[Editor’s Note: This interview with Rebecca Griffin, Director of Field Organizing for Americans for Democratic Action, was conducted in two parts, the first part in 2021 and the second just a few weeks before press time. The latter conversation includes references to ADA’s voter education and organizing plans for targeted states in the 2022 election cycle and beyond. We have made light edits for clarity and brevity. David Jacobs conducted the interview.]
David Jacobs (DJ): Welcome. Thank you very much for doing this tonight. First of all, Rebecca, can you tell me something about the work you do for ADA?
Rebecca Griffin (RG): Well, I am the national field director, so that means that I kind of coordinate our volunteer activities, our field Program, the logistics of the National Board’s priorities. We monitor legislative activity, and communicate with our chapters and organizers in the field.
I’m responsible for doing some of the interviewing and training of organizers,
I coordinate the internships with college students, [including] remote internships. I get them interviewed and hired on and trained and plugged in with whatever our field work is….
The Making of an Organizer
DJ: So what, in your background led you to work in activism and with ADA in particular?
RG: Well, in terms of being an activist, I think that, in a way, I was born [into] a very politically and socially aware, culture and family, and I think there’s many things that led to just having community and social and political activism in my heart, in my bones.
I was born and raised in Minnesota. Minnesota is a very, kind of, politically and socially and community-engaged state, and the [Democratic Farmer-Labor Party] still exists. It’s a union state, of course, [and] both my parents are very involved in their unions, SEIU and AFSCME. My uncle was in the Machinists Union. I grew up watching my uncle strike if needed.
It was part of that culture, then, as I came into my own in my late teens and early 20s, I embraced that.
I went to a liberal arts college in Minnesota called the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University of Minnesota. And that was the time of Senator Wellstone. I will age myself here, but that was the early-mid to late 90s. When Wellstone was doing his organizing work in southern Minnesota and then obviously becoming our US senator. Just a role model for young activists and organizers and politicians throughout the state, so that really influenced me a lot.
After I graduated college and majored in sociology and psychology, I ended up moving to the Bay area to live with my roommate from college and I connected with an activist organization there and became an organizer and have been pretty much ever since.
DJ: What group was that?
RG: I started organizing with ACORN. I worked there for about seven or eight years in the Bay area and St Louis Missouri.
I did some work in New Orleans and for a long time, I was the head organizer and the director in the Twin Cities.
And, and after I left ACORN, I was living in North Carolina at the time Katrina hit.
And it was a very personal thing for me as ACORN’s headquarters and a lot of Members were in New Orleans and the lower ninth, and so I actually went to organize survivors of Katrina in Houston and that’s where I met Jim Jontz. That’s where Jim Jontz found me, through a connection in Minnesota. They referred Jim to me and he’s the one that recruited me for ADA.
That was in 2000 and 2005.
DJ: Would you say that within Minnesota politics, Wellstone was an important influence on you, or are there any other particular figures in Minnesota whom you seek to emulate.
RG: Wellstone in regard to his focus on the pillars of community organizing, and building political power. Through community organizing, he was a huge, huge influence on me and many, many, many people nationally. And I grew up with my parents talking about Hubert Humphrey.
When Jim contacted me I had begun researching and looking into ADA. I was just really impressed with the organization’s history, the liberal activists and leaders and politicians that were part of the organization, and the principles.
You know FDR, especially Eleanor Roosevelt, and the New Deal that I just embrace wholeheartedly, so I was proud to be a part of ADA.
DJ: In my first ADA Convention I met Don Fraser who at the time was a member of Congress before he became Mayor of Minneapolis. He was so approachable. I had a long conversation with him about history, Scandinavian social democracy, and American liberalism. He was just so willing to talk about these things.
DJ: So you have obviously a lot of people in your family and background who helped you develop this kind of politics.
But how would you characterize your fundamental values?
RG: I don’t know if I have any kind of keywords or catchphrases but I really believe that the phrase “we’re all in this together” characterizes what I believe in.
We’re all one. You’re not alone.
When we used to organize in-home meetings (not in the last year), we would start our agenda with a reminder that we’re not alone.
We might come from different places, or backgrounds, or family histories, or countries, or whatnot. The struggles that we’re going through are not unique to just us.
So that’s a powerful thing, but I think when I was coming up in Minnesota you know the belief in the common good. What we do every day is not just for ourselves but for our community.
DJ: Does religion figure in this at all, in terms of your own personal commitments?
RG: Yes in terms of knowing my neighbor and you know do unto others, but not anything in terms of anything organized.
An ADA Organizer’s View
DJ: And how long have you been working with ADA?
RG: Since 2005 or so.
DJ: Where were you based in 2005?
RG: In North Carolina. Yeah, I worked on the 2006 Congressional election in 2006 and 2008, on the presidential election there. I left North Carolina in late 2010.
DJ: So if you were to create a recipe for ADA that would make it as effective as it’s been in its history, and more so, what would you propose?
RG: Well, this is a good question. It’s not up to me, it’s up to the board, but my personal opinion is there’s so much gridlock in the Congress and certainly in the Senate that I think that the key to moving anything legislatively is building power. Really at the state level. And that it must come from organizers. I was gonna say invest in the field, we need to organize, locally, in order to connect the dots. The investment must come at the chapter level and even expanding to swing areas.
Not so much in the larger progressive cities where we already have a lot of support, but building in areas where we are weak.
DJ: Where would you build new local branches and activism, if you could. Where would you invest resources?
RG: If I had the budget and power to hire organizers, I honestly I would expand in Pennsylvania.
North Carolina I think is very, very, very hot. Even though it’s trended pretty horribly last couple years there’s a lot of potential in North Carolina.
