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Creating Change is the People’s Job

We—not just the president—have to be the agents of change in our society. How do we extend our electoral organizing beyond the elections?

Obama Inauguration PosterThere is a grumble being repeated in some progressive circles. It goes like this: “President Obama has been a disappointment. But what’s the alternative?” It’s usually followed by a sigh and a plea for work to save the “few minor” things we did get done in the last three years.

But this grumbling is largely wrong. Some of the disappointment is understandable. For instance, on the President’s watch, thousands of immigrant families have been torn apart by inhumane deportation policies

Even so, our achievements are by no means minor. The stimulus contained the largest expansion of anti-poverty programs in a generation, health care reform is already expanding coverage for millions of people, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been consigned to the history books, and efforts to slash Medicare and Social Security have been held in check.

From where I stand, something more interesting is going on. We’ve examined ourselves and found a fundamental weakness: We placed too much hope and faith in the president. It was a mistake, but not because this president has somehow betrayed us. He’s done what presidents do: governed under all the stresses of competing pressures.

Abolitionists gave us abolition, not Lincoln. The civil rights movement gave us voting rights for blacks. The suffragette movement gave women the right to vote.

It was a mistake because we—not just the president—have to be the agents of change in our society. Electoral victories without sustained movements will never address inequality, poverty, or any of the major issues we face. Abolitionists gave us abolition, not Lincoln. Powerful movements focus on issues, not on presidents. The civil rights movement gave us voting rights for blacks. The suffragette movement gave women the right to vote. The gay rights movement gave gays the right to marry and put an end to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Union victories created the modern middle class.

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Increasingly, those who are engaging in this more interesting conversation are asking: How do we extend our electoral organizing beyond the elections?

This is a far more exciting question because answering it correctly will give us a chance at the real prize: building a society governed by progressive values and policies that move us all forward together. 

At the Center for Community Change, we’ve been doing this with immigration policy. We are turning outrage over the administration’s massive deportations into action to enhance the power of immigrants in our society. Our “Change Takes Courage” campaign holds the White House accountable for tearing families apart. At the same time, we send a clear message to all those who oppose immigration reform by making our voter registration and voter turnout work be first and foremost about raising the power of immigrants to make sure their voices are heard in all ways, not just at the ballot box.

So the grumbling is waning as enthusiasm for the 2012 election is rising, because we are starting to figure out that elections aren’t really about candidates—they are about us, about what we can be doing to create change, and about the society that together we all hope to build.  


Deepak Bhargava wrote this article for Making it Home, the Summer 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Deepak, one of the YES! Breakthrough 15, is executive director of the Center for Community Change, which builds the power and capacity of low-income people, especially people of color, to have an impact on improving their communities and the policies and institutions that affect their lives. The CCC strengthens, connects, and mobilizes grassroots groups to enhance their leadership, voice, and power.

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