Empowering a Movement as Big as Texas

January 22, 2014

This might be the understatement of the year, “Texas is a big state.” Yep, Texas is big: big geographically, big population, big economy, and big by the countless numbers of cultures, communities, and traditions that make up the people of the Lone Star State.

So if you want to organize the state, to build progressive power over the long-haul, to work towards a state with elected officials who better represent the state’s quickly shifting demographics, you’ve got a big job to do.

That’s exactly what the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund (TFNEF) has set out to do. Established in 1996 to counter far-right issues, organizations, money and leaders, TFNEF has been instrumental in defeating initiatives backed by the religious right in Texas, including private school vouchers and textbook censorship at the Texas State Board of Education.

One of the most effective ways they do it is by empowering Texas students across the state to become powerful advocates for stopping far-right legislation, and promoting policies that will improve people’s lives. These students are making immediate change while preparing to be impactful leaders in the long-term.

This year, a big part of this student-focused work will be a focus on voter engagement, and supporting students as they work to turnout their peers in numbers never seen before in Texas. TFNEF has set off on an ambitious goal to increase voter turnout amongst young people by 1% across the state. That means over 6,000 new voters. That means the difference between progressives winning and progressives losing in 2014.

That would be a tough goal to meet anywhere, but Texas is a big state with some big hurdles. “Including D.C., Texas is the 51st state when it comes to civic engagement, including voter turnout,” says TFNEF Field Coordinator Nick Savelli, “So the climate here is hard for progressives, but that also means there’s a ton of opportunity.”

To meet their bold goal, and realize the tremendous opportunity in the Lone State, TFNEF’s Field Director, Val Benavidez, knew what they’d need to do, “Move from a pieced-together training program that we did on our own, to a formalized, solid, and world-class training program.”

So the Texas Freedom Network called Wellstone. With the Youth Engagement Fund as a funding partner, Wellstone Action and TFNEF began working together last summer to develop a training program built to last, that would support students at TFNEF’s 8-10 campus chapters to become top-notch voter engagement organizers, plugged into meaningful organizing work now and in the future.

“The Texas Freedom Network partnership started in large part because Wellstone, TFNEF, and the Youth Engagement Fund  saw a chance to leverage Texas’ unique opportunities in a more powerful way. TFNEF doesn’t just want to turn young people out during this election, but to cultivate long-term leadership development. So we will be working in partnership, on the ground, not on a one-off training but for a long-enduring partnership worthy of the state. I couldn’t be more proud to be in my home state right now,” says Naomi Long, Principal in Wellstone’s Movement-Building Project who leads our youth pipeline work.  

During the last half of 2013 and the start of 2014, this partnership will mean a focus on tailoring Wellstone’s youth voter engagement curriculum not just to the state of Texas but to individual campuses. According to Val, “It’s a lot of work to take on because we want it to be focused on Texas and our work as an organization, but broad enough for students on every campus, at varying levels of organizing experience, to easily plug into.”

And that’s exactly the kind of training that Wellstone Action is bringing to Texas. Says Val:

“We’re so appreciative. We are a statewide organization that does not normally have the opportunity to work with a premier national training entity. We feel very honored to have that opportunity to do this work together because normally it’s a big national organization that gets partnerships like this. Wellstone is investing time, energy, and resources at in state and local organizing level – and that’s how real change is going to be made.

It also doesn’t hurt that Naomi is an exceptional trainer. We are learning by being with her. She’s so quick on her feet. She’s an effortless trainer in many ways.”

Eventually, Wellstone Action and TFNEF will have led intensive two-day trainings on upwards of eight Texas campuses and produced an organizer’s resource manual. And we’ll have plugged hundreds of student leaders into something big, says Nick, “We are one of the only organizations in Texas doing youth leadership development in a meaningful way. We’re giving students what they need to create change in their communities."

“We really frame our work as the Wellstone Triangle in action.” Adds Val, “We’re working on all sides of the triangle, community organizing, electoral voter engagement, and meaningful policy and issue advocacy. The Triangle shows us how organizing must happen continually and what wins really look like.”

 After months of planning, writing, meeting, and prepping, our first on the ground training of this partnership was on the border at the University of Texas Pan American (UTPA) in Edinburg Texas.  That first training was a reflection of the big diversity, challenges, and opportunities of the state, says Nick, “Students that attend UTPA are primarily Latino, working class, first generation college students and sometimes first generation citizens. It’s different than Texas’ flagship campus in Austin which tends to be more white, privileged, and grew up with a different background. All this means that UTPA and Austin students will simply grasp organizing skills in different ways.”

The first training went really well, we energized over 30 student leaders who now have a deep understanding of the connection between voter engagement organizing and issue advocacy. And we left them having built a campaign plan that they will use to move their campus and community work forward. But, according to Naomi, more important than that two-day training is what those students are now plugged into, “TFNEF is a kick-ass organization. They have the infrastructure to plug students into the movement. We know we’ll have students show up, some of whom are already active organizers and others who aren’t linked in yet. So we teach them skills but we also get them comfortable with being part of the progressive fight in Texas. Getting excited and fired up about the issues they care about so they can get involved. That’s why we tell them, ‘hey listen, there’s a movement, there’s a fight happening, these are skills you can use to take back Texas.’”

The challenges, the opportunities, the work: everything’s bigger in Texas. This is what Wellstone Action is all about: We take on big challenges and we win. We look at a big state filled with incredible people, and we build a voter engagement program worthy of their dreams. We take on big partnerships. We develop fantastic curricula. We lead inspiring trainings.

We do big things. 

We’re building a movement for change in Texas, and that means we’ll be traveling that big state throughout 2014. So check back, right here on the Wellstone blog, for updates from our partnership, with any luck, we’ll have a picture or two of some bbq as well.