adrienne maree brown

Ursula K. Le Guin is still the radical feminist we need today

Ursula Le Guin is one of the great world builders to ever put words to paper. She tapped into the divinity that shapes the world, to craft universes for our imaginations, and then shared these imaginings until they began to change the world, this world.

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Why Whole Foods Is Scoring Big Points in Detroit

When we first heard Whole Foods was coming to Detroit, there were many concerns: How would it add value to the community? Would it actually serve the majority of people in the city, or just the gentrifying force that calls the Cass Corridor "Midtown"? Would it obliterate the smaller grocers in the neighborhood, including Goodwells and Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe? Would it have a negative impact on Eastern Market, our vibrant local farmer’s market? And of course, would it increase local jobs?

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Can Whole Foods Coexist with the Homegrown Food Movement?

A new Whole Foods recently broke ground in Detroit, but not everyone is excited. 

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Corporations Ain't People, So Why Do They Have the Power of Citizens?

This conversation is a compilation of talks and emails between two writer-activists. We welcome other voices in the conversation - we decided to share this because we want answers and dialogue in our communities about this issue. There are more questions than answers here, but they feel like crucial questions.

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Generation Mixed: Breaking the Race Barrier

I’ve never been into identity politics. I’ve long felt that people spent too much time analyzing the labels of past generations and too little time feeling part of the mystery and miracle of humanity.

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Obama Gets Real, Progressives Long for National Moment of Victory

This story appeared originally on

I'm at the Take Back America conference this week, seeing the event with the dual eyes I have been using for viewing this entire election season thus far.

This is the most exciting election of my lifetime and most of the folks I know have to say the same, whether they want to admit it or not. Everyone's talking about it, the speeches and debates are water cooler conversation for more than the usual (political nerd) suspects.

Our next president will be a black man, or at the very least a white woman, according to the masses at this conference (nicknamed the "progressive convention"); the passion is in people's eyes, their bodies aquiver with the idea of advancing progressive ideals. It's been a while since we had a national moment of victory.

The speakers here are talking about green jobs, healthcare for all, workers' rights, Martin Luther King -- things/ideas/people I take seriously, believe in, need. and more than ever before, the speakers and participants here are referring to a history of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience, the idea of protecting our democracy with actions that make our words mean something. So that makes me happy.

On the other hand, the talk is always far better than the action. We are on a very fine line where people want to hear real talk about race, for instance, but also want to see themselves as beyond racism.

Tuesday, Barack Obama gave the best speech I can ever remember hearing from a politician, the kind of speech that everyone from electoral cynic to Obama fanatic had to lean into. We have waited for this kind of speech, we have dreamed of this kind of candor about race from a national platform.

Where Obama has most excited me has been in his deflection of responsibility back towards the people. He is willing to occupy the space of charismatic leader, but not of magician race/economy/world fixer. In speeches like yesterday's, he is saying 'I come as an observer, as a listener, and to channel what I see and hear -- what I hear behind closed doors as well as what i hear in town halls'.

Hillary Clinton will be hard pressed to have anything close to a response to this way of doing things, even if she comes up with some amazing content to fire back. What we are seeing is how a candidate can elevate the issues beyond his or her self, and into our own hearts, into our own greater calling.

Sitting and listening I thought lovingly of the white racists in my family, of those impacted by economic injustice and combatting addiction and prisons in my own family, of their proximity to each other, of the long journey we have to a point where both sides of my family are equal, respected, evolved, free of hate and bitterness.

Attending this conference with people who desperately want to see change and watching them arch and writhe with the pleasure of hearing their own inner heart's desire for healing makes me want to open my own heart to them. Election years are so tricky this way. For a moment people are willing to believe, to join with those of us who work day in and day out on radically changing the status quo of gross inequality. For a moment it feels like the momentum is there to get the work done.

