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Building to Win: Creating Change in Kalamazoo

December 29, 2009

By: Dan Hawes, Director of the Academy for Leadership and Action

November 3, 2009. It’s election day in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where voters would decide whether to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance inclusive of LGBT people.

Sarah and Trystan, two of my Task Force colleagues who are part of the local campaign leadership team, are joining an impressive army of over 200 volunteers to talk with voters one last time in front of polling places across the city. It is their last chance to remind every voter to: “Vote Yes for Fairness and Equality – Vote Yes on ordinance 1856.”

Task Force's Sarah and Trystan lead a training for volunteers with the One Kalamazoo campaign.

That Tuesday capped a four-month, hard-fought, campaign by One Kalamazoo to pass the anti-discrimination ordinance. Since July, right-wing forces led by the American Family Association had waged an ugly, hateful and hurtful campaign against the LGBT community to repeal the law.

After qualifying an anti-LGBT initiative for the November ballot, they rallied anti-LGBT pastors to campaign against us from the pulpit. They sent volunteers out to campaign door-to-door against us with misleading campaign lit reading: “Say No to Special Rights Discrimination.”

Worst of all, they sent thousands of mail pieces to Kalamazoo voters with grainy photos of Michigan transgender leaders, singling them out as public targets of their hate. They were stopping at nothing to mislead and misinform voters about the real impact of ordinance 1856, which was simply to protect LGBT people from discrimination on the job, at home, and in their communities.

Yet despite the other sides best efforts, we prevailed, and handily. Ordinance 1856 passed by a resounding margin of 62% – 38%. This victory wasn’t due to luck – it was due to the disciplined, vigorous, organizing of One Kalamazoo to make sure that fair-minded voters turned out to vote on election day.

But to get our supporters to the polls, we first had to know who they were. That meant we had to talk to Kalamazoo voters – one-person at a time – about the ordinance and actually ask every voter were they stood.

For the four months prior to the election day, this was among the most important work One Kalamazoo did to win. Under the direction of Jon Hoadley, the campaign manager, and Task Force organizer Trystan Reese, who served as the field director, One Kalamazoo recruited and trained over 300 volunteers to go door-to-door to talk with Kalamazoo voters about the ordinance, ask where every voter stood, and record the supporters’ names, addresses, and phone numbers on a list that was eventually entered into a database. By election day, the campaign had amassed a list of 8,104 voters who supported non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

As election day approached, our strategy shifted to turning out these supporters to vote. Hundreds of volunteers called and doorknocked each of our 8,104 supporters to remind them vote. The goal of each conversation was to inject our supporters with a supreme sense of urgency about voting and to teach how each and every vote for ordinance 1856 would make a difference in protecting LGBT people from discrimination. In the end, our hard work paid off as we won with 7,671 yes votes.

Building a big field operation like this wasn’t easy, and none of it could have happened without the 300 volunteers who stepped up and gave time to campaign with voters. In the end, it was this army of organized people that helped us prevail on election day. Trystan and Sarah could have gone door-to-door by themselves, 24 hours per day for four months, and they would never talk with enough voters to make a difference.

But these volunteers didn’t just show-up on their own – they came to help because someone asked them. Through conversations with passersby on busy street corners, or with congregants during coffee hour after a church service, or with college students in class, we had to ask people directly to join with us if we were to count on their help.

In the end, the Kalamazoo victory was possible because our side organized more people and more money than the right-wing. In public life, size does matter. We need people power to campaign with voters and educate the public about why our cause is just, and we need financial power to pay for all of the things that only money can buy, like TV airtime, radio ads and mail pieces.

Building political power is hard work that requires commitment, tenacity and perseverance; and, it’s not rocket science! At the National Conference for LGBT Equality: Creating Change, the Academy for Leadership and Action will feature in-depth trainings on how to organize people and money for any issue you care about.

If you’re tired of being bullied by the right-wing, and if you want to win more concrete victories to improve the lives of LGBT people, join us for Academy trainings at Creating Change. We’ll teach you how to organize, fight back, and win!

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