Students Take Grassroots Organizing 101

NOW Interns in North Carolinaby Jodi Miller
Communications Intern

Photo: NOW Interns who canvassed neighborhoods in rural North Carolina for U.S. Rep. Eva Clayton included, from left, Yvonne Roth, Jodi Miller, Mary Anthony, Liz Chakmakian, Jennifer Corrigan and Betha Schnelle.

Term papers and pep rallies were not the only things on students' minds last fall, and NOW made sure of that. With grassroots campus organizing in key election states, NOW leaders and activists helped students learn a lesson they could never have learned in the classroom and one they can use even in non-election years.

"Campus organizing is all about communicating to young people on campuses that they have tremendous power to create change," said NOW Action Vice President Rosemary Dempsey. Students must take advantage of the many resources available to them at their institutions, including money and communications technology such as the Internet, she explained.

NOW's efforts included campuses in California and New Hampshire, states that had critical elections and ballot measures.

In California, NOW student activists worked on the "Stop Prop. 209" campaign, the effort to defeat an anti-affirmative action ballot measure known as Proposition 209. Action in California, similar to that in New Hampshire, included everything from traditional get-out-the-vote efforts to marches and rallies on campuses and in communities, with a major effort on election day.

NOW field organizer Kimberlee Ward worked with activists in southern California, and NOW staff member Mira Weinstein and intern Sally Gould coordinated organizing efforts in northern California.

Although 209 passed, organizing at the Claremont Colleges, a campus with five separate schools, took on a whole new meaning for students. Prior to the organizing around Proposition 209, none of the women's groups at the colleges had worked together, even though the colleges are located literally across the street from each other.

NOW's election strategy was strengthened by leadership from the Scripps NOW chapter, which brought all of these women's groups and other progressive organizations together. A speech and workshop by NOW President Patricia Ireland on the Claremont campuses sparked the campaign, giving the effort more visibility and volunteers.

After the election, the students realized their strength in numbers and created a progressive alliance, the Action Coalition of The Claremont Colleges (ACTCC).

"The 209 campaign is really what clicked for us," said Amy Drayer, co-president of Scripps NOW. "It is the issue that mobilized our efforts."

Ireland said the Claremont Colleges effort was "a textbook example of how campus organizing should work. They basically turned the campus into a mini-precinct."

With several feminist candidates on the traditionally conservative New Hampshire ballot, NOW activists and Action Center staff worked on many campuses to work on the NOW/PAC's coordinated campaign for Jeanne Shaheen, who was elected governor, Arnie Arnesen, who was narrowly defeated in her congressional race, and several targeted races for the state legislature, which were successful.

Dempsey, a veteran campus organizer, headed the effort by speaking and conducting workshops at five New Hampshire universities. NOW/PAC staff member Beth Corbin and intern Liz Christian worked with Dempsey in New Hampshire.

Voter registration was an important part of the campaign. As has been the case in other campus campaigns, officials discouraged students from registering where they go to school, apparently to deter them from voting for progressive candidates. They threatened students with loss of their financial aid home-state residency.

In both states, activists found that students were grateful they were able to empower themselves to create change in their community.

"This kind of organizing doesn't have to focus only on major elections, like the presidential election," Dempsey said. "Campus organizing is an effective tool for any kind of issue, particularly issues NOW focuses on like affirmative action, reproductive rights and fighting racism."

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