Camp Wellstone: I’m an activist bootcamp survivor

“We all do better, when we all do better.” These were some of the opening remarks at the January 14-16, 2011 session of Camp Wellstone in Madison, Wisconsin. They served a dual purpose; One being they were a quote from the late Paul Wellstone. It’s always good to remember your roots. Secondly, they were principles for us to keep in mind throughout the weekend. And I say us because the Occasional Planet sent me to blog the events of Camp Wellstone from the perspective of a participant. So from Friday on, we were all in it together.

As described in an earlier Occasional Planet post, Wellstone Action is geared toward getting people involved in progressive politics. They have three different classes at every camp session: activist, campaign worker, and candidate. I chose the activist track. The description said the activist track was “for people interested in citizen lobbying, issue advocacy, and community organizing, this track provides skills in how to win on issues.” It’s a wonderful idea, but what does it really mean? And what does it mean to progressives? And so I found myself in Madison, Wisconsin in the middle of winter with thirty other brave souls for a weekend of discovering just that. (To clarify, there were more than 30 people at the camp. I’m not sure how many other participants were in the other two tracks. The 30 just refers to the activist group.)

Most of the work was done in small groups.

From the beginning the focus was on action. It was assumed that if you were there, you were progressive. Which in my group was true. We had people from unions, boards of education, senate aides, green energy organizations; everyone in the room was already aligned with a cause. The goal was to make us more effective at what we were already doing. Which in essence they did. The agenda covered recruiting volunteers, properly utilizing them, creating a message, communicating that message to people in positions of power, finding leaders, using media, and lobbying. It was a lot of ground to cover in one weekend.

Highlights of what I learned:

  • Friday night started with what our instructors fondly referred to as one-on-ones. A one-on-one is just a conversation between you and a potential volunteer. The point is identifying people who share your goal and finding a way to move them to action. This was the cornerstone for the rest of our weekend. Everything boiled down to one-on-ones. What good is an organization if it doesn’t have quality people? This was probably my favorite activity. It showcased listening, building common ground between you and whoever you were talking to, and finding ways to work together.
  • The other attendees to the activist track were all proud Wisconsinites. They gave me a crash course on local politics & used bootcamp as a chance to network with other like-minded progressives. Before the weekend was over someone had started grassroots organizing opposition to the upcoming voter identification law.
  • Saturday evening we talked about what made a good leader, the different types of leaders, and how to find them. (Which included using one-on-ones and training suitable volunteers in your organization to fill the role) The whole purpose was to point out that no one had all the good qualities of a leader and in fact you needed a team of leaders. Which sounds hokey but when was the last time you elected someone and they did everything you wanted them to? Ideally the leader would be able to surround themselves with good co-leaders to fill in the gaps where they’re lacking skills.
  • We talked about using media and new media on Sunday. I was enthused because this is my bailiwick. It was surprising because everyone in the room had a Facebook account. But not everyone in the room was using new media (like Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, etc.) for their causes. I’m not saying the internet is going to be the savior of grassroots organizing, but the instructors did a fine job of explaining what a handy tool it is. (After you make the connection to volunteers with one-on-ones, of course.)

Do I think that attending the Wellstone activist bootcamp was worth it? Absolutely. It was a positive way to connect with people who really cared about issues and wanted to change politics for the better. In the closing remarks they said that the three goals for the weekend that we were expected to carry with us were:
1. Continue expanding the base.
2. Make good public policy.
3. Keep developing positive messages.
Those are great concrete goals regardless of what issue/campaign/candidate you’re working for.

Was it perfect? No. Sometimes in groups we’d get bogged down in silly hypotheticals or the activities were a bit childish feeling. But this is the sort of program that’s needed right now. Something to rally people to take an interest in local politics. And maybe rally is the wrong choice of words, maybe it should be empower people in local politics.  Not because it’s going to immediately change the world, but because it can improve the quality of life in their community now. As  a politician once said, “We all do better, when we all do better.”