Welcome to Louisiana Lefty, a podcast about politics and community in Louisiana, where we make the case that the health of the state requires a strong progressive movement fueled by the critical work of organizing on the ground. Our goal is to democratize information, demystify party politics, and empower you to join the mission. Because victory for Louisiana requires you.
I'm your host Lynda Woolard. We're continuing Step Up May on Louisiana Lefty. This week, you'll hear from Step up Louisiana co-founder, Ben Zucker, who was born to organize and truly brings joy to his movement work. Ben is based in New Orleans leading Step Up's efforts on economic justice, while his partner Maria Harmon, who was our guest on our previous episode, heads up their organizing on education justice. If you missed Organizing is her Superpower with Maria Harman, give it a listen to get the full picture of Step Up's work in support of good jobs and good schools for Louisiana. You'll hear over the course of these episodes just how impressed I am by this young organization founded by young leaders. Through public health crises and natural disasters, their members continue to organize on their issues and care for one another, building a community that should be a case study on how to create sustainable change.
Ben Zucker! Thank you so much for joining me on Louisiana Lefty.
Happy to be here.
I always start the podcast with how I know my guest. And like one of my very first guests, who we also named our very first Organizer of the Month, Naima Savage, I believe I met you in the Fight for 15 table meetings that y'all used to have at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. Is that your recollection as well?
Yeah, I think so up. We would meet in the break room on the second floor. We'd go in through the Center for Ethical Living's painted doors, and up in the back, and we'd plot and scheme and, you know, build coalition. Those were great, great days. Great movement, building days.
Fight for 15 was doing some great work. And y'all really built a lot of great organizing out of that space. The episode that will be released directly before yours is with another badass woman you've partnered with in organizing: Maria Harman. She and I spoke about you forming Step Up Louisiana together. And by the time this comes out, we'll have named Maria our Organizer of the Month for May. So between her interview, your interview and our Organizer of the Month announcement, we're celebrating Step Up Louisiana May here at Louisiana Lefty. I think that's appropriate, because you really inspired the Organizer of the Month award. I don't know if you're aware of that.
I love that I am able to be connected to the Organizer of the Month. I just think it's so great that you have really embraced this idea that organizing should be recognized and supported. And everybody who I've talked to who has been recognized has been so excited about it, and talks to me about it every time we connect, and it's been so awesome.
Well, it was born out of the fact that you took a bunch of folks to Baton Rouge a few years back when I got an award for organizing from the Louisiana Democratic Party. When I asked you about it, you told me that organizers don't get recognized enough. So when one of us gets recognized, you wanted to be there to support it. And that really planted the seed in my mind that we had to rectify that, that that's a disservice to the profession and the culture and the critical role that organizing plays in all the successes we have in electoral politics and progressive change.
You know, Organizer of the Decade was a pretty epic award to win.
Thank you, but moving along, for folks who don't know, or don't follow Louisiana Lefty on social media, that's where we take nominations, and present these monthly awards for Organizer of the Month. We've named some amazing organizers. So I hope folks will check that out. And Ben, you also serve on our Organizer of the Month selection committee. We have a diverse set of folks, mostly young people from across the state, who kibitz every month about who we should recognize based on who's been nominated And you play an integral role in that, as well. So I want to thank you for your service there.
Yeah, well, I'm really happy to be with the crew. And it really keeps me on the lookout for emerging organizers, or organizers who are having success. And so I hope if you see other folks like that, everyone in podcast world, definitely nominate them.
Yes, please. And the last thing I'll say about this is that we surprised you with the Organizer of the Month award last October. But the reason I wanted to do it in October is because you got married that month.
Oh, so amazing.
And the connection for me there, Ben, is the idea of joy Because you were so joyful about your wedding. And you just always bring joy to organizing. You seem to really embrace everything about organizing. You're one of the best advocates for the profession and the lifestyle that I know. And it really makes the sun and the sunny colors of your logo feel so appropriate to me.
It was so nice to receive the award during my wedding month. And it sits right next to my desk at home. It's just, it's really special. I'm so glad you're doing this.
Well, let's look at the origin story that led to your great enthusiasm for organizing. What got you interested in politics in the first place? And how did you get into the organizing game?
Well, I think that if we're talking first place, first place, it's got to be my parents. So both of my parents are union organizers, and lifelong movement people. They're still organizing to this day. I was less than a year old when we moved out of the DC suburbs and into a textile union drive that my dad was organizing, and he was doing the politics and communications. This is with ACTWU (Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union), and my mom organized the sewing department. And so I was a little infant in the sewing department way back in the day.
