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Netroots Nation: Organized People Defeating Organized Money

by Katharine Daniels
Executive Editor, The WIP

I just returned from San Jose, California after covering the eighth annual Netroots Nation. In 2006 I attended the first Netroots Nation, then called the YearlyKos. My progressive partner in crime was my good friend James and we packed his truck with our laptops, clothes, a fully loaded iPod, and drove through the desert to Las Vegas. At the time, attendees were mostly writers and readers of the Daily Kos, an American Progressive political blog founded in 2002 by Markos Moulitsas (‘Kos’ stemming from the last syllable of his name Markos.)

Eight years later, Netroots Nation is broader and more diverse than it was in 2006. Democratic party leaders like Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, and Howard Dean still come to connect with the online activists that have so much influence over their base. But in addition are the DREAMers, artists, activists and feminists whose traditional grassroots nature has blended with online community activism making these progressive groups an integral part of today’s netroots.

This year the netroots celebrated both electoral and legislative victories. Progressive wins included Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin elected to the United States Senate, tightened gun safety laws in a handful of states, and as Barney Frank pointed out at this year’s conference, “It’s now more socially acceptable to be gay than a Congressman.” I saw firsthand at this year’s Netroots Nation that the melding of online and offline activism over the past several years is becoming a force for change that ultimately will win against the massive corporate funded efforts that are suppressing freedom and our democracy in this country.

On the way to my first panel discussion on Friday, I met Mexican-born, undocumented, queer artist (‘Undocu-Queer’ as he called himself) Julio Salgado. I posted a short blog later that afternoon about a movement of artists in this country who are successfully combating prejudice by putting a human face on the undocumented living in the United States. (According to most estimates, over 11 million people are living in the United States without legal permission.) A DREAMer, Salgado and four friends launched the media project DREAMers Adrift in 2010 as a space for DREAMers to tell their stories through the written and visual arts. Salgado currently works with CultureStrike, a national arts organization that engages artists, writers and performers in migrant rights. My chance meeting with Salgado set the tone for everything I saw at this year’s event: hope, reassurance, and motivation from the netroots women and men.

Later that morning, I went to a workshop on storytelling tools and strategies that build power. Two leading grassroots women on media activism and racial justice – Malkia Cyril, Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice and Rebekah Spicuglia, Senior Communications Manager for the Applied Research Center and Colorlines – led the workshop. At this practical session I felt a long period of stagnation in my writing lift as they reinforced my belief that news stories, written in a specific manner, are an effective tool for social change. If social justice is our goal and we are using stories as a path to action then we must learn to center our stories around power versus powerlessness. This is critical advice for The WIP’s online community and supports a belief I try to convey to our writers.

According to Spicuglia, “human beings are wired for stories. Engagement in a story is involuntary.” But, as Cyril adds, “Our tendency is to center stories around victims.” Stories for social change need to instead center on power. Both Cyril and Spicuglia offered storytelling strategies and framing tools essential for engaging audiences around social justice issues. This workshop gave me much needed encouragement to continue covering the stories that matter in my community that will resonate with a global audience.

At a panel on Saturday about reclaiming from the right the term “family values,” Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Executive Director, CEO, and Co-Founder of MomsRising, summed up many of my personal experiences as a working mother. Though three-quarters of mothers are in the work force, we still do not have the public policies in place that other nations have; policies that allow both parents and businesses to thrive.

In this session, I met Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She has been organizing immigrant women workers since 1996 and is the co-founder of Domestic Workers United, a New York organization that spearheaded the successful passage of the state’s historic Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. After the panel, she shared with me that her grandmother, who was a nurse and caregiver, is her role model and inspiration for this work. In college she volunteered at a domestic violence shelter for Asian immigrant women and saw that it was always the women with living wage jobs that were able to break out of the cycle of violence in their lives. This led her to recognize that living wage jobs with benefits are few and far between for women, thereby denying most the opportunity to break out of cycles of violence.

When Ben Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP, spoke on a panel about “reclaiming our democracy,” he noted that recent voting legislation targeting the poor and communities of color is akin to a Latino Exclusion Act. “They are not happening in Maine where my father is from and there is a big undocumented Canadian population … they are happening along the southern border.” He then made an important point that offers considerable hope that progressive social change will not be eclipsed by corporate money. Although this is not the first time leaders in the United States have feared a growing minority electorate, “today we are much more powerful than back then.” In an ironic twist, the laws intended to suppress the vote in the last election stirred such a backlash that they actually increased voter turnout in the very demographics targeted for suppression.

While it was certainly exciting to recognize familiar faces that match screen names on the Daily Kos and other progressive blogs, and to read the name tags of people I do not know but receive emails from, it was the grassroots women and men I met who ultimately gave me what I was looking for at this year’s conference – reassurance in the power of the progressive movement in spite of the historical shifts in money and politics that have occurred since the first time I attended Netroots Nation. I sign off on this post convinced that organized people will defeat organized money.

About the author: Katharine Daniels is the founder and executive editor of The WIP.

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