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In Battleground Ohio, Community Organizing Trumps Cynicism: Lesson for 2012?

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I left my inside-the-Beltway home in suburban Washington on Friday and spent the penultimate weekend before the 2008 election in Columbus, Ohio to get a first-hand look at one of the most intriguing, hopeful and yet, in some circles, controversial voter participation experiments of 2008.

More than two years in the making, the nonpartisan Faith Vote Columbus and two related interfaith organizations in Dayton and Lorain launched by the Saul Alinsky-founded Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), are challenging the conventional wisdom among many progressive strategists and funders. That conventional wisdom holds that the only realistic way to register and mobilize apathetic voters in low-income communities on a large scale is to import an army of mercenaries--the polite term is "paid canvassers"--who scour supermarket parking lots and other territory where poor people are likely to be found.

But in 2004 in Ohio, where the presidential election was decided, there was little evidence that the millions of dollars spent on parachuting canvassers onto the electoral battlefield made much of a difference on Election Day--and absolutely none, of course, after the election, when the outsiders went home.

Faith Vote Columbus and its sister organizations, however, are based on different principles, including one that recalls Alinsky's Iron Rule: Don't do for people what they can do for themselves. Since April, more than 1,100 trained volunteers in the three Ohio cities have gone door to door in their low-income neighborhoods--heavily Hispanic in Lorain and predominately African American in Columbus and Dayton--talking with their neighbors about local issues and asking them to pledge that they will vote in November. By this coming weekend, they expect to achieve one of their major goals: the completion of 30,000 one-on-one conversations and pledges to vote by residents in some of the lowest voter-turnout neighborhoods in Ohio. And on Election Day, their goal is to increase turnout by at least 10 percent over the 2004 results. They receive not a cent for their efforts.

The only people who are paid are four IAF community organizers--one each in Lorain and Dayton, and two in Columbus. Modest funding has come from several labor unions, foundations and individuals.

On Saturday morning, after I watched a 45-minute training for 26 volunteers at the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church led by IAF organizer Ari Lipman, I caught up with Faith Vote Columbus volunteer Ceron Williamson at the corner of Greenwich and Pauline, in precinct 23 D on the North Side. A member of New Salem, he was invited to volunteer by a church leader and, since the summer, he has been knocking on doors and talking to neighborhood residents--more than 200, he estimates. A 27-year old electrician with a wife and two children, Williamson hopes that somehow he can make conditions better than they were for his mother who struggled financially as a single parent raising four children. Today, however, is a little slow--some people on his walk list are not home, others are not citizens. "It can get a little discouraging," he says, "but I don't let it bring me down."

Indeed, "persistent and consistent" is the organizer's credo that Lipman has passed along to Faith Vote's volunteers who represent some 30 interfaith congregations in Columbus. They have been persistent in engaging state and local politicians to come to public accountability sessions and talk about priority issues the volunteers have heard about during their thousands of door-step conversations. Ohio Governor Ted Strickland has participated twice, and on other occasions so have U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, the secretary of state and numerous city council members. During the last six months, some elected officials have even walked door to door in the neighborhood with Faith Vote volunteers, seeing first hand the level of commitment, discipline and organization.

"These are communities that have been historically ignored [by politicians] and taken for granted," says Derrick Collins, 53, a New Salem church leader. That's changing, he believes. "We're opening eyes." And Sam Gresham, a past president of the Columbus Urban League, points to the unusual public recognition that Faith Vote Columbus is attracting. "It's very powerful to have Governor Strickland come to a Faith Vote accountability meeting," he says.

Gresham is enthusiastic about the post-election potential of Faith Vote Columbus turning into a permanent, multi-issue grassroots organization that, in his words, can "change the political culture" in low-income Columbus communities. And that's also the hope of senior IAF organizers Arnie Graf and Jonathan Lange who have supervised the organizing in the three Ohio cities. As Lange says, "in some communities that are really, really disorganized, where most of the connective tissues aren't there any more, this has been a very healthy way for people to get to know each other and work together shoulder to shoulder on something that's important to them." Already, interfaith leaders in Lorain and Dayton have scheduled post-election meetings to consider broadening their agendas beyond voter participation and establishing ongoing community organizations.

But until November 4th, some 500 volunteers in the three cities are now focused on reminding 30,000 neighbors about their pledges to vote. To get to this point, the IAF organizers and volunteers had to fight through the thick residue of anger and cynicism from the 2004 election, when the voting system in Columbus and elsewhere in Ohio virtually collapsed, disenfranchising thousands who had waited fruitlessly in line for hours to vote. Even people who cast a ballot often doubted that their vote was actually counted. Against this dispiriting backdrop, the work in Columbus, Lorain and Dayton seems especially impressive. And the IAF organizers are confident that when the election results have been digested, they will be able to show that a volunteer-driven voter participation strategy can significantly increase turnout in scores of precincts where, in the last election, less than half of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot.

As Arnie Graf says, "we haven't invented anything new." But for progressive strategists and funders who don't recall the days when ordinary people, not paid canvassers, engaged their neighbors about politics and voting, there are important lessons in Columbus, Lorain and Dayton for a more democratic, effective back-to-the-future model in 2012.

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