regular meetings. And it was great.

That captured what I was interested in in politics, organiz[ing] the grassroots in a way that typically is done more professionally on campaigns. The Obama campaign was a perfect example. It was so well-run, and set a really, really high organizing bar for me. But all of that power went away and was killed by the Democratic Party. So, without really knowing it, I was always interested in how to create that in a grassroots setting that gave power to people doing the work rather than a couple of people running a campaign or running an organization. And then Bernie ended and I joined DSA right afterwards, and the first meeting I went to was the newly formed electoral working group. And that's basically what brought me here.

 

You were Julia Salazar’s campaign manager. What lessons did you learn from that campaign or any of the other campaigns you’ve worked on through DSA over the past few years?

We had two races in 2017, and we lost them both, but those were actually really instrumental in helping us develop the electoral strategy that we used on Julia's campaign. I think what those campaigns did that was really important for Julia's was set the stage in DSA for her campaign culturally in how we work as an organization for candidates. I think that there are a lot of preconceived notions that people have about elections and how you're supposed to work on an election, whether you're staff or volunteer or parallel to it in some way. And a lot of those have to do with ideas around power and who's more senior and all this crap that I personally don't like and is a big reason why a lot of people don't like to be around political campaigns. 

I don't think we reinvented the wheel or anything. I think other organizations have done very similar things. But, for ourselves, it let us reimagine what working on a campaign is like and create a very non-competitive and friendly culture where we're training each other to learn how to do these things better. If you are a volunteer one day, you're going to be asked to lead a canvas. And then once you lead a canvas, you're going to be asked to identify other people to lead a canvas and to train them. And your success is viewed as, how many people can you train and elevate around you, rather than how important you, individually, are.

I was extremely lucky that we walked into [Julia’s] race with an incredibly robust and skilled field team who knew what to do and could lay the groundwork for this very collaborative non-toxic environment where people, DSA or non-DSA, were coming into the office and coming into our trainings and really quickly becoming part of this larger organization. And thereby solving the, "How do I get involved?" question. The idea is, we want to make it as easy as possible for people to not just participate but feel very valued and like they're doing really important work, that they're not being taken for granted and they get to learn skills that are directly impacting the success of the campaign.

 

How much is your field organization skilling up existing DSA members so that you have an operation that's able to move from campaign to campaign — and be able to deliver campaigns —  and how much have you been able to bring new people into the DSA or into the campaign?

I think we've seen both. I know in Julia's campaign, we had quite a few people who were not members of DSA who got very involved and very shortly after ran for leadership roles in electoral and other working groups within DSA. So I think we definitely saw that. And, by the end of Julia's campaign, I think about a little more than half of the volunteers were not DSA members, which is good. To me, that's the goal. I think you want to attract everybody and bring everybody into this big tent. 

And there's a lot of very thoughtful conversation ... around how to pull those people into other projects. Especially because a lot of these things are just so interlocked, our candidates are just so interlocked with the housing movement and the New York Health Act. So I think there's this really natural connection between those things. After 2018, we saw a lot of that energy around Amazon, the organizing that happened around Amazon in Queens, which was really great and exciting. I think a lot of people realized, "Oh these are skills that are transferable to other campaigns and other purposes."

 

How have you been thinking about your strategy and tactics over the course of a really eventful few months?

It's not been boring. I think the biggest question, or the biggest challenge, is just not feeling connected to people, [which] makes it really hard to do organizing of any kind. And, it's not fun. All the camaraderie that exists on campaigns, that balances out the hours and exhaustion, isn't there. I'm sure everyone has tried to recreate some of that via Zoom calls. It's just not the same. So I think that that is definitely the hardest piece, and it is very interesting to me how essential it is for everything else to work. Obviously, we all moved very quickly into phone banking. I've never actually paid any attention to phone banking on any campaign I've ever worked on. On Julia's campaign, I think we had a dialer, I think we made a couple thousand calls, but almost nothing. It just wasn't what I was thinking of. And so this was a real learning experience transitioning to phones.

It was really hard at the beginning to keep people on our calls, on our phone banking. They would join a Zoom and start making calls and then just leave because it's really easy to. We're all depressed. You don't feel like you're accountable or connected to anybody. And we were having a lot of people who would sign up and not show up. Which is normal to a degree, of course, but was way off the charts. And what we realized was when we have a specific group, like one of the New York working groups or a branch, organize a phone bank for us, that our turnout was way better and people stayed on a call and it was very connected to the relationships people had with each other. And so we started to organize phone banks that were group based. And now we have a ton of groups and people know each other more on the phone banks and there's much more of a sense of connection and camaraderie over Zoom.

One of the things I love doing is developing other people and pushing them into leadership positions and being like, "You can do this. Here's how you do it." And watching people take on these huge projects and develop really quickly in a very short period of time. It's a lot harder to do that [now]. Just developing a relationship with people to the point where they want to give that much, that is a whole piece that's a lot harder when you're not in the same space as people. And we've done it, and we have a really amazing team, some of [whom] I've barely met in person. But it took a lot longer.

 

So you've been able to build new relationships with volunteers remotely?

Yeah. It's hard. And it took a lot of time. A lot of time. And I think that was the hardest piece for me, was just feeling, as recent as three or four weeks ago, "I don't have the support network that I am used to on these campaigns and being in DSA." And a lot of that is just psychological and feeling disconnected from people. But I think the other piece, it's just harder to coordinate and to let people know what you need.

 

And a lot of folks are in crisis right now.

Yeah. A couple of our really involved volunteers who are helping me with all the volunteer management and just doing an amazing job, they just lost their jobs. They're navigating the unemployment system, and so they're definitely dealing with all of that. So I think that's very right. I think there was a period of a month when everything first started where people were in shock.

 

Have you also found that some people have been more engaged, even though it's harder? The stakes of politics feel really clear amidst the uprisings against police brutality. 

We've seen, in the last week [since George Floyd’s death], an enormous uptick in volunteers and people wanting to phone bank. It's hard to separate that entirely from the timeline. Some of it's normal, getting close to the election, but I think there are a lot of people that probably want to protest [in the streets] but maybe can't for whatever reason and are happy to have this other outlet that's so directly connected to it.

 

Is there anything else you want to add? Any innovative strategies you’ve used that you think other campaigns might benefit from?

I think one thing that's been really interesting is a lot of Bernie staffers have been very actively reaching out and helping fill in the blanks. For example, yesterday I was talking with the national texting director about text persuasion and phone persuasion, which are not things that I knew how to do three months ago. Now [I’m] getting these crash courses on it but also realizing there's this much larger network of people who have this experience and want to be really helpful. And I don't think I felt that way after 2016. For whatever reason, this time around it's very different. And so we've had a lot of amazing advice and support from former Bernie staffers. I keep joking that I've been forced to focus on all the things I don't like about campaigns: phone banking and direct mail. But I think I'm trying to look at it as, this is good for future campaigns because we're all learning how to do these things that are supplemental to the thing we knew how to do well. And so now we're going to have these incredibly robust operations.

 

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