Lawmakers must also serve as community organizers

Lawmakers must also serve as community organizers
© Julia Nikhinson

In the face of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) expiring eviction moratorium, many members of Congress left town for summer recess. 

Given the White House’s initial opposition to extending the moratorium, many lawmakers accepted political reality and went home to their districts. Rep. Cori BushCori BushHouse progressives call on Biden to end all new fossil fuel permitting Emanuel to take hot seat in Senate confirmation hearing Ilhan Omar to Biden: 'Deliver on your promise to cancel student debt' MORE (D-Mo.) decided to take a different approach and fought to change political reality. She spent days sleeping outside of the U.S. Capitol, rallying with local protestors, educating members of the media and joining with other lawmakers in their Capitol campout protest. While many took her direct action as a “childish” stunt only meant to garner media attention, the White House reversed course. It issued the moratorium, protecting millions of Americans from eviction. 

The Capitol step protest serves as a strong reminder that elected officials can do more than vote the right way, draft legislation and tweet warm thoughts. At their best, lawmakers can be effective social workers, identifying needs and connecting people to resources. Lawmakers can be educators, raising the urgency of issues to those who are not politically engaged; and above all, lawmakers can be organizers, mobilizing constituents and building capacity so that local institutions are well resourced, well prepared and capable of tackling crises. In the face of so many challenges, COVID-19, climate and economic crises, it’s time we reimagine the role lawmakers play in our democracy and demand they take more of an activist-minded approach to engaging, educating and empowering their communities. 

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As a Michigan-based community organizer, I’ve seen this activist-minded approach up close. When the only refinery in the state of Michigan had a toxic release event, members of Congress worked to uplift the voices of local residents. These efforts — standing with protestors outside of state regulator offices, writing letters and alerting reporters to the injustice — helped put public pressure on the company and supported residents and community organizers as we secured hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds for the impacted community. 

A lot of attention is given to the ideological labels and identities that lawmakers hold but these characterizations often miss the large difference among lawmakers when it comes to governing approach. Many progressive members of Congress receive wide social media acclaim, robust online fundraising networks and broad support from local voters not because of narrow policy stances, but because of a vision and approach to governing that is engaging, proactive and participatory. Young and progressive voters — like me — aren’t just demanding a government that is bold on policy issues related to wealth inequality, workers’ rights, racial justice and climate change; we’re also demanding that our government officials are ambitious — more hands-on — with their approach for advancing these priorities.  

In a divided and stagnant Washington, this activist-minded approach to governing is often what changes lives for the better at a local level. When the Texas power grid collapsed former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke made thousands of check-in calls to seniors, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHouse progressives call on Biden to end all new fossil fuel permitting Schumer endorses democratic socialist India Walton in Buffalo mayor's race Toomey takes aim at Schumer's spending windfall for NYC public housing MORE (D-N.Y.) raised millions of dollars to fund relief efforts, and local elected officials delivered warm meals to those in need. None of these activities involved legislation. Progressive members of Congress from freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) to seasoned members like Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSinema's office outlines opposition to tax rate hikes The CFPB's data overreach hurts the businesses it claims to help Runaway higher ed spending gains little except endless student debt MORE (D-Mass.) and Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerDemocratic frustration with Sinema rises Schumer endorses democratic socialist India Walton in Buffalo mayor's race Guns Down America's leader says Biden 'has simply not done enough' on gun control MORE (D-N.Y.) have used their platforms to not only write legislation that addresses the student debt crisis but they’ve also used their platform to uplift the work of students and activist groups in pressuring the White House to take executive action. This is what being creative and using political office to build political support look like. It’s this activist-oriented, inside and outside the halls of power approach that public officials of all political stripes should take. 

Lawmakers have unique platforms that can help streamline and strengthen on-the-ground protests and emergency response efforts in the face of crisis. When a member of Congress stages a sit-in in the Speaker of the House’s office to call for climate action, or rallies with workers to demand a living wage, or camps outside of Congress to protect Americans from eviction it sparks new conversation, raises ambitions and can ultimately lead to policy changes. Whether it be progress on civil rights, fight against South African Apartheid, HIV/AIDS activism, or the broader labor movement that has protected workers and lifted wages, it is this fusing of outside activist pressure and inside political pressure that has allowed great progress in our nation's history to occur.

Justin Onwenu is a Detroit-based community organizer. He serves as the youngest member of Michigan Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerMichigan orders 'all-hands-on-deck' response to water crisis Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Altria — Michigan leaves majority-Black city with lead-contaminated taps for three years Whitmer vetoes bill on bird feeding over deer fears MORE's Black Leadership Advisory Council and Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. His work has been featured in The Hill, The New York Times, NPR and The Guardian. You can connect with him on Twitter at @JustinOnwenu.