A Lifelong Organizer Explains How to Maintain Momentum Without Burning Out

Somehow, the 2020 election is still a full year away.

Supporters of Joe Biden with their hands over their hearts
Supporters of Joe Biden listen to the national anthem in Philadelphia on May 18. Dominick Reuter/AFP via Getty Images

As impeachment proceedings barrel along and the president’s behavior continues to devolve, I’ve noticed a strange new political torpor setting in among people who once believed that their voices, their phones calls, and their votes mattered. It’s hardly surprising. The years grind you down and the criming persists anyway. Something about the enormity of the daily ugliness has led a good many people, perhaps especially women, who were inspired in 2016 and then activated by its aftermath, to believe that nothing any one person does can ever matter. More and more frequently, women ask me what they can do/should do/could possibly hope to accomplish that could turn around what feels like their country sliding into the kind of cruel and vindictive politics that fosters genuine hopelessness.

The answer is certainly not nothing—Tuesday night’s elections proved that the daily work does matter. But maintaining momentum is a challenge nonetheless. So I reached out to an old friend of mine, Marya Stark, who is the founder and the founding executive director of Emerge America, a training program for Democratic women who want to run for public office. She more recently launched an organization, called Rep19, to increase the retention and ascension of women in public service. Stark’s been thinking about women and organizing and activism longer than I have. I asked her for the simplest possible answer to the question: What should individual women be doing, right now, today, to turn things around? What is the pragmatic answer to a growing feeling of helplessness and isolation that results from three years of this administration’s fire hose of corruption and lies? Our conversation, below, has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dahlia Lithwick: An awful lot of people stop me (sometimes in the streets!) to say that they are freaked out and feeling powerless and wondering what to do for the year between today and the 2020 election. Yet Tuesday night, we saw that when people show up and organize, sea change happens. What should folks do, this morning, today?

Marya Stark: If you are new to political work, the first thing is to find an active group of people in your community who are working together. That group can be focused on voter registration, democratic reform efforts such as getting money out of politics, ranked choice voting, easy access to the ballot, automatic voter registration, supporting good candidates for public office, or my personal passion: electing more women to public office.

The vital thing is this: Spend time building relationships with people you enjoy working with. Again, if you are new to this kind of effort, set yourself a goal of meeting at least one or two like-minded people who you’d like to see again. Ask them about their volunteer experiences. These conversations will plug you into local political organizers. If you don’t know where to start, try your local League of Women Voters, which focuses on voting rights, or All on the Line, which works to end gerrymandering.

Ultimately, it’s people working together that make real change. It’s tough to resist alone. Bottom line: Find community. Work together.

Why is it that working with groups is more effective than just, say marching or writing letters alone in your kitchen? Especially for women?

Because the movement to restore democracy needs you. And it needs you to build community and strong civic-minded networks over the long haul. When you work with others, you are more likely to leverage your talents and networks with activities like co-hosting fundraisers, town halls, or voter registration drives. That’s why it’s important to find folks who will motivate you to bring your creativity and to come back again and again. It’s great to show up at a protest, but it’s even better if you find sustainable ways to engage.

I’ve met a lot of women who have a sense that they should be “doing more” but just aren’t sure where to start. What do you tell them? What’s the first step?

Start with finding a group supporting women in politics and branch out from there. The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University maintains a comprehensive directory of groups of all persuasions in every state. This will help you find a posse.

Ask your network. Who are the most politically engaged people you know? Ask them for the names of one or two local organizations doing good work. If that group is too strident or too complacent or anything else that doesn’t suit you, keep looking. But make a connection with someone you genuinely like and respect. Keep trying.

What about the amazing women who keep writing checks and marching? Three years on? Is there anything else they should be looking to add to the list?

Yes AND! March and write and write checks and make calls and also join a group! I’m emphasizing connecting with others because this is not a sprint. This is a marathon. It’s a full year until the election and working together with folks you like will keep you in the work on an ongoing basis. Even if all goes well, REALLY well, in 2020, there will be more work to do after the next election.

What do you tell progressives who live in districts that are already deep-blue?

A few thoughts on this.

1. Democrats are often concentrated in urban areas. But, even in largely blue states like New York, there are suburban and rural Republican areas nearby. In the weeks before the 2018 election, I looked for districts near my home to do canvassing, i.e., going door to door to have conversations with voters. I live in New York City and there were two congressional districts nearby that had Republican congressmen: Staten Island and a district in the Lower Hudson Valley. I worked with a group called Changing the Conversation Together and met many interesting and dedicated people along the way. Incredibly, I was able to take public transport to help flip Staten Island to a Democrat. Happily, a Democrat also won the Lower Hudson Valley district. Walking door to door isn’t for everyone, but there are ways to support candidates and ballot measures, including organizing fundraisers or community events, writing postcards, registering voters, the list goes on. As you dig in, you can find the right role for you.

2. Many new groups popped up in blue districts everywhere after the 2016 election. For example, there’s a group called “Team for N.C.” (North Carolina) in New York City. Many of its members live in NYC but are from North Carolina. They host fundraising events for candidates from their home state and do other political work to support change in North Carolina. Most importantly, they have fun together and have built many new relationships.

3. Check out groups like ActLocal’s directory, Swing Left, and Sister District. ActLocal identifies active local groups, and Swing Left and Sister District channel the energy of folks in blue districts to red districts.

And conversely: What have you been telling women who live in super red districts and don’t know other Democrats? Is there one thing they could undertake this coming year?

I’ve heard so many stories of women finding each other through groups like Emerge, an organization that I co-founded and led for many years. Emerge trains women on the nuts and bolts of running for office and has programs in 26 states, including many ruby-red Southern states. Sign up for a newsletter from the Emerge affiliate in your state, go to an event, and you’ll quickly meet other kindred folk.

I know we’re talking about just getting more involved but you’re also incredibly passionate about getting more women to run for office. Why is it important to you and what do you tell women who are mulling a run?

There are so many reasons to care about electing more women. We’re at an all-time low in levels of confidence in Congress. Surveys show that voters trust women in office more than men. So, for that reason alone, electing more women will restore faith in our institutions. Research also shows that women run for office to fix problems in their communities, rather than seeking power. We need more problem solvers and fewer power-thirsty elected officials.

A first step that every person can take is to identify other great women leaders and ask them to run for office. One of the most important factors for both women and men, in deciding to run for office, is being asked to run for office. And give them a concrete step by referring them to a training and networking program like the ones listed in this state-by-state directory provided by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Consider running yourself. Seriously.

You’ve been doing this a long time and you don’t appear to be burned out yet. How do you stay motivated? I really love Parker J. Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy, which is summarized below:

1. An understanding that we are all in this together.

2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness.”

3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.

4. A sense of personal voice and agency.

5. A capacity to create community.

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