Fatima Iqbal-Zubair was a high school chemistry teacher in Watts before she decided to run for California State Assembly to advocate for affordable housing, good schools, a higher minimum wage, and a Green New Deal for California. When COVID hit, Iqbal-Zubair and her campaign managers, Nathalie Folkerts and Tracey Beltran, turned their entire operation toward developing a mutual aid network distributing food, personal protective equipment, and other essential supplies to residents in need. The Forge sat down with Iqbal-Zubair, Folkerts, and Beltrán to talk about how they’re campaigning during COVID and what they’re doing to build a sustainable grassroots movement behind their campaign. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.


How did you all end up on this campaign?

FIZ: What led me to run for office was working in the community of Watts. As a Muslim woman, as someone who wears a hijab, especially after 9/11, I did have that [feeling that I was] not a part of what Trump sees [as] America, but I definitely feel American. Part of the reason I run is, I want to make sure that my community [is at] the table too. The system's always benefited me. I grew up middle class. While I had personal struggles, systemically, I'm okay. But there's a lot of folks where these policies are directly impacting their life. So Watts has food insecurity, has historically had really, really bad schools that aren't fully funded, has environmental toxicity, and, now, when we think about what's happening in the country with Black families, that community is getting more deaths from COVID and is [facing] more police brutality. I'm offering community-based people-powered leadership.

NF: I grew up in Iowa and the caucuses are really key [to] how I thought about politics. [I] got involved, knocking on doors in my neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods. That opened up a different way of thinking about how we're engaging with one another and what it means to be in community with one another. [In college, I] ended up studying environmental management and [became] really fascinated with how we could have environmental justice organizing, food justice organizing. I did work on that for a while before pivoting to focus on housing affordability and homelessness. That was the backbone of the work I've been doing for the last couple of years. The orientation I bring to a lot of this work is: How are we building these individual campaigns, individual movement spaces, that aren't just trying to get to an end goal but that are creating that change right now? 

TB: I'm a South L.A. resident. My mom was a union worker and a huge union activist. From a very early age, I was involved in a lot of door knocking and protests and marches. After college, I did some union organizing and then moved into community organizing specific to my community in South L.A. We [did] a lot of work around education, criminal justice, and racial justice work. Coming from that world of nonprofit organizing, [I know] that there's a lot that needs to change. [My question is:] How do we create a sustainable movement that is from the ground up? It's really important to build power and agency around community members.

How are you bringing that attention to sustainable movement cultures into the campaign? 

TB: During a campaign, you see a lot of exploiting of volunteers, exploiting [of] staff because it is a short time frame [so it] is just the nature of the work that you are going to be working constantly. For us, it has been about, this is beyond November. Getting Fatima to win is one step to show that you can build power and you can get folks to vote for things that they care about, but longer term, how are we building our capacity? How are we investing in volunteers? How are we investing in ourselves? How can we really set those timeframes, right? Where you're not working nonstop. How can you really check in with each other and build a more collaborative effort versus a top down effort. Everyone, since they are a part of this, should have a say in how we do the work and how we show up to the work.

We've been able to really build that agency around our community members and around our volunteers. Because it shouldn't be just a few, it should be all of us working towards this together. It's building and strengthening those networks across the city and across the state to show that this is possible. We need to take care of ourselves too, and we need to take our own time and step away when we need to. This is about us at the end of the day. We can win things, but if we don't have that strong base of people that have the energy and the power to continue that excitement, then this isn't going to last long-term. 

FIZ: I always tell my team, "Self-care is important and communication is important." Because when you're doing [this] work, there's so many moving parts and we don't know each other as moving parts. We just work, work, work for this larger cost, but we forgot to take care of each other and our team and ourselves, and we can't pour from an empty cup. So that's really important to me in being a candidate and managing this campaign.

What are your structures for engaging volunteers? How have your strategies shifted with COVID?

FIZ: [In the primary], it was pretty much me doing a lot of this work. I didn't have the financial capability to hire someone and really couldn't find people that were a good fit. A lot of my time was just spent on going to community [meetings], making sure I was door knocking at least three days a week. I had about a hundred volunteers. Now it's different because we don't have direct voter contact. We can't do door knocking; we're phone banking. That was pretty much our whole campaign the first two months and just activating volunteers to do that work was really empowering too. They were doing some of these mutual aid calls, they were even managing it during the week. And so that was how we were engaging with the community. It was phone baking during the week and delivering stuff on the weekends.