Then you grow up and not everybody does what their parents do. But what really turned me on to organizing, I had done some stuff in in high school that I thought was cool. We supported Valerie Ervin when she ran for Board of Education and county council, that was some political organizing that I did with some friends. And in college, we worked on the Obama campaign. But when the real fire was lit was I came back to school my senior year and the Sodexo workers on Tulane's campus were trying to form a union with SEIU, the service workers, and there was a student movement organizing with United Students Against Sweatshops. The workers were going on strike, and we had all these meetings, and we organized marches and protests, and did a sit in in the University President's office, and we had a whole movement. I caught the bug from there. And the rest is history.
So now Step Up Louisiana, I want to acknowledge that as you were starting this organization, it was following the election of Trump. At that same time, I was hosting a weekly table call for what I was calling the "Resistance Leadership." And you participated in that as well, where we invited some of these new organizations, like the Indivisibles and some of the up and coming progressive groups, to join us with long standing organizers and groups that have been around for a while, so that they could come on and share what they were doing and share best practices and get ideas for how to best do things that some of the new folks really weren't used to doing yet, or didn't have any experience doing. And you were really helpful with that. People could come on and listen to you talk about what they needed to do to prepare for a march, or speak out, or any of those kinds of things that they were just learning how to do. So you were really a huge part of training a lot of those folks who are still doing a lot of organizing work across the state.
Yeah, I mean, that was a really unique time in like as far as like a surge of new activists and organizers. And I think that there are those of us who, year round all the time, hold the space. We're there at legislative session, we're there around election time, and running our own campaigns in between, and building our lists, and all that stuff year after year. And then, moments like the Trump election come around, or this surge in activity around Starbucks, or the Fight for 15, or, you know, whatever it is, and people who have been holding the space you, they just try to figure out how to open the door even wider in those moments, and bring as many people in as you can, and tell them what I've learned and learn from them.
Back to our continued connection, you've partnered with us on Unanimous Jury Coalition, when we were working for constitutional amendment 2, most recently on that Orleans Parish sheriff's race, Step Up has been a really great partner for some of those criminal justice reform pieces, too.
I think that when we were thinking about Step Up, you know, there are a lot of ways to build organizations. Sometimes people build an organization of leaders, pastors, union leaders; some people build organizations of organizations. And I think that when Maria and I looked around, we saw that there was a gap and needing more organizations that were building an individual membership base, that could actually hold down some independent capacity, not taking from other groups' capacity, but standing on our own two feet, be able to do some of the election work, like Yes on Two, or the mayor's race, or Jason (Williams)'s election or Susan (Hutson)'s election, you know, and really just hit the ground and knock the doors and hold the forums. If you're building an independent membership based organization, I think of it as like the people who will bring the cooler to the event. You could have a huge list, or a lot of people show up, but it's like, who's bringing the cooler with the water, who's filling that cooler with ice? You know, and I think that Step Up is a movement full of people who were like, "Whatever you need me for," and the electoral stuff and civic engagement work around election time has been really awesome.
Well, I learned in the most recent race, we worked on together, that you are a whiz with the tools that you use for organizing, like a VAN (Voter Activiation Network) superstar, cutting turf, not only because you know how to use the tool, but also because you know the neighborhoods for the turf that you're cutting. So that was really key. And you knew how to read that data: what was relevant to where you needed to be cutting and who you needed to be pulling. And then I also just wanted mentioned, you also, were a bit of a Canva expert, as well. What other tools are integral to the success of Step Up Louisiana?
We've got a good set of digital stuff we use. So we use Action Network to do our business as a set of digital tools that we use, including email. We have a database called Broad Stripes that we use as far as community organizing data and helping us be more effective in our membership and leadership development programs. We use Hustle to do peer to peer texting. We use the suite of Facebook ads and groups and tech there to build online communities especially. We've learned a lot through our Dollar Store organizing campaign, meeting workers online and helping them get connected in real life. That's what's fun about starting an organization with Maria, because we're both millennials and fairly tech fluent. Taking on a new tool isn't that destabilizing. And you know, if it helps, we keep it.
Well, it seems like when I was talking to Maria, you've split your roles as the founders of Step Up, where she handles the education reform piece, and you handle the economic justice piece.
One of the first things I remember y'all doing was that three point platform in New Orleans. I talked a little bit about that with Maria. But I really want to revisit it, because that seemed like where you sort of announced your presence with such authority in this city.
Yeah, I think that it was a 'make the road by walking' situation, you know. I think that we wanted to run campaigns and have policies that we were fighting about, and get commitments from candidates and all that good stuff. But the way that it all turned out ended up being a really successful model. So for folks who don't know, when we launched the economic justice three point platform, it started with a survey project. So Step Up, Stand with Dignity, Our Walmart, and SEIU Local 21 LA, and I think Unite Here surveyed hundreds of our members who were working frontlines in low wage jobs, to see what issues were most important to them. And so then we got a $15 minimum wage, equal pay for equal work for women, and Ban the Box, is what we call it at the time, and now we call it Fair Chance in Hiring. And so then we did a lot of research, and we created research committees, and we learned all about what was the current state of those three issues in New Orleans, and what are the biggest policies that could help impact it given the state's preemption regime and like, what could the council and mayor do to make an impact? What did they have the authority to do?
