Grassroots: Yes We Can Wants Political Involvement to Become Mainstream
Note: In this new profile series, CU will take a look at the goals and functions of Columbus’ grassroots organizations to spur community awareness and involvement in them. This is the first installment, so stay tuned for future profiles.
For the concerned Columbusite, knowing how to get involved in neighborhood issues can be a task in networking. Many are unaware, but there are dozens of organizations in the city designed to bring residents together to work on shared problems.
They each have a different purpose, but they’re all progressive-minded and civic-centered. There’s one for every fight someone could possibly want to join: economic and racial justice, reproductive rights, community safety, education, local politics, LGBTQ rights, and more.
Becoming involved in any of them usually only takes showing up at one of their social events.
Adam Parsons, Treasurer at Yes We Can, said that’s basically how they do their outreach. When asked how meetings go, he said it’s pretty much just “people having conversations.”
It started last year around this time. Parsons and his like-minded friends decided to form a group dedicated to bringing new faces and voices into the local Democratic party. He and other progressives around Columbus worry that the party is becoming too exclusive from politicians handpicking their successors with little or no say from the community.
“It’s very easy in any institution to become closed off even if you have the best intentions,” Parsons said. “Over periods of 10, 20 years, when you’re continually narrowing the circle of where we draw people from and who gets drawn in, I think it has a really negative effect.”
Parsons’ fellow YWC member Will Petrik said the problem is the party’s limited view of leadership. When they look at future candidates, party leaders only consider those already closely affiliated with the Democratic party. Candidates are usually picked from the same groups, like the Young Dems, Central Ohio Young Black Democrats and Stonewall Democrats.
The effect, Parsons said, is a local government that doesn’t exactly represent all of the locals: city council members who don’t live West of 315 or South of Main Street and an absence of policies benefiting working class and minority residents.
“There’s all these really fierce advocates and activists that are trying to work for these communities, but it’s almost like the party doesn’t really see these folks in their lens of potential leaders, and they don’t really try to reach out and engage those different communities,” Petrik said.
But the party isn’t all to blame, and Parsons was quick to say he’s not one to point fingers at anyone. Still, Columbus voters have a hard time showing up for municipal elections. It seems to be only the most die hard of registered voters that can find interest and time for local primaries.
“I think we have a culture of quick engagement, and I don’t think that serves us as a party,” he said. “We can’t have 8.5 percent turnout for municipal primaries, and then expect to have a robust culture for general elections. It needs to be all the time.”
That’s why part of YWC’s initiative includes getting the vote out and raising interest in local issues. It all comes down to widespread political interest. Parsons and YWC envision a city where political involvement is just another thing people do on a regular basis.
“Politics can’t just be a sort of activity for specialists,” he said. “I spend all my spare time doing political stuff, but that’s weird. One of our goals is just to normalize this stuff, organize social events where you can just show up and hang out.”
Beyond going to parties and hang outs, Parsons wants to see party matters become important to people in their daily lives, not just during election season. He and Petrik said it takes a network of different leaders organizing movements and facilitating change in their own neighborhoods. When many leaders take on their own community issues, it creates the political climate needed for mass mobilization. Mass mobilizations are helpful when legislation like the 20-week abortion ban passes. If a solid network is formed, groups can generate a rapid response to government action more quickly and efficiently. Suddenly, it’s not just one isolated group forming a resistance; it’s many groups within the network creating a larger influence.
Parsons said that volunteer recruitment for Yes We Can is always happening. Those with no time to contribute can consider a monetary donation. YWC is almost completely funded by small donations (under $200).
“I don’t want to be one of these people just sitting here complaining about whoever’s in power. That’s easy to do,” Parsons said. “For us that’s one of our chief goals. We see this gap in awareness. Why don’t we help fill it?”
For more information, visit www.yeswecancolumbus.org.