By Sean Kosofsky
There is no greater truth in the struggle for civil rights than the political reality that change happens slowly at first, and usually at the local level. I have long been an advocate for thinking globally, but acting locally. We are more likely to create change by talking to our neighbors, family and friends than we are at a national march or rally. The movement needs every level of involvement, but in order for widespread progress to be possible, critical mass must be reached in cities, counties and states around the country.
A crescendo of voices over the years has started taking this idea seriously. National GLBT organizations and funders have supported state and local campaigns nominally, but only a few have poured their heart, soul and pocket books into winning at the state and local level. One of the reasons I am most proud to be an activist in Michigan is because this is where change is happening. The Equality Federation, a national coalition of statewide GLBT lobbying groups, has worked for nearly a decade to build the power of state and local GLBT leaders and organizations. Our national organizations can only be strong if there are fifty strong statewide groups organizing at home. And our statewide organizations can only be successful if local GSAs, PFLAG chapters and community groups are healthy.
The center of gravity in our movement needs to continue moving to the states. That is where we are winning equality, hate crimes protections, adoption rights, and marriage equality. States are where decisions are made about control of Congress, control of governorships, state legislatures, and redistricting – even the race for President is a state-by-state campaign for the Electoral College. If we prioritize resources, staff, money and energy in the states, we will see the political trends in our country reflect that investment. In short, we will win.
Out of the 19 states that have had anti-marriage constitutional amendment ballot fights, Michigan had the second best numbers in the nation. In Texas and Utah, we only lost the legislative vote by one. That’s right – one! Too often we ignore the red states and the rural areas and only look to big cities and the coastal states for our progress, and we are always surprised by progress in the heartland. Investing locally and in states also means investing smart all over the country. Not just in New York, California and Massachusetts. It means thinking creatively with our national, state and local partners.
In a world where George W. Bush and fundamentalist extremists control the U.S. Supreme Court, Congress and the White House, our only hope for success and victory will be in the states. Small investments in state organizing have yielded big results. Recently, Triangle Foundation (along with five other state groups around the country) was the recipient of a generous “capacity building” grant by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). The funds aim to dramatically increase the ability of Michigan’s largest GLBT rights group to grow and win equality. Gill Foundation and Arcus Foundation have invested heavily in this model.
NGLTF has a proud history of committing its resources to winning local and state victories. They host regular “Power Summits” around the country to train local activists how to raise money and organize during a ballot initiative. NGLTF, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have attorneys who work exclusively on state legislative fights. These are the investments we need.
But while we move to support state and local leaders, we must treat them with the respect they deserve. Some of the smartest minds, the most battle-tested activists and the most experienced leaders in our movement are or were in state and local organizations. They know how to make a dime do a hundred dollars’ worth of work and they have an endless rolodex of relationships and favors that can be called in. They are treasures.
That’s why I am eager to see what happens in Wisconsin. I truly believe if we are going to defeat an anti-marriage ballot measure, it will be in the Midwest. If we level the playing field and keep our eyes on our own backyard, the voters will show us that equality is closer than we think.