Who’s taking action? Hoosier Action! Organizing the Heartland in Bloomington, Indiana

“I’m going to give you a hypothetical mission statement,” Jesse Myerson says to a room full of new Hoosier Action members:

We are America’s first political party created by and for working families. Our mission is defending family and folk against the politicians and oligarchs who are running America into the ground. We intend to achieve that goal by building a nationwide network of grassroots, local leaders who will lead Americans to a peaceful and prosperous future, free from economic exploitation and tyranny.

“Raise your hand if that sounds like something you might want to get involved in.”

Hands shoot up in the room, and people cheer and whoop.

“This actually isn’t a hypothetical group,” Jesse continues, “it’s an actual mission statement, with a couple of key redactions – from the Traditionalist Workers Party. The redactions are ‘faith,’ ‘federal tyranny,’ and ‘anti-Christian degeneracy.’

“This is a major white supremacist sect operating an hour south of Bloomington,” Jesse says, “going for the same people we’re going for, trying to organize the same people we’re trying to organize. The difference between them and us is they’re organizing on the basis of scarcity – they’re saying there’s not enough, so we white people have gotta stick together. The Mexicans are coming for your jobs, and the black people are coming for your tax dollars, and the Muslims are coming for your churches – and we gotta keep them out, ’cause we gotta look out for us.

“They’re organizing the same people we’re organizing – on the basis of scarcity. And it’s our job, if we wanna defeat them, to out-organize them: to go to the same constituencies that they’re trying to organize, with a beautiful vision of abundance, and say: ‘There is enough to go around, it’s just that these few people on Wall Street are hoarding it, and they’re the ones that are screwing you over.’

“And I want to make it clear that this racist politics of scarcity, as I call it, is not exclusive to just neo-Nazi militias and sects – it goes straight to the top. When Ronald Reagan was talking about ‘welfare queens,’ he was trying to make white people scared that black women were taking their hard-earned tax dollars, and the reason he was doing that was to gut welfare. And that hurt lots of white people! And black people, and brown people, and women and men, and people who are neither of those – especially children and the elderly.”

One of Hoosier Action’s axioms (see all of them at the end of the post) is: “Our job is to move people from scarcity to abundance, from isolation to community, and from despair into action.”

“We can have all of the things we want,” Jesse says, “if we get enough power… Advancing our vision of abundance is in direct conflict with the forces of racism and hatred, and a path forward to a society based on equality and justice.”

As we continue on our trip, we’re starting to find more examples of people who made the kind of move we want to make. Jesse Myerson and Kate Hess Pace of Hoosier Action (please donate!) provide an amazing example that has brought inspiration to us and to everyone we tell about their work. We’re really grateful to Jesse for hosting us, and to both of them for spending lots of time talking organizing with us over several days.

The day after the election, Kate, the director of Hoosier Action, began to realize that she might have to move back to her hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. She had done years of  successful training and organizing work, including congregational organizing in the Twin Cities to win strong foreclosure protections and defeat restrictive voter ID laws, and organizing against predatory lending for several years.

Kate says that her anger and passion around these issues comes from her personal experience: “Since I moved out of my parents’ house I’ve never gotten ahead… the amount of things I’ve had go into collection… I’m $70,000 in debt. People are in holes they can’t climb out of and then we tell them it’s their fault. I’m just like, ‘fuck you, it’s not our fault. This system was designed to hurt us.'”

“Organizing is the antidote to what’s happening in our country. Every time I’d come back home, I’d be like, ‘Why isn’t anybody organizing here?'” She says organizing saved her life, in the sense that she “wasn’t a full person” before organizing; she was very angry and “didn’t believe I deserved a place in the world.” Organizing is “fucking challenging,” she said, but it’s so rewarding “bringing people into a space of ‘you belong, you matter, and you deserve to impact the forces that shape your life.'”

So Kate spent several months mulling and then firming up her commitment to return home, then several more months planning it. She got about a dozen Bloomington friends to host house meetings so she could raise money to launch the organization. Now they’re on the ground, with office space and over a hundred thousand dollars (and growing) in grants from labor, and individual contributions.

Though Bloomington is a relatively liberal college town, it sits in Indiana’s largest congressional district, which swung between parties from 2000-2010, but has been mostly Republican dominated since then. They see it as a strategic city in which they can start building a base, then expand out into building power and impacting elections district-wide, and eventually statewide. At the same time as they’re excited about new energy from people galvanized by the election, and believe the middle class deserves organization and liberation, they are wary of the prospect of middle class concerns dominating the work.

Similarly, Jesse decided shortly after the election that he had to get out and organize working class power away from where he was living in New York City. When the opportunity with Kate came along, he jumped on it. Jesse has made his move with an interesting model – he was able to solicit in-kind donations of a truck and a room to stay in, and is covering the rest of his expenses from monthly donations on his Patreon site, “From the Heartland”. Similar to a Kickstarter or GoFundMe page, Jesse puts out a very interesting regular podcast and newsletter about his organizing and other regional organizing, for about 150 donors giving small monthly donations to keep him going in a relatively low cost-of-living area. We highly recommend making a monthly donation at the links above!