I sit over here prudish, my heart also beating faster after such a speech, wanting to writhe and moan a bit myself, but not wanting to give it up on the first date. I have been, we have been, so mistreated, bamboozled, lied to and abused for so long -- I want us to have the highest standards for our next moment in history. For the organizations, and the leaders and for the people who lead those leaders.

It looks like this:

Personally, I want to engage each and every individual I meet in this greater process of honestly addressing and advancing racial justice. This means the hard questions to the white folks in my life about what they are doing to uphold racist practices, policies, patterns ... how do they benefit?

This means asking the people of color in my life how do we look at each other with mutual solidarity, making sure that no one race or ethnicity advances at the cost of another, and that, on the most personal level, we aren't waging our struggle from a space of hatred and vengefulness, but of a greater love and greater humanity than any of us is capable of alone. It is time for us to need each other enough to be real with each other.

Organizationally, it means that leaders and boards can no longer simply speak to their dreams of diversity, and go so far as tokenization in the pursuit of that dream but never a step further. It means engaging people of color and impacted communities (impacted by economic and environmental injustice and human rights abuses) at the decision making level in all of our work. It means that wealthy people and majority white organizations have to be willing to show that they trust people of other races and class backgrounds in the key decisions about budgets, about campaigns, and about a shared vision for the world we want.

In leadership it means refusing the urge to oversimplify, as Obama did when he reduced the complexities of the Middle East situation to mere radical Islam, instead of acknowledging that in Israel, as in America, the desire to be safe somewhere has led to colonization and displacement that must be righted. And also that in Israel, as in America, there are people who have been placed behind walls, behind borders, contained out of sight so that others may live. It wasn't right in the founding of America and the injustices towards Native Americans resonate today.

We have to have race solutions that actually heal, rather than point fingers and marginalize, and we have to be most consistent with our loving acceptance of each other in the solution process when we have the most to lose, the most at stake, when it is the most uncomfortable.

I am excited to be alive at this moment, when there is so much work to be done. I am excited to take the ideas and enthusiasm back to the streets and farmland and the coastlines and the coal-impacted communities who are waiting for us to wake up to their needs and join them in changing no less than the entire world.

If the Dead Could Spit

Saul Williams has been acclaimed as the 'Hip Hop Poet Laureate' and for good reason. On stage and on paper he captures a true MC spirit and establishes a furious, hypnotic hip-hop flow, as he tackles serious subjects from god to love to music to power to poverty.

Williams has been an active performer poet and teacher for over a decade. In addition to publishing The Seventh Octave, She and ,Said the Shotgun to the Head, Williams has also released two albums. He played the leading role in the highly praised film, Slam that tells a story about a young man who discovers the power of poetry in prison.

His recent book, The Dead Emcee Scrolls puts forth the premise that on an underground subway graffiti tour, a young Williams stumbled across indecipherable scrolls, which became his first rhymes. The poems -- many of which will be familiar to fans of Williams' live shows -- unfold in tight, wild and deep verses, which make you want to head-bop in your chair. It's not the same as watching him live, but there is a joy to being able to sit back and sift through the meaning, underlining the beautiful and powerful lines. Read it if you love hip-hop and read it, if you want some exploration and contradiction and wonder for your journey.

WireTap recently talked with Saul Williams about his new book and the sources of his inspiration.

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Calling Activists to a Higher Standard

[Editor's Note: Is it possible to lead a financially comfortable, healthy and happy life, and be an effective activist working for social justice at the same time? Gavin Leonard and Adrienne Maree Brown are both accomplished young organizers who have different views on what it really means to strike a balance and how it affects the long-term plan for transforming politics. Gavin Leonard, 25, volunteers as director of Elementz, a hip hop youth arts center, and works at an affordable housing agency. Adrienne Maree Brown, 27, is the director of communications at the League of Young Voters and a board member of the Ruckus Society.]