TB: Yeah. I think what was really great is that Fatima was able to build a large base of volunteers and engaged a lot of local groups early on for the primary. For the general [election], we have large contact goals, to win we need to do something huge and COVID was going to really put a wrench in a lot of our goals. And so [we’re] looking at how can we really make this a people-powered campaign — and that's going to mean bringing on volunteers.

Nathalie and I have been working on creating tiers, but they're horizontal [tiers] based on [the] capacity that people have and how they want to engage in the campaign. We have our base of volunteers that are constantly [phone banking]. And then we have our volunteer captains, which are folks that are taking a larger role to actively recruit other people to the campaign. And to really uplift the visibility of the campaign. And most of those are leaders that different organizations or different groups [have] already endorsed. And then some key community members that we know have an interest and are invested in the campaign. And then we have a fellows program of folks that are volunteering at least 10 hours a week in a different area of the campaign: field, communications, digital organizing, policy and fundraising. We're helping to train each other and to develop the skills that are needed to make sure that we are successful. 

NF: [We’re] doing a lot of one-on-one conversations with volunteers to get a sense of what drew them here [and] what they want to get out of it. Just having that sense of investment in them since we know that we're all hopefully going to be doing this movement-building work moving forward. We don't want people to feel so burnt out that they're not interested in being engaged after November.

I've been shaped by a lot of conversations I've heard people have around healing justice. The Irresistible podcast is a big source of inspiration for me. And I think just figuring out for each individual, how do you make this work? And what do [you] want to get out of it? How can we be supporting each other to get there? And really making sure that's a key focus of how we're approaching the work. 

TB: Around COVID, it's been difficult to figure out how we are engaging our volunteers or sustaining that base. For now, most folks have access to a computer, have access to technology, and so it is easier to keep them engaged if they are able to hop on our Zoom calls or engage on digital platforms. [But we’re also] trying to figure out, what are the best ways to engage that base of volunteers that Fatima was able to create locally, when there are issues with accessing technology. [We know] that some of the volunteers in the district are older and may not be familiar with a lot of the new tools that are being used. So trying to figure out if printing out phone banking sheets makes more sense for them because they can't do the active door knocking, like they used to, or don't have the technology to hop on the phone banks.

FIZ: Our district is low income. For example, something like 40% of those in Watts and Willowbrook don't have WiFi. Something unique in our campaign is making sure we can be accessible, mak[ing] sure we have someone that's bilingual, a few hopefully, that are talking to voters. Just making sure it's accessible, not just with COVID but also keeping in mind our district. I think it's also a unique opportunity for people to see, especially what's happening right now with the police brutality, the mediocre changes some legislatures will offer versus the systemic changes [we want]. I think that it is an interesting time to [show] volunteers how this work can be connected to the things they're fighting for and to actually see legislative change.

How has it been going hanging onto volunteers during this crisis? What strategies have worked and what has been more challenging?

TB: It has been a bit tough. I think we're all experiencing COVID differently. And so I think just acknowledging that some of our volunteers might have lost their jobs or are struggling with what they're experiencing with COVID. It has been more difficult with folks in the district, folks that might be low income, to keep them involved and engaged with the campaign because there are other factors that of course are more of a priority. We offer our support through our mutual aid network and share out any help or resources.

No one has ever considered how to organize during this time. It's definitely brought on a lot of new tools that we can use. But I think our volunteers have been really engaged and really excited about the phone banks and talking to community members about how we can help them meet their basic needs has also been motivating and exciting for folks. This is something tangible, something that you can see, handing [people] a food box or connecting them to financial resources. [It] has been motivating and has kept a good group of volunteers engaged and active. Even with writing postcards if folks don't feel comfortable on the phone. There are other ways of creating opportunities to keep folks engaged and active within the campaign.

NF: During phone banks, we all stay on the same Google hangout and just silence ourselves. So you can at least still feel like you're doing this with other folks. And Tracey helped come up with this phone bank bingo, for example, [or people] post comments of what's coming up [on the phones] in the chat. There is a certain energy that you're still missing through that, but [we’re] attempting to figure out ways that we can bring some of that energy online.

