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‘We Build Democracy Through Grassroots Organizing’

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“To build a multi-racial democracy that actually includes all of us, we will need anchored community-based power-building organizations along with mass movements.”

An amendment to the Ohio constitution that would protect abortion rights seems headed for the November 2023 ballot—so the Republicans decided to try to head it off at the pass.  Four months after the state’s supermajority GOP legislature decided that special elections in August cost too much and drew too few voters, it turned around and set a vote for Aug. 8 on Issue 1. The measure would hamstring efforts to qualify and pass initiatives to amend the state constitution. Such anti-democratic moves are no surprise to the groups in the Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC). They’re staring electoral autocracy in the face every day as they press forward with their work of building multi-racial, multi-generational community power. OOC Co-Executive Director Molly Shack sat down with Convergence editorial board member Stephanie Luce to talk about what that looks like, and what we can learn from their experience to inform our “Organizing Against Autocracy.”

Stephanie Luce: Can you tell us about the Ohio Organizing Collaborative and how you got involved in the work?

Molly Shack: Ohio Organizing Collaborative is the largest grassroots community organization in the state. We have distinct membership bases inside the collaborative that organize and run campaigns where people’s voices can be organized to deliver change in the public arena.

There are five membership bases right now leading organizing at the OOC:

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  1. A statewide student and youth organization called the Ohio Student Association.
  2. Congregations and people of faith, organized with the AMOS Project.
  3. Care worker organizing, through the Care Economy Organizing project – primarily organizing Black childcare providers and the families they serve.
  4. Organizing led by formerly incarcerated people called Building Freedom Ohio.
  5. Public school parents, organizing to fully and fairly fund schools with the All in for Ohio Kids coalition.

All of these are membership-based entities—grassroots people-powered organizations where people get to practice democracy together. Rather than being a coalition, we are an integrated organization that aligns multi-racial, multi-generational power-building in communities around the kind of systemic change that we all need.

I got started in this work as a student organizer, so I was a member-leader before helping build the organization. I got active in student organizing around the time of Occupy Wall Street, and then in the early days of Black Lives Matter (BLM), organizing after the murder of Trayvon Martin and learning from the Black-led youth movement work happening in Florida and around the country.

As a young person I was deeply shaped by that movement work. I was in college, working full time, and angry about how expensive school was. I was trying to go to school full time and struggling to make ends meet. I reconnected with some people I knew growing up in Columbus public schools who were organizers, and they introduced me to a student activist community where I learned what was going on. They helped me understand that there were decisions being made by politicians downtown that were shaping every aspect of my life, including the policies that slashed the need-based financial aid that I had relied on.

I got involved and I was completely transformed in the process. I moved from being someone struggling in isolation to someone taking action with other people. I’ve been hooked on that ever since—creating organizing vehicles that allow people to have that same walk from individual, isolated and struggling to collective power.

SL: When I sent you the report by Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks, you were eager to talk about it. What in particular struck you?

MS: The report highlighted the need to have both movements and institutions. My early organizing days were very much shaped by movements—by seeing what is possible when  masses of people take action together. That is different from institution-building. There are overlapping characteristics but movement-building and institution-building have different features at different times.

The scale that is possible with movements cannot be achieved by any one institution. The Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder were the largest mass protests in American history, but just as important are the networks of community-based organizations, BLM chapters, movement groups, legal, research and policy organizations that have fought and won on local issue campaigns that transformed the power of the movement into systems change over the last decade.

To save democracy, or better said to build a multi-racial democracy that actually includes all of us, we will need anchored community-based power-building organizations along with mass movements. Those two must work in relation to defeat the authoritarian leaders who are actively trying to destroy the future that could be delivered with a robust and inclusive American democracy.

We have to build the political will across millions of disenfranchised people that a multiracial democracy is our best hope for sustainable future where everyone can thrive, but we won’t be able to translate that into power without institutions capable of winning elections, controlling land and resources and changing the laws to protect people. Building those kinds of institutional organizations relies on deep investment in the leadership of lots of people in every community.

We won’t be able to translate political will into power without institutions capable of winning elections, controlling land and resources and changing the laws to protect people.

