What does it mean when activists are the ones in office, and how should they and the movements they come from relate to each other? In this roundtable, four organizers turned elected officials discuss what it means to root governance in movement building and how they’ve navigated the transition from movement building to governance. Moderator Jessie Ulibarri is the co-executive director of the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), a national network that works with elected officials to develop organizing skills like coalition building, power mapping, and issue campaigning. He’s joined by Jillian Johnson, the Mayor Pro Tem for Durham, North Carolina; Helen Gym, an at-large city council member in Philadelphia; Liz Olson, a state representative from Minnesota; and Carlos Garcia, Vice Mayor in Phoenix. The conversation has been edited and condensed. 


Jessie Ulibarri: Nearly every elected official I've met [who comes out of a movement] has talked about experiencing a significant transition from the role as organizer to the role of public official. Talk about what the transition was like for you when you went from movement organizers to elected officials. 

Helen Gym: One of the skills that we bring into our roles is a good understanding of what moves power externally, not necessarily internally but externally. [We also have to have] a sense of timing. If you're an organizer, you're constantly thinking about moments in which you push and the moments in which you pull back. That is an extremely important skill when you're in political office. You are constantly evaluating this idea of the forward-backwards, inside-outside assessments.

Carlos Garcia: As an organizer my entire life, it was always about us, the we, the collective goodness. And then you go into a campaign, and all of the sudden, you're in public office, and it's all about you. And so it's going from the "we" to the "me," just understanding that your individual self is a vessel for the movement and trying to be accountable. [As an elected official,] your goal is to get a majority of the votes. That may mean that someone else's compromises, whether I like it or not, are going to become my compromises. And so being able to have those honest conversations with movement folks, with the community, that you can try to be as righteous or hold the lines that you want to hold as much as you can, but at the end of the day, if you have the ability to get something done, you have to make that decision: am I holding the line or am I actually trying to move something forward?

Liz Olson: You have to take the time to go slow to understand the way power is wielded. [When I was first elected,] I was looking for structures of how we connect with movement allies and how we work in co-governance, and I realized, we need some ways to do this work about communicating back about what I'm learning on the inside with others and ways we can create new structures of working one foot inside and one foot outside the Capitol more effectively.

Jillian Johnson: I didn't expect this whole different set of power dynamics in the electoral world. Coming out of the movement world, where you know a lot about the power dynamics that are moving in your local area and with who your targets are for different campaigns, [and] coming into an electoral world where there are local parties to think about and PACs and political organizations and big companies and economic powers and people who just are well known folks in the community. And so who has power was something that I had to learn a lot more about.


JU: As public leaders [who come out of movement work], you're working to combat that dynamic where folks see you on the outside of the movement. And there's a lot of folks in our communities who don't trust our public institutions because they've been historically excluded or harmed. How do you navigate that?

JJ: I go to as many meetings and events as I can, I take speaking invitations as much as possible, I go out door knocking or go to events for other movement-aligned candidates in my city and other nearby cities. I have tried to put my philosophical commitment to co-governance into practice as much as possible with groups that share my values and share my goals. A recent project that I've been working on is with an organization called Durham Beyond Policing. We created a Community Safety Department that will handle non-police public safety interventions. All my work advocating on the city side has been informed by my relationship and conversations with Durham Beyond Policing's activist cohort.

Another thing I just wanted to say: sometimes people you've organized with for a long time decide that they just can't rock with you anymore, and you also have to be okay with that. [At the same time,] building up the leadership of other people in movement to take over these roles, after a period of years, is important for sharing the power of leadership and the burden of leadership. We don't want any one individual to burn out on this work and not be ready to go back to doing movement work or other important work.

HG: We need to put together the structures in order to make our movements more powerful. So we're constantly pulling together coalitions behind every [piece of] legislation that we pass. Holding a coalition together is as complicated on the inside as it is on the outside. You really need to be dedicated to addressing the differences that come up. Patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, anti-blackness, anti-immigrant stuff happens as much within our own movements — and is certainly the killer of our movements — as much as it happens from anywhere outside. As movement electeds, [we] really try to work together to navigate those difficulties and make sure that people feel valued.