Point: Calling to a Higher Standard By Gavin Leonard

Over a period of about a month this summer, I watched every episode of the West Wing available on DVD. I work for a nonprofit community development corporation from 9 to 5, and as the director of a nonprofit hip hop-based youth arts center on the side. I'd say I work about 100 hours a week, and I still seem to find plenty of time to watch TV. And I like it. But I'm also becoming increasingly disappointed and impatient: I can count on one hand the number of people I know personally who work more and harder than I do.

I know there are more than a handful of people -- who I don't know personally -- that work harder than I do. For instance, I listen to a lot of sports-talk radio while I'm working during the day. Every time I listen to the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals give a press conference, I can't help but think that he works much harder at making a football team go than I do at trying to make the world a better place. It's really quite amazing how much energy is spent fine-tuning athletics -- amazing to the point of really bothering me. How is it that in the grand scheme of things such trivial pursuits occupy so much of peoples' time, money and energy?

The concept of working hard inevitably gets me thinking about the fact that, in my generation of activists, there is an overwhelming desire to "be sustainable." There is a growing tendency to take care of oneself, to successfully balance personal health, happiness and comfort with active work toward progressive social change. I want to be clear: I'm not against any of those things. But I'm really concerned about how well this strategy is going to work out for us.

I've watched more than a few active, engaged young people stop or greatly decrease their work on social justice issues to pursue "a more sustainable lifestyle." The implied assumption is that this new lifestyle will include work on issues, but they put a greater emphasis on staying healthy and happy. The problem is, I've seen a whole lot of people that end up focusing nearly exclusively on themselves -- leaving the movement one more person behind in an already uphill battle.

Fine Line between Sustainability and Selfishness

There's a very fine line between somebody ending up in their own world that's positive and ending up in their own world that's selfish, but I think it's a line worth discussing. For illustration, consider the choice to pursue a good relationship, have a child, and then spend a lot less time working and a lot more time raising that child -- a good choice, in my opinion. Put that decision somewhere on the same spectrum as the decision to take a corporate job to make more money -- a decision I'd guess most of us have watched someone make, and then we never quite see that same old friend again.

It seems pretty well agreed upon that we live in a self-centered society, and that seems to scare the hell out of people and truly bother the very people that are working to "be sustainable." But the whole concept of change has been slowed down dramatically by the selfishness of society, and activists and progressives are actually perpetuating their very own kind of bling bling while denouncing rappers and their cars.

I know it eats at me. I own what I consider to be a nice house with a deck and a hot tub. I have the hot tub so that I can be comfortable at the end of a long day of hard work. Same with my nice stereo and no longer new couches. If I at 18 could confront myself today at 25, I'm quite certain I'd end up with a black eye -- or at least a severely bruised conscience.

And that's exactly it. I am meeting me, and I've got a bruised conscience. I know I spend entirely too much money on things I don't really need. I know that with nothing more than a stronger will I could be a part of setting the even higher standard that I believe needs to be set. But every time I've ever tried to beat myself up, somebody's told me not to because it's "unhealthy and unsustainable." I'm scared to death that I'll never meet somebody who will give me a downright ass whipping, and at this point, I'd settle for someone that would just let me do it myself. I feel like we keep lowering the bar when a long, earnest look at the big picture should actually have us raising it.

Not to be overly dramatic, but Fidel and Che probably also struggled with similarly bruised consciences (both having middle-class backgrounds and education). Something also tells me that Huey and Bobby wouldn't hesitate to call me out on my contradictions. And I know from watching that the West Wing's Josh Lyman and Toby Ziegler would kick my ass all up and down the street.

It bothers me that I'm afraid of the characters on the West Wing. I can't help but think of the White House today, and that the people inside are working so hard to maintain the status quo. If I want to see what happens in that building change so much, but am not willing to put in the extra effort to make it so, then what am I really doing?

My questions and concerns are not haphazardly aimed at anyone whose politics are progressive or who would like to see the world changed. I'd like that to be the case, and in an ideal world I'd like to see us all actively engaged in our communities. But on a real, deeper level I understand that this is a conversation for people who identify themselves as activists and organizers.