SL: People in some states feel that the authoritarian threat mentioned in the report is not a real threat, or that it was weakened due to the midterm election outcomes. Can you talk about what has been going on in Ohio?

MS: The threat of authoritarianism is very real. Democracy is still under attack in places all around the country, including here in Ohio. What’s happening in Ohio is a reminder that this fight for our democracy is an ongoing struggle.

Ohio elected Obama twice. And in 2011, the state came together and defeated efforts to strip collective bargaining rights from public sector employees. In the aftermath of all that, an anti-democratic faction of Republicans made a set of moves to suppress and disenfranchise voter participation. These have had incredibly devastating impacts over time.

In the last decade or so, they have purged 2.5 million voters from the rolls with a “use it or lose it” approach: if you get a card in the mail and don’t mail it back on time, you get dropped. That was an effort piloted in Georgia, Ohio and some other states that were threatening to flip or disrupt the power balance.

Ohio has also seen some of the most extreme gerrymandering in the country. Ohio was a purple state, maybe leaned slightly Republican in statewide elections. But in the redistricting process, Republican politicians gerrymandered in a way to secure supermajorities.    

As a result, we saw a lack of investment in organizing those districts. Not only are entire communities’ voices undermined, but it dries up competition, local organizing capacity and streams of funding for people in those districts. And then you get extremist wars in the primaries that produce the Jim Jordans of the world.

Then they started attacking voter registration and voter access. We used to have a week of same-day voter registration where you could register and vote on the same day.  I voted for the first time using that system. I went with classmates on a bus to the County Board of Elections. It didn’t matter where you lived in the county—you could register, then vote. The Republicans eliminated that. They passed some of the most restrictive voter access laws in the country. They consolidated precincts, changed hours for early voting, and changed voter ID laws. They made it as convoluted as they could. Whether you live in a county with 13,000 people or 1.3 million people, there is one early vote center and one drop box.

The cumulative impact of this has created a group of Republicans that have become more bold and more secure as they disenfranchise more people. In the last few years, we have begun to see even more drastic measures. Extreme corruption and bribery scandals, a complete disregard for the law, bucking the decisions of the state supreme court, and literally just changing rules when they don’t serve their purposes.

For example, after Ohio voters passed redistricting reforms to end gerrymandering, the intended 2021 bipartisan redistricting process fell into complete lawlessness when Republican politicians disregarded the new reforms and again tried to rig the maps in their favor.

When the Republican-led Ohio Supreme Court repeatedly ruled against these newly gerrymandered maps, eventually the politicians in power simply stopped following court orders and threatened to impeach the Chief Justice. They changed the rules for how we elect judges and used raw power in a standoff with the court.

So what we deal with are both legal and extra-judicial abuses of power happening to disenfranchise voters and maintain single party rule.

Now that people in Ohio are organizing to protect abortion rights, raise wages and put real democracy reforms on the ballot, the extremist Republicans in the state are organizing to change the constitution to strip our ability to put measures on the ballot at all.

SL: So how do you organize in the midst of that?

MS: I believe they wouldn’t be trying so hard to cheat if they weren’t afraid of a fully enfranchised Ohio electorate. What we see in our communities is a lack of belief that people’s votes really matter. I get defensive when pundits and operatives blame voters for the outcomes in our state. People are not stupid. When you live in rigged states, people get demoralized.

To me, the role of organizing, and what we do, is creating authentic pathways where your vote does matter. We need people to see the ability for us to collectively create a new country that is centered on human thriving and not destruction. This requires us to have strong mass democratic organizations.

We need to go back to the basic spadework of organizing. There are so many things in our society and in this political moment that detract and distract us away from that spadework, but there are no shortcuts.  Change is still built on relationships with people, on trust. We need to be rooted in people’s needs, goals, hopes, dreams and fears. That comes from everyday conversations and building democratic organizations that cultivate agency. In the midst of all the things people could be doing, we stay clear that organizers need to do that grassroots power building—it is the primary mission, no matter what political context you are in. When democracy seems like a hollow promise, we are trying to build a practice of democracy through organizing and democratic organizations as an antidote.

