Politics

On the Ground

A national activist group’s local chapter aspires to connect new and old organizers

Doug Bishop (Kiran Misra)

When we fight, we win. So, let’s go and fight!” said Doug Bishop, opening an October meeting of Indivisible South Side at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. He was followed by a presentation by Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) on the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for the Obama Presidential Center, reports from Indivisible’s working groups, and pitches by four candidates running for office: Rich Eichols, for U.S. Congress in the 8th district of Michigan; Joshua Grey, for Cook County Commissioner in the 3rd District; Fritz Kaegi, for Cook County Assessor; and Sharon Fairley, for Illinois Attorney General.

As candidates spoke about their connections to the Hyde Park community and their plans for defending progressive values once elected, strains of Nutcracker music emanating from a dance rehearsal elsewhere in the church filtered into the room, drowning out some of the speakers’ remarks. More than one candidate ventured over to the rehearsal to try their hand at negotiating with the dance group to turn the music down, a fitting display for those seeking to work with community members and leaders to compromise on much higher-stakes issues. “This is the price of activism, I guess,” said Bishop, joking about the space’s double-booking.

Attorney General candidate Sharon Fairley (Kiran Misra)

Attorney General candidate Sharon Fairley (Kiran Misra)

It’s no coincidence that the South Side chapter of Indivisible’s Chicago branch meets at a church. The group’s coordinators want you to make activism a part of your week, a ritual, like attending a Sunday morning service is for so many Hyde Park residents.

The Indivisible Project was created in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election by former congressional staffers Leah Greenberg and Ezra Levin. In the weeks after the election, Greenberg and Levin noticed an outpouring of energy and desire to get involved in political action, but a lack of direction and organization. Drawing upon the success of the Tea Party in opposing Barack Obama and the Democratic congressional supermajority, Greenberg and Levin created an online guide that “laid out specifics regarding actions for best practices for making Congress listen.” The guide drew nationwide attention: local Indivisible chapters, which aim to use Greenberg and Levin’s strategies to advance progressive values, began popping up across the country. Indivisible cites its ever-growing number of chapters as the organization’s greatest strength, with at least two chapters in every congressional district. There are 5,800 chapters nationwide, with twelve chapters in Chicago and dozens more in the greater Chicagoland area.

Like many across the country, chapter co-coordinators Wendy Posner, Doug Bishop, and Esther Peters were wondering what to do after the election. Bishop, a professor of biology at the University of Chicago, explained, “I’d worked on a campaign or two, but never any kind of activism of this sort, and like many many many people in this country who have suddenly found themselves in activism, after the last election, I sort of felt it was time.”

Cara Adler, a Hyde Park resident and editor for the New England Journal of Medicine who leads the voting rights working group for the chapter, added, “At the time, the Indivisible Mission just fit how we were feeling.” Prior to joining Indivisible, Adler had mostly engaged with her community through volunteering instead of formal political action. Peters agreed with Adler, saying that she also hadn’t been engaged with policy work and electoral politics, “until last November, when I was like, ‘that has to change and that’s where we all came from.’”

Bishop set off to register a South Side chapter with the national Indivisible Project and soon realized that someone living across the street from him had already filed to create a chapter. The two got together and were soon connected with three others who tried to file for a South Side chapter a few days later and discovered one had already been chartered.

“There was very limited advertising for that first meeting, mostly word of mouth,” Bishop explained. “We were figuring if we had twenty to twenty-five people, that would be pretty good.”

The chapter’s work officially started on January 26, 2017 at 7pm. “We met in a bar and we had a small room in the Woodlawn Tap, which is sort of Chicago’s beer hall,” Posner explained. “We had called the meeting for seven and by a quarter to seven, the room was packed. We had over 200 people that night.” Bishop added, “There were people who couldn’t get into the bar, it was so full.” Since then, the group has swelled to include one hundred regularly involved members as well as a mailing list of 600.