Of course I give a special shout out to the privileged people in the house -- white folks, folks with good resumes and noteworthy college degrees, and generally people who have the ability to decide to "be sustainable."

Most people are hustling all day to feed their families, holding down two jobs, and generally unable to find the time they'd like to learn and love and do the things that make life beautiful. I'm not talking to y'all. I'm talking to people who have time and energy and resources, and could be doing better things with all three. And I'm talking to those who identify as activists or organizers, who have made some type of commitment to this work, but due to lack of accountability and responsibility, often coupled with a need for direction, don't use their time well.

Do We Have What It Takes?

A friend of mine recently wrote an email to a group of people, who were working on the progressive side of the 2004 election. She noted that she didn't see in us what she'd seen in the people who protested in Birmingham, and beyond, during the Civil Rights Movement.

"Whatever that was, that belief in the possibility of something better and the worth of sacrificing toward that something better, most of us don't have it today. I think what most of us are lacking is a sense of wholeness that allows us to see beyond what we're fed by our culture of consumption," she wrote. "I'm not an ideal community organizer. The true work of making this city a just place to live belongs to those who are committed to making this city their home now and into the future," she added.

While I can't seem to put my finger on the "it" that is in question here -- that difference between the Civil Rights Movement folks and the activist generations of today -- I know it has something to do with faith, conviction and passion coupled with a permanence of geographic place and local focus on building power and resources.

I don't see "it" either. And while there's certainly nothing healthy about marching from Selma to just about anywhere that's past the border of Selma in the summer heat, somebody needs to be willing to do it anyway. I'm not advocating for big marches or protests in the Civil Rights Movement style, as I think those tactics generally don't work anymore (mostly due to a mass media that pays little, even when tens of thousands gather in the streets).

What I'm looking for is more of that energy that appeared to be behind the marchers and protesters of the '60s and '70s. In those years, a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens mobilized and got into the hearts and minds and living rooms of nearly everyone in the United States. We can do that now, and it seems evident that it's needed now as much as ever.

I suppose what I'm really calling for is a new and higher standard for activists and organizers. It's my belief that there are a lot of people working awfully hard to maintain and increase levels of oppression, and if that's to change, we've got to match that work.

Then, of course, we need more people to become activists and organizers. And while some may argue that what I'm suggesting will turn people away and make it harder to do the work, I would say the opposite. I think that the reason so few people get involved is because it's so hard to see change from our work. If we work harder and with more clarity to our anger, we can win.

People like to be on the winning team, and right now, we're losing. We've got to work harder. And for a lot of people, working harder will simply mean working more efficiently -- with more clearly defined strategy that has more tangible targets, better use of available resources to maximize effectiveness and positive communication to avoid doubling of work unnecessarily.

I'm not saying we should all be sleeping at our offices. But I for one often don't sleep well because of all the things I feel like need to happen before I can feel good about, for instance, wanting to bring a child into the world.

Let's set a higher standard. Let's get more done. Let's show the next generation that real sustainability is in a truly better world where we're getting closer to our goals, not further away from them.


Counterpoint: From Celebrities to Leaders By Adrienne Maree Brown

When Gavin first asked me to read his opinion piece, I couldn't wait to respond to the idea of how we work as activists, and whether we are working hard enough.

My immediate reaction to Gavin's ideas -- of working harder and working more -- is to ask where working efficiently comes into play. I also like to watch TV while working a job that has me traveling half the year as a trainer, and balancing many different roles. I work in communications, alliances and training for the League of Young Voters, am the board chair of the Ruckus Society, and consult on organizational development for a few side projects that are close to my heart. On a good day, I write a few songs and sing them, go for a walk, am a good friend, daughter and sister.

I have been lucky as a worker, because I have figured out my working style and I revel in it. I am constantly reassessing my role in our work and trying to fall into a space where there is total flow between my skills, interests and what's needed. I like to do a lot of work quickly, and I like to work on deadline. I need a long to-do list to inspire me to knock the work out, and I need to know there is a good purpose to the work.

