The Amateur’s Guide To Community Organizing

Before the election, the most complicated gathering I’d planned was a halfway decent Oscars party

It's not easy being a writer these days. In the past few weeks, the administration has implied that cuts in funding to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, organizations that provide much needed financial support to artists, are imminent. But it's not just the possible financial losses that cut to our core. As a nation, we’ve never witnessed such devastating attacks on truth from the executive branch—and one only needs to review Thursday morning’s bizarre press conference for evidence. We’ve been bombarded with “alternative facts,” while almost daily, Trump lambastes the press, calling journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Truth will be a subversive act. We should have acts of truth and beauty everywhere.[/quote]

Yet through reporting, poems, essays, and even fictional stories, writers aim to reveal the truth by holding a mirror up to society, so that it can view itself in all its honest glory and shame. To us, the freedom of expression is a sacred right and the fight to maintain it is particularly personal. For several weeks after the election I sought to channel my emotions by writing pieces about the horrors of the incoming administration, calling on those who felt just as angry to turn their fury into fuel.

But as the days went on, I felt I had to do more. It was no longer enough to write about my feelings. I needed to take action. Then I remembered: I could do something at AWP—the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. The annual three-day event gathers more than 10,000 fiction writers, poets and essayists for hundreds of panels, readings, and off-site events—and the 2017 conference was held this past week in Washington, D.C.

Back in November, I already knew I'd be attending the conference, along with hundreds of my friends. I couldn't imagine such a large gathering of writers staying silent in the face of what was looking more like an incoming authoritarian regime with each passing day. So on December 14, I posted a Facebook event page and invited about 400 writers to what I then called “An AWP anti-Trump rally.” I had no idea what I was doing. I was shouting into the void, hoping someone would hear me. I said I didn't really know how to organize anything, beyond maybe a pretty decent Oscars party.

Luckily, people did hear me. Several people contacted me, offering to help. They too had been discussing a protest plan, and were happy to join forces. The next few weeks became a lesson in just how much collaboration and effort is necessary in order to put on a fairly large-scale event. It wasn’t easy, but we pulled it off. Here’s what I learned about channeling my frustration and fear into an event that made a real impact.

Outsource the details that require an expert

There will be a lot of them. Have you ever secured a permit?

I’d never before had to think about permits or marketing, so rather than attempting to wing important legal minutiae or graphic design, I reached out to folks who had more experience with this vital work. Dana Cann researched locations and did the tedious work of securing us a permit for Lafayette Park. Daniel Hoyt came up with the idea of a candlelight vigil for freedom of expression and offered to purchase all the candles. Sequoia Nagamatsu designed the postcard, 5,000 of which we distributed at the conference book fair. Simone Roberts helped secure the sound system, and Julie Carr secured both the funds and all the materials to create the signs held by many at the rally.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]A vigil is a period of keeping awake during a time usually kept asleep.[/quote]

It was Sarah Browning, director of Split This Rock, a D.C.-based poetry organization that focuses on social justice, who really put our plans into high gear. She used her considerable networking skills and influence to build momentum, first by inviting several notable speakers (including Kazim Ali, Gabrielle Bellot, Melissa Febos, Carolyn Forché, Ross Gay, and Luis J. Rodriguez), then by securing over 30 cosponsors—organizations like PEN America and Lambda Literary—for our event, each of whom agreed to spread the word as well. We put out a press release and a few publications interviewed us and promoted the event. Soon, our numbers multiplied: from a couple of hundred people to over 1,000 people saying they'd attend, with another 900 “interested.” I was flabbergasted. My vague little idea was turning into something real.

Be prepared to improvise

Face it: Everything will not go according to plan.

Three days before the vigil, we found out that because our contact at the Parks department had been out sick, we wouldn't be able to get the upgraded permit we had hoped for, which would have allowed us to set up a stage. With our current permit, we wouldn't be allowed to set anything on the ground and we'd have to make do with a portable sound system, one that likely wouldn't be loud enough for the crowd we were expecting. We could bring candles, but only if there was something that prevented the wax from dripping onto the ground, so we purchased candle skirts.

There were so many unknowns: What would the weather be like? We decided to hold the event rain or shine, but a few of us were worried that people wouldn't show up if it was too cold. Lafayette Park was also a twenty minute walk from the convention center, and many attendees often balked at attending “off-site” events at AWP. What if people got lost? Would there be other protests that we would be competing with on the day of, and how would that affect us?

Pay attention to staging—and your attendees’s needs

It may be a protest, but it’s still an event.