So then we wrote this letter based on that, and we got 45 organizations to sign on to this letter. And then we had a massive action at city hall where I want to say over 30 of those organizations had somebody speak for a minute or so. So it really felt like, like you were saying, like an effective coming out party, there was a lot of orange, we had our hand painted banners. Maria painted the banners. Snd then coming out of that we did these three point platform workshops, where we would go into different community spaces. We did one at Propeller; we did one at Justice and Beyond. We did all around different churches and unions and the Workers' Center, in different places. And we did these workshops, where we're talking about the three points of the platform and got hundreds and hundreds of people involved.
And then the election happens. And we got commitments from basically everybody running for council and the mayor, to adopt our three point platform, if elected. After they committed to it, and they won their races, we printed their names in the paper. They ran it in Antigravity and in the Gambit, the the list of people who committed to adopt the platform. And then we went to the people who were elected and were like, "Hey, what do you want to do about this? What are you willing to sponsor? Are you still down to support this stuff? And then one by one, we collaborated with them to write and pass policy on all three points of the platform. Five years later, you know, every city contract job in the city has better wages and Fair Chance hiring policies and pay transparency policies and, you know, more protection from discrimination. And the city workers themselves make $15. I mean, it's been an incredible, incredible set of campaigns and project that has led to a lot of change in workers' rights connected to the public dollar, here in New Orleans.
And I'm listening to you talking about each step of that process. And just thinking about the enormous amount of organizing that went into each of those steps in organizing and coalition building.
Right. I mean, the the surveys were an organizing project, the coalition building around the letter, even the research was a participatory action research project. You know the workshops were a great way to build the base and develop leadership. We had a goal that we wanted 15 Step Up members to be equipped to run the workshops. By the end, I was nowhere near running the workshop. I was like doing the sign-in table or grabbing lunch or whatever, as the members, you know, led these popular education sessions. And so it was sort of like the leadership development stuff, the base building stuff. It was great. We love that campaign.
And so that's goes back to one of my favorite adages for organizers is: Organize yourself out of a job.
Yeah, right, totally.
So you effectively did that you did mention preemption. And we haven't defined that for over a year. I think Naima Savage was the last person to speak about it, which has been over a year on the podcast. So for those who have not heard us from the very start, can you explain the preemption piece and why that was an issue for y'all a hurdle that you had to deal with to make changes at the city level?
Yeah, totally. I mean, even back before Step Up, with Fight for 15, the city of New Orleans tried to raise its own minimum wage in the late 90s by ballot measure, and were ultimately challenged and lost at the Supreme Court saying that no, the state actually did have the right to preempt the city of New Orleans to raise its own minimum wage. And so preemption is this concept that the state can preempt or stop the city from doing what it wants on any number of types of issues, on affordable housing, on gun rights on LGBT discrimination, or formerly incarcerated people discrimination, or all different kinds of things. Importantly for Step Up and workers rights, that sort of the state, you know, has said as part of the Constitution that, you know, a local governing authority cannot regulate a private or civil relationship, unless they get permission to do that by the state. And so then Step Up works to try to undo those preemptions.
We had an amazing campaign and coalition that we worked on with labour and the Power Coalition and the Workers' Center and so many others, with Royce Duplessis, as our bill, sponsor, and champion. Unleash Local was the campaign to repeal the state preemption of minimum wage and paid sick leave. And it was, again, another total organizing challenge. We did a march and second line. I think we had coffins for preemption. All of these actions and education that we would do within our base and with other organizations so that they could know that the only thing standing in the way of New Orleans having a $15 minimum wage is the state needing to change one little law that gives us the right to do what we want. Because we have the commitments from the council, they said they would do it. So if the state just let us do what we want to do, people make a lot more money here.
And I think that was compelling for a lot of the people we were trying to organize, they're like, "Oh, it's really just something as simple as changing a little state law." Little did we know at the time that changing a state law is really hard. We learned a lot about what it takes, and who the players are, and how to go about doing it, and what works since then. But yeah, that was, I think, four years ago that we ran the Unleash Local campaign.
So your way around, the preemption issue is to focus on city contracts, then?
Things connected to public money, so city workers, city contracts. New Orleans has the authority to do what it wants with those dollars.
