Organizing for Change by Matt RemleTweet
For the past twenty years, I’ve been involved in community organizing. I have worked on a myriad of issues ranging from environmental and economic justice to indigenous rights and tribal sovereignty. Along the way, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with incredible people from all walks of life and from all corners of the world. I’ve been blessed to work with individuals, and communities, that carried with them a deep love for their communities, future generations, and Mother Earth. These individuals worked on different issues and in different capacities ranging from grassroots and direct action organizers to tribal and elected officials.
Along the way, I have developed a healthy respect and appreciation towards the different philosophies and strategies people take towards working for justice and towards the issues they choose to work on and are passionate about.
I have also embraced the belief, “by any and whatever means necessary” when it comes towards uplifting our communities and protecting Mother Earth. Meaning, whatever means people take towards the betterment of our lands and future generations, I embrace. Some people choose to help their communities, and the broader environment, by becoming teachers, lawyers, and writers, some run for tribal council, or other elected positions, while others run non-profits, are artists or conduct grassroots organizing. Any and all are necessary when it comes to protecting Mother Earth and our future generations.
A number of years ago, one of my Aunties shared with me that within our tribal communities different people had different passions which led them to work on, or advocate for, certain issues. For her, it was, and is, about protecting Mni, water, on Standing Rock, as well as, ensuring that our people knew who they were, their histories, and our culture. She went on to say that for other people it might be addressing Indian mascots, or Indian education, the reviving of tribal languages, protecting sacred sites, health care, helping elders and so on. She said that it was okay if we all did not share the same passions and choose to work on different issues from a place we best know how to.
I found this line of thought refreshing, especially after having seen too many people be belittled or ostracized for holding passions to work on certain issues and how they choose to work on that issue by other “organizers”.
One of the lessons I took away from our conversation was that no one issue, or way to advance or advocate for that particular issue, was more or less important than another. What was important was that people were putting forth energy and effort because of the love that they have for their relatives in the best way that they knew how.
I share all of this because of the near constant in-fighting that spawns from people tearing each other down over “which issues are more important than others”, “which strategies are to be embraced over others”, and “how to best advance a particular cause by working with or against various systems.” Now, there is nothing wrong with disagreement and discussion, each is in fact a good thing, but too often the in-fighting leads to in-action, which is exactly the position those we are working against, the takers, are hoping for and the place Mother Earth, our communities and future generations cannot afford for us to be in.
One strategy to utilize in our organizing efforts is by working to make change on the local, city, state and tribal levels. These areas tend to see more meaningful results in organizing campaigns for a variety of reasons. Local, tribal and state officials tend to be more easily accessible and more tuned into the issues and concerns of surrounding communities. The same holds true for pushing local initiative campaigns. Below are examples in which local organizing can impact broad meaningful change.
One of the first organizing campaigns I worked extensively on was the Washington State Initiative 688 to raise the state’s minimum wage in 1998. I worked as a signature gatherer in the college town of Bellingham, WA spending long hours talking to people in attempt to get them to sign on to get I-688 on the ballot. Once enough signatures were gathered to get the initiative on the ballot our energies turned towards “get out the vote” efforts.
Washington state voters approved I-688, which made Washington State as the countries state with the highest minimum wage, which is currently $9.32 per hour compared to the Federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
Recently, the city of Seattle passed a minimum wage of $15 hour. This effort was driven by mostly fast food workers, with the support of now Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant who as a candidate pushed $15 now as her top issue.
In each campaign, a successful partnership was developed between grassroots campaigners, elected officials and organizations dedicated to economic justice.
An Indian Education for All
It is no ground breaking revelation to say that our public schools across Turtle Island sorely lack in the teaching of the accurate histories of our tribes, the colonization of our lands, tribal sovereignty and our contemporary affairs.
In 2005, Rep. John McCoy (D-Tulalip) introduced Washington State House Bill 1495 which was a bill to recommend the inclusion of tribal history, culture, and government in the social studies curriculum into the schools. The bill passed with the added language that school districts work with local tribes in implementing the goals of the House Bill.
The State’s Office of Native Education then set out to work with the 29 tribes in Washington to develop a comprehensive curriculum that districts could implement into the classroom.
The Since Time Immemorial curriculum was born out of their efforts and school districts and individual teachers since have been getting trained on the implementation of the curriculum.
Over the summer, I had the opportunity to get trained as a trainer of the Since Time Immemorial Curriculum and recently ran my first workshop for teachers in the Edmonds school district. And, even more recently, after years of having helped to apply steady pressure on the Marysville School District, which includes the Tulalip tribes, I was notified that the district will be fully adopting the Since Time Immemorial tribal sovereignty curriculum.
To date, only Montana and Washington State have legislation calling for the local tribal history, culture and government to be taught in public schools.
Passage of the landmark H.B. 1495 came out of strong leadership from regional tribes, House Rep. McCoy (who is a Tulalip tribal member), and the state’s Office of Native Education.
Perhaps one of the prime areas to impact change is through our tribal governments, especially with tribal councils that work with tribal members.
In 2011, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa passed a law banning hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on their lands and near their waterways. In doing so they became the first tribe to ban the destructive practice.
This comes in stark contrast to their neighbors to the west, the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara who opened their lands to oil and gas development which has turned their lands into a cauldron of mass desecration, rampant crime, and ushering in potential long term negative impacts to waterways.
Tribes also possess the ability to develop alternative energy programs such as the T’Sou-Ke Nation who have become world leaders in sustainable and renewable energy programs through their efforts in solar energy.
Working with city councils is also another highly effective way to organize around issues. The City councils of Minneapolis, and soon to be Seattle, were effectively pressured by their respective Native communities to rename the second Monday in October, Columbus Day, to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. City, and County, councils are also effective areas to organize around issues like coal exports, fracking and oil pipelines.
In 2012, I drafted a petition to call on the Washington State Board of Education (WSBE) to ban the use of Native mascots in the state’s public schools and to work with local tribes in developing appropriate replacements. After gathering a substantial amount of signatures I, along with my wife and fellow organizer Michael Vendiola, attended a WSBE meeting where we presented the petition and called on them to end the use of racial mascots.
A sympathetic board member met with us after the meeting and said he would sponsor a resolution if we wrote one, so we did. After several more meetings the WSBE voted and passed our resolution to end offensive mascots in our state schools. This led to the Port Townsend school district to end its use of its “Redskins” mascot.
“As individual fingers we can easily be broken, but all together we make a mighty fist.” Sitting Bull
These are but a few of the ways in which organizing on a local level through a combination of grassroots organizing and the ballot box can be effective arenas to bring social, economic and tribal justice. We are the change agents we have been waiting for. We are our ancestors prayers realized.
by Wakíƞyaƞ Waánataƞ (Matt Remle)