LO: When I was elected, I talked with a number of allies about [creating] a movement space where we could start planning together within our House caucus. And that's really become a place where we're creating that shared agenda, creating that shared understanding of how we work together, the kind of communication we do, the kind of narrative we're working to drive together. But it's not without challenges. I realized very quickly that you have a whole different set of dynamics as a representative that you did not have as a member. And getting calls off the side of, "Liz, we can't say that in front of elected officials." Or, "We have to have this pre-conversation before we can have this conversation." And realizing a lot of the dynamics as an elected official were beneficial but could at times be a challenge in figuring out, "Well, then how do we create a space where we can co-lead? How are we all in this together and starting to shape that?"


JU: How have you worked with movement partners to reshape the boundaries of possibility? And how do you grapple with the dynamics of race, gender identity, sexuality, and class within your institution to make sure that the outcomes of policy are as impactful as possible? 

JJ: I'll go back to the movement group that we've been working with to do public safety transformation work here in Durham over the last couple of years. I think it was in the spring of 2019, we had a group of organizers come to us at the city to oppose a request by our police department to hire additional officers and proposed instead that we create a Community Safety and Wellness Task Force that would bring together organizers and community leaders with city and county and school district staff to come up with plans and ideas for how to make our community safer without expanding policing.

They wrote us this large plan for how we would put this task force into place and the things that they could work with. And we ended up over the next two years working with them, as well as our colleagues on the county commission and the school board, to shape a task force to really take on these issues. Because we were able to bring the school district, the county, and the city together, we're able to look at all aspects of local government simultaneously. So they're going to be looking at the role of school resource officers in our public school district and the policies at the county jail and our different court diversion programs, as well as police response to 911 calls and diversion to unarmed responders. It was a rocky road, but I think it's been a really valuable process and project for us. We're putting out pilots for different kinds of non-police response and hoping to get unarmed responders to mental health crises and traffic incidents next year. 

LO: We flipped the Minnesota House from Republican control to Democratic control. When we did that, our leadership changed, and we were able to have a [new] speaker. Our chairs get appointed by the speaker. And historically, that has been based on seniority and money raised for the caucus — and, no surprise, those chairs are predominantly white men.

When we came into power, and now we've been two cycles in the majority, we elected a whole bunch of new people to our caucus, who started our BIPOC Caucus and the United Legislative Black Caucus. A lot of those people are really good organizers and come with a lot of movement experience. When our new chairs were announced this last round, it was not based on seniority and it was not based on money raised to the caucus. And that was not a coincidence. This came because of a very clear understanding of where power lies. [Our speaker] gives a lot of power to the chairs and [understood that] if we wanted to get stuff done in a divided government, we needed fighters in the room with our Senate Republican colleagues. This has dramatically changed the way our budget was negotiated. 

CG: I'm in a city and the bureaucracy is in charge of a lot of implementation and day-to-day things. In Phoenix, we have 15,000 employees; those 15,000 employees, and especially the directors or folks in leadership, were hired 15, 20, 30 years ago, when our government looked very different. It was very white male dominated. They've built upon a racist system and racist budgets and so on. When I was trying to use a gender, class, race analysis, my colleagues and some of the staff couldn't connect what I was saying. A lot of our early work turned into figuring out how we create those lenses within the bureaucracy and within the city. It [required] understanding that there was some groundwork that needed to be laid in order for us to be able to make bigger strides. I say that to remind people how messed up these institutions are. I don't think we think it all the way through, either as a movement or as ourselves when we're first coming into office, how in depth the racism, homophobia, and all that is.

HG: I'm the first Asian-American Democrat to be elected in a Democratic, machine politics town. There is a theory of race politics that's about, if you just replace different actors in an oppressive system, that's a form of race politics. And I think all of us are [in politics] because, fundamentally, we believe that system has to be dismantled. Sometimes in ways that are not yet defined, sometimes unexpected, sometimes incremental, but it has to be dismantled.

So, the most important thing, I think, coming out of movement backgrounds, is that we really held very strongly to this idea of first principles. Race, class, and gender are not defining terms for me. I still have to hold to a bigger ideal. And within that, we have to be human. We have to restore bonds of humanity that have been broken, repair frayed social connections. We've got to build new tables where people can feel like they come together. 

For me, I'll also be really honest, I don't think people can stay in this job for a super long time. You are just more distant from communities the longer that you're in here. And it doesn't mean that you're not any more dedicated; it's just that you become further and further away.

JU: Thank you so much. I want to reflect back what I think I heard all four of you say, which is that our humanity is central for our movements and the arc of our work. There's no quick fix. It is iteration, it's trying, it's getting it right and sometimes it's getting it wrong, and then it's learning and then repairing, and then passing the torch.


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