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Harnessing the progressive tide

Harnessing the progressive tide

A progressive tour de force has emerged across the mountains since the election of President Donald Trump.

The movement has many names and myriad networks. Indivisible. Common Ground. Forward Franklin. Our Revolution. Stronger NC. 

WNC is not alone. Pop-up activist groups have grown like wildfire, and most share the same origin story.

“We started with less than 20 people in a living room,” said Chelsea White, 23, a co-founder of Progressive Nation WNC. “For many of us, this was our first big grieving process directly related to politics.”

Hundreds are now affiliated with Progressive Nation WNC in Haywood. Twice they’ve outgrown their meeting space and had to upgrade to a larger location.

They meet every Monday to strategize, talk issues and get their marching orders for the week — whether it’s writing letters, calling Congressmen, making rally signs or hanging flyers.

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The pace is dizzying, but the call to arms is exactly what’s so appealing. Frustrated progressives want something more tangible than making Crock-Pot meatballs for covered-dish party suppers.

“They are much more action-oriented,” said Chuck Dickson, a Waynesville Democrat. “It’s remarkable with what they’ve done by putting out action calls and giving people specific things to do.”

But with the next election still 18 months out, will the movement have staying power?

“That’s they key question,” said Jon Feichter, a Waynesville Democrat and town alderman who applauds the progressive movement. “Everyone is motivated right now, but will it still be burning as bright a year from now? I sure hope so.”

Starting a movement isn’t easy. At 23 and fresh out of college, White should be starting a career.

Instead, she spends most of her week as an unpaid activist and organizer. She’s been the engine behind Progressive Nation WNC, but also makes regular rounds to other progressive groups as far away as Burke and Yancey counties.

“I’ve been working two jobs to do this,” White said — one waiting tables in Murphy, the other as a shop clerk in her hometown of Sylva.

“Those are my only source of income and I have been doing this in all my spare time,” White said. “But if I expect people to take time out of their day to do this, then I have to set an example.”

White’s cohorts are in a similar boat. Amber Kevlin is a full-time nursing student at Haywood Community College, works 30 hours a week and has a 5-year-old.

But in her free time — “what little time I have,” she said —  Kevlin’s leading Progressive Nation.

The third co-founder, Natasha Bright, said her kids were one of the main reasons she kept pushing after the election defeat.

“It is normally not anything I would have done ever,” said Bright, 40. “But I wanted to show them even if you lose, you stand up and keep fighting for what you think is right. You don’t just take it.”


Steering a stampede

Progressive Nation WNC isn’t alone. A huge number of activist groups have mobilized across the region — around two dozen spanning 10 counties, according to an online progressive registry.

It’s a show of strength on one hand, but poses a challenge: can they work together as one organism?

“All of these groups may have various goals individually, but I have found all those goals are very similar,” White said.

A national framework has now emerged to loosely connect the web of pop-up groups under one progressive movement. The moniker Indivisible is a catchall for the grassroots movement, but it’s hard to define something so intangible. 

Indivisible rolled out a tool kit this month to arm the pop-up groups with “advocacy tactics” to effect change. 

The go-to guide covers everything from forum nuts-and-bolts and call scripts to how to find out your congressman’s voting record. 

Indivisible has admittedly borrowed from the Tea Party’s playbook.

“It was this is how the Tea Party was effective and this is what liberal activists need to do too,” White said of the Indivisible guide.

The guide was initially put online as a Google doc by two former congressional staffers to help the progressive resistance turn their anger into activism.

Just four months later, an online registry at Indivisible lists a network of 5,983 pop-up groups.

WNC is particularly rich with pop-up groups. A few counties have started Indivisible groups, including Indivisible Swain. Others — like Progressive Nation WNC — simply claim an allegiance to Indivisible but have a name of their own.

“It is anyone who identifies with the progressive movement,” White said.

Across the mountain in Franklin, a progressive pop-up group called Forward! Franklin has grown from a core of 15 in the weeks following the election to 60 or more.

“I think people are starting to wake up and not be complacent in the political process,” said Lauren Hickman, 35, a co-founder of Forward! Franklin.

Aside from the regular activism of writing letters to congressmen and holding demonstrations — like the climate march they’re leading on the Little Tennessee Greenway this Saturday — Forward! Franklin appeared before county commissioners and asked them to urge state lawmakers to fund public education.

“We raised awareness in the greater community,” Hickman said, citing coverage of the commissioner meeting in the Franklin Press. “Our lawmakers are aware of the press so anything we can do to help raise our voices and let them know we are here will help.”

Some groups trace their origin story to a candidate. 

Our Revolution chapters were formed by Bernie Sanders supporters. Hillary supporters have rallied behind Stronger NC, a take off on Hillary’s campaign slogan Stronger Together. There’s even remnants of Obama’s grassroots movement Organizing for America. And a bastion from the Occupy movement is still hanging on in Jackson County.


What the future holds

Staying connected with their counterparts in other counties isn’t the biggest challenge, however.

The progressive groups lack a formal structure of their own. 

“Whoever wants to come shows up and you’re in,” said Buffy Queen, who’s a volunteer with both the Haywood Democrats and Progressive Nation.

Progressive Nation isn’t registered as a PAC. It’s not a nonprofit. It doesn’t even have a bank account.

Sure, it has a Facebook page. But there’s no official membership roster, no system for choosing leadership and no clear way to determine if a consensus has been reached should the need arise.

That could be problematic when it comes to supporting a particular candidate, especially if several Democrats are running in a primary. How will a group with no membership roster determine which candidates to focus their energy on?

Progressive Nation WNC hosted a rally last week in Waynesville aimed at vilifying Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, and gave stage time to a progressive candidate whose declared his intentions to run against Meadows. There’s rumbling of at least three other Democratic candidates who are contemplating a run for Meadows’ seat. Will Progressive Nation give them stage time at rallies, too?

Offshoot movements have proven they can make a mark on history. The Occupy Wall Street movement rose and fell, but implanted the middle class with collective ire for corporate greed and wealth inequality — coining the label “1 percenter” to refer to the privileged elite class at the top. 

The Black Panthers played their part in shaping the mainstream Civil Rights movement, and the Knights of Labor were critical to workers rights in the 19th century.

But they all eventually faded.

“It is hard to create a faction that is sustaining,” said Chris Cooper, head of the political science and public policy department at Western Carolina University.

One of the big pitfalls for movements is their lack of organizational structure.

“If you want to email Occupy you can’t do it,” Cooper said.

The pop-up groups aren’t completely devoid of organization. Forward! Franklin, for example, has a mission statement, a steering committee and seven issue-based action groups that members can join. Progressive Nation WNC has a similar working model.

For now, the grassroots nature of the progressive movement is the source of its strength.

“It is almost like a flower blooming,” White said.

But it’s unclear how long it will work.

When Progressive Nation needs to pay for supplies or rent meeting space, individual members pull out their wallets and write a check on their own.

“It is hard for an independent ad-hoc group to be able to sustain itself for a long period of time,” said Steve Ellis, a volunteer with the Haywood Democratic Party.

And that’s where the formal party can play a reciprocal role.

“People who have been involved in the established party have some experience to offer those who are full of energy and commitment,” Ellis said.

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