I know a lot of people who work more than me, but I know very few people who get more done, especially in the same amount of time. I also know a lot of people who waste working time with inefficiency and with low-quality work because they are burnt-out and in denial about it.

Now, to be honest, I have learned to work efficiently, which changed me from a burn-out-for-cool-revolutionary-points-type worker into a hard worker whose name may never be known in the history books. Bit by bit, I am releasing my organizer ego, and it really helps me in determining how I work.

Sometimes I lapse, and I can immediately tell and start making an exit plan, but in general the Cool-Revolutionary-Hard-Worker phase of my life is behind me because it was exhausting and inefficient. I didn't sleep much. It was important that everyone around me knew how hard I was working, and that I was so righteous for the movement. Looking back, evidence of burnout was rampant. I was producing lower quality writing, thinking, training and relationship building.

I actually didn't notice this low quality in myself until I noticed it in those around me. I was surrounded by people who were burning candles on both ends in both hands. I noticed the shallow depth of content from speakers who didn't have enough sleep. In meetings, I became aware of the weak and unoriginal strategies that came from folks who had lost perspective. They were so busy working for the people that they didn't leave time to talk to the people.

The result of this approach to organizing -- as far as I've seen it and been guilty of it myself -- is the phenomenon we call celebrity organizers. Everyone knows their names -- they exist in every community. They are amazing and articulate and energetic and inspirational. But more often than not, folks don't have the skills they need to develop true leadership in others. And when they go, there is no one to continue and sustain the work. We have to get real about the fact that the crisis is constant -- every single day the shit is hitting the fan, and as long as we act as a one-person cleanup team, we'll always be more funky than functional.

And why? A major negative side effect of our overwork is that we do not allow space and time for learning and empowering those we want by our sides. Others cannot do the work that we drive with our egos, rather than with an eye towards what the people need the most.

I know, I've done my stint in that world. Amy Goodman has a quote I love that says, "Pundits are people who know very little about a lot of things." I think we as organizers can fall into this too, so that before we know it, we are filling all 20 positions in our work and filling them all in a state of exhaustion and inexperience.

Bring the Work, but Keep the Martyr Badges

So I reached the point of burnout, and I started thinking about my own work. How could I ensure that I was proud of what was coming out? How could I isolate my periods of high stress so that they didn't conquer my life? I don't want to be unrealistic: If you're working right, there will be periods of high stress. But how to make sure that isn't the constant state of the work?

One of the main areas of stress in my work -- even today -- is knowing that I am overworked and underpaid. A lot of the examples Gavin gives of folks who are working hard are people who are getting paid really well to work that hard. The paycheck for the head coach of the Bengals is much more inspirational than, say, mine or Gavin's.

The sad reality is, when you aren't getting paid what you're worth, you don't have the money for hot tubs, gym memberships, saunas, or even just a basic vacation. I've reworked my tiny budget to prioritize these little indulgences, because they make it possible for me to work 20 hours some days and not complain. And not that I'm doing it for the money, but I feel like most of the activists I know consider their mission to do "it" against the money.

The organizing world right now is caught up in a dialogue between the desire for a higher quality of life by those who come from the most impacted communities, and the internal struggle of people of privilege who choose to be organizers between their quality of life and their guilt. There's a certain sick pride I see in the eyes of organizers from privileged backgrounds as they compare their struggles.

Economically poor people logically choose to struggle for a higher standard of living for themselves and their families. Folks who grew up with a lot and then became aware of the real impacts of privilege often want to assuage their guilt. That price is often offered in the form of working really hard for very little money, achieving a nearly monastic work existence. Please bring the work, but keep the martyr badges. That way of working is outdated, romanticized, idealistic and, ultimately, selfish.

Working Better, not Longer

Gavin calls sustainability a strategy. To me it's not a strategy -- it's a necessity. If you want to become a healthy person, you don't stop eating and start running 10 miles a day -- that will shock your body and the results won't last. I think it's an antiquated vision of activism -- the idea that you have to sacrifice sleep, private time and years of your life in order to be a "proper" activist.

