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What Does It Look Like When We Build Our Power and Fight the Right?

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Collage of photos of Sendolo Diaminah, Alexa Horwart, Maurice Mitchell and Brendan Walsh

Four organizing leaders talk about unity and struggle with centrist allies, building our progressive and left alignment, and what can stand in the way.

Today’s leftists and progressives doing serious work on the ground must navigate a dual task: pulling together a broad front to defeat the Right while also aligning and building the power of our forces. But what does this look like in practice? Earlier this spring, Convergence Magazine and The Forge convened a panel of four leaders with wide-ranging organizing experience to explore these complexities: Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party (WFP); Sendolo Diaminah, codirector of the Carolina Federation, an independent political organization in North Carolina; Alexa Horwart, lead organizer for Faith in Minnesota; and Brendan Walsh, the executive director of Worker Power, which grew out of the hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE Local 11 and an independent voter engagement group in Maricopa County, Arizona. Hashim Benford and Priya Johnson, strategists from the Grassroots Power Project, moderated the conversation.

Over the course of the hour-long exchange, the panelists discussed how working with centrist allies can strengthen progressive and left forces—and what to expect when those allies begin to feel threatened. They dug into ways to build stronger alignment and more effective alliances among progressive and left groups—and some of the things that get in the way.

Working with the center

To navigate the tensions inherent in working with centrist forces, “[We] keep our eyes on the one face of the struggle, which is fighting authoritarianism, while being clear that, as much as we’re concerned with fighting authoritarianism, it doesn’t mean that we won’t be in principled disagreement,” said Maurice Mitchell.

Disagreements surfaced quickly as a broad array of forces from the center to the left came together in spring 2021 to win the legislative framework Build Back Better. Many of the planks in the bill originated as progressive ideas that came from outside the Biden administration: concepts like the care economy and elements of the Green New Deal were in the initial proposal because of the long-term efforts of grassroots organizers. While much of what progressives wanted, especially in terms of climate change, did not make it to the finish line, their early inclusion was a victory in itself.

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In the heat of negotiations, it was important for progressives to stay at the table. Build Back Better transferred trillions of dollars from the federal government to state and local governments and then directly to people––one of the most significant transfers of resources down to the ground in more than 50 years––and it wouldn’t have happened the same way if progressives weren’t in coalition with centrist forces.

I think the story that often doesn’t get told is how progressives really were the inside-outside glue that kept the legislative possibilities going. And it was an interesting sort of relationship with the leadership of Congress, the Progressive Caucus, the White House, folks in the Senate—including leadership of the Senate—and grassroots organizations that led to imperfect but significant historical victories.

––Maurice Mitchell

Electoral work can also give progressives the opportunity to garner national attention and set ourselves up for future victories, especially when we claim our contribution to the efforts. Such was the case in Arizona, where the grassroots power-building that led to recent victories began in 2010 with organizing against the anti-immigrant “Show Me Your Papers” law, SB 1070. When progressive groups, including Worker Power, joined a coalition to help then-centrist Democrat Kyrsten Sinema win the Senate seat in 2018, “We knew who she was,” Brendan Walsh said. The coalition also knew that turning that seat from Republican to Democrat would put them in a better position for 2020, no matter Sinema’s limitations.

We needed to prove that Arizona was a battleground state where you could invest in and win statewide races, so our big play was being able to get the investment and resources in Arizona to win the presidential election in 2020.

––Brendan Walsh

And it did pay off: in 2020, Arizona helped deny Donald Trump a second presidential term, and in 2022, independent progressive efforts prevented right-wing candidates like Kari Lake, the Republican nominee for Arizona governor, from winning key races.

Build from a position of strength

Faith in Minnesota realized it needed to demonstrate its electoral power in order to play a role in making budget decisions. The Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party holds caucuses at several levels, from precincts up. It is an open process, used to select candidates and adopt a platform. In 2018, Faith in Minnesota decided to organize and build a bloc comprising 10% of the voters attending the caucuses. They launched an 18-month planning process to build squads of people who would run in these elections around the state. At the end of 18 months, they had reached their goal of 10%. Their leaders were clear that Faith in Minnesota was their political home and that they were accountable to it. The bloc held together throughout the caucus process, and they had the power to influence the party’s endorsement for governor.

