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Beyond the Ballot Box

Organizing in the wake of the US Election

When Joe Biden officially defeated Donald Trump, many around the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. Although the decisive electoral victory of 306 to 232 votes shows that the referendum on Trump was not in his favor, the Biden-Harris victory is just the first step in realizing the progressive change that needs to happen amid the pandemic, economic crisis, and epidemic of racial injustice in this country. For this piece, I spoke to three South Asian organizers about the effect of the election on their ongoing work.

In a previous piece, I covered Kamala Harris’ record as a “top cop” and “progressive prosecutor,” and in the wake of the election, the response to her victory has continued to be mixed. Despite the historic milestone in terms of representation, substantive progressive change demands accountability beyond identity politics. From a South Asian perspective, it is crucial to ask who is most marginalized within the broader umbrella identity as a result of different migration histories, caste identities, and other factors. “Our community [the Bangladeshi community] is very recent, and is aligned with Latinx communities on issues like fighting for affordable housing or healthcare,” said Thahitun Mariam, Bangladeshi-American community organizer and co-founder of BAPP NYC. “A lot of these issues align more with a working-class agenda versus a broader South Asian identity where people are focusing on representation.”


This agenda requires going beyond electoral representation. Divya Sundaram, New York Organizing and Party Building Manager at Working Families Party, spoke of her entry into organizing: “I think what pushed me from electoral organizing into community organizing was a deep frustration with the fact that when you work on electoral campaigns, people get stuck in the idea that your candidate is the end-all be-all,” Sundaram said. “Candidates cannot singlehandedly change the very deep structural issues that our country faces.” When campaigning for Biden-Harris on the WFP line, Sundaram felt that the party gave people a reason to vote for Biden by engaging them on the issues. “In the midst of a pandemic and potentially devastating eviction crisis, it’s really important to talk to people about the things they’re actually experiencing and that resonated and appealed to a lot of people.” 

Issue-based organizing has an advantage over candidate-centered organizing in its ability to meet people on the specific problems they care about. This logic was proven in Florida, which went red but passed a $15 minimum wage. Furthermore, all Congressional candidates who ran on Medicare for All in swing districts retained their seats. This election offers optimism in the form of empirical proof that progressive messaging can win. A grassroot organizer’s job is to ground the issues in accessible and relatable language for constituents.

Much of this work remains constant after the election outcome. “The day-to-day work doesn’t change since it’s issue-based,” said Mariam. Nonetheless, this work has clear and vital overlap with electoral politics. A large component of grassroots organizing includes political education. “People should know who their city councilmen, state and congressional representatives are, as well as community boards.” BAPP is building out a curriculum to educate voters on topics in Bengali, ranging from different levels of government to ranked choice voting. 

This type of organizing must cut across class, ethnic, gender, and partisan lines. Rima Begum pointed out that around half of Congressional District 24 voted for Trump. “City council candidates have to bridge the gap with Republicans in order to win,” Begum said. “We think of polarization happening nationally, so to see it happen locally makes us ask, what is the messaging we are missing?”

Grassroots organizing also forms the foundation of mutual aid. Mariam founded Bronx Mutual Aid, and Rima Begum worked with Moumita Ahmed to found Queens Mutual Aid, which distributed over 2,000 groceries, meals, and medication pickups across Queens and amassed around 300 volunteers. “We pulled things in a matter of days that would have taken weeks at a nonprofit,” Begum said. “Because mutual aid is not a hierarchy and it’s just people coming up with solutions to problems, they’re sent out immediately to respond. It requires an organizer to really be grassroots to operate at this speed.” The hyperlocal nature of mutual aid allows supply and demand to shift rapidly in response to changing demands in the community.

Queens Mutual Aid is an example of the community responding to crisis with far more speed than state and local governments. The network was particularly useful for aiding the undocumented community: “We realized that the undocumented community was totally left out of getting city, state and federal benefits,” Begum said. “In New York City they were given a one-time payment of $1000 for a family with $400 or $200 for individuals. Ultimately, that didn’t get to the root of the food and housing insecurity problem….We shifted our funds to pay the full amount to of rents or bills folks who are undocumented.” Awareness was largely spread by word-of-mouth, and the network received about $150,000 in requests in just 24 hours, speaking to the enormous financial strain and failure of the government to provide for the community.

Looking ahead to a Biden-Harris administration, Begum supports bold action to halt the economic crisis through measures such as cancelling rent and student debt on a national level. “It is about time that we bail out working-class people. This happened in the 1920s-1930's when people were waiting in bread lines…. the government had to shift in a major way, and that’s how we got Social Security.” The momentum of the general election gives hope for a major progressive shift. Speaking of states that flipped, “I credit a lot of those victories to organizers on the ground who have been building trust with communities prior to 2020, which proves that organizing works,” Sundaram said. “It was organizers who delivered a Biden win and I hope that will push him left on key issues such as student debt cancellation.”

For South Asians, this requires drawing upon a long tradition of organizing. “My great-grandfather was a freedom fighter in India,” said Sundaram. Growing up on that story is affirmative and positive for me personally - dissent, organizing, and protesting is actually part of my personal ancestry.” Mariam echoed the roots of leftism in Bengal specifically: “Bengal had so many leftists thinkers, philosophers and poets from Tagore to Lalon that advocated for socialist ideas before we got to these shores. Even the terms of being a ‘socialist’ or ‘democratic socialist’ in America is rooted in white supremacy because it’s branded negatively, while the Global South has this whole history of socialism that predates socialism existing in the American context.” To be truly diverse, socialist organizing must revisit the histories of the Global South and draw upon frameworks and histories beyond those of the United States. 

In the 21st century, grassroots organizing must be deeper, multiethnic, and cut across the lines of caste and class. “Think about your identity and place in the movement and how you can use your story to bolster and support the work,” Sundaram advised. “We all have skills, talent, and power that we can bring to this work. If we can deeply examine our personal identities and our cultural identities, we can have impact.”

About the author

Ria Mazumdar is South Asian Today's US political analyst. A Bengali-American, she is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. A recent graduate of Tufts University, her interests include politics, economic development, and postcolonial thought. Ria is currently working as a Research Associate in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Instagram: @ria.maz  / Tweets: @riamaz



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