Grassroots Innocence

My grandmother was a grassroots politician, not a legislator. To me that distinction is essential. It gave her a clarity of vision that made things simple; she moved through a world in which the work was hard but the logic was unquestionable. Where she moved, people followed.

Yesterday at RootsCamp I heard some of her clarity. The keynote speaker was Frank Curiel, a labor organizer of forty years’ experience, who talked about what grassroots work means. You go to the hall, you see the people there, you talk to them, and you listen. The backdrop of listening, in his case, was the farm and field poverty of rough hands and hot sun at the side of Cesar Chavez. For my grandmother, it was Chelsea in New York City during the 60s.

At RootsCamp, Curiel’s dismissive comment about data management and audience targeting made me bristle. In a voice laced with the amused wisdom of forty years’ worth of hard politics, he said, “I was already doing that back in day…..” Then his anecdotes traipsed in a loose line, one after the other. The stories he shared, I thought, were perhaps overly easy or uncomplicated. It’s not like that today. Today, we play a difficult game with moneyball politics in a culture-jammed, moved-on, occupied, “twitch speed,” “tweet that” world.

In a more innocent time, my grandmother made social change just by walking and talking with people. In an old New York Magazine (June 25, 1973) Jerome Kretchmer’s reflects on his failed mayoral campaign. A published memo from a staffer reminds him to mention “traipsing around” the neighborhood with my grandmother to win some additional votes. The staffer uses “traipse” derisively, but the image was crystal clear in my mind. The word perfectly captured my grandmother, her gait, her style, her politics. When my grandmother visited me in college, I spent most of our visits traipsing after her to political events. She knew more about politics on my campus than I did.

When my grandmother died, I told a story at her memorial about how she had a certain way of interacting. The story stuck, because one after another, people told the very same story. Here is the story:

We were attending a popular lecture with some friends and we arrived to a crowded auditorium too late for good seats, but we had plenty of time to socialize with surrounding audience members, all strangers to us. The seats in the back were too far for my grandmother to hear and see well. She was disappointed, but resigned, or so I thought. She struck up a lively conversation with a person one row in front of us, whereupon she quickly learned that the vacant seat two rows down was unclaimed. She moved down two rows, waved me down to follow, and I did. She repeated this pattern perhaps three more times until, by the time the program opened, we had nearly acquired front row seats. No one she spoke with resented her, they all found her amiable, and she managed to negotiate a desired spot. That is also how she did politics.

Organizing is different today. Today, we tweet instead of traipse. When Mr. Curiel joked about data management, my first thought was that the world has changed far too much for old school politics like his to work anymore. My second was, damn, but we had a fine time chasing through Chelsea with my grandmother. Regardless of political epoch or ecosystem, it’s all the harder today no matter what particular kind of social justice work you do; it’s all the more bittersweet for it too, no matter what sort of nostalgic lens you look through to the backache days of back then. Nonetheless, my grandmother’s days are gone, and the kind of political organizing that predates media convergence is an archaic, if charming board game that few people play because an Xbox controller sits enticingly on the coffee table.

My third thought was a hard truth that brought a moment of personal clarity. Political campaign iconography has dulled and flattened the authentic experience of interaction into the flat montage of handshakes, rolled up sleeves, and smiled greetings. An authentic act like those by Frank Curiel of sharing a cold drink with a constituent or ally, hearing someone’s name, saying good morning, and traipsing around with them, those things move people. Easy is good, especially when the work is hard.

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