I would tell a new fellow, once you release yourself from all those chains, all the ties that have bound you; you are in for one hell of a ride. You will be transformed. It will come so furious, in so many forms, at times you will have to sit back and just marvel at it, at times you will voraciously learn from it, take in every note and moment, at times you will rest from a job well done; and you will realize that it is all part of this glorious life changing, life affirming process. I would give my new fellows my past 30 days as an example. For me how every breathing day is a vast expansion of my practice and my known world. I've never been able to see it and articulate it as I have since the fellowship. The fellowship is such a focusing lens on you as a leader, understanding of self, reflection and action.
Case and point.
I spent a significant focused amount of this past month speaking truth to power, a very specific truth to a very significant power. I spent the majority of the last month changing a narrative, developing a new story in fact. I spent the past month convincing my neighbors in Minneapolis Ward 4 to replace our 20 plus year incumbent, 40 plus years of family seat, Barb Johnson. I spent the past month convincing folks who live very near to me to vote for change, to vote for one of two choices both relatively unknown young candidates of color.
I realized this was an uphill battle in many respects because Ward 4 folks, did not have a story that would either get them to rise up out of their homes and go vote in an off year election and/or to rise up and unseat “the devil you know.” They simply did not have a compelling reason to choose change, they did not have a compelling grievance to serve accountability. My charge was to change the narrative, my charge was to make a compelling case for change, use the megaphone at my disposal, and slowly chop wood for 30 days. My charge was to demonstrate the exact ideas upon which I’ve based all my leadership theory; A compelling story can spark, catch a fire and burn into a very specific policy or social change – in this case the unseating of the most powerful individual in Minneapolis city politics, Council President Barb Johnson.
I realized we had an added obstacle, a thumb on the scale, a significant amount of outside interests, mostly developers and downtown business interest were willing to spend a significant amount of money to muddy the narrative to such a degree, to support Council President Johnson, to flood our constituent political and cognitive capacity with overwhelming lit touting Johnson as a friend and servant to all. I knew mostly folks were not paying attention to the source of this outside money and influence. I knew that this is the most dangerous and insidious part of politics, those in power know if they depress civic engagement or confuse the electorate, they can manipulate the outcome. Our ward is the lowest voter turnout in the city in 2013, 23% and historically so. The need for a clear counter narrative was never more acute than in 2017.
I had done copious research and planning around how to counter these groups, spent significant time and study on an effective counter story campaign strategy. I did not have the resources or the manpower that they had, none of the challenger's campaigns did. I would need to utilize all our available tools and leverage the points where I knew the larger amplified megaphones would pick up the message. This past month was a hell of a test of theory; social change theory, media literacy theory, story-based organizing theory.
I was getting more and more anxious, we moved closer to Nov 7 and the pulse of the neighborhood was fearful of change and reluctant to abandon the status quo. I was probing various points of intervention via social media, various counter narratives. I knew I had to wait for the right opportunity to go hard, Minnesota has a passive aggressive countenance in politics as well as interpersonal, if you overplay your hand, you are relegated to someone with a personal ax to grind. I am not. I have no personal contest to Council President Johnson. I simply did not believe she had the vision or wherewithal to produce the results and the equity we desperately need in our North Minneapolis community. So, I bided my time waiting for an opening to launch the story campaign, but I know I needed a spark.
Both challenger campaigns, Phillipe and Stephanie were eager for me to join one of the two, but I explained to them both that I believed in them both equally and the narrative I was forwarding to our neighbors was not a choice of a new personality, it was a truth to power narrative and a narrative about this new tool and leverage at our disposal, Ranked Choice Voting (the lack of understanding around this concept is a whole other story, but another example of why narrative is so very important). I decided to focus on two platforms as my primary and secondary story distribution, because of speed and responsiveness and real-time interaction; Facebook and Twitter. You can tell a very effective story through each platform, but you must respect and adhere to the world of each platform, each roll out is different and special for each platform, one is like an opera and the other like a silent film, different worlds and tactics of communication
On Oct 16 2017 the spark arrived. As a resident of Ward 4 I received lit from Minneapolis Works, one of these aforementioned PAC spending money to try to get Barb Johnson and other incumbents re-elected, and using shady unethical practices, methods and information to do so. Their narrative was shoddy mostly because their assumption was the same level of interest as usual, this is where an insurgent counter narrative has juice. A keen eye from a colleague noticed that the lit was photoshopped, through some investigative work, we found not only was it manipulated, but an African American stock photo was inserted to imply some special relationship between police and Black folks in Ward 4. This was not only insulting, it was a demeaning cynical ploy to use Black bodies as props for political gain, while ignoring cries for substantive ways to diminish the huge opportunity gaps between Black and White residents of Ward 4. I knew this was the spot light needed to introduce the story campaign on the need for change. I went to work, and I put in a huge amount of story and communications work, connecting the dots between monied interests, political influence, policies that affect the folks of my ward and our incumbent being complicit in some of the major issues that have held us back in the policy change we desire. By the end of the next day, our counter narrative had caught such fire that my social media campaign about this incident was featured in a City Pages article.
From Oct 1 – Nov 7, I operated a campaign that was a compendium in how to take down and speak truth to power through story craft. Day by day, often multiple points within a day, I added section by section to a tapestry an interweave fabric quilt of argument against Council President Johnson, against entrenched inequitable power and in favor of visionary change. I was careful to fill and paint with vivid cultural brush strokes as well much like a three-act narrative; Set-up, Theme stated, Catalyst, Debate, Break into Two, Fun and Games, B Story, All is Lost, Urgency, Finale, then the sweet ending. I believe I had an effect, the counter narrative did shift the playing field.
In the end, we won. We the people of Ward 4 – we doubled our turnout from 2013, the people spoke and power was defeated. A historic candidate was elected, Phillipe Cunningham.
I welcome folks to visit my Facebook page and travel through the history of this campaign from Oct 15 – Nov 7. I offered 5 substantive policy platform reasons why we should vote for change. My neighbors responded. We did. The story is a powerful thing, at times it is all we have to combat money in politics. I’m pleased by our results, but I’m even more excited by the possibilities ignited, the base building, power to the people possible. It's right there in our stories.
I don't believe this clarity of purpose and approach was there for me before I wrote my Bush Fellowship application or before I began this wonderful journey.
I feel defined. I feel stronger, far more prepared to build a base, to lead a base toward significant social and policy change in our city.