This level of organizing and leadership development “made our power legible in ways it hadn’t been before,” Alexa Horwart said. Faith in Minnesota demonstrated that it could put thousands of leaders in a room, hold them together, and impact political endorsements. This has allowed them to be part of current budget negotiations, deciding where money goes.

When the Carolina Federation started building chapters in 2019, the organization focused a lot of attention on how to interact with others from a place of strength. Federation leaders had learned from the experience of trying to be in alignment when groups are not clear about their own power and the competencies they bring. In situations like this, it is harder to get a sense of what each party can deliver, in terms of voters and members who will show up.

At the same time, each group needs to recognize its limitations; they cannot grow strength in every area.

That is a lesson both for organizations and for individual leaders: being on a team means you are not the best at all the things. That’s not a bad thing. That is actually a wonderful thing. It allows us to specialize, to rely on each other. What are the things that we can really focus on? And then, what are the things we can really count on others for?

––Sendolo Diaminah

As we come to see our different strengths, we also need to understand that not everybody is involved for the same reasons. The Carolina Federation has allies who are not fully on board with their agenda for democratic ownership of governing structures and the economy. The key to holding all the groups together is honesty and integrity. For Diaminah, it is not merely a question of ideology or strategy in the abstract. It is also about commitment, over time, to struggle together.

A strong motivator is the real possibility of turning North Carolina into a state that, like Arizona, is seen as worth investing in for the long haul. The Carolina Federation cannot do this alone. It will take multiple organizations working together.

Prepare for wins to bring blowback

As progressives gain power, blowback builds steam. Panelists have grappled with some of the lessons learned from losing hard-won ground. These lessons can be especially painful when tactical allies in the broad front undermine progressive candidates and issue campaigns. Such was the case in Buffalo, New York.

In 2021, the Working Families Party joined a progressive-left coalition to support India Walton for mayor of Buffalo. Walton decisively won the primary against 16-year incumbent Byron Brown, but Brown did not graciously step aside. Instead, he ran a write-in campaign as an independent in the general election and attacked Walton as a dangerous leftist.

WFP and the coalition underestimated just how much the center would realign with the Right and even the far right to defeat Walton. Her loss pointed to the need to expect this kind of quick realignment, which may occur during a general election to defeat a progressive-left candidate or after the election to block the progressive-left elected’s agenda. Even in a win-win scenario, we must prepare for what comes after.

Despite this setback, the grassroots energy sparked by Walton’s campaign developed new leaders in Buffalo and in Western New York who are staying engaged.

Organizers in Durham, North Carolina, experienced similar blowback from the center right, but over a longer timeline. North Carolina’s state government is controlled by the Right, so progressive-left forces spend a lot of time and energy on defensive battles. But there are areas in the state, like Durham, where progressives have taken the lead in local governance. In recent years, Durham for All, an affiliate of the Carolina Federation, has gotten progressives elected to the city council, the county commission, the school board, and the district attorney’s office. At the same time, the opposition was regrouping and exploiting every opportunity to break the progressive majority on the city council. In the process, it was capturing some parts of the base that had previously supported the progressives.

This raises many questions about how progressives govern under such conditions. What does it take in terms of leadership development? What does it take in terms of the scale at which we can move people? How do we make assessments about whether our moves are strategic? For example, progressives succeeded in getting rid of a reactive county manager, but this effort raised issues that opponents used to consolidate their own power. How do we assess these kinds of trade-offs? What will be gained? What will be lost? Are we prepared to deal with the losses?

This is governing. This is navigating power. There’s always going to be a range of people moving in and out of different kinds of alignment. And figuring out how we navigate that is critical for taking on this role. There’s a shift from being just on the outside, from being just in opposition, to having the audacity to say, ‘Actually, if we think we can lead and govern the entire city, state, country, it means that we’re taking on these contradictions.’