My reason for attempting to "be sustainable, take care of myself and be happy and comfortable" is because I work better under those conditions. My goal as an organizer is to make sure that my most valuable contribution to the movement, my brain, is not putting out a half-ass product because I have gone so many days not sleeping that I start to see Che in my cereal saying "Good job." I've seen the results of that type of sleepless, burnt-out work, and it's sub-par.

It is selfish to work this way. You are denying the movement the best you have to offer, in exchange for the most you have to offer. Quality is as important as quantity in organizing.

It's about balance, not going too far in either direction. I feel Gavin on the fact that as the level of average affluence rises in this country, you see more self-described activists and organizers with their houses, hot tubs, vacation homes, Lexus hybrids and part-time hours.

At the same time, there didn't used to be an option to do this work and get paid and have health care. Now that is an option. The challenge is to hold yourself and your co-workers accountable to a higher internal standard. Work better, not longer. Work more efficiently, rather than just unstoppably.

In terms of holding folks accountable, I try to do this in my work now, and let folks do it to me. When I see that a co-worker is too tired to do quality work, I call them on it. When I see that a co-worker is on the edge of a burnout, I call them on it.

Lead and Live by Example

As for the larger picture of the movement and the concern over the missing people who are willing to walk -- I think right now we aren't missing walkers, and we definitely aren't missing talkers. Even hard workers -- we're not missing the hours. What's missing now is hope that we can achieve what we set out to do, and a willingness to step up to the plate as a leader.

If we collectively set the standard of organizing as overworked, underpaid underdogs, we will perpetuate an environment most people don't want to live in and that has no continuity. On the other hand, if we collectively decide we want to lay back in a pro-capitalist nonprofit movement where folks are living large and living lazy, we will fail our ancestors, our children and ourselves.

But to me the line is clear -- what is the standard of living we want for everyone? It's not excess, and it's not martyrdom. We must perpetuate a new vision for a lifestyle of plenty -- taking care of ourselves and our communities, giving adequate attention to our health and our children, living according to the values we are fighting for every day. That means sleeping well, eating right, understanding your piece of the work and working it.

Don't Sleep

We won!

I know I know, you’re like, how does she know?

I’m not a psychic. But trust me, we won. We didn’t win because this candidate or that candidate got into office. We won because call after call after call, all we heard was that young people turned out in unprecedented droves and stayed for the long haul.

Now is the time to work the network of our will. No one thought we could mobilize an ‘apathetic’ constituency. From Portland to Tallahassee to Cincinnati – we did it, we turned out not only young voters but young mothers, young black men, young folks from the most disenfranchised communities in the country. And no one thought we could make it sexy. In Albuquerque they rocked bikinis in the snow. In Milwaukee they spit fresh spoken word to keep the long lines of young folks at the polls.

Now comes the challenge.

It has been our love for each other and our need for better lives for ourselves that got us this far. Our work is not done. Long-term plan y'all: don’t sleep.

Now we sit on our hands and we close our eyes and we will it into being. We must not budge until we get our way. We must not move until each and every one of our votes are counted. We must maximize this victory of ours by lobbying and marching and running our folks for office and making sure we carry our power past the election.

We have done all we can do today. But what a gorgeous and powerful tomorrow awaits us.

I want to share with you some of the most amazing stories we heard today:

*    In Beloit, Wisc., organizer Megan Roche said "We have changed the culture of voting." Four years ago Beloit had a 30 percent young voter turnout. This time they are estimating a 90 percent campus turnout. The Beloit College president stepped up to the bat this morning to defend Beloit students’ right to vote with a notarized list of students when Republican challengers tried to deny students’ right to vote.

*     In Columbus, Ohio, where voters waited in line into the night, young folks stood in the rain singing and playing kazoos while they waited their turn to cast some of the most important ballots in the nation.

