The Democratic primary field may have narrowed to just two frontrunners, Senator Bernie Sanders and Vice President Joe Biden, but the election won’t be over anytime soon.
American elections are notoriously protracted. Every one of our votes is crucial, but the length and intensity of our election cycles — not to mention the role that big money plays in our politics — make it no surprise that many people feel disaffected and disillusioned.
Luckily, casting a ballot is just one of many ways that people across the country can speak out about the issues that affect their daily lives. And with the convergence of the climate crisis and extreme wealth concentration, more people are recognizing the importance of weaving electoral politics with base-building strategies and tactics.
Building the infrastructure critical to maintaining civil society — from unions to tenants associations, community organizing, and social movements — is important work. Not only do these forms of movement organizing have the potential to shift the broader political discourse, they also provide a laboratory for experimenting with new participatory and democratic processes. As legal scholar and activist K. Sabeel Rahman and many others have pointed out: our task is not to restore democracy, but to realize it.
What does realizing democracy look like in practice?
The youth climate movement is a powerful example of the impact that social movements have on policy and politics. Many high schoolers and children too young to vote have taken to the streets, skipping school for the Youth Climate Strikes, to call for action and leadership on climate change. Their organizing has had far-reaching impact, pushing Democratic candidates and elected officials to articulate positions on climate change and forcing the Green New Deal into mainstream discourse.
The youth climate movement is “participating in democracy in the only way they can, demonstrating to us as adults that we need to support them, listen to them, and do what we can to take action on the climate crisis,” says Abhilasha Bhola, a senior policy associate at Jobs to Move America who provides mentoring and support to youth climate organizers through Sunrise Movement. “Some of the high schoolers I’m supporting are immigrants, others are exchange students, and all of them are under 18 and unable to vote. But, they see the urgency of the climate crisis and are ready to do whatever it takes to have their voices be heard.”
The growing support for the Green New Deal has revealed the power and potential of our public dollars. Only these public dollars can bring about the Green New Deal’s vision of an economy powered by renewable energy with good union jobs, racial equity, and community self-determination at its core.
With this in mind, our coalition of community groups, unions, and workforce development organizations in Chicago is holding a series of community forums to help shape the first draft of a good jobs policy that the city’s transit agency, CTA, committed to adopt. The policy, which JMA and CTA are collaborating on, will weave good job creation and racial equity into CTA’s public purchasing and contracting policies. While the development of such policies is typically not such a participatory process, our coalition is working to ensure that CTA riders and Chicagoans have the opportunity to shape the way their public dollars are spent on local transit. At these “Policy for the Public” forums, participants shared their perspectives and priorities, brainstorming suggestions for the policy and offering their thoughts on good jobs, racial equity, and barriers to employment in Chicago.
Underlying these forums is a core belief that our public dollars are the strongest tool we have to make change. Organizing around the ways our public dollars are used (or in some instances, not used) to advance the most public good isn’t just a critical accountability mechanism — it’s our responsibility. Imagining and building a better world is hard, collective work, and it’s up to all of us to roll up our sleeves and dig in.