I wanted to hear about that, again, because sort of like we were talking about before, I still feel like Step Up and the work you've done, all of those projects you've initiated and the campaigns you've done, should be considered models for other organizations in Louisiana, other cities in Louisiana, other cities in the Gulf South. I think there's a lot for folks to learn from y'all.
Thank you. And we are trying to learn from ourselves as we try to replicate some of what we have accomplished with the three point platform in New Orleans in Step Ups other chapters. In Baton Rouge, we got a an equal pay commission established earlier this year that was really exciting and are are working on a fair chance in hiring ordinance in Baton Rouge as well. Obviously, the politics are a little different in the city, parish of East Baton Rouge, and, you know, we're sort of operating and working at that pace and with those folks and learning from what, you know, their movements and politics are like, and so our feeling like we're very close there. I'm in Jefferson Parish today, actually. And so that's where our newest chapter is, in JP.
So you've got three chapters, do you have your eyes set on locations for future chapters?
Let's get Jefferson up off the ground first. Another thing that's amazing about working with Maria is that we are so committed to, I think that sometimes organizers, especially national organizers, come in, they parachute in, and then they leave. And you hope that you have left some amount of capacity or infrastructure or training along the way, when you did that. But then when you're gone, you're gone. And I think that we had been very clear with Step Up that if we're setting up and we're starting a chapter that we're here to stay, and you know, want to be sure that we're building it the right way and have a real base and long term campaigns and a real organizing strategy for that specific area. And so that's we're in the office figuring out today here in Jefferson.
I love that. Well, you're still a pretty young organization. What do you think is your biggest success to date?
Good question. I think that the political impacts we've been able to make in some of these elections. I think that, you know, the D.A. Jason Williams and Sheriff Susan Hutson and Mayor LaToya Cantrell, and Yes on Two, like those, those four elections in a row really felt like we were a meaningful player in those. I think that's like one set of stuff. And then, I mean, a $15 minimum wage for city workers and city contract workers is so amazing. To think that that happened, and that we, you know, we were able to cross that bridge and made it happen, you know, got to give it up to, you know, Jared Brossett and Helena Moreno and everybody who voted for everything and helped push it through because it's really when we started. And on the Sodexo campaign, this is before Mitch Landrieu's Great Place to Work initiative. So city workers were making $7.25. Now they've, you know, more than doubled their wages. We feel good about that. I ran into some workers who worked for Department of Public Works on the Mardi Gras route, and they saw me, you know, with my chair and they pulled off and they're like, "Ben, we got the raise!" They had a pay stub with them, and they like, pulled it out of their pocket to show me. And they're like, "I'm sending my kid to ballet." I mean, like, that's what I'm talking about, like, the people are really impacted by this stuff. And so feeling very, very good. That's amazing.
You mentioned your action where you had coffins. And I've been to actions with you where you created a huge milk carton with John Kennedy's face on it, like "Where's John Kennedy?" like the missing kids. Is that your favorite kind of thing to do, the visibility stuff?
I'm here for the wins. I like the impact. And when direct action can get the goods, then let's do that. You know, it's fun. We worked on the unemployment campaign 2020/2021. We're still doing a little bit now. But that was, you know, in the heat of the campaign. We did a sit in with over a dozen step up members and allies, you know, who were unemployed most folks in front of Kennedy's office on Poydras street and people got arrested during the pandemic when the jails had a lot of COVID and all this. Was it my favorite thing to like, risk getting arrested and risk getting COVID? No, but like, then, you know, Cassidy ended up helping negotiate the deal to extend the $300 federal benefits and the state ended up expanding its maximum increasing by $28 a week. That's, again, like real money in people's real pockets that has real impact on, you know, poverty and inequality and systemic racism and all things that we're fighting against. So when it works, it's great.
One of the things that I thought was really impressive and aspirational, that you were doing for a while were the faith and labor breakfasts. Was that your brainchild? And how would you go about putting that together? It's a great connection to make.
That's a great reminder. And we should totally get back to it. We stopped during the pandemic. But I was taught by Martin Rafanan from Jobs with Justice in St. Louis, Missouri. Martin built out these incredible Faith-Labor Alliance groups that were groups of faith leaders and labor leaders who were supportive of workers. It wasn't political. There are a lot of places where we can agree or disagree about, you know, a lot of different things. But we all knew that we wanted to support workers and policies that supported workers. When workers were organizing and bosses were retaliating, that there would be this group of, you know, faith and labor institutions who had their back. I saw this in action in St. Louis, in a massive way, I helped organize the Trump-Hillary debate protests at Wash U, and a massive civil disobedience there. We did our announcements at the faith-labor, and this was just something that they had baked into the movement in St. Louis, you know, monthly breakfast with 100 people. I was like, this is incredible, you know, we should do this here. And so then we started having these breakfasts in New Orleans, and gained some momentum, and then things got kind of political, you know. And then people were really into it, and then the pandemic happened, and we kind of stayed away from eating meals in person. We need to get back to that. I think that that was a valuable space. And Martin gets all the credit. I saw him do it in action, and then he trained me over the phone as we were putting them together.
