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State and Local Activism Needs You: Where to Start

Commentary: Grassroots lobbying and volunteer opportunities abound. Here's how to step up and what to expect.

Young people sitting on the ground making protest posters about human rights and equal rights
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The US Supreme Court's decision to overturn the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade has triggered near-immediate abortion bans and restrictions across a patchwork of states. It's also set off a massive wave of collective political activism, as thousands take to the streets in protest and to seek out local and state-focused advocacy outfits. Roe's reversal is just one of several civil rights setbacks now fueling renewed calls for activism.   

While still a crucial act, voting has been stripped of much of its political power in many states. Lawmakers have gerrymandered legislative districts, enacted voter suppression laws, taken part in widespread misinformation campaigns and enjoyed an unchecked flood of dark money in political races. By the same token, it's become painfully difficult to achieve traditional statehouse wins through local activism and grassroots lobbying efforts. 

People power is critically needed as advocacy groups band together to provide patchwork health care and basic human services to those most impacted by recent political decisions. It's also needed as grassroots organizations show up to their Capitols opposed by armies of well-paid professional lobbyists. 

"State legislatures have an enormous amount of power and you feel their impact whether you know it or not. If you are into politics but you aren't into your state legislature, you should change that," said Kelly Baden of the State Innovation Exchange (or SiX). 

Read more: What's at Stake in Your Statehouse

Baden's advocacy work with SiX has achieved significant milestones for reproductive rights efforts on the state level, including launching the country's only cross-state cohort of state legislators supportive of reproductive rights -- 400 of them from around the country.

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"Thanks in part to a generations-long underinvestment in social justice grassroots groups and lack of a progressive political infrastructure at the state level, the majority of statehouses have been under Republican control for years," Baden added.

Power clearly tilts toward conservatives. Republicans call the shots in 32 of 50 statehouses -- with full government control in 23 states, two-chamber legislative control in another seven, and two Republican governors over split legislatures. If you're a liberal, though, you're looking at just 18 states where Democrats wield power -- with full control in 14, two-chamber legislative control in three, and one Democratic governor over a split legislature. 

"It's an all hands on deck moment and our attention as citizens should be on every level of government -- including state legislatures -- to win back the rights we are losing," Baden said. "Our gridlocked Congress won't save us."

The American Civil Liberties Union stressed the importance of action during campaign cycles, saying, "We urge everyone to make their voices heard to their local elected offices, and during an election cycle is the perfect time. This is when elected officials are most open to the pressure and most willing to move on policy."

Regardless of party or political leaning, if you want to get involved in local activism and state lobbying, opportunities abound. Here's how to get started.

What you can bring to the table 

Every lifelong organizer with victories under their belt can tell you the same story: Passionate people show up bursting with energy after a major political event, only to fizzle out when they realize they've overpromised their time and underestimated the psychological strain of prolonged effort. Successful activism is a marathon, not a sprint. For it to be sustainable, take stock of your availability and what issues and activities you feel most passionate about.

You might be able to contribute $100 and 20 hours of volunteer work this week and the next, but you and your cause are far better off if you can contribute $5 and two hours of every week for a year. You might have the time to take on lots of shifts working a phone bank, but if you get more gratification out of, say, distributing food or designing fliers, then you're more likely to stick with the cause by steering yourself toward those things. 

Organizations need a diverse set of skills to thrive, and there are opportunities to volunteer for any range of time you can, from a single-day event to a years-long campaign. And whether you're a programmer, a nurse, a bartender or a banker -- your skill set can always be put to use.

Join the cause, but check the ego 

While social justice movements and political activism need a vast range of people to achieve wins, they don't need another rock star. And while steering yourself toward the parts of activism you most enjoy is important for the long haul, no one is ever too good to do the grunt work necessary in all movements. 

Civil rights icon Rosa Parks wasn't accidentally thrust into the spotlight in 1955. Her refusal to move to the back of a racially segregated Alabama bus was a strategic part of her group's long, intentional plan. Parks married an NAACP member in 1932, and joined in 1943. She was elected secretary, organized a campaign for a rape investigation, fought Jim Crow laws three times before her voter registration was accepted and attended an activism-oriented school just months before she kicked off the famous 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

She and other NAACP organizers worked diligently to carry on the efforts of Claudette Colvin, who'd refused to move seats in a similar protest months prior. The group secured alternate transportation for bus riders to make the boycott sustainable, worked through the night printing fliers and built alliances across different civil rights groups.

Successful organizing isn't a single-player sport. Your brilliant skills and talent have to be employed in collaboration with others -- and you can't shirk your responsibilities when it's your turn to mop the floor.

Find the right fit 

There are any number of nonprofit organizations, autonomous community cause initiatives, and religious and social charities that operate around the US. For first-timers, though, the best idea is to start out with the local branch of a well-established regional or national organization. 

Once you've decided what particular cause you're most motivated to help, one easy way to find local chapters of larger organizations is to browse Guidestar, a well-known directory of charitable outfits. VolunteerMatch is also a great way to figure out which organization could use the particular skills and resources that you offer. The American Civil Liberties Union also has branches in every state to address a range of causes, making it easy to get engaged, even if you've never been involved with activism. 

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters is also a strong entry point into local politics. And if you want to volunteer to help at the polls, you can reach out to your local election day contacts.

If donating is more your style than volunteering, it's always a good idea to check out any charity before cutting the check. Charity Watch is a good place to start. 

Take off the rose-colored glasses 

Getting started is easy -- just take stock of what you can offer, humble yourself toward the collective mission and find the local branch of a strong organization fighting for your cause. But fair warning: This work is going to break your heart. 

If you're volunteering in a service-oriented activist collective, you may often find yourself helping and working with disenfranchised people whose struggles will fill you with a heady mix of righteous passion, crushing sadness and a powerfully encouraged sense of hope. But if you lobby your statehouse, you're going to see how the sausage is made. And when you inevitably encounter lawmakers who disregard the suffering of those you fight for and who refuse to be swayed by either scientific fact or basic human decency, the cruelty may turn your stomach. 

Yes, you're likely to find admirable champions among the elected officials you meet. But you're also likely to see lawmakers playing with their phones absentmindedly in the middle of a committee hearing, as a victim of some horrible crime pleads in tears for the group to pass a critically necessary bill. You're likely see glib and callous men sexually harass staffers, aides, journalists and lobbyists. You're likely to see sneering contempt from elected officials of all genders, who are squarely in the pocket of special interests -- as they close their office doors in your face, walk away while you're midsentence or viciously insult you from the middle of the Senate floor. 

I've witnessed all those things in person, from both parties, while covering statehouse politics as a journalist for nearly a decade. And I had to learn the hard way what I wish I'd known beforehand and what I'm telling you now.

To avoid the most bitter pain of all -- that of helpless outrage as it sours into resigned despair -- my best advice is to (gently, dear heart) first remove any rose-colored glasses you may be wearing before you set foot in a statehouse. To do this work, you have to be willing to stare unflinchingly into the abyss of commercial realpolitik. And the only thing that will keep you from breaking is if you walk into your Capitol knowing two things. First, that you're going to encounter bad people doing bad things. And, second, that every last one of them can be taken down when enough good people come together to fight the good fight. 

If you've never spent time working in a statehouse, my final advice may seem melodramatic or grim. But ask those in your organization who've spent a few years in the marble trenches and you'll hear the same: If you would reach out your hand among the greased palms, grip tightly the rusty levers of democracy and use all your might to wrench the machinery of government even a single inch closer to justice -- first learn to make a fist.