*     In Albuquerque, N.M., in response to a freak snow storm that threatened to dampen voter turnout, young folks dressed in bikinis, painted a van like a seascape and rode the wave to victory.

*     In Cincinnati, Ohio, inner city precincts saw a 300 percent increase in voter turnout.

*     In New Orleans, La., facing broken voter machines and missing written ballots, voters have waited 10 hours and are waiting still to make sure their vote gets counted.

Now, the phones have stopped ringing. This is the time when we have to send our prayers, hopes, dreams and visions of what we need.

All day long we were in the hot seat at the League, getting calls about election suppression, fraud, theft, shadiness – but more than all of that, we were getting calls about how many folks were at the polls, how the lines were around the block, how young folks were using every creative impulse of their brilliant young minds to keep voters in lines and vigilant to cast their votes.

Now we are watching the numbers flow in from around the country and local victories pile up, as the proof comes in that when we work together, when we trust each other and look out for each other and share resources – we win.

I want to write these words to my generation: Have hope. We are willing to work hard. We are prepared to stand all day and all night and shout and call each other and text message and blog and and hope hope hope against all odds that being right and strategic will change our lives.

Do not lose hope now, no matter what the polls say, no matter what the results are. We are stronger than we have ever been, and our strength will only grow as we come to understand that our victories are not for one party or another but for young people all over the globe.

Tell us what happened on your election day on WireTap and on at the League site. Join in the actions tomorrow and in the next weeks at This Time We’re Watching – we must stay in touch with each other and we remember that our community was not polled, cannot be counted, and can no longer be oppressed. Have faith. Hold on. Hope, as corny as it seems, has arrived.

Personal Voices: Staying up Late to Vote Early

A few weeks ago I got a call from Tallahassee League organizer Mario Yedidia. “Adrienne,” he said, “We’re doing something amazing down here – you have to come.”

“OK,” I said. “I’m there.”

Mario was inviting me to support the release of the Tallahassee League’s Voter Guide at the Camp Out for Change, an overnight event marking the first day of early voting in Florida.

When I got off the plane in Tallahassee I was shuttled to Florida State University, where John Edwards started the evening off with a speech – it was like the vice presidential debate with audience participation and no Cheney. We who were camping out that night got passes to a little standing-room-only pit in the front. We felt all badass till we noticed that the true VIPs were sitting in bleacher seats right behind the stage. But then again, they had to act cheesy for the cameras and we could keep up our cynical front.

When John arrived he was shorter than we all expected, but almost as cute as he looks on television. The genuine feeling of being connected to something greater than ourselves was only slightly cheapened by the distribution of little flags and pre-made signs that spoke to our love of the John-Johns.

For those who haven’t met him, Edwards has a great non-threatening look, soft hands (yes mom, I touched him!), and more importantly, an ability to seem like a genuine opposition to the man many Floridians feel personally disenfranchised them in 2000. Knowing that, everyone who spoke before him spoke of the importance of making each vote count.

There was also a rowdy group of Students for Kerry/Edwards who went face to face with Bush supporters out front. It felt like stepping right into a headline article. I stopped one young woman with an “I Heart Bush” sign and asked her why?

She yelled, “Four more years!”

So much for dialogue.

The next morning Jesse Jackson would come and compare us to young folks sitting in for civil rights for black citizens during his youth. He was much more genuine and soft spoken than any of us expected, nothing like the verbose figurehead I’d come to expect. There in the clear, cool morning air Jesse spoke of his days with Martin, and how this early vote, particularly for the young students of the historically black college Florida A&M University, was an act of resistance, was a way of picking up the work of his generation. He didn’t say a word about Kerry – that really wasn’t the point of this gathering and we all knew it.

But John and Jesse were bookends – in between is the real story.

After Edwards, mad young folk gathered at a Plaza in downtown Tallahassee, where sponsoring organizations had set up tables and a concert area. A local DJ was spinning, "Fahrenheit 9/11" was showing on an outside screen, a tent was set up with donated food, and on one side – in true good college organizing fashion – there was a bar! Sprinkled here and there were also sleeping tents that hinted at the point of the evening. We planned to be there till the polls opened Monday morning.