FIZ: We had 23,000 or maybe 20,000 postcards written and then we had to have some printed. We sent mutual aid postcards because these are folks that didn't have phone numbers. They were targeted towards elderly folks in the district.

Tell me a little more about your mutual aid work. 

FIZ: We were phone banking about three days a week. And had anywhere from three to eight people on for every phone bank and we [made] almost 2,000 calls. And we helped more than a hundred people. So we would call them during the week and we would see what needs they have. We would check in on them and see, "Okay, do you need masks? Do you need a food box? Do you need someone to help with prescription pickups?" Or sometimes when we know if a lot of community work was happening, [we’d say], "Oh, in Compton there's going to be this food pickup, or you can get a box." So we would do that.

There were times we had to purchase stuff from our campaign. Sometimes we got a gift card, to get gloves if someone was homeless, but towards the end, we were able to partner with a couple of food banks like Long Beach Community Table. And one of the pastors had good food banks, we would get food boxes from them. And masks donated from a few amazing organizers. In the beginning, me, Nathalie, and Tracey [and our volunteers] would come to deliver [supplies]. But now [we work with] an organization called Helping Hands

How have you been thinking about your campaign in relation to the mass movement to defund the police that's developing right now?

FIZ: What we're doing as a team is making sure we're responsive to what's going on. As a people-powered campaign, you listen to the people, you have to be in tune with what they're talking about and what they're angry about. My opponent passed a bill which is not the real reform that's needed. About reducing force or prohibiting some force when you're with someone that you're trying to stop, but those are strategies that have little oversight and little accountability, and then the whole issue is they're not independently prosecuted and there's all this police money. I'm going to write an op-ed this week on my response to his bill and why [it’s] not really a bill that's going to create systemic change and we're still going to have a lot of issues because there's a history of that happening. These bills don't help with police brutality. 

TB: I think it's a huge opportunity to really hear what people are saying and what's actually needed. Folks have been organizing forever, and especially in this district that holds Compton, that holds Watts, they have seen historic uprisings in our community. And knowing that Black Lives Matter potentially did not want to protest or have these marches in our communities because of the history and wanting to uplift these movements in more affluent communities [because that’s] really what it's going to take to bring in more solidarity and bring in more folks. Definitely not wanting to co-op these moments, but how can we really uplift the needs and humanize the experiences that people are facing in our communities when they're disregarded and invalidated in media and other platforms.

NF: And I think just how do we let that be in our team too, right? The hard thing with campaigns, like we were talking about before, there's this momentum that you need to push, you always need to be doing this. [But] at a certain point, there's some other things going on that folks want to invest in also. So how do we pivot our strategy a little bit? Maybe we have fewer volunteers right now because volunteers want to show up in other spaces, and we want to support that. How do we make sure we're making our work align with how folks want to be showing up? 

I know we were talking to some volunteers that were really interested in, can we have a criminal justice teach-in as a group and learn about where the policy's at and have people share their own experiences. How can we as a campaign use our platform and use our base as a place where people can have access to that resource and to feel heard in those ways? Can we host story circles? Can we host these different spaces so that folks can have other outlets if they're interested for processing what's going on.

FIZ: It reminds me of the '60s and '90s, where these protests have happened, [but] nothing has happened, nothing has changed. Some of those things have gotten worse. That's where, as a person, as a candidate, as an activist, I see my role. That's what caused me to run because I got sick of people's protests and voices and organizing not really being reflected in policy. A lot of times [people] show up to protest but then they don't vote. I'm just going to bring that up because I think we're missing an important part of movement building, which is getting the right movements, not just mine, elected. There's many parts to a movement. The activists are supposed to be listened tol. And how do we get them to listen? It’s that leaders are there that are listening to it. This is my first run for elected office, but I'm doing it because that's the part of movement-building that angered me. There were good people doing all these things, but then the change is so minimal [on the policy level]. Part of movement-building to me is building movements to elect people that will listen to you. Because then what you're saying has even more worth, what you're fighting for has even more worth. So we're hoping that we can make that connection to our volunteers that what you're doing isn't just for Fatima. We're trying to change the system [and], to change the system, we need people that are listening. 



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