That's wonderful. I love that when you can get ideas from other organizations elsewhere in the country. And that's a great reason to make those connections and network all across the nation. Did you get benefit do you think from those breakfasts?
Yeah, I think that it honestly, the there are some labor leaders that were quite religious that I didn't know. Right? And so then them talking about how their faith calls them to the labor movement, so connected with me, and how my family always approached religion. I'm Jewish, and we just got through Passover. My dad every year, and mom and brothers, and everybody in our family would do a labor Seder, basically, where we would talk about the liberation story over Passover, but connect it to workers and current events and social justice and racial justice. They're still doing it. They had a labor Seder. We had a social justice Seder this year at our house. And so that's always been, when I think of my religion, and belief in God and religious community, I often think about justice. And so there are a lot of labor leaders who felt the same way about their connection to religion. At the same time, like, Reverend Melanie, I don't know if you've heard her tell her story. But, you know, her father was a union leader, and then she is a Unitarian minister. So she's very connected from the labor movement, you know, as part of how she became a faith leader. Other faith leaders also had their own personal stories about how they've been connected to workers and movements and they know who sits in the pews. They know who their congregants are and who they're serving and when those people are in struggle, so I thought that just those two intersections there were really interesting.
It's fascinating to me to hear you say that because my faith is why I think I'm a Democrat. And my parents who are not have occasionally asked me, you know, how did you become a Democrat? And I'm like, well, y'all raised me to be a Christian. I feel like that's part of it. Right? So it's an interesting conversation. What organizations do you partner with most closely on your economic justice work?
Oh, we partner with so many great groups. I'm gonna get in trouble because I'm not going to be able to list them all. There are so many organizations in Louisiana who really care about these issues. And even if it's not the middle of their lane, like when Step Up's members are saying that, like, the minimum wage is important, and it's important to your group, because you're a faith organization or, you know, a community group, the Power Coalition and VOTE and, you know, so many different unions and you know, all the groups I mentioned, that we've partnered with in this housing work that we've never done before, and really on and on and on and on. Like I said, the 45 groups that signed on to our three point platform and Justice and Accountability Center, Louisiana Progress, the groups that help us write the policies. Julie Schwalm Harris and IWO (Indepenedent Women's Organization) and LAW (Legislative Agenda for Women) taught us everything we know about equal pay, and how to campaign for it, and how to lobby at all. Like, Julie showed me how to lobby the first time. It was a Fight for 15 action in 2015. I want to say, this was when Latoya was still on the council. We were doing a rally on City Hall steps. And I was like, "Hey, well, I invited the council to come to the rally but we didn't get the commitments." She was like, "Come with me." And so then me and Julie, and some fast food workers went to the railing like you do at a city council meeting. And one by one, she called them over and me and the workers explained what was going on with the protest and that we were going to be out there in half an hour and could they come and join us? And everybody came. Nadine Ramsay, Latoya Cantrell, Jason Williams, and the whole council came out and spoke from the City Hall steps. I was like, "Oh, so that's how you do it? Is you do whatever Julie says." And I have done that.
I love that. I love that. Well, Maria mentioned, the tiers of leadership you have in your membership? You have paid staff, but you also have a lot of member volunteers. What are the steps that you require to advance as a volunteer to a leadership position. And let me just add on to that: Is that also how you find staff members? Do you graduate from volunteer to staff?
You know, that is how it has happened. There's definitely been folks who have come up through the membership and become staff. For a long time, we didn't have any staff. For years, it was me and Maria. And we were part time. So it feels good to be able to say that. But anyway, the baseline is to become a member of Step Up. A member means you pay dues, $15 a month, or at least one time, whatever you can afford to pay. You have the contact information, you live in Louisiana, and you throw down when you can. And then the next step is member leader. So you do actions, you're very involved, you complete assignments, you know how to share your story, and you're knowledgeable and confident about speaking about the organization, and you've completed some sort of member leader orientation that we do periodically. And then you can become a member organizer, a little harder, you need to have gotten at least two people and have facilitated at least two meetings. You need to be reliable, you know, and communicative and can you know, help us organize a successful event. And so then those are the three checkboxes needed to become a member organizer. And when we think about Step Up, we think of it more as like a target. And sort of like the member organizers and the staff and the board is sort of at the center of the target. And then you know, it's the role of the center of the organization to bring the general public and our supporters and our members and member leaders like closer and closer to the center.
That's wonderful. What kind of training do you offer your members?
