Rising Organizers: Turning Progressive Participants Into Leaders

Nonprofit organization aims to turn progressive activism into a more organized political powerhouse.
A Rising Organizers public training.

A Rising Organizers public training.

The year was 2016. There was a crowd of a couple hundred people gathered in the basement of MLK library in Washington D.C. It was a diverse crowd of mostly 25-35-year-olds searching for a productive outlet to put their newfound energy to use. Donald Trump had just won the highest office in the land and many of the people gathered there feared for their future. I was one of them.

My co-founders and I had just re-launched our social news app, Rantt, as a media publication after witnessing the disastrous coverage of the 2016 election when I stumbled upon a Facebook event to this community organizing event for beginners. There, I met Elyssa Feder and some of the other team members who would go on to turn this group of hungry leaders into the nonprofit Rising Organizers.

This organization has since trained over 1,500 people, ran multiple fellowship programs, and had alumni go on to successfully influence policy. Rather than focus on raising donations for various candidates or pushing online organizing initiatives, Rising Organizers has set out to turn these eager participants into leaders in their own communities. When tackling issues from climate change to student debt to income inequality, there is a need for a new generation of progressive leaders to obtain the skills necessary to turn their voices into political power.

Although 2 years have passed, the post-2016 election energy has far from dissipated. The 2018 midterm elections saw historic turnout, as Democrats won 40 seats, marking the largest blue wave in the House since the Watergate era. Youth voter turnout saw a record high for a midterm. Over 100 women were elected to Congress, Governorships, and other statewide offices.

The next two years will be tumultuous, as the incoming Democratically-controlled House applies a much-needed check on President Trump. But that doesn’t mean progressive causes still don’t need to be advocated or that the 2020 election is an easy win for Democrats. Far from it. Now, more than ever, we need an organized, focused left.

I sat down with the Director of Rising Organizers Elyssa Feder to talk progressive politics, what the organization has set out to do, and why organizing is a crucial necessity on the left.

The interview is below. You can learn more about Rising Organizers and how to get involved by visiting their website here.

Elyssa Feder, Director of Rising Organizers, leads a public training.

Elyssa Feder, Director of Rising Organizers, leads a public training.

Ahmed Baba: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Elyssa. So, you launched Rising Organizers in 2016 right after Trump won the presidency. What inspired you to take on this cause and what are you setting out to accomplish?

Elyssa Feder: I did! So, the 2016 election was terrible, we all know this. Everybody was freaking out and trying to make sense of everything in their own ways, and here in DC we saw a huge surge in the number of people arranging events, having meetups, getting together and wanting to act in some way but not quite knowing how to do it. And, never being very good at sitting around, I figured, well, you know how to do some things; how can you help?

So, I got together a few friends of mine to run this training — an old boss of mine wrote it — and called it “Organizing for Non-Organizers.” We thought, what we need right now is organizing. What we need right now is for people to take this energy, understand what they care about, and figure out what they are going to do about it. Then we could point them to the groups already doing the work they cared about. So, I put this Facebook event up, this training, and next thing I know we were at capacity in like two days. Around a week later, we were in this dark basement at the library, helping 200 people understand some basic organizing theory. It was wild — we never anticipated that kind of response.

We’ve grown a lot since those early days and added new programs, but the mission of the organization in a lot of ways has stayed the same. How do we help people understand what they want to make better in the world, in their communities, in politics, and then give them the skills they need to get them there?

In order to do that, we still run our public trainings; we work with existing activist organizations in the DC area to help support their leaders and grow their skills; and we run a biannual fellowship program, which allows us to teach skills over the long haul. The programs all feed into each other too, so we can send a fellow who wants to create fight gendered harassment to Collective Action for Safe Spaces, as an example, and then they can give their skills to the work they care about. We’re trying to leverage our skills, our network, and our community in the best way possible to connect people and causes.

AB: What differentiates you from a group like Indivisible?

EF: We help improve the work that people are already doing – we are built to be a facilitator of the work and the people that are already out there, and help new people plug into existing and budding organizations as smoothly as possible. What we want to do is make everyone’s work — from the Indivisibles to the local church activist groups to the League of Women Voters chapters — better and stronger, no matter where they’re starting from or where they’re going.

After the 2016 election, a lot of people talked about the need to create better progressive infrastructure. But even though this was all we talked about, very little progress has been made in that area. We definitely have more institutions thinking about elections, but the day-to-day between Novembers that affects daily lives? Not a lot of change on that front. In the long-term, if progressives want to regularly win on issues, we need that infrastructure to be improved. That’s our long-term mission. We want to bolster that infrastructure, give people the skills and training they need to organize over the long-haul, and create a community of active, effective, and efficient organizers that can lean on each other to get things done.

“Organizing is about building relationships, gaining political power, and executing a strategy…”

Fellowship Co-Lead CJ Jackson leading a Rising Organizers Fellowship Training.

Fellowship Co-Lead CJ Jackson leading a Rising Organizers Fellowship Training.

AB: Can you tell us a little about what specific skills Rising Organizers teaches aspiring leaders?

