It was odd, hearing after all these months from our two senators. First the one in January. Her office called to say the letter she had written in response to mine had been returned. “No such address” or words to that effect. Really?
Turns out the letter was mailed in October to my physical address. Not where I get mail. Not the return address I had put in my letter written to her in late June. “Please send it to my post office box,” I said to the office worker who called. “Oysterville doesn’t have rural delivery service.” And where did they come up with that address, anyway? My taxpayer dollars at work…
And then, in February, an email from the other senator’s office. “… We don’t have a record of any letters or emails coming in from you concerning this but I do recall seeing your blog post from my personal Facebook page several months ago…” Nice to know how to contact your senator in these days of social media. Well, not actually your senator. But at least it was someone with a title: Southwest Washington director.
We met in a local eatery. Four of us and the director — the point man for the senator here in the other Washington. He was a good listener. We talked about the ICE situation here. He asked pertinent questions. What did we think of the sheriff? Did we think the ICE presence was lessening? What is the feeling among the Hispanic population? What about the greater community?
We don’t have control…
We answered — not necessarily as one, but none of us minced words. And we had questions of our own. Why isn’t the senator doing more? What, exactly, is she doing? Does she have a plan? Why doesn’t she hold town halls? Is she even aware of what’s going on here? The answer to most of our questions was repeated over and over. “We don’t have control of the agenda.”
But what happened to the democratic process? What about give and take? And compromise? Again, the words, “Just now we don’t have control of the agenda.” And, if they did have control, what then? Would anything more get done?
It was a frustrating and pretty fruitless discussion, all the way around. The director had done his job. We had done ours. Zero-sum game. We asked what we could do at a local level. If our democratic processes are stalemated, how do we effect change? We were divided in our satisfaction with rallies and marches and group protests. “It’s the only way open to us,” said one. “It’s ineffective,” said another. “It might work in the long term, but that’s too late for our neighbors who are being arrested now.”
Meanwhile, one of the men I had written about last summer in “Stories from the Heart” came over to the table to chat for a minute. Not about politics. Not about ICE or the sheriff or any of the subjects our little group had been wrestling with. He talked about his young boys and how they’ve taken to calling him “Grandpa” because he’s out of shape. Hasn’t had time to go to the gym. Too busy working. Trying to put food on the table. Trying to have a life. We laughed and commiserated. It seemed nice to have a ‘normal’ conversation.
As we began making time-to-go noises, there was one last question from the director. “How do things seem now? Do you feel that the situation has improved here in recent months?” To those questions, we all had different responses, yet each was a variation on, “You’re kidding, right?”
Wary silence at schools
We told him of the wary silence among the kids at our schools. Kids whose friends have headed to Mexico because a parent has been deported. Kids who are fearful that they’ll go home to find a parent gone. Kids who don’t understand why bullying has taken a racial tone. Kids who say nothing. But their unhappiness can be seen in their posture. In their eyes.
We told him of the anxious silence of employers and of the communication networks that have sprung up among workers. When ICE makes an arrest at Point A, Points B to Z are alerted, instantly. “It’s no way to live,” we said. Not for any of us.
And we spoke of the deep divide that we are feeling within our community. “People have taken sides. It’s hard to sort through the anger. Which are facts and which are fake news?” Our thoughts trailed off… and so did we.
“Grassroots: basic, fundamental”
“A grassroots movement one which uses the people in a given district, region, or community as the basis for a political or economic movement.”
At a time in which the usual political processes seem to be ineffective, those advocating change often use terms like “at the local level,” “grassroots movement,” or “hashtag activism.” There is talk of “changing the national conversation” and “building momentum” and “increasing awareness.” The various Occupy movements, the MeToo movement, and the BlackLivesMatter campaigns have millions of followers and raise countless dollars for good causes.
Yet, according to a growing number of pundits, most grassroots movements effect little change. “They’re ineffectual, even counterproductive,” says Micah White, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street co-creator. “Big Street protests just don’t work.” Instead, he advocates going rural, local and small to try to foster big change.
“Work to create progressive pockets of power,” White argues. “Talk with those with whom you disagree.” In 2012, in an effort to do just that, White moved from Berkeley (population 121,240) California to Nehalem (population 285) Oregon with his wife and young son.
Four years later, he ran for mayor of Nehalem. He not only lost, but he and his family became victims of numerous indignities at the hands of locals who saw him as an outsider who dared to tell them how to live and to think and to problem-solve. White has since moved to New York where he directs Boutique Activist Consultancy — a think tank specializing in impossible campaigns and, according to his website, “ [he] is a sought after global public speaker.”
If there is a lesson to be learned from White’s experience, perhaps it lies in a more basic understanding of a grassroots movement and how change is affected at that “local level” we hear so much about. Perhaps those three words “one which uses” in the Wikipedia definition above should be changed to “one which comes from.” And how about a full stop after “community.”
“A grassroots movement is one which comes from the people in a given district, region, or community.”
— Sydney Stevens