The Political Power of the Midwest

A few months before the election 2004, it became clear that a lot of money would be thrown at my city -- Cincinnati, Ohio. I head a hip hop youth arts center, Elementz, in Cincinnati's poorest neighborhood. And as a local organizer, I started getting calls from my activist friends in New York and California wondering, "What issues are hot there? Which local races are coming up? Who has the biggest constituency in the city? Who can move people?" And so it began.

Sadly, nobody ever finished the job. In less than a year preceding the presidential elections, millions were spent trying to turn red states into blue. New York flew in organizers to do grassroots work, California sent money, and D.C. dispatched lawyers. But after the election, many of us are still here asking, "When will these resources stay?"

I was hoping that at least one of the big left John Kerry support machines would be able to sustain itself -- and its place in the community -- here in the Midwest. Because as top-down and out-of-touch as groups like America Coming Together (ACT) were, they did get people talking here. They created a buzz that something was happening and it mattered. You got flyers in your door every day and called you more times than you could count. It seemed like somebody really cared.

It's Time to Think Long-Term

We need somebody to care more than just once every four years. There are more towns like Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Detroit than there are San Francisco's and New York's. As increasing amounts of financial and human resources flow to the coasts, the Midwest is falling further behind.

Every year, I go through the list of national foundations that might fund projects in our area. And every year I find that more choose to stay closer to home -- San Francisco or New York.

Given that George Soros was a top donor for Kerry's grassroots campaign, it was disheartening to call his Open Society Institute recently and find them cutting the funding arm that would support our youth-organizing project.

When money is tossed into our community only once every four years, it seems to exacerbate our problems. Each time we get a short jolt of resources, people get their hopes up about the possibilities of lasting change. But as we check that ballot box for a distant representative in D.C., money leaves and disillusionment deepens. People grow skeptical, even apathetic.

We need to have funds for permanent and sustainable field organizing. During the six months before November 2004, job announcements flooded our e-mail lists. Activist friends from New York and California were calling again to fill those temporary job descriptions. But it came as a surprise to a lot of them that yes, we want and need more activist jobs here, but no, we don't have people ready and waiting to take them.

In Cincinnati, you can't leave your current job for a six-month gig as a field organizer and then expect to have another job waiting. Jobs are scarce in the Midwest. Inevitably, some people got burned as a result of the tide that was election-year money.

Rob Biko Baker, a young organizer from Milwaukee who headed the Young Voter Alliance in 2004 that mobilized more than 14,000 folks in the elections, tells me, "Not only do the the progressives not get money, but the other side gets so much money." We agree that conservatism in the Midwest is more pervasive, more powerful than on the coasts, making it that much harder to make recognizable dents. "We're swing states, so what we're doing is so vital. Old school style [of organizing around elections] isn't working, we're creating new models whether it's recognized or not."

Most creative and forward-thinking projects in the Midwest are often plagued with a chicken-and-egg dilemma: local funders hesitate to take a risk on a new project, while national money wants to see that local funders support this work first. The people who do the work are caught in the middle.

I've been stuck between that rock and a hard place many times since we've opened Elementz. Our central theme is respect. We don't have the typical metal detectors and security guards. Instead, we focus on letting young people in on nearly all of the decision-making. Local funders think this idea is interesting, but would rather have someone else give money first, at which point they say they'll take another look. National people think that we lack local support because we don't have big local money behind us. Somebody needs to break the cycle, and I don't see local Midwest funders stepping up any time soon.

Uphill Battle

I love the Midwest, because people here know things are seriously messed up, but they stay and represent and work to change things anyway. As progressive activists, we have a lot to work with -- significant racism and segregation, continued white-flight and shrinking city budgets, lost manufacturing jobs, failing public schools, and overwhelming conservative and corporate power form the Midwestern reality.

Our communities are big enough to suffer the problems of major metropolises, but small enough that we still know our neighbors. Community leaders know their cities like the back of their hands. Midwesterners have tight-knit families and civic organizations that are rare in other parts of the country and it makes it easier to solve problems.

Reggie Moore, a community activist and organizer in Milwaukee, runs Urban Underground, which has pushed leadership development and skill building for inner-city youth for the last five years. "Activist-minded individuals get shell-shocked at how behind things are here," Moore says, "and the home-grown activists become insane."

Midwestern progressives continue fleeing to the coasts, and foundation dollars grow scarcer in the heartland. The nearly non-existent non-profit job market here makes it extremely tough to develop leadership and skills in our communities and among our youth. Biko, a 26-year old who moved to Los Angeles for graduate school before returning to work in his community of North Milwaukee, highlights another major hurdle. Biko tells me that "young upstarts with good ideas have nowhere to go, so they leave the city."