So we do member leader orientation. We do organizing trainings, that's sort of my bread and butter. We are working on our membership canvas today. And I've realized I've been canvassing every election cycle since I was 16. And so I was like, that's a lot of years in this thing. And I was like, how many people have I trained to canvass? Like, over 1000 probably over the years, training canvassers, to be on the doors and have those conversations. I know, that's the type of field work you really care about and having volunteers to be able to do that. We train people how to do labor organizing, how do you talk to your co workers? How do you talk to other people at other stores about the movement that you're trying to build in your store. We train people on how to do community organizing, coalition building, meeting facilitation. We have kind of our method. I'm sure other folks have heard of this, but "I do, We do, You do." So I'll facilitate a meeting and the person who is trying to learn how to facilitate will watch me and take notes. And then we'll do it together in the next meeting, and debrief, obviously, we debrief each set. And then they do it the third time, and then you know, then they're good to go.
Then there's another sort of trick called "prep, do, debrief" on any new type of thing you want to do. Let's say it's speak at a council meeting. You prepare to speak at the council meeting, you do your testimony, and then you debrief how it went. And then if you prepare and do an activity and debrief enough times, you'll get better at it, if you're really honest with the debriefs and, you know, are willing to take feedback and work on it. Then there's kind of the more formal and group trainings, both organizing trainings and political education trainees we didn't even really talked about, which is sort of like, understanding, you know, what happens in the legislature and how it works, or, you know, what are the different options around Medicare for all? And what are these different people saying and how to think about it, or, you know, different types of political education that we do with our base around the issues that we work on.
That is such an empowering system, then. So impressive. Maria mentioned RDG. Tell me about this.
When we would be talking to the staff and the member organizers about the membership they'd be like, "Sometimes people don't stick around." That would be sort of like their number one gripe. When I see Step Up, and I want the membership to grow, I'm an organizer, I know that not everybody stays forever, and that's okay. But you know, that, especially for people who are newer to it, you get very upset when folks leave. And so then we're like, how can you quantify "R" which means retention? Like what are some activities you can do around retention? Supporting members when they're in crisis, you know, financial crisis, or if they're sick or experiencing loss, you know, like, what is our protocol? How do we do that as an organization? Mutual aid, obviously, is something that during Hurricane Ida, we took very seriously and during the pandemic, we learned a lot and are always trying to get better and learning more. And then, like you mentioned, I try to bring joy into organizing a lot. And so we felt like supporting members in crisis, mutual aid and joy. Then Maria works on our Healing Justice work. So those are sort of the different categories of how we decided to approach retention.
D for development, which I just talked about, you know, the tiers of leadership and political and organizing training, and G for growth. And there's no magic bullet to growth. Right now what we're working on is our internal membership drive. A staff person or member organizer is having a one on one with each one of our 232 members, and then having, you know, a structured conversation where we're trying to get referrals, and then we're doing a member recruitment event in each chapter at least once a month. And so that is, you know, growing our base by 15 to 20 people a month and trying and do our best there.
Then what is launching in Jefferson Parish today is a membership canvass. We're doing a pilot program in partnership with our national network, the Center for Popular Democracy. They're helping us with the training so that our members can be our canvassers and our members and our staff can go out door to door and, you know, build the base. So that's our approach RDG: Retention, Development, Growth.
Do you have other national organizations you work with? You just mentioned the Center for Popular Democracy?
Yes, so CPD and CPD Action. The Alliance to Reclaim our Schools, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the Network for Public Education, and the Always Essential Table. I think those are the main ones. Sometimes you want to win nationally, you know, we're only one state organization. So if we're thinking about the unemployment campaign, for instance, like we needed the federal government to extend the benefits. And so then we work with unemployed workers across the country, and people who really understand how to get things done, you know, at the Capitol in Washington, the same way we do at the state level, work with Louisianans for Prison Alternatives, or the Power Coalition or the state AFL-CIO to try to move state policy.
We started our conversation talking about awards and Step Up gives awards in conjunction with an annual event that y'all do. Tell me about that.
We love our annual gala, or we try to be annual gala. Because we like a good party, we like to celebrate what we've done in the year, and we try to give five awards. So one elected official, two either partner organizations or campaigns, and then two to members. You know, it's just a really great way to, you know, lift up the really great work similar to what you're doing with the Organizer of the Month awards. So when Unite Here organized the Hilton Riverside, they won an award and when Yes on Two won we gave an award. But, yeah, those different things over the years, and then, you know, some of our members are just such powerhouses in our organization and across the state that we want to be sure they get recognized.
Are you looking at moving any of your members into potentially running for office?