EF: We run a lot of trainings—public trainings (which are for anyone and can be attended as one-offs or as a series), trainings for the fellowship curriculum (for fellows only), and trainings for specific groups that ask us to come in and train their folks. Organizing is about building relationships, gaining political power, and executing a strategy, so all our trainings are about an aspect of that. We’ve got trainings on relationship building, trainings on how to answer challenging questions about your work, trainings on how to develop tactics in a campaign, trainings on how to fundraise — really, anything we can think of that are useful in community organizing.

Our fellowship trainings dive further into the strategies that we teach in our public trainings and show more of how they all link together. Our goal with the fellowship is to give our fellows a deep toolkit for doing the organizing work that they are currently doing or will be jumping into next. We provide all of our trainings at no cost to our attendees and fellows, because we don’t want cost to be a barrier to anyone who wants to learn.

We’re always trying to think up new content, and we build relationships with our partner organizations to know what they would find most useful so we can write and deliver that content with them in mind.

AB: Does Rising Organizers rely on Saul Alinsky’s brand of community organizing or does it expand on it?

EF: We draw from a few sources — Saul Alinsky is definitely part of our methodology, as is Marshall Ganz, but our overall goal is to make organizing accessible and effective, so we also aim to teach and build on those sources. It’s not just about “do you pull from this school or that school”, it’s about how do you bring organizing to the people who want to learn it, how do you make it accessible, without a fee or prior knowledge to gain entry, and how do you make sure it’s relevant to what’s happening in people’s lives right now. Those factors are always top of mind in everything we do.

AB: What would you say is the biggest internal challenge that progressives need to overcome ahead of 2020?

EF: The progressive movement needs to invest in the future. We see that happening already — new, inspiring leaders are running for election; young people are standing in the halls of Congress demanding policy change; new organizations are all around us trying to solve for some of these major problems facing our country. We’re excited to be a part of that, and do our part to help solve this puzzle. But it’s not going to all happen by tomorrow, or next month, or even next year (unfortunately). A stronger, more efficient infrastructure is something that’s going to take decades to get going, and we need to have the long-term vision to begin the changes now that will pay off for what the progressive movement looks like fifty years from now, or more.

“The progressive movement needs to invest in the future.”

Rising Organizers Spring 2018 Fellows (from left) Chantelle, Aishwarya, and Emmanuela.

Rising Organizers Spring 2018 Fellows (from left) Chantelle, Aishwarya, and Emmanuela.

AB: Where do you see Rising Organizers by 2020?

EF: Bigger and better! We’ve been an all-volunteer operation since 2016, and now we’ve gotten so big we can start thinking about new programs, hired staff, and even expanding our programs to other cities, if not by 2020 then soon after.

By the end of 2020, we want to train another 1,000 people, have another four fellowships, create new programs for youth and students, and find new ways of supporting local organizations, like running bootcamps specifically for our organizational partners. Our measures of success are oriented around our people: we know we will be successful when we have fellows who go on to be professional community organizers; when they become leaders in their volunteer work or communities. It will mean our community partners are able to train up more of their leaders and do more work more quickly, garnering more successes for their organization. And it will mean the movement is developing new leaders for the long-haul, not just until 2020 or 2024.

We also are thinking about bringing our programs to new places outside the DMV. Long-term, we want to have on-the-ground organizers in cities and towns across the US who want to commit their time to training their communities and strengthening their power. We know organizing is really important and really hard, and we want to do what we can to create a better ecosystem for everyone. All of this, of course, means we need a lot of financial support, and we’re working hard to get there.

AB: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to tell our readers about Rising Organizers?

EF: We’re really excited about where we are and where we’re going! We’ve seen how important our work is to this community and to the people we train. So many of our fellows have gone on to become community and campaign organizers or leaders in their communities. One of our alums was invited to speak at the US Capitol about insulin access; others became organizers for voting rights or deepened their strategies around organizing for racial justice. We know our programs work, and that’s why we’re excited to grow.

For the last two years, we’ve done this work on an all-volunteer basis. It was a labor of love that has created incredible successes. We’re excited to support our people as they continue to take on the world’s challenges, and we need the support of your readers to make sure that happens. We want to have staff, we want to pay our trainers and contribute to a system of equity in organizing, and we want to make sure we’re doing all we can to make the progressive movement as strong as it needs to be for the world we’re in. But we simply cannot do that without donations and support from people who share that vision for a better world, and so we’re working hard to fundraise for 2019. Our goal is $10,000 by the end of the year, and your readers can help us reach that goal. If we’re serious about beating back the tides of extreme right-wing policies, we need to start putting our money where our fury is, and any amount helps.

There are also other ways of keeping up with what we do by signing up to our email list here and following us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And, of course – coming to our trainings! We’re ready to kick off 2019 with our first training in DC on January 26, and we’re looking forward to doing it together.

Full disclosure: The author, Ahmed Baba, was a Spring 2018 Rising Organizers Fellow. You can learn more about their organization or donate to their cause here.

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Interview // Activism / Politics / Progressives