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At meetings, the chapter presents a diverse assortment of opportunities to get involved in local efforts and national campaigns. The list of ‘upcoming actions’ at the October meeting’s agenda included a local ward meeting with Alderman Leslie Hairston, a protest against tax cuts for the wealthy at a Republican fundraiser in the Chicago suburbs, and opportunities to get involved with voter registration at local high schools and jails, as well as a phone banking meeting for the recent governor’s race in Virginia. During the elections’ working group report, the group’s leader, Michael Glotzer, also mentioned opportunities to get involved with the upcoming Alabama Senate special election through long-distance phone-banking and text-banking efforts.

Using their dedicated and energized Chicago membership to affect politics across the country isn’t a new strategy for the chapter, which organized against repeals of the ACA by calling voters in states with Republican senators undecided on the various repeal bills and encouraging them to contact their representatives. Peters, who also works at the Center for East European and Eurasian Studies at the UofC, remembers calling voters in Maine during the most recent ACA repeal attempt, when in the middle of the phone-banking session, Maine Senator Susan Collins released a statement against the bill. “We just kept making calls to voters to have them call and thank her for her decision,” she said.

Esther Peters (Kiran Misra)

Esther Peters (Kiran Misra)

Though Indivisible Chicago–South Side gets some direction from the national Indivisible Project, most of their activities are independently directed by the chapter coordinators. “We have very little to do with the national group at this point,” Bishop said. “We pay more close attention to the city group because they make a decision for all the city chapters on what to emphasize and they also organize citywide marches and demonstrations.” Generally, individual Indivisible chapters enjoy a great deal of autonomy, having different sets of working groups and different tactics and approaches to organizing for change across chapters.

As far as agendas go, the national Indivisible Project has a decidedly anti-Trump focus, with a mission “to cultivate and lift up a grassroots movement of local groups to defeat the Trump agenda, elect progressive leaders, and realize bold progressive policies.” The South Side chapter reflects similar politics, with most members and leaders at the meeting mentioning the need to resist the destructive and divisive policies of the current American president, even though their mission, “to unite South Siders to fight for progressive values by exerting grassroots influence on our elected officials,” doesn’t mention the president by name.

Posner pointed to the multifaceted attacks on ideals of social justice as a foundational part of Indivisible Chicago–South Side’s approach to defining their priorities. “One of the thing that’s a hallmark of what we’re doing is that we don’t know from week to week what’s going to happen,” she said. “Sometimes things just drop on us. Sometimes they are local, sometimes they are national, sometimes they’re even international.” Betsy Rubin, the Twitter manager for the chapter, added, “We’re in a defensive position right now.”

However, the coordinators have recognized that just working against Donald Trump, a manifestation of many problems in the United States, wasn’t enough to build a progressive movement. “When Trump talks about deporting all Muslims and building a wall, that is an extreme manifestation,” Bishop said, “but in this country, there has always been anti-immigrant sentiment, conservative politics trying to promote the story to working class people that the reason they don’t have a job is because jobs are being stolen away from them by immigrants.”

Rubin said that she believed “all of [Trump’s] supporters, the entire Republican party is the outcome of many years of Republican organizing.” Peters added, “Trump is not the illness, he is a symptom of a larger illness, and so when you want to resist Trump, you have to think what are the forces in the state that are supporting Trump that we can fight against.”

To this end, the group places a strong emphasis on organizing around the issue of voting rights and voter suppression, “a long-term goal that isn’t dependent on things that are happening at the moment,” as Bishop put it, adding “we’re very concerned about things like fighting against gerrymandering, fighting against voter suppression, trying to get everyone who is eligible to vote registered.” Many Indivisible Chicago–South Side members are Deputy Voter Registrars who, in conjunction with other voter’s rights groups, recently registered 261 voters and are working to expand voter registration efforts in Cook County high schools.

Bishop also mentioned that the previous Tuesday, the Illinois Board of Elections met partially in response to the work of Indivisible members around withdrawing Operation Crosscheck, a voter suppression initiative. During the meeting, four representatives presented research conducted by Indivisible Chicago members utilizing FOIA requests to mobilize against the initiative, a priority issue for the citywide Indivisible chapter.