That's interesting. I think that we don't have like a specific person in mind or that have that track. We have had folks participate in the She Leads fellowship that Power Coalition does, and I feel like that can be preparation for leadership, either in elected office or otherwise. We have at different stages been connected with Emerge Louisiana, and try to be sure that the women in our organization are able to, but I think that it is a place where as a state we could grow, and as an organization have more of a strategy around members running for office. We've had a couple of members run. And Matt Willard is a member and he's elected. Yeah, we're down to try to figure out what co-governance and member leadership up to the elected level could look like.
Tell me about your candidate forums.
Oh, I love our candidate forums, this is one of the best things to come out of the three point platform. Honestly, it's like, our organization's commitment to packing the room and having directly impacted people asking people running for office questions, wanting public commitments on the issues, that it's not like we're just gonna bring it up at the forum and then never talk about again. We bring it up at the forum and then we come back to you, like, "Hey, you said you were for a workers bill of rights, let's do this thing. These are the ways that we need you to support a workers bill of rights, these are the different ways we need you to support a $15 minimum wage or better school transportation or sustainable community schools" or whatever the issues are. So we basically invite the candidates, invite the community, sometimes we'll do a couple of districts at a time, because you don't want to do every redistrict. We did most of them, I guess, for the City Council. And so we have some partners in different parts of town. So in District E, in the east, we go to Case Closed barbershop, we did a forum there. And, you know, we went back and did a vaccine event there. And you know, we are going to probably do a worker's bill of rights, peoples movement assembly there, if they'll have us. So we're trying to build that sort of overtime rapport with the faith and community institutions that have their own built in networks. Step Up is doing another event at Broadmoor Community Church in District B, and so stuff like that. And then our office in New Orleans is at Corpus Christi. But yeah, I mean, all across the state we tried to do that, not just in New Orleans. Baton Rouge, we do candidate forums also. It's good.
And you have both a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) arm of Step Up Louisiana. So the c(4) actually will endorse candidates, right?
Yes, and the c(4) is who does the forums.
What sort of support do you give candidates who get your endorsement?
We knock on doors, they can use our logo for their literature, we communicate with our base, we've done some mailers. We have learned a lot about how to use sophisticated targeting, and, you know, persuasion versus get out the vote messages and, you know, door knockers, and all the different sort of strategies around how to run a field campaign. And so we tried to bring all of that to bear either through an independent expenditure or coordinating with the candidate, just depending on what resources are like. We have definitely thrown down for some candidates and made an impact. And I've been really, really pleased with some of the results.
So Ben, you do have membership dues that people pay, but I believe you also take donations to help fund some of the work you're doing. Is that right? Have you found fundraising to be something that you take to pretty well?
So my parents are organizers, and my grandmother was the executive director of the National Commission on Working Women. When she heard that I was going to start an economic justice and education justice nonprofit -- her National Commission on Working Women was about a number of things, but included breaking the glass ceiling in different professions and using culture and television to be able to break down those stereotypes (my Baba shout out) -- she got me a grant writing book, and I read this book, and I was like, this is hard. And then folks who organize with me know that every year for, for the last 10 plus years, I pick one thing that I try to get better at every year. And so fundraising was the one thing that I took two years to try to learn. You know, I'll take every training and read every book and talk to every coach and network to everybody to try to figure out how to do the things that we need to do at Step Up to be able to build power for our community. And so, Sheena Brown and Ashley Shelton, and a number of others really taught us, me and Maria, about how to structure the fundraising work and reach out to funders and grow our movement. I'm surrounded by powerful, amazing black women who really see the vision that Step Up has put out and wanted to support.
That's awesome information. We've talked a lot about your c(4) work, but you really spend a lot more time in the 501(c)(3) nonprofit space, right? So a couple of your big projects in the last couple of years has been on COVID, and you mentioned the hurricane Ida mutual aid stuff. Can you tell me a little bit about the work y'all have done in those spaces?
Yeah, after Hurricane Ida, we rang the bell to try to raise as much as we could to be able to support our community. We did a lot of direct relief in terms of grant dollars. We set up food distribution sites in New Orleans every day for weeks and in Laplace and in Baton Rouge, and we got ice and generators to people who needed them and tarps and food and we were grilling out. The post-Ida recovery stuff, as I'm sure a lot of folks who did the work post-Katrina, long before my time will say, you know, it's both really hard and exhausting and draining to see the hard situations that people are in, but really gratifying to be able to actually make an impact. I mean, there were some days where we would just have pallet after pallet of water, ice, having, you know, people who did have the means to go and be somewhere in air conditioning in Tennessee if they wanted to, but instead were doing truckloads of water, going to Costco, getting another pallet, coming back to our office, another pallet. I just was so impressed by the way that the community stepped up, and, you know, people who chose to come back to be able to help, even when they didn't have power themselves. Ida relief was really special, and super challenging and exhausting.