In my work for the League of Pissed Off Voters, I’m working to create voting blocs across the country. We understand that our goal fundamentally changes the nature of voting. But that’s the point: voting has to change. Democracy won’t survive if voting remains an anonymous act in a national popularity contest. Punching a ballot is just one part of counting yourself among those who wish for a better world.

That feeling was evident as young people representing dozens of organizations in Tallahassee, including the Florida Democrats, Students for Kerry, a Cobb supporter, the Young Voter Alliance, the AKAs, the Deltas, the Qs, the Nappyheads and more came over to sign up for our voter bloc.

The performances opened with a local jam band, which was followed by various Greek groups who got up and gave step shows that focused on getting out the vote. A number of organizers – including myself – spoke of the work that starts Nov. 3, regardless of who wins. The Nappyheads then gave an amazing performance, nine of them sharing three mikes and getting the entire audience to sing along to an a cappella version of their local hit “Robbery.” Three young poets took the mike to talk about the state of America – one young black man’s poem centered around the theme that “This is the day to take back our power” in a poem called “Not Tomorrow.”

The Florida Democratic Party, who fronted the bill for much of the evening, made sure everyone had tents and sleeping bags. The Young Voter Alliance made sure everyone had matching armbands that told people to vote Nov. 2 – or before, as was the case in Florida.

There were about 40 of us committed to stay for the night. When we were informed that the Tallahassee police department didn’t accept our permits to sleep in the plaza, there was no hesitation – we were going to the courthouse. It was a few blocks away, but that was where the voting would start at 8:30am and that’s where we aimed to be. We hustled to pack up our tables and bags and, holding our tents aloft, started marching.

This was a turning point in the evening. CNN wasn’t there, neither as NBC. It was just us, looking each other in the eye, laughing and documenting one another’s experiences. Our spirits had to be high – we had a long night ahead of us.

When we got to the courthouse, a group of five Bush supporters were sitting in front. Our initial instinct was to set up in front of them, but maturity and strategy got the better of us – we went around to the side, where the voters would actually enter in the morning. We set up our tents and our movie screen. It was a warm night, warmer I’m told than the previous two nights. And thank goodness – it helps when historic moments can take place in T-shirts.

Several young black women negotiated with the police, who didn’t want us there. We won. At 5 a.m., a security guard came and tried to make us move off the grass. You ever tried to move righteous campers from soft grass to hard concrete in the middle of the night? We stayed in our tents while two young men posted themselves outside with their arms across their chests, not to be moved.

The organizer who shared my tent, LeAndra, was turned away from the polls in 2000 and hadn’t felt she had enough power to fight back. This year, she sat next to me and said, “This is my grass. I’m not moving.” We won again.

When the polls opened, folks were lined up rubbing their eyes, stretching and smiling at each other, clapping every few minutes. Jesse came through for his press conference. Mothers with their kids, people on their way to work came over to join us.

A girl named Christina had painted her jeans with the word VOTE, she had on buttons and stickers and a wristband and was first in line. When asked why she’d voted early, Christina responded, “This way, if there’s any drama I will have a second chance. If you wait till Nov. 2, there’s no second chance.”

The Students for Kerry held up signs and shouted “Kerry, Kerry!” to the cars driving by. But most of the night’s participants weren’t out there yelling for Kerry. This isn’t about Kerry for most of us. It’s about not only being present and being counted, but being first. It isn’t about the big names that leave early or show up late – it’s about the young, hopeful faces peering at one another from their tents all night, then handing each other orange juice at dawn. It’s not about wishing things were different – it’s about winning change.

After all who were eligible had voted, we packed up the tents, picked up the litter and made our tired way home. My host LeAndra was too tired to park straight and her neighbors came out to clown her. She told them she’d been out voting all night.


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