Adrienne Marie Brown and Celeste Faison descended on Pittsburgh from New York to turn you out, but first they had to turn you on. Which meant they had to piss you off.
Faison and Brown were here Aug. 4-7 for Smackdown 2005, the 2nd annual convention of the League of Pissed Off Voters, which fuses the skills of community organizing with voter engagement. It was a brain orgy among activists with a common political fetish for footwork.
Faison and Brown were among League staffers trying to mobilize citizens aged 17 to 35 to build, as the League Web site says, "a progressive governing majority in our lifetime."
For Faison, national hip-hop organizer for the League, turning you out (as a voter, of course) has meant "sitting down and having as long of a conversation as I need to with you.
"Girls need to be out there registering guys [to vote] and guys need to be registering girls," she advised. But people will really get fired up when they realize they're pissed off about the same issues: school loans and rising college tuition; possible military drafts; refusal of benefits for same-sex unions; or even the very notion of marriage.
The League convention, at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Law, included training sessions on such nuts and bolts of campaigning as political ballin' on a budget (running without money), lobbying, arousing the media and community organizing. The challenge of convention staffers was to find ways to unite groups of disparate demographics around one common agenda: Stonewall Democrats not in total support of a living wage, say, with pro-choice women who will be campaigning for an anti-abortion rights U.S. senate candidate in Pennsylvania next year.
One of the convention's training sessions seemed to piss off some young activists in unintended ways, such as the Faison-led "Forming Cultural Partnerships," during which participants were purposefully hit with every culturally offensive name they'd ever been called.
"Even though I knew this exercise is supposed to be fake," said Nish Suvarnakar, "it still touches a nerve."
As Faison explained: "If you can't identify your own oppression -- how you oppress yourself and how you oppress your own constituencies and communities -- then you can't talk about how the other oppressor is dealing with you."
And even using generally accepted but ambiguous terminology could thwart true coalition among groups, some participants argued. N'Gani Ndimbie, 18, of Squirrel Hill, said she resists identifying herself as black on college applications because people have a tendency to place black students in special academic tracks. But she also feels being a Christian gets her falsely labeled. "All Christians are grouped as part of the Right, so it seems if you're Christian you're part of the problem."
Most could agree on one thing: Republican Sen. Rick Santorum had to go.
One person whose politics stood out, even among this politically diverse bunch, was David Dix, a director of the Republican Party's diversity committee. Dix conducted workshops on how to build campaigns from scratch and how to mobilize African-American voters. His red status hasn't discouraged League leadership, such as Brown or League Director William Upski Wimsatt, from working with him for the past year on different campaign strategies.
"I'm not a big guy for labels," says Dix, "but if we're going to use the word 'progressive' let's not make it a synonym for liberal. You have people like [Pittsburgh City Councilor Bill] Peduto, who is a fiscal conservative but is socially liberal, who fits the word 'progressive' perfectly."
Dix, 25, was campaign director for a Democratic city council candidate in his native Erie, and also worked intensively with North Side Democratic ward chair Khari Mosley, the chief local organizer for Smackdown 2005 who directed Peduto's mayoral and city council campaigns in May.
"We're focusing on people who can actually get elected to office right now," says
Brown. "Meanwhile, we're developing people like Khari, a person we could actually get excited about having in office."