"I fight for my family and my neighborhood." Tyla Pond, mother of four, answered her door in Franklin, Indiana to an organizer from Hoosier Action. "Would you be willing to take a community health survey?" the organizer asked. Juggling four kids and a chaotic life, Tyla was barely aware that her rental home was less than a mile from the Amphenol site where the multi-billion dollar company had left toxicants that leached into the soil, including TCEs and PCEs.

What Tyla was aware of was that two of her four children had major health problems and she herself was struggling with heart failure and chronic lung issues at 28. As her relationship with her organizer (and the organization) grew, Tyla attended trainings and workshops on how to organize her community.

She brought others along with her and led a community campaign to force the powers that be to clean up Franklin. She chaired a community rally with over 100 people and was at the center of the testimony from impacted residents that finally moved the EPA to create a clean-up plan for the area.

Set in rural Johnson County, Franklin, Indiana is a medium-sized town of 23,000 about 30 miles south of Indianapolis. It is 94 percent white and voted overwhelmingly for Trump (68.6 percent). It is not historically a site of struggle and it’s not a typical place for organizing. Yet, Hoosier Action has chosen to fight there as well as in many of the small towns scattered across the landscape to build a networked organization of chapters that are beginning to craft an agenda for small town and rural Indiana.

Organizational Background

Organizing meetingAs a sixth generation Hoosier, I have witnessed how the last twenty years have been devastating for people in our state. Capitalizing on the pain and anguish of institutional collapse, the financial crisis and deindustrialization, an extreme right wing emerged. This right wing consolidated power into a trifecta super-majority in our state government. Indiana was the canary in the coalmine for the Midwest, forecasting broader trends of dismantling labor power, rural areas flipping to red, and taking hold of state legislatures in places like Wisconsin and Michigan.

This path to power was built by an opportunistic right ready to build statewide power, take control, and run the legislature. They at least they have paid lip service to small town America, where Hoosier Action is based. Meanwhile, the left has left this terrain uncontested and absent from a national vision for a multi-racial democracy.

I started Hoosier Action to create a political vehicle for people in small towns and rural areas to act on their values, build power, get training and articulate a forward-looking, anti-racist vision for Indiana. Since opening our doors in the Spring of 2017 we have: knocked over 30,000 rural doors talking to people across Southern Indiana, trained hundreds of people in the tools of community organizing, held political education trainings on race and class, and built chapters in several small towns and rural counties.

Man speaking at rallyWe have run local campaigns aligning unlikely coalitions from across the political spectrum – from evangelical pastors to Republican candidates, from office holders to Democratic county chairs, and fromsmall business owners to labor partners – we relate to all kinds of people and draw them into our work.

We emphasize traditional community organizing focused on the issues that impact people directly, leadership development, and building grassroots power. We prioritize face-to-face membership development and cultivation, and are in the process of building a more vigorous communications infrastructure both to support face-to-face relationships and to extend the reach of our work.

Our movement needs more durable political infrastructure to withstand the all-but guaranteed chaos of the coming decades. Charismatic leadership and online mobilization are insufficient for the transformation our communities and our country needs. Our aim is to build a statewide institution, built by our people, that transforms our members individually and in turn transforms our state.

A Case for Slow, Disciplined, Un-Instagramable Organizing

Hoosier Action is focused on real, face-to-face, disciplined, traditional organizing. It is slow, concentrated on relationship building, training, political education, and identity creation. No matter how exciting online organizing can be in terms of raw numbers, we know that nothing can surpass relational organizing for lasting impact on culture, voting habits, and real transformation.

At times it feels antiquated. And yet, we have converted many leaders into political actors who were not already civically engaged. Our base includes progressives, Republicans, Democrats, and many people who never thought much about politics.

We began by crafting a set of guidelines that act as anchors for our actions and our shared culture. They arose from a values summit that was held at the beginning of our first year:

  1. Organized people + Organized money = Power
  2. Relationships are the core of organizing.
  3. Great ideas, good intentions, and well-written reports do not change the world; real social change happens through tension, agitation, and building power.
  4. Our job is to move people from scarcity to abundance, from isolation to community, and from despair into action.
  5. Advancing our vision of abundance is a direct confrontation with the forces of racism and hatred and a path forward to a society based on equality and justice.
  6. We determine what’s possible, no one else.
  7. We are disciplined: We do what we say we’ll do when we say we’ll do it, we show up on time, we hold honest and direct conversations, we don’t make excuses, and we don’t reward victimhood.
  8. Organizers don’t help others; we invite others to join us in taking action around our collective self-interest.
  9. We are afraid and angry, and the people on the other side of doors across the state are afraid and angry too. We invite them into a different vision for their lives and the state.
  10. A well-functioning organization is necessary to contest for power.

Rally

These axioms guide our work as we doorknock, phone bank, conduct member meetings, and talk to people across the region. Our organizers and leaders meet weekly for coaching and to practice the core mechanics of organizing (one-to-ones, propositions, agitations, etc). We regularly “GTTP,” which means, “Go Talk To People,” whether that’s catching people walking out of a WalMart parking lot or on the doors.

I recognize that in these times of chaos and crisis this slow deliberate work can feel ineffective or unsatisfying – not reaching the scale required for the moment. And while it’s not all this moment calls for, the slow deliberate work focused on political conversion must be a part of our long-term strategy and it has been ignored at our peril. Hoosier Action is still growing and learning what it means to build real long-lasting political power in a small town Indiana.