Then for the vaccine outreach and stuff, we did a lot of education in our base about the vaccine and about COVID, and we did a lot of mask distribution. We partnered with Masks for America. But the big project we've been doing that just wrapped mid-April, since last fall was the Get out the Vax program. So as part of the American Rescue Plan, a number of groups that do get out to vote work were funded to use our skills or expertise on how we do targeting and getting out the vote (GOTV) to get out the vax and we knocked on tens of thousands of doors and had a lot of conversations with folks about their thoughts about the vaccine. We did 14 vaccine events in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. So that just wrapped a couple of weeks ago, but it was a huge undertaking. It was our first federal grant, and we're excited to do more of that type of work, you know, about like, yes, obviously, we do the civic engagement work and educating voters around election time, but you know, because we've been doing that year after year, 40,000 to 50,000 doors in a cycle, that is that as a muscle that we have now learned that I'm sure can help a lot of different things that will help our community when it comes to outreach and conversations and the type of organizing that you and I both know works.
What's your next big project?
Dollar Stores. Step Up has been organizing with workers and customers at Dollar Stores for the last four years have been building the committee, learning a lot about the corporations, doing some research, and we are headed to the shareholder meeting on May 25th to protest, because workers deserve more. Workers deserve to have safe stores, safety from physical violence. There was a rat infestation at the Family Dollar distribution center in Memphis, they had to close 400 stores, like we want to be sure that our the products that are moving in our communities are safe. They disproportionately put these Dollar Stores in poor neighborhoods and black neighborhoods across our state. Louisiana has as many dollar stores per capita as anywhere else. The workers who are working with us have been building and are really excited about unleashing their power at the shareholder meeting this spring and to keep the momentum going. That's the next big campaign.
How can people plug into the work you're doing?
If folks want to get involved, you can come to stepuplouisiana.org/join and you can hop right on in to the membership or you can email us at email@example.com or you can call us at 504-322-4663. So email, phone, website. We are on the social medias. So you can follow us on Twitter -- I do tweet -- @StepUpLA, or @StepUpLouisiana on Instagram, or facebook.com/stepupla on Facebook. And so that's how you plug in. And we've go always a lot of stuff going on, on the education side with our schools, we have chapter meetings in all three of our chapters, and so excited about where Step Up is now and where we can be. But in order to build the power that we need to actually win in our state needs you, needs people, needs, you know, thousands of members to be able to actually change what's going on.
Lots of ways to plug in. Ben, last three questions, what's the biggest hurdle for progressive change in Louisiana?
I think we're just not organized to the scale that we need to be. There were set of legacy organizations, ACORN, United Teachers of New Orleans, SEIU, you know, some of the legacy civil rights organizations that played such a foundational role in the movement here, and, you know, time and turnover, and Katrina and intentional disruption and right to work, and, you know, racism, and targeting, and mass incarceration, all kind of hurt our movement over the last generation. And so then now, there are a new set of folks who are stepping up for lack of a better word, and trying to organize and so I'm sort of inspired, but I think that the biggest hurdle is the number of people who are involved, and rebuilding from some of the intentional takedowns of our movement infrastructure.
And what do you see as the biggest opportunity?
The biggest opportunity is that there are a lot of people who don't get talked to very often. And, like, we're going to be canvassing in Jefferson Parish, and, you know, we're happy to be doing this organizing, but there could be 10 other groups doing community organizing in Jefferson Parish around a number of different issues, that I'm sure that there's thousands, 10s of thousands, 100s of thousands of people who care about it. So I think that opportunity-wise, there's a lot of folks who could plug in. I think that statewide there are a lot of different communities who have been engaged in the fight around elections, and that has been great. And so then, you know, trying to plug those folks in year round.
Ben, who's your favorite superhero?
Superhero? Oh, man, that's a hard one. Who is my favorite superhero? Am I a superhero person?
Oh, Maria said Ella Baker.
So okay, so other people. I don't have to pick like, Ant Man.
There's no rule. I say organizers are superheroes all the time. So whatever your interpretation of that is.
I like the person who joins our movements today, and gets up off the couch and starts fighting for a better world. That person is my favorite superhero.
Well, I like it, because that can be a lot of people and you're challenging people to be your superhero. So thank you so much for joining me. It always makes me hopeful to speak to you. Like I said, you bring joy to organizing. So it's always a joyful moment for me when we can work together and when we can have a conversation.
Thank you for listening to Louisiana Lefty. Please follow us on your favorite podcast platform. Thank you to Ben Collinsworth for producing Louisiana Lefty, Jen Pack of Black Cat Studios for our Super Lefty artwork, and Thousand $ Car for allowing us to use their swamp pop classic "Security Guard" as our Louisiana Lefty theme song.