Wendy Posner (Kiran Misra)

Wendy Posner (Kiran Misra)

“Our chapter is involved at a slightly lower level than the group downtown,” Bishop said. “We’re providing assistance to them and doing research to gather information about how elections work in different states that participate in Crosscheck, gathering information against what we view to be a voter suppression program.”

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Though the chapter calls itself Indivisible Chicago–South Side, its coordinators agree that there’s more work to be done for it to be representative of the South Side. The members in attendance at the October meeting skewed whiter and older, reflecting Hyde Park demographics, and the chapter’s coordinators agreed this was a problem they were eager to tackle. “We’re looking to be helpers to find ways to draw people to organizing efforts that are Black-led,” Peters said. “If we can do that on a consistent basis, we can prove ourselves to be good partners.”

Bishop explained that he chose the name because he thought it might lead to various South Side communities getting involved. “It was an aspirational name,” he said, adding that maybe one reason the chapter hasn’t been representative is because there are many people on the South Side “who have been involved with activism for a long time, so there is no reason to [join] a new activist group.”

In a city that has been home to the proverbial founder of community organizing (Saul Alinsky) and one of the most famous community organizers of all time (Barack Obama), Indivisible Chicago–South Side hopes to complement existing organizing efforts with a broad and inclusive mission, low barrier to entry, interesting and well-known speakers, and the backing of a well-known and well-organized national nonprofit. “We’re trying to be a wheelhouse and plug people in to each other,” Posner said. Peters agreed, saying that the chapter was “trying to provide a place…to develop bonds of friendship and solidarity and go and do something meaningful and then a place to come back and find something new once that’s done.”

Some of the chapter’s members have worked with the Coalition for A Better Illinois 6th District’s to unseat Congressman Peter Roskam, the Republic incumbent. “The 6th district…is one of the closest districts to where we reside that has a GOP member of Congress…[so] Roskam’s an obvious target to try to flip,” said Bishop. Their strategy, developed by the Coalition, was to get out the vote by educating progressive voters in that district, mostly via door-to-door canvassing. Indivisible members knocked on some 450 doors this past summer as part of that effort.

The chapter has also joined the fray surrounding the Obama Presidential Library. Following the October meeting, twenty members from both Indivisible and STOP showed up to Alderman Leslie Hairston’s ward meeting about the library and asked about her position on a CBA. Though Hairston rebuffed the CBA coalition’s questions at the meeting, citing a lack of written proposal from the CBA coalition among other issues, the chapter’s leadership sees any opportunity to collaborate with other activist groups and connect with young activists of color on the South Side as a success. So far they’ve collaborated with the League of Women Voters, Chicago Votes, and the Sargent Shriver Center for Poverty Law on voter registration drives, to name a few.

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Finding a way to collaborate with other groups while organizing one hundred to 600 new activists with different ideologies and goals is no easy job, one that Peters cited as one of the biggest challenges of being a coordinator for the group. “The hardest parts are probably balancing my job with Indivisible and realizing that different people approach activism in different ways and look to get different things out of activism,” she said.

To meet the evolving demands of running an activist organization, Bishop mentioned that creating a system of democratically elected and expanded leadership is in the chapter’s future. “That is one way for people to feel ownership of the group also, if they feel they can have a say in who the leaders are,” said Bishop. The group has no immediate plans to engage in chapter fundraising or instate a system of membership dues, an effort to keep membership accessible to South Siders with varying financial resources.

In the meantime, the group’s members are keeping up their enthusiasm by noting the difference their work is making, even at an individual level. Bishop recounted a moment during a recent canvassing effort, at the end of a three-hour shift. “I ring a doorbell and a man comes up to the door…He says, ‘I know Peter Roskam, he’s my business associate.’ I tell him that Roskam voted against Obamacare, against DACA, and he says, ‘No, I know him, I’m sure he wouldn’t have done that.’ I tell him, ‘Well, yes, he did. Would you be willing to call his offices and let him know how you feel about those votes?’ and he said he would.”

“It made putting leaflets on doorsteps of people who weren’t home worth it,” Bishop said. “The one connection made going out worth it.”

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