A Life Inside the Wellstone Triangle

September 24, 2013

At Wellstone Action we spend a lot of time talking about the Wellstone Triangle – and for good reason. The only way real, sustained, progressive change happens is when we connect grassroots organizing, electoral politics, and public policy into a movement for good.

But here’s what you need to know: the Wellstone Triangle isn’t some hypothetical theory cooked up in an ivory tower; instead it’s the proven route for progressives who want to win lasting change.

Need proof? It has helped define the life of our newest Wellstone Action team member, Jessie Ulibarri, Principal, Movement-Building Project.

In Jessie’s story, there’s a family fighting for a fair shot at the American Dream, and a career in advocacy transformed by the Wellstone Triangle.

The son of a construction worker and a waitress, both of his parents cleaned offices at night, eventually buying a house and moving out of the trailer park where Jessie spent his early childhood. But whether it was in the trailer park or the new house, Jessie had a big family that instilled in him a tireless work ethic and passion for community, not to mention a fierce love for poker.

Jessie went onto the University of Colorado at Boulder and would eventually become the first person in his family to earn a bachelor degree. On the way there, he found his calling: a life in advocacy, fighting to give others in his community a fair shot at the middle-class. As he puts it:

“As I was breaking my back to get good grades and balance the responsibilities of work, the state legislature decided to throw me a curve ball and propose hundreds of millions of dollars in budget cuts to higher education. It devastated my dream of a good education by pricing me out of a public college. I started to work with students who were in my position to see what we could do to stop the budget cuts. We began traveling down to the state capitol to share our stories with legislators. After thousands of students visited the capitol, we were able to defeat the Republican cuts to education... It was during this experience that I learned a lesson that has formed the rest of my life: We can change the course of the world when we work together.”

After graduating from college, Jessie got to work fulltime in creating a more just society. He left Colorado to work in a congressional office in DC but eventually returned to Colorado to lead organizing and policy campaigns at progressive organizations including the Colorado Progressive Coalition, the ACLU of Colorado, and Mi Familia Vota: Civic Participation Campaign.

Jessie spent his early career building a grassroots movement to win change but realized that there was still a gap between the dreams of the people in his community, and the people they were electing to represent them. And there was a huge gap between the potential of his state, and the bad policy coming out of the state legislature.

So while building a life with his partner Louis and their two kids, Israel and Silvia, Jessie decided to do something about it and ran for State Senate in the same district as that trailer park where he spent his childhood.

Today, Jessie sees the power of the Wellstone Triangle firsthand.

The legislative session in 2013 was a tough fight, but together Jessie and his colleagues passed sweeping legislation from a Civil Unions law to bold new gun violence prevention legislation. The House and the Senate also passed a bill called ASSET – SB 33 that ensures every Colorado student has access to in-state tuition, no matter where their parents come from, no matter their immigrant status. For Jessie, this was the culmination of over 10 years of hard work.

Make no mistake, ASSET passed because of the Wellstone Triangle. For a decade, leaders like Jessie had built the grassroots support for such a bill, but for too long, elected officially weren’t responsive to the desires of the voters they represented. So in 2012, Jessie took the fight to the electoral level, running for office and winning. By the time the 2013 legislative cycle came around, he was able to lobby his colleagues in the legislature around sound public policy, while pressuring them with a grassroots army behind him, and the promise of support for courageous members of the legislature during the next election cycle. 

Change in Colorado happened. And it happened because of the Wellstone Triangle. Jessie says it best:

“The Wellstone Triangle puts your values into action. This philosophy fills you up, motivates you, and gives you the power to change the world.”

So now, when the legislature isn’t in session, Jessie will be helping to lead our movement building work. He will be taking his passion for the Wellstone Triangle on the road, to communities across America, to build a movement for sustained change: from continuing to work with organizations that drive voter engagement in underrepresented communities, to helping advocacy organizations restructure to become more effective champions for justice.

Jessie combined his grassroots organizing background, with elected office, and smart public policy to win real change for his community. Now, we can’t wait for him to take what he learned nationally and be part of our work to ignite change across America.