There have been many stumbles along the way, but there are two truths that remain constant – there are amazing leaders in every corner of this country and relational organizing works.

Experiments and Lessons Learned

Woman speaking at rallyWhile there has been incredible rural and small town organizing in the last 50 years, it’s still an underdeveloped field. There are significant challenges – geographic distances, insider/outsider orientations, communications infrastructure (30 percent of Hoosiers do not have internet in their home) just to name a few. These challenges require regular experiments to figure out what will knit people and chapters together to exercise real power in a rural landscape.

Hoosier Action used the midterm elections to grow in our capacity to run a large volunteer-led organizing program that built our own understanding of what is possible. Beginning in June, we developed 40 captains who built teams of 10. We held trainings every Saturday in June that all participants attended. The Saturday training included popular education components where people worked through how the consolidation of wealth and resources in our state has pitted us against one another.

We also trained on power, the electorate in Indiana, and how we can build capacity through elections. After those trainings, teams developed our Care Agenda centering healthcare, mental health, and access to addiction treatment. From July to November a volunteer army worked week to week to center this agenda in the Midterms – members led mass texting parties contacting over 250,000 fellow Hoosiers, phone banks, doorknocks, house parties, held seven town halls, and conducted multiple direct actions.

The counties that we focused the most effort in saw significant increase in voter turnout. In the Fall of 2018 our membership endorsed the Democratic candidate for Indiana’s 9th Congressional District.

We learned a set of hard lessons doing this ambitious program:

  • To build the organization we want, we aimed our power at the wrong targets. With our limited resources in a tough race the typical political wisdom was to aim our boots on the ground at likely Democratic voters. Due to gerrymandering and the conservative landscape we are in, there just aren’t enough Democratic voters in a district to spend all of our energy there. Additionally our compass should remain on catalyzing new political actors – unregistered voters or reaching out to Independents and moderate Republicans.
  • It doesn’t matter what we say about healthcare if we don’t talk about race. Three weeks before the election the Indiana Senate campaign was fixated on immigration. Democrat Joe Donnelly put out an advertisement touting support for the Border Wall. Fox News beat a drum beat of anti-immigrant fervor into many of the homes across our region. Nearly every message was about immigrants taking from the social safety net. We had worked with our own members on race, but had not crafted public messages for broader distribution. It is clear that politicians in Indiana are often elected by ginning up fear, scapegoating, and racial animus and the only way to take that on is to speak directly into it.
  • The Democratic brand is really in the toilet, but really people don’t trust either party and they hate corporations.
  • Women’s leadership is and will continue to be the center of our gravity. Nearly every team captain was a woman. Collectively, they were our engine. In the Fall of 2018 during the height of the Kavanaugh hearings, we held a Women’s Summit that articulated a set of values and ways to handle the complexities of gender that come up when building power.
  • There is a vacuum on local issues and we should understand them and step in. We saw real voter conversion where we have been fighting on the toxic contamination like what Tayla and her family faced. Toxic contamination provoked people to have real demands and to insist on real answers. There isn’t Fox News at the county level. We can dig in and really fight with people on this terrain.
  • Don’t staff up – trust your leaders. We built this program with one and a half paid staff persons. If our organization is going to be owned by its membership it needs to be built by our membership. Each year we spend hundreds of hours training our membership base. Next time we would commit even more time to training our membership base.

Following the election we knew we had to continue to develop and grow our own base, get smarter and better at moving white rural people on race, and expand our networks of relationships throughout the region. We began 2019 by having members conduct nearly 100 research visits with community leaders across Southern Indiana – from County Council members, to mayors, to public health leaders, to food bank managers, to pastors.

In the past eight months we have been building out campaigns to get toxic contamination cleaned up in two towns, building a multi-racial labor/faith/urban/rural alignment to defeat the Medicaid work requirements, and beginning to build a cohort of mothers across Indiana who are working on an agenda for our state. In the last three weeks we have hosted four town halls in rural counties on our health agenda welcoming in Republican legislators and building alliances on our agenda.

In much of our terrain there is no comparable infrastructure – the only organization hosting events for local legislators is the Chamber of Commerce. Our electoral work built a base of leaders clear about power and committed to the organization. It also taught us that if we start early enough and build our program grounded in real relationships we can reach new scale for the organization.

Moving Forward

Woman giving a press interviewTime will pass before policies that can transform are passed in Indiana. Divisive, racist, fear-mongering tactics have entrenched a regime of durable corporate power, but we have found that relating to people face-to-face and committing to winning actual local change can move people.

If we are going to rebuild this country we must contest in all areas. Ignoring small town, rural terrain will be at the peril of our entire country. Without power across every corner of a state, and in every state, places like Alabama will pass extreme legislation and states like Indiana will deliver Mike Pence up to the national electorate.

Our political imagination needs to grow to include the nearly quarter of America that lives in rural and small towns.

We have seen the devastating consequences of not building a multi-racial vision for the entire country. This is our terrain to fight for and win. If Indiana was the canary in the coal mine for much of the Midwest, let it also be a phoenix that rises from the ashes creating a new reality of abundance and inclusion for all.

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bkettenring_191Great piece, Kate!
October 1, 2019 - 15:30