––Sendolo Diaminah

Fostering progressive and left alignment

Shared goals and practices of trust and accountability set the table for building alignment; ideological unity can be developed over time.

Integrity and accountability

Mitchell emphasized the importance of being grounded in who you are as an organization before joining a broader coalition. Being clear about our power, our base of support, and what we will and will not do enables progressive forces to show up with integrity in a broader coalition. When groups do this kind of work, they are less likely to engage in posturing or performance. When they don’t, they are less likely to be principled coalition partners.

In Horwart’s experience, leaders who aren’t accountable to their members are also less likely to be reliable coalition partners. Faith in Minnesota always brings their members to the table. 

With honesty and integrity, coalition partners can struggle and grow together over time. “There are a lot of people who will profess positions, but when we start talking about how we were trying to move toward a position and something broke down, what happens if we can’t be honest? I don’t think we can grow real alignment,” Diaminah said. “And I’ve seen people come in with divergence around strategy, but honesty about practice and the struggle is able to educate all of us. So to me, the long-term play is integrity and endurance.”  

Especially as we build coalitions that are multiracial and economically diverse, we must recognize that a lot of leaders and groups may not identify as being “progressive” or on the left. “It’s much more of a spectrum than ‘we’ and ‘they,’” Walsh said. As we struggle together toward a shared agenda, labels can get in the way.

In addition to having honest conversations, Horwart argued that groups need to have a record of doing what they say they will. “Inherent in that is a shared power analysis and clarity about the interests of the various partners,” she said.

Shared analysis

With a shared assessment of the landscape, our power, and the greater power we could have if we work together, organizing in coalitions and alliances makes more sense to people.

You have to start first and foremost with a rigorous analysis of your own power, and look at that and really think about what it’s going to take to get to the next level. [We] come back to that again and again: What is your power analysis? That drives our decision-making process, and our leaders rise to that occasion every time.

––Alexa Horwart

Leadership development

“We need our folks to be able to grapple with hard tactical decisions that are grounded in a sense of the long-term strategy,” Hashim Benford said. How can we develop leaders with the kind of critical strategic thinking that is required for working in a broad front while building greater progressive-left alignment?

You build organization, and you need leadership in order to make decisions that aren’t apparent or predetermined. And for those decisions, it’s not a question about moralism. It’s more a question of trade-offs: mitigating downsides, maximizing upsides, and determining, when that downside falls, who does it fall on? And when that upside is realized, who does it benefit? That’s basically what we’re ultimately deciding.

––Maurice Mitchell

Brendan Walsh emphasized the importance of shared decision-making, accountability, and mutual support. UNITE HERE Local 11 and Worker Power both have a practice of making major decisions together. In the process, members and leaders weigh the possibilities for every action.

Another aspect of leadership involves emotional work. In response to a question about dealing with betrayal, Mitchell noted that, as a leader, you will feel frustrated, disappointed, demoralized, and triggered when people don’t follow through, when they act in unprincipled ways, or when they simply turn on you. The hard work involves allowing yourself to feel your emotions and sit with them before making decisions. “I think some of the work is allowing yourself to feel that emotionally but then to not make political judgments based on your triggers,” he said.

Humility and vulnerability are seldom-named but vital qualities for leaders.

You have to be vulnerable and humble and willing to let other people teach you and carry you when you need it. And people have carried me through some pretty rough times. The good thing about that is, when you’re part of a team, when you win, everybody wins. When you lose, you’re not on the hook by yourself.

––Brendan Walsh

Why we persist

The daily struggles people live with can create despair and desperation. If we don’t have a practice of wrestling with things together, we may be selling ourselves—and our members—short.

I have seen many of our members come back to our organization because developing the capacity to honestly face our lives, courageously face our lives, and then be able to take actions that actually make sense is incredibly ennobling, enabling, liberating for people—and they come back being like, ‘I want more of that.’

––Sendolo Diaminah

Convergence is pleased to be co-publishing this piece with The Forge.

Featured image: Collage of panelists (left to right) Sendolo Diaminah, Alexa Horwart, Maurice Mitchell, Brendan Walsh.

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