When democracy seems like a hollow promise, we are trying to build a practice of democracy through organizing and democratic organizations as an antidote.

That means things like running ballot initiatives at the state and local level. We’ve been creating police oversight commissions. We are pressuring our elected county prosecutors (known elsewhere as district attorneys) to be accountable to voters. Pushing Democrats at the local level to separate from corporate interests and developer money into governing with values for progressive change

We are building where we can so that we can win things that matter, so members see their power in action, and actually experience people-centered politics where our broader mobilized voices matter. We need to inoculate against the “nothing can change” mentality. Against the feeling that power is cemented forever in favor of corporate elites and government can only be a tool for those interests.

SL: What do you think is the strategy to stop this authoritarian takeover of Ohio?

MS: The vast majority of Ohioans want the same things: to have a good job where we can earn enough to live and still have time with our families, to be able to see a doctor, a dentist or get a loved one treatment for mental health or addiction without going bankrupt, a decent home in a safe community with great schools.

So to stop the majority of people joining together to get what they want, the Right has peddled racism, xenophobia and lies about the economy alongside anti-democratic policies, all while enriching powerful corporate interests.

And they have been successful at their disinformation efforts because they are filling a void— they are making meaning for people about what has been happening in their lives. Across urban, rural, small towns and working-class suburbs across Ohio people have been struggling with the effects of globalization, corporate greed, and the financialization of American life.

We need to build a political community and a sense of belonging that creates the conditions for a big narrative shift that mass movements can accomplish. We saw that with the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, which was a new iteration of the 2014 Ferguson uprisings after Mike Brown and so many other protests. Scaled mass movements at the national level help create a new common sense of morality, broadening the base of support. That tipping point helps people feel hope that change is possible.

Translating that hope into material change typically requires institutions sustaining that energy. More than seven years after Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland, we worked alongside his mom to lead a multi-racial organizing campaign that created one of the most powerful civilian review boards in the country. That campaign cultivated agency and power amongst dozens of families impacted by police violence and the community at large who voted overwhelmingly for the measure.

We need both mass movements to change ideas about what is possible, and grounded institutions. What we do every day: base-building, institution-building, will mean that in the moments of mass uprising, we are able to create opportunities for material changes. What is possible before and after a movement moment changes drastically.

SL: The situation in Ohio seems demoralizing. What keeps you engaged in the fight?

MS: This is my home and my community.

In our daily work, membership meetings, organizing trainings and direct actions, I feel completely grounded in how meaningful this work is.  I get to be a part of people experiencing their own power in a way they never had before. It is transformative. These are experiences where democracy is alive—in our institutions when we practice it together. In our organizations, member’s views drive the direction of the mission. And when we win, we deliver things that matter to our communities.

We’ve seen in Ohio a successive series of crises that are now affecting so many people – it isn’t just urban versus rural, or one part of the state. There is a public education crisis, for example. Schools are underfunded. Students wait hours for a bus and go to overcrowded classrooms, sometimes without heating and cooling or internet. Students are dealing with mental health issues at record levels coming out of the pandemic.

These challenges create opportunities for people to join together around deeply felt needs and fix things that need to be fixed. We are building labor-community coalitions to transform school funding in the state. Teachers unions, parents, students, community members, school administrators, and school support staff have held town halls, called legislators, and engage in collective power mapping to fight for more state funding and a new school funding formula that redistributes to the poorest districts.

And in this they see democracy in action. It isn’t Right versus Left. It is right versus wrong. When we have a fair fight, we win. We can see that our ideas are more popular, and that people share our values.

SL: What would you say to people in blue states who don’t think their states are at risk for the kinds of maneuvers you’ve seen in Ohio?

MS: Just electing Democrats isn’t democracy. We need to build democracy through grassroots organizing, relationship- and institution-building. The spadework never stops, including in places controlled by Democrats that are experiencing the same global crises we all are. We have to be constantly building organizations that center the growth and development of people. THAT is democracy. We have to be doing that every day, no matter where we live, what we look like, or where we’re from.

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