Full Circle: Closing Speech for the Gen Vote Policy Summit

Last night I gave a little talk for the members of the Gen Vote group. It was a sweet little moment cause it really reminded me of where we were 4 years ago, and thinking how far the youth voter movement, particularly the section focused on young people of color and low income youth, has come.

Here are my notes from the speech I gave. As background, GenVote is an election focused  body within the Generational Alliance. The group was a lot of young organizers from national and local youth organizations around the country who worked on the election. The first day was an election debrief, the second and third days were a policy summit where folks were thinking about specific policy initiatives that are gonna be moving from now through the inauguration and beyond.

Anyone who has ever seen me speak knows that I tend to have some notes, then say what is in my heart at that moment. Here are the notes, with my off the top thoughts documented to the best of my ability.

– First I told the story of my election night, which is blogged below (I Finally Cried). I told how I was cynical till the last moment, then experienced the Election Lift-Off, leaping off my feet with real joy. That night I danced in the streets, and watching the video of other people’s election nights, it occurred to me that it may have been the largest moment of international leaping up, simultaneous joy and victory. It was a spiritual expansion of possibility, and what expanded was the space in which we can do our work.

– Not everyone had a victory. As a bisexual woman it was a sad night for gay folks, a scary night to see this country vote against our rights, whether we want them or not. And it was my own folks, black folks, who are being charged with tipping those scales. They were organized by folks who appealed to a traditional idea of family, and it hurt to think that the desire for justice didn’t include gay folks. But No on Prop 8 didn’t bring it. Period. The other group for whom this was a complicated victory was the Muslim and Arab communities. They were thrown way off the bus, as Obama distanced himself from that heritage because that couldn’t win. However, Obama’s victory gives us a tangible Arc of Change – 60 years ago we were fighting for the right to vote, and now one of our own sits in the highest office in this country. That change is possible – and perhaps we can speed up that arc, increase the pace of transformation.

– We have a lot to learn from the campaign, most of all the YES nature of it. Victory matters. We have been trying to engage these populations in our work, and the Obama campaign succeeded in that – we need to learn to be more welcoming. It may sound odd, but this was a feminine campaign, nurturing, inclusive, ground-up..at least that’s how it looked.

– We also need to see the power of grassroots fundraising, and giving folks an option to invest and feel ownership. We all gonna need that, cause it’s a recession. And that recession is not gonna last a couple months, modest estimates believe it’s gonna last a minimum of two years. We need to learn to get our community to invest in us when times get tight.

– What this moment is NOT is post-race and racism. I know folks will still act against me because of my color, internalize that for your own safety. It’s not the great redemption, its a STEP. It’s also not the revolution, or our salvation.

– What it IS is a window to engage a bunch of new people. I don’t often get excited by news or politics, even now. But I do get excited about people who don’t believe in change and justice becoming believers. We need to plug all those folks into the work – and we need to make it an appealing place to land.

– Let’s talk more about How. First, we need to keep learning to collaborate. That collaboration needs to be sincere, and include real collaborative fundraising (not just naming each other on grants and smiling about it, but actually making sincere plans).

– The other main How is that we need to occupy two roles with each other. One role is as comrades, and the other is as translators. As comrades, we have to have each other’s backs – not talking about each other to media or funders or other folks in the movement, being familiar with each other’s work, representing well for all folks who are trying to make change, and holding each other accountable. As translators – policy folks can be so boring (love y’all!), and organizers can really lack analysis and long-term tangible thinking (know thyself). WE need to come to spaces like this to exchange learnings, lessons, play our parts, advance each other’s understanding of great strategies that include great organizing for great and achievable policy.

– Where we succeeded – we are SO much more sophisticated and accountable than we were in 2000, when young people realized how much we were needed; and in 2004 when we learned a lot, and in the 2006 when we honed a lot. Still not perfect, but we can see our real capacity, our growth, and our trust. We weren’t in rooms talking policy and knowing we turned out a 5th of the electorate. We’re learning, and quickly!

– In a moment of victory it is crucial to remember what can be learned from experience and failure. What were the points we wanted to hear from Obama and other candidates at the more local level where we were not successful, and what do we need to learn from that? Was it branding or strategy that limited us?

– FDR was rumored to have told a group of organizers, “Ok you’ve convinced me, now go out and put pressure on me!” I keep thinking of that quote now, and the kind of pressure we want to be. Where we feel Obama (and other progressive candidates) is moving in the right direction, we want to be the kind of pressure that is a wind at his back. And where we feel he is drifting, for instance when he speaks of clean coal, which doesn’t exist, then we want to be the kind of pressure that can correct that direction.

– Oak Tree is the metaphor for us in this moment. I went to New Orleans after Katrina and saw these oak trees standing where nothing else was left. The oak grows low and wide, and the roots underneath reflect the branches above – wide – and where there’s more than one oak they intertwine underneath, at the subterranean level. (Go see Hurricane Season, where this is a central metaphor) We in this room may not seem to have a lot in common other than style and relative youthfulness. There are very radical people in this room, and very conservative and mainstream folks along the progressive spectrum. But at a subterranean level we want better for our communities. We have to remember that when the instinct to divide and argue comes up. We have to be as strong as oak trees, no matter what comes to us.

– In the business world, and in the natural world, only what is necessary survives. We need to make sure we are giving our communities what they need. We quote Assata Shakur here often, and it is important to bring the legacy of the Black Panthers into a space like this because they fundamentally provided folks what they needed. How are we prepared to do that for our folks, really meet their needs during this time?

– I want to hear from y’all, some of the things we can accomplish right now. Yes we can, and you finish the sentence, and each thing you saw we’ll back you up like church, yes we can.

– Yes, yes we can. And we can dream even bigger – Julian just told us about green collar jobs…yes! And we can dream no collar jobs, limitless possibility for our people. Healthcare for all people. Education as a human right. Dream big, and make it happen.

– Yesterday I was at a luncheon, and a speaker there said, “Together, we are a genius.” Look around this room. None of us, and none of our groups, can do this alone. And we are the ones we have been waiting for, for all the support our communities need.

The Jessica Pierce and Mattie Weiss led us in the chant:

It is our duty to fight
It is our duty to win
We must love each other, and protect each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
– Assata Shakur