“Start by looking at your own environment,” Nick Licata tells me. That is the first step. Then ask, “Are we taking advantage of it, or is it taking advantage of us?” If the answer is the latter, you know what you have to do next.
Packed with success stories that illustrate citizen power, practical tips for winning a campaign and insights into the inner-workings of power and politics, Licata’s “Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies & Advice for Changing Our World” is a joy to read. It offers inspiration and serious reflection about our current political moment and provides guidance on how ordinary citizens can reclaim democracy through activism and civic engagement.
Licata is an unabashed progressive, but he’s also a savvy pragmatist. Throughout his career as a member of the Seattle City Council and progressive activist, he has seen firsthand how short-term gains can make a big difference in the long run. He is committed to social justice, but he’s also unencumbered by ideology; in his book and during our interview he pointed to several examples in which unlikely alliances built across political lines helped achieve progressive victories. “You always have to look for inroads,” he said.
I asked him several questions about strategy during our interview — how to make change, how to influence politicians, how to build alliances, and how to win on issues — because I felt that he was uniquely positioned to provide insight on this subject. Parts of “Becoming a Citizen Activist” read like a playbook, containing tools of the trade from an insider’s perspective. Yet Licata is anything but “a political insider.” He is deeply committed to empowering ordinary people to become active citizens in our democracy, and that’s what the book is all about.
Why did you write “Becoming a Citizen Activist”?
I wrote [“Becoming a Citizen Activist”] because I started thinking about my own life and why I became an activist. So I was writing it partly as a reflection, but also as something to share with other people so they could have greater influence over their lives.
You have worked both inside and outside of the political system. How has this experience influenced your perspective as a progressive committed to social justice?
I believe that you need to have a holistic strategy. I’ve been involved in many demonstrations throughout my life, beginning with the Vietnam War and civil rights demonstrations. But just demonstrating or just being elected to office alone can’t accomplish long-lasting, deep change. Sometimes, demonstrations will push elected officials to do something, and those elected officials will be able to push legislation through. Without the support of a community, the elected officials won’t be able to convince other electeds that it’s a critical issue. On the other hand, you can’t just limit your activity to protesting without an elective strategy. As progressives, we have to think about systematic approaches.
What first inspired you to become an activist?
I try to steer away from the definition. People don’t necessarily label themselves as activists. Certain people do, but most people, if you ask them if they’re an activist, they’re not going to say yes. Many people have a difficult time even understanding that they’re a citizen. What I’m trying to get across is that, as a citizen, you have to be active. I first became aware of being a citizen in college. We were switching from a semester system to a quarter system, and a friend and I decided that no one asked us. We started a petition on a very conservative campus and ended up on the front page [of the local news] within 48 hours. No one had ever done anything like that. It was very basic.
What does it mean to be a citizen?
It’s two things. First, as a citizen you have rights. A lot of people don’t exercise their rights. It’s not just the right to vote. It’s also a right to live in a society that gives you opportunities. It’s a right to not be assigned permanently to poverty or, for that matter, being assigned to a group that’s permanently discriminated against. It also means that you have a responsibility. Democracy is like a vehicle: everyone can’t have their hands on the steering wheel at the same time. But they do have a voice in telling that vehicle where to go. If they don’t exercise their right to speak up, then that vehicle is going to go someplace where they have no control over it.
How can citizen activists get an elected official to support their position?
Some politicians will never support your side. You have to evaluate which politicians are most open to reception. You need to figure out which legislative body would be taking the vote, and which people are in positions of power within that structure. Not everyone’s equal; you go to the people who have the most power. Then you figure out if they’ve made any statements that are, or could be, supportive of your positions. You have to do your research. Who has given money or endorsements to that candidate? Do any of those people support your position that you could go to? You have to figure out who you’re trying to influence, who has access to them, and then you need to provide good information. You can’t just go in and argue, “It’s not right, it’s not fair.” That may move some people, but you also have to point out, quite honestly, what’s in their interest. You need to have an “ask.” What are you asking that person to do? Don’t leave with a comment from them saying they’re “supportive,” that’s not what you need. You need a commitment for a vote on a specific type of wording in legislation.
I’ve seen that happen. A citizen group gets a meeting with an elected official. The elected says they’re “supportive” and everyone is happy. Then it’s not clear what they’re actually going to do…
Right. It’s an empty cup of coffee!
