Keep an Eye on Some of the Best Organizing Going On in America: 6 Activist Projects to Watch


As the date to go to the polls comes near, many seasonal activists will lace up their sneakers and do the work of knocking on doors to lend an aid to high-profile and local campaigns alike. 

Getting out the vote is great, but year-round, season in and out,  grassroots activists create campaigns whose wins and losses don’t get trumpeted across all the news networks. But their work is just as vitally important to local and national communities, very often with lives and safety at stake. 

From the arts to local ballot initiatives to radical environmental activism, these are just a few of the many, many cool projects, ideas and campaigns that might be worth a minute of your attention this fall. 

1. Documenting local resistance across the country with The Radical Resistance Tour. Two former occupiers from New York City, Amelia Dunbar and Kathleen Russell left town and spent the summer criss-crossing the country to spend time in local communities resisting corporate and political dominance. Their stops included mountain defense in West Virginia, protesting coal exports in Montana, direct action against the Keystone pipeline in Texas, pushing back against corporate takeover of housing in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Indian reservation defense against local businesses in South Dakota among others. They tried to focus on loci of activity that did not center around "straight white male" activists, they told me, because they'd been turned off by the too-often white male face of the Occupy movement.

Many of the local hubs of resistance the two visited were recommended to them by activists they met along the way, as they discovered an already extant network of solidarity. And while some of the projects they came across were Occupy-affiliated most were not. They documented many communities where the local activists had learned to let the least privileged, most directly threatened activists make decisions while more privileged people served in a supportive role and even at times volunteered to take risks and get arrested on their comrades' behalf. “People were supporting each other and fighting the same battle,” Dunbar, one of the project's creators, told me. Through a blog and a series of videos that are going up one per week, they hope to spread awareness of these successful models of local activism and help build solidarity across the different causes and geographical area.

[vimeo_embed expand=1]

Episode 03: East Texas from Radical Resistance Tour on Vimeo.

2. Using Art to Activate Change: "Searching for American Justice" is a performance art project conceived and acted by Kanene Holder, another Occupier who memorably played the Goldman Sachs “squid” during last year’s protests. Holder quotes Alexander Hamilton in declaring that the first duty of a nation is to justice, but her aims are more radical than Hamilton might have envisioned. Her project uses a mix of performance art and digital media to focus on injustices in housing, healthcare, the economy, law enforcement, gender rights, immigration and education. Holder specifically aims to remind viewers and participants that after the election, there is still work to be done. As Holder told me, "when we buy a car, we don’t expect to just leave it for four years--we consider it an investment that we check in on regularly and get inspected." Democracy, she noted, should be the same--and by personifying the missing figure of justice, Holder hopes to inspire voters to perform regular inspections of their republic. Holder will be performing at the Art in Odd Places Festival and appearing at the Imagining America conference.

3. Ensuring the rights of domestic workers: Nannies, cleaners and home health aides, under the umbrella of the awesome and indefatigable Domestic Workers United, have made strides across the country, and in New York the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was a notable step forward.

But as this Nation article details, passage is one thing while enforcement is another--many employers don’t know or about the new regulations, while it’s hard to enforce violations that occur in private homes. Still, many folks are doing continual on-the ground work work. The locus of much hat work is the socially-conscious, family-friendly neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, which DWU and others want to make into a pilot “domestic work justice zone.” One group organizing towards this end (on the employer side) is Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s Shalom Bayit Campaign, aiming to mobilize employers, churches and synagogues and community groups, and explore the potential for collective bargaining in the industry once a “critical mass have come together and publicly committed to a set of standards, paving the way,” says Rachel McCullough of JFREJ. Collective bargaining for nannies: imagine that.

JFREJ, DWU and many other partners are also working a national campaign called "Caring Across Generations" to improve the lot of home care workers which spotlights the rights of immigrants, aid workers, the elderly and the disabled in a way they hope will bring those groups together--particularly given the challenge of the aging baby boomer generation.


4. Fighting for the franchise.  While activists across the country fight back against the poll purge and voter ID laws, Michigan communities are trying to cast off the shackles of the state's emergency manager law. Elections in Michigan this November won’t just be about who becomes President--they will be about who controls local politics.

Unions, civil rights lawyers, and Africa--American activists have coalesced to fight back against Michigan’s odious emergency manager laws which takes local control away from mostly impoverished, minority communities and hands them over to representatives of the Republican governor. As Rachel Maddow has covered on her show, the laws are a way of essentially denying the ballot to minorities, an example of the shock doctrine in effect.

As the Sugar Law Center, which has (unsuccessfully) fought the laws through the court system, notes:

In the meantime, the number of local governments and school districts under the control of the Governor now stands at seven. That number is ten if you count the de facto state control represented by consent agreements in Detroit, Inkster and River Rouge. Taken together, well over half of Michigan’s African-Americans have been stripped of their local voting rights

Finally, the coalition won their battle this summer to get repeal of these laws on the ballot, and now face an uphill slope to getting the laws implemented--but for Michigan residents, election day is going to have even more at stake than it does for the rest of us. 

One website:

5. Standing with a hounded refugee and her family. A woman named Grace Grande, arrived in America after ending her relationship as a “concubine” with a powerful politician. After reaching out to multiple organizations to ask for help she found allies in the sister organizations Mariposa and AF3IRM, who work with women on the margins providing services on one hand, advocacy on the other.

In Grace’s case, says Jollene Levid, AF3IRM Chairperson,  they saw the living embodiment of the toll that GOP’s stalling on VAWA in an attempt to take away its protection for immigrant women, would take.  “We have this woman here who’s exactly the type of woman who would be affected by pulling the VAWA language,” says Levid. It’s also about a phenomenon called “trans-border stalking” for which she says there’s no international law. “In the age of the internet, how easy it is to communicate across borders and for the wealthy to cross borders,” and continue their persecution abroad. Thus the shadowy figures Grace has seen outside the building where she and her family work. 

Grace is different from other women in her circumstances, Levid told me, because of her willingness to step forward and let her story be told. In turn, a petition and letter-writing campaign to the judge in her case have brought heightened attention to her plight. On September 24, Grace’s asylum hearing will be held, after which they’ll determine next steps for the campaign.


6. Reminding us that immigrant women are here. Breakthrough is an organization that uses a mix of pop culture engagement and grassroots organizing to address human rights in India and the US. Their “I’m Here” (#ImHere) campaign calls attention to women like Grace, above, and so many more. “We’ve been working for the last decade on impact of immigration enforcement on communities in the US,” says Director Malika Dutt, “and have been increasingly alarmed by the severe impact of women and families for years. “ For instance, they are launching a video about a mom who didn’t call the police after her daughter was raped because she was scared due to her immigration status.

The social media aspect of #ImHere includes prongs like asking people to send in photos in solidarity with immigrant women as well as live-tweets of political events to remind people about the impact of policy on immigrant communities has “emerged from confluence of increasing attacks on women in general as well as increasing attacks on immigrants.” It’s a reminder that there’s a group of people who lack basic human rights here at home. It’s time to say enough, says Dutt. “This cannot be what the country aspires to be.”


From the well-financed to the self-starting, from worker's rights to public awareness, the people behind all the movements and campaigns above are doing really impressive advocacy and service work--and when the nation's attention moves past the election, the issues--and people--they highlight will need more work than ever.

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