Some of Hoosier Action’s most successful work so far has been in response to the national attacks on Medicaid. They did a paid canvass and knocked about 4,500 doors to have conversations with people about Medicaid – focusing on low-propensity voters making under $50k – including almost every mobile home and every public housing unit in the area. Many mobile home residents said no one had ever knocked their door to have that kind of conversation with them. Canvassers found cultural gaps were bridged when they brought up issues that deeply affect people’s everyday lives, about which they don’t often get to have proactive political conversations: issues like wages, health care, and taking care of their kids. Kate says nine out of ten people in those conversations were scared and angry, felt powerless, and wanted someone to talk with about it – and many gave effusive thank you’s.

Of course it’s not all puppies and rainbows. One of Hoosier Action’s ten axioms is “We are afraid and angry, and the people on the other side of doors across the state are afraid and angry too. We invite them into a different vision for their lives and the state.” There are important lessons in there about universal human needs and emotional vulnerabilities that we must use to bridge the differences – race, gender, sexuality, immigration status, and more – that powerful forces want to use to keep us divided and weak. They’ve found that many people are still resentful when they feel like they’re working hard and not getting public benefits, while they perceive others working less hard and receiving public benefits.

As we discussed in our interview with Bryan Hospital CEO Phil Ennen (in part 2 – coming soon!), it’s extremely rational for people to forgo jobs and seek benefits if the take-home resources are about the same in the end. Better and higher-paying jobs are the answer. Pointing upward is also important – are the fast food CEOs making thousands of dollars per hour (while fighting $15/hr for workers) really working 66 times harder than their minimum wage employees? Kate talks about wanting to break the “who deserves what” conversation around Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps), and build abundance-analysis-based understanding that cutting benefits for others isn’t the answer.

Another really exciting program Kate and Jesse are using to bridge politically fomented divides is a series of NAFTA conversations. They’re starting to work on bringing former manufacturing workers made unemployed by NAFTA into conversation with people who immigrated to the area due to the ways NAFTA economically ravaged Latin American communities. From there they hope to have conversations about shared sources of struggle and oppression, which could lead to shared analyses and organizing around those sources of fear and anger.

They are also organizing with public housing residents in the area to resist a redevelopment project the government hopes to do. The residents have been promised housing vouchers to use on the private market, but many residents understand that such vouchers are really hard to use, and the government actually just wants to rid the area of poor people. You can learn more about this campaign – and Hoosier Action’s overall plan through the 2018 elections – on Jesse’s podcast.

Moving forward, the organization hopes to hire more organizers soon in order to build their base in chapters throughout southern Indiana, and to seriously impact the 2018 and 2020 elections. They have a monthly membership meeting, as well as new member meetings every couple weeks, to which people know to bring new friends, family or acquaintances each time.

While they’ve had a burst of growth due to the Trump effect, they want to get deeper into what matters in people’s daily lives. [Organizer nerd alert!]: In their Medicaid canvass they led with a petition, and had canvassers give each petition signer a leadership score from one to five. Everyone who got a three or higher got a follow-up text to have a 1-1 relational meeting. They also filmed videos with some of the signers to target elected officials. They’re also using established relationships with leaders Kate knows from growing up in the area to build connections with larger, already organized groups of people. This month they’ll be doing a values summit with their membership to consecrate a values bill of rights. They want to reach 500 people through house parties, and have each person commit to taking action.

Along with the amazing wisdom embedded in their organizing, Kate’s advice to us was: don’t romanticize people. Just figure out how to relate to people. There are good and bad people everywhere. You’re always going to be who you are and where you’re from. The best organizing is for yourself – the less charitable it is, the better.

The Hoosier Axioms are as follows:

  1. Organized people + Organized money = Power
  2. Relationships are the core of organizing.
  3. Great ideas, good intentions, and well-written reports do not change the world; real social change happens through tension, agitation, and building power.
  4. Our job is to move people from scarcity to abundance, from isolation to community, and from despair into action.
  5. Advancing our vision of abundance is a direct confrontation with the forces of racism and hatred and a path forward to a society based on equality and justice.
  6. We determine what’s possible, no one else.
  7. We are disciplined: We do what we say we’ll do when we say we’ll do it, we show up on time, we hold honest and direct conversations, we don’t make excuses, and we don’t reward victimhood.
  8. Organizers don’t help others; we invite others to join us in taking action around our collective self-interest.
  9. We are afraid and angry, and the people on the other side of doors across the state are afraid and angry too. We invite them into a different vision for their lives and the state.
  10. A well-functioning organization is necessary to contest for power.

Read more about their amazing work here, and DONATE HERE!


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