Don’t underestimate the power of grassroots politics

Emma Boardman-Larson

For many, Beto O’Rourke’s campaign represented something that seemed like a fairy tale in Texas — the possibility of electing someone admirable and trustworthy to represent them in the Senate. Beto didn’t win, but his campaign engaged thousands of people, many of whom were not previously involved in politics. Ordinary people all over the state have started to embrace their organizing power. The impact of thousands of people working together is enormous. The greatest loss for Texas politics would be for these people to go back to accepting the status quo instead of uniting and fighting for their needs. While we can’t rely on politicians to create the change that we need, we can make a difference on a smaller but more immediate scale.

Earlier this year, the Austin chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) decided that it was time for a large affordable housing bond. Austin DSA’s housing committee, composed entirely of volunteers, quickly mobilized to encourage other community organizations to sign on in support of the $300 million bond and lobby relevant City of Austin officials. Community members flooded Austin City Hall to show support and testify on the night that the Austin City Council voted on the size of the bond. The council members cut the bond to $250 million, still four times the size of the previous largest housing bond in Austin’s history. After this victory, Austin DSA began its canvassing operation, knocking on doors every single weekend for several months leading up to this year’s election. Volunteer canvassers talked to thousands of people about their experiences with Austin’s housing market and about socialism. They started conversations about why housing, something that is so vital for mental and physical health and stability, is subject to being bought and sold at all. Due in large part to these efforts, bond passed on November 6th by a 50-point margin.

Grassroots campaigns like these, focused on a specific need yet part of the path towards a larger goal, are immensely rewarding and effective. Imagine the impact if all the people who were energized by Beto’s campaign put their energy into new fights, organizing to reap the benefits they hoped a Democratic senator from Texas could bring them. These fights may seem small, but the combined impact of small efforts all around the country is massive and lays the groundwork for national victories. Although the bond will positively affect thousands instead of millions, it has already expanded the horizons of what is possible.

These campaigns are happening right now. For each issue you care about, there is a movement being built around it. This week, Austin City Council will vote on whether to dramatically expand police accountability, shifting from essentially letting police police themselves to holding police accountable by establishing an outside office with real disciplinary power. 45 minutes north of the UT campus, the largest for-profit prison corporation in America operates a women’s detention center, holding women hostage for the heinous crime of seeking asylum. Grassroots Leadership, a criminal justice reform organization, is working to shut it down. A coalition of community organizations is working to preserve Austin’s historic paid sick leave ordinance, the first of its kind to be passed in the South. Graduate students at UT are unionizing. BookPeople is unionizing. These issues may seem too complicated or intimidating for you to make a difference. But there are overworked, exhausted people in grassroots movements who want nothing more than your involvement. They will gladly teach you. Pick an organization or issue, show up to a meeting and ask all the questions you have. As long as one of those questions is “how can I help?,” you will be welcomed.

Boardman-Larson is a music senior and a member of the Austin Democratic Socialists of America.