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Steve Lopes: Fed up with a discouraging status quo? Grassroots organizing holds the solution (Column)

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Steve Lopes was a union organizer for Kansas-NEA for 30 years.

Kudos to Aaron Schwartz for his Sept. 1 letter of encouragement to teachers, which alerted me to a problem and reminded me of a solution.

In these most discouraging times for public educators, they do need all the encouragement we can give them. Although encouragement might feel good, it does not create meaningful change on its own.

The question we need to ask is: “What can we do that will cause lasting change?”

Many citizens are outraged by this or that, and that’s a good thing, but only if that energy is used to promote positive change.

The obvious response is: Convert our collective anger to action through collective organizing.

Organizing 101

When hearing about an “organizing” effort, some folks think of labor unions and all that unfair baggage.

I think about how my neighborhood association brings us together to maintain and improve our quality of life. I think about how my social justice causes organize to get better outcomes. And I think about how committed organized citizens could elect a Legislature that more accurately reflects Kansas values.

A lot of grassroots organizing is going on in Kansas, mostly overlooked by the news media (and that might be a good thing!) until now. Let’s look at some successful efforts in northeast Kansas.

ACLU of Kansas Field Organizing Project

Former ACLU of Kansas executive director Micah Kubic hired a field coordinator to accompany him while presenting Where Freedom Stands, his 2015 statewide listening tour. At the conclusion of his presentation, the organizer would sign up interested participants who would agree to meet later and consider potential local projects.

Members in six counties agreed to meet monthly. ACLU members in two counties were eventually sanctioned as official “ACLU of Kansas Task Forces.” 

Douglas County partnered with the NAACP for a police stops survey. Johnson County ACLU members were eager to respond to voter suppression being promoted by former Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Douglas County

The subsequent ACLU/NAACP police stops survey report was a wake-up call for Lawrence and Douglas County leaders and informed the Douglas County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In August, a consulting firm from Northeastern University reported on police contacts in the county and continues to advise the council.

Johnson County

The ACLU members who met at the Merriam Library in August 2015 wanted to improve voter turnout by bringing together like-minded nonprofit progressive groups to coordinate voter registration efforts.

The task force members then transitioned to the independent Johnson County Voting Coalition (JO VOTES) and coordinated more than 35 progressive groups to share calendars and activities.

Many sent delegates to monthly meetings, not speaking for their organization but sharing and learning. After starting with voter registration, the group moved to coordinating Get Out the Vote efforts and helped elect a bounty of moderate Republicans and Democrats in the otherwise dismal 2016 election.

JO VOTES also hosted meet and greets (in 2016 and 2020) for newly elected Republicans and Democrats to see each other as potential collaborators before their respective party caucuses could influence them. COVID-19 brought an end to JO VOTES meetings and canvassing, but the connections remain.

Prairie Roots

As reported by Kansas Reflector on May 11, “an objective of Prairie Roots, the newly formed 501(c)(4), would be to create a centralized volunteer organization for community organizing and canvassing across Kansas (and) … issues of health care and voting rights would be key issues of interest.”

According to its website: “Prairie Roots is a hub for organizing, training, and empowering volunteers to reach the registered voters in Kansas that do not get out to the ballot box. We’re focused on long-term results, community organizing, and bringing more voters into the electorate for progressive change.

Core members of the team include former state Sen. Barbara Bollier and former state Democratic Party campaign director Peyton Browning. Prairie Roots teams were active this summer, helping give voice to unheard Kansas voters.

How can I get involved?

What can we, the “fed up,” do to see the change we want?

Start with a small-time commitment by joining a cause that touches you (such as an hour a week for climate change or clean air). Find whatever is personal and meaningful for you. Discover that community of like-minded activists, join and hopefully move up in responsibility.

Remember: Our failure to get involved is a default vote of support for those working against our interests.

— Steve Lopes is a Lawrence resident who taught technology in a suburban Boston high school and other tech schools for 15 years. He was a union organizer for Kansas-NEA for 30 years and over the past 10 years has advised progressive groups and Democrats in Douglas, Johnson and Wyandotte counties.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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