New Opportunities for Effective Organizing

While the Coasts have strong networks of support within their regions, our cities have become islands of solitude. Activists often struggle with the sluggish pace of progress in the Midwest -- victory seems often out of reach, and local battles are geographically isolated from the broader movement. At the same time, Moore notes that, "there are a lot of opportunities in the Midwest. With additional support, we could build more of a regional network that is connected and easily accessible."

Just this year, progressive Bill Peduto ran for mayor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His political director, Khari Mosley, a 29-year-old life-long Pittsburgh resident, was able to mobilize support from Cincinnati, Chicago, and other regional cities to boost his work to turn out voters. Mosley feels strongly that "having a system of regular, consistent communication between cities is a very integral piece" and, in particular, the Peduto campaign was "a perfect example of how we can work together by using technology and resources."

Mosley capitalized on the growing communication between local activists and organizers of the Midwest in the wake of the recent National Hip Hop Political Convention, which focused attention on the importance of state and regional identity, playing to young people's sense of local solidarity.

The Hip Hop Convention encouraged the startup of Local Organizing Committees (LOCs) all across the country. Then, they gave "delegate" status to individuals who collected voter registration cards -- giving incentive to peers connecting with peers nationwide and familiarizing young people with the political process.

The 2006 National Hip Hop Political Convention will be held in Chicago, the hometown of T.J. Crawford, a 29-year-old who founded the Chicago Hip Hop PAC in 2002. He says the 2006 Convention will be a chance to "expand on what was done in 2004, re-evaluate the agenda, continue to support local activities, and build a national infrastructure. ...The LOC's are the backbone of everything we do. What people are doing and organizing around, what they're in need of right where they live at -- on their block, in their neighborhood, in their city -- that's where our strength lies. We're most effective when we can meet people right where they're at, but oftentimes, that's not something that fits neatly into a funder's pre-approved mission or funding objectives."

Ohio Is Not California

Unfortunately, there are too few people, especially in the funding world, who understand the differences from block to block and city to city. Crawford says that with Chicago being a "traditional Democratic stronghold, people take for granted what's going to happen on certain things." For instance, "money coming to black-run, urban community organizations on the South side has not been as big as for organizations downtown and on the North side." The people who are furthest from those sources are usually last to get the dollars, leaving urban black organizations empty-handed and unable to communicate the importance of their work to people who have little to no understanding of their circumstances.

What it means to be progressive is also different from place to place, says Biko. "To be effective in Milwaukee you have to be smart, working with churches, talking about God a lot, faith-based organizing, working in schools, even with voucher programs. In other places this would be considered even conservative, but there's no denying what we're doing is progressive," Biko explains.

Biko says "people here ain't ready for the Malcolm X, I'm not even gonna try that shit here. ... it could get me killed." Ohio is not California. We should spend more opportunities to talk to funders about what it means to do work in the Midwest.

For example, after the 2001 riots in Cincinnati following the slaying of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed 19-year old black man, by a Cincinnati police officer, we started a project called Copwatch. While neighborhood people understood the need for it, they hesitated to participate directly on the streets. We were receiving threatening phone calls, aggressive police behavior, and informants at our meetings, and some of us were named on neo-Nazi websites. The levels of activism and skills have been low for too long, and it's going to take years to build trust and solidarity in the community.

What we did instead is Elementz -- a hip hop-based arts center run for and by youth. This is the beginning of a long-term plan for organizing and working for justice. Finding our target constituency and building trust is the first step to mobilizing that group power.

I spent about an hour recently trying to explain to a national-scope foundation, the Needmor Fund, why our youth center is truly doing community organizing. I told them that we had tried more direct action-based work, but realized we had to take a step back to truly engage our target constituency and build power. When I hung up, I couldn't decide what was more upsetting -- the fact that I had to explain to a foundation based in Toledo, Ohio what things were like just three hours down I-75, or that this was about the 20th foundation I'd talked to that day and Needmor was the only one to give me time to explain what we're up against.

It shouldn't take a riot or a presidential election to have funders and media with a national scope interested in our work.

The left needs to stand up to this troubling reality by offering more encouragement and dollars to organizations that take the time to work towards long-term sustainability. We need deeper, sustained commitment from funders to reward successful and creative initiatives. Foundations can lead this charge by breaking the boycott on operating support -- why not tie operating support to dollars for strategic planning processes, allowing groups the opportunity to examine their current work as well as make future plans instead of just going after the next easy buck to stay alive?

I believe that progressive sustainability depends on our success here in the heartland. With stable funding, strong regional networking, real commitment from coastal organizations to stay for the long haul, and an understanding of the unique opportunities presented by the Midwest, we can turn the Midwest blue and make headway in other red states. If people in Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Erie can be moved, the left can push its way through the rest of the Rust Belt.

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