Potentially Georgia. We all know what happened in this last cycle. There may be some more places in the Midwest. We have a very strong activists’ space in Iowa. It’s kind of a back and forth, I think.
There’s still room for picking up some seats and stuff in Iowa. In the southwest also potentially. Nevada, Arizona. We’ve done some organizing here and there, with the [ADA Working Families Win] project.
DJ: Would you say that this kind of organizing is a somewhat different model from ADA’s old-fashioned chapters, which focused on endorsements?
RG: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
The ADA chapter organizing model is a good structure. I think that it just maybe needs to be expanded, a little bit in terms of actions and strategies. Not just electoral.
Organizing is year-round. It’s not just during election cycles, and there are always elections every year, just at different levels.
It’s issue organizing, political accountability, and legislative action at the state level or at the county level.
So I do think that the challenge is having the staff capacity to assist not just the current chapters, but expanding, building.
DJ: The New York City chapter and the Philadelphia chapter both had paid executive directors who were active in a variety of ways in the 1990s and before.
How would you describe the organizational structure of chapter organizing?
RG: I guess their title is organizer instead of executive director per se, but it’s really the organizers who are in charge of recruitment and leadership development.
DJ: Do you think of ADA as the equivalent of a Labor Party in the Democratic Party, or would you characterize it differently? When I interviewed ADA’s former Executive Director Leon Shull a number of years ago, we talked about ADA as a kind of inner Labor Party. So how would you be inclined to describe ADA to a foreigner?
RG: I mean it’s similar to Labor in terms of membership and voting rights although it’s not in the workplace, it’s in the community.
It’s very similar to the union philosophy in my personal opinion.
Current Organizing Challenges
DJ: Democracy is really on the line right now. How would you relate the work of ADA to the democratic crisis? What can ADA do to sustain democracy at this perilous moment in history?
RG: We have to continue to organize. I wish we had more organizers. Lord knows that’s the truth.
I wish labor had more organizers, every community group had more organizers.
To be quite honest with you, people don’t understand. It’s not just voting. That’s the first step.
Building power. The freedom of using your voice to build power. That’s something you can never ever take away from anyone.
I’m very worried. The labor movement has been decimated.
As a community organizer, I’ve seen people go from being scared and wanting to speak up to getting a group of people together to do an action. It builds confidence and it builds character. It builds a vision and hope.
I’ve seen seeing the transformation from hopelessness to hopefulness.
DJ: We have a background fact which is that the US political system is not very responsive to democratic organizing. There are too many resistance points where elites can easily win.
So it’s kind of overwhelming to think about building local activism and then contending with institutional obstacles up and down the system.
In Georgia, you see both the hope and the grimness of things I would think.
DJ: I think we need something out of the ordinary to happen, not just politics as usual. Will Biden practice politics as usual, when the Republicans are practicing hardball?
What do we do differently? More direct and confrontational where necessary, rather than merely accepting, for example, the Senate parliamentarian’s instructions as to what is permitted under reconciliation?
RG: Perhaps this needs to be addressed issue by issue, step by step.
I’ve been working on the minimum wage since I started my career.
For crying out loud, we’ve been working on the minimum wage at ADA for decades. So that means to pass by any means necessary.
I think I caught Nancy Pelosi on that, I’m not sure, but maybe saying something to that effect.
Sanders has a plan for denying tax breaks to companies that don’t pay a living wage. That’s one strategy.
DJ: Yes, time to be nimble.
RG: And then there may be times when we have to push our friends harder.
You know we’re not the Democratic Party, we are an independent organization of progressives and liberals. So there’s nothing wrong with pushing our friends.
And I have learned in my time in organizing that you do have to take time for yourself and figure out what it is that’s important to you. Especially, time with my family.
DJ: Given that we now know the Supreme Court will probably make our lives harder this year, and the Republicans show no signs of ending their attack on voting rights, what should our strategies and priorities be this year before the midterm elections?
RG: We certainly have a lot of challenges ahead of us this November, from Supreme Court decisions to numerous voter suppression laws, to the historic pattern of midterm losses for the party in power.
That being said, we’ve had enormous challenges in the past. Yes, the Supreme Court has handed us some very serious blows, and more, I’m sure, are to come. Our (the global our) strategy should be to do what we know works — fire people up and turn people out on a large scale. Every attack against us is an opportunity to use those issues (attacking women, attacking people of color, etc.) in our favor — as a tactic to turn people out.
Now, speaking for ADA, since we have limited resources, we must micro-target in areas where we believe our limited resources can make a big difference. We have chosen to focus on three states, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, where very targeted voter education can fire up key groups of voters and turn them out. We are currently looking at key communities within those states where we can make the biggest impact. For ADA this type of targeting is key.
After that, it’s a matter of reaching people where they are at, in their homes, having honest conversations about priorities in the community and struggles in our lives and our hopes for the future, then challenging people to take the step to be a part of the solution – step #1, vote. Step #2 comes after they vote. I know this seems very simplistic. However, it’s what needs to be done to prevent everyone’s worst fear – or at least to try.
About the Interviewer
David Jacobs has taught at American University, Morgan State University, Hood College, the Flint and Ann Arbor campuses of the University of Michigan, Kansas State, and Case Western. He has published articles in Academy of Management Learning and Education, the Academy of Management Review, Management History, Ephemera, Labor Studies Journal, Negotiation Journal, Perspectives on Work, and other refereed outlets. He is the author or editor of five books and is best known for his work on pragmatism in business ethics. He is an editor of The American Commentator and a board member of the American’s for Democratic Action Education Fund.