In the end our fears were unfounded. The weather was in the mid ’50s—balmy for a winter evening in D.C.—the sky was clear, and people turned out in droves. I'm not going to pull a Trump and say this was the largest crowd at any vigil in history, but our expectations that we’d have under a thousand attendees were exceeded. But because we’d encouraged a rather diligent crowd that included professors and editors to RSVP, we’d ensured that everyone had plenty of room and we kept the event to a strict 75 minutes so that everyone would remain comfortable. If you’re planning to go longer, you will likely want to rent Porta-Pottys or otherwise ensure restroom access.

A few hundred feet behind us was the White House. Sarah informed all of the speakers that we needed to always face away from it when speaking—that was the rule. I spoke first to thank everyone and talk about not giving into despair, and about how every time we express ourselves we must view it as an act of resistance against a world which seeks to silence or marginalize us.

Invite a balanced mix of speakers suited to your cause

If you’ve done this right, you’ve already targeted a crowd focused on specific actions.

Iranian writer and filmmaker Sanaz Fotouhi almost didn’t make it to AWP because of Trump's travel ban.

There’s so much to fight for when it comes to Trump these days, but we asked each speaker to focus on freedom of expression, and the rest was up to them. The 2014-2016 Los Angeles poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez spoke about how advocating for truth under Trump was going to be “revolutionary.” “Truth will be a subversive act,” he said. “I want to have truth processions. We should have poetics of truth. We should have acts of truth and beauty everywhere.”

But writers tend to be very solitary folks, which is why we were glad that memoirist and essayist Melissa Febos acknowledged that she didn't initially want to attend a vigil. “I don't feel like lighting a candle unless the candle is for burning this house down,” she said. Writer that she is, she looked up the word in the dictionary. “A vigil is a period of keeping awake during a time usually kept asleep. That sounded exactly right to med most importantly, keep it under seven minutes. After that, it wa because, as awake as I have always believed myself to be, I also know that I have spent more time sleeping than I could afford now.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I really didn't understand the groundswell of need we were tapping into.[/quote]

Iranian writer and filmmaker Sanaz Fotouhi almost didn’t make it to AWP because of Trump's travel ban. She considered herself lucky, as a dual citizen of Australia, because she was able to fly home to relative safety, but she asked the crowd to consider all of the people who, unlike her, could not speak English or fly back to their country. “This ban is a matter of life or death,” she said.

Legendary award-winning poet and human rights advocate Carolyn Forché read from the First Amendment and said we were “gathered here in vigil, in defense of these rights, and to declare our allegiance to the party of humanity … We will not stand down, we will not end our just resistance, we will work together with compassion and intelligence, hope, and commitment.”

Let your event be bigger than you

This is a jumping off point.

When the speakers were done, spontaneous chanting broke out. People lingered for several minutes after the event was officially over, perhaps, like me, feeling energized and hopeful and ready to commit themselves to express themselves even more. Before I arrived in D.C., I really didn't understand the groundswell of need we were tapping into. Coming from New York, I have an opportunity to protest pretty much every day. Many of those who descend upon AWP hail from smaller towns, so this vigil was a way for them to feel connected to the burgeoning resistance in our country.

I can't help but think back to my original post on Facebook. I didn’t have any idea then what would be possible—only that I had a desire to express something. But here’s the thing: Words do have power, particularly in dark times. No matter how daunting things seem, it is up to us to remember that all major social change first seemed futile. This vigil was just one of countless protests around the country in recent weeks, and each gathering adds to the accumulation of voices exercising perhaps the most crucial right of any democracy: the right to express ourselves freely. People are staying awake when they once kept asleep, and right now, that’s the only way forward.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

Center for American Progress Action Fund

Tonight's Democratic debate is a must-watch for followers of the 2020 election. And it's a nice distraction from the impeachment inquiry currently enveloping all of the political oxygen in America right now.

For most people, the main draw will be newly anointed frontrunner Pete Buttigieg, who has surprisingly surged to first place in Iowa and suddenly competing in New Hampshire. Will the other Democrats attack him? How will Elizabeth Warren react now that she's no longer sitting alone atop the primary field? After all, part of Buttigieg's rise has been his criticisms of Warren and her refusal to get into budgetary specifics over how she'd pay for her healthcare plan.

The good news is that Joe Biden apparently counts time travel amongst his other resume-building experience.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) dropped a bombshell on Tuesday, announcing it had over 900 emails that White House aide Stephen Miller sent to former Breitbart writer and editor Katie McHugh.

According to the SPLC, in the emails, Miller aggressively "promoted white nationalist literature, pushed racist immigration stories and obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof's murderous rampage."

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