Does having visible support from citizen activists help elected officials persuade other electeds to vote a certain way?
Totally. It really helps a lot. They should also testify, send letters and talk directly to the councilmembers who may be on the fence. That way, the elected can’t use the excuse “they never talked to me.” That knocks out that argument. It may not look like you’ve made any progress, but what you’ve done is you’ve eliminated some of the ammunition they would use against you.
How can citizen activists find common ground with those who may disagree with them?
I think the critical thing to understand is that the people who disagree are not themselves united in their disagreement. You need to assess who your supporters are and who your opponents are. In some ways, you need to do a better assessment of your opponents than even your supporters. You need to figure out which of your opponents are on the fringe. They’re not totally invested, they’re opposed to it because maybe they have bad information, or they’re going along with someone else that they trust. You also need to figure out that sometimes people will disagree with you for different reasons. Some of those reasons may be valid, but other reasons can be addressed and you can find common ground. Look at drug addiction in the U.S. For years, it had been considered strictly a crime. Law enforcement, that’s it.
Now, conservatives and libertarians are beginning to recognize that mandatory sentencing does not work, and that drug addiction is a disease. Very conservative politicians and community leaders are arguing in favor of jail diversion strategies. Progressives in Seattle have been pushing that for a while. Folks who we would generally put into the other camp on that issue are moving toward our position. So we always have to be open to opportunities to split the opposition and look for allies.
You write about some of the differences between the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party movement. You acknowledge that the Tea Party movement had major corporate backing, but you also point out that it gained political power through entering electoral politics. Can you say more about that?
The Tea Party’s entrance into politics actually was anti-Democrat and anti-Republican. The big supporters of the Tea Party were libertarian — the Koch Brothers, for instance. They’re not necessarily friends with a lot of Republicans. Remember, the Tea Party threw out one of the key Republicans, Speaker of the House [John Boehner], in part because he was too close to Wall Street. But the Tea Party as a movement recognized that they needed to have political power outside of just demonstrating. They concentrated on getting people who agreed to their agenda into office, and often ran people against Republicans. The Occupy movement didn’t really support any candidates; they just didn’t go that route. As a result, they gave up a valuable tool. The right wing is a narrower, but in some ways, more easily understood perspective. It basically says, “Government is bad, independence is good.” They totally distort it, of course. But progressives don’t have a strong alternative message. My argument is that democracy is our solution. Democracy means everyone gets to participate — that fights voter suppression. Democracy means that you protect the rights of minorities — that gets into the issue of prejudice and discrimination in law enforcement. Democracy means that the majority, while protecting the minority, gets to guide the nation — which addresses elections being decided by money.
Some would say our political system has already been bought. How do we make it more democratic?
Here’s the problem. On the federal level, there’s obviously a logjam and not much is going to happen. Some things will happen, but not much. The right wing has been overwhelmingly successful on the state level; they probably control two-thirds of the state governments now and they’re introducing legislation at twice the pace of Democrats. So major metropolitan areas are, unfortunately, the last strongholds for progressive movements. We have to take advantage of that. We have to push our local politicians to take on issues that the state and federal governments refuse to take on. For instance, we’ve been very successful at pushing the agenda for a minimum wage. Now states are dealing with it, and the federal government’s dealing with it.
That came out of cities. Paid sick leave is another great example of this. We begin at the grassroots level in urban areas, and we get people elected who really represent the interests of the vast majority of people.
Then we need to pitch to everyone that this is what democracy is about. To simply repeat that corporations and the right wing control government, so therefore, we can’t do anything, really feeds cynicism. It helps those very interests that we’re opposed to keeping in power stay in power. Once people are infected with cynicism, it becomes much more difficult for them to recognize that they have to be active as citizens to take back their government.
What gives you hope?
I refuse to surrender. Once you give up hope, it’s basically saying that you give up. Maybe it’s a bit of pride and I don’t want to lose; maybe it’s a bit of stubbornness; maybe it’s because I don’t want the other person to win. But being optimistic about making gains, and being able to see these victories as accumulative and not isolated, propels me to try again. It gives me hope that we’ll succeed next time or succeed greater. That movement forward, that sense of hope, is the strongest tool we have in opposing the reactionary forces who want the citizens of this country to basically just go to sleep and allow corporations to run the country.
For more information, visit: BecomingaCitizenActivist.org.