Friday, October 19, 2007

The Wellstone of Hope

“If you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me…” – V in “V for Vendetta”

Like many Americans, I grew up believing that America was a beacon of freedom and democracy and like many Americans; I became disillusioned with that notion in the six years since September 11th, 2001. Like many Americans who care about our freedoms and our rule of law, I am very displeased with the direction our country has been heading for the last seven years and I am frustrated by the lack of results in affecting change.

Despite hundreds of thousands of people gathering around the country in protest, even after giving control of Congress to the so-called “opposition party”, the ill-conceived, illegal and immoral behaviors of this administration continue unabated. We invaded and continue to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, we continue to hold prisoners, including American citizens, in secret, denying them the basic human right of Habeas Corpus, and we continue to use torture, which is a violation of human rights.

Worst of all though, are the blatant assertions by this President and his supporters that he is above the law. Their unfounded claims that the President has “unwritten powers” is absurd and illegal. The President does not have the constitutional authority to take away anyone’s rights. The only place that authority appears in the U.S. Constitution is Article I, section 9, which gives that authority to the Legislative branch, not the Executive and only in times of “invasion or insurrection.” The failure of Congress to hold the Executive to task for that claim is setting a disastrous precedent of giving the Executive branch more power than the U.S. Constitution allows. Unless we do something now, those powers will be passed onto the next President which will give it the legal standing of precedent and will make it much, much harder to take away. Having a President with swollen, king-like power will only make corruption and abuse of that power more likely as time goes on.

I have always been politically aware, but I have not always been politically active. I grew up around politics, my father being a local politician. I remember following the 1980 election between Reagan and Carter when I was only eight. When I was in high school I founded our school newspaper and even back then, my favorite topic to write about was politics. But my primary activity in regards to politics, besides voting and working on a couple of campaigns, has usually been contained to writing. Although I have written letters to my representatives since high school, I never really knew how to properly lobby my elected officials. I have written articles for online magazines, letters to the editor of numerous newspapers and made phone calls to my representatives, but in the face of the multibillion-dollar corporate lobbying machine my feeble efforts seems futile and insignificant.

On top of that, after I spent months last year working to get Democrats elected to Congress, they have failed again and again to take any meaningful stand. As I watched them roll over repeatedly to the minority party, my frustration only grew until it flirted with despair.

I was on the verge of giving up completely and becoming another member of the disinterested masses when an email, forwarded to me by my father, told me about a place where I could go to learn how to be a more effective citizen activist.

Camp Wellstone.

Camp Wellstone is a three-day course put on by the Wellstone Action group, out of Minnesota. There are three educational tracks to choose from, How to run for office, how to be a campaign volunteer and how to be a citizen activist. I chose the citizen activist track because it seemed to me to be the “introductory level” course.

The citizen activist track teaches you how to build a base around an issue, how to form coalitions between groups, how to stage earned media events and how to effectively lobby elected representatives. They brought in media experts and professional lobbyists who put the students through exercises where we staged our own media events and met with several “Senators” in order to practice our technique and receive constructive criticism from professionals who do it for a living. They also taught how to organize and execute an effective “get out the vote” campaign.

The only thing that they were lacking, as pointed out first by a blogger, farleftfield, who attended the same track as I did, was that they did not have anything on Internet outreach, organizing, or blogging. I can see how that could take up a whole day to itself.

I was fortunate enough to have some of Wellstone’s best trainers running my track. They were able to not only communicate the information necessary, but they also got the students involved and inspired us to take what we learned back to our local communities and put it to use.

But the best thing about the whole experience; the thing that was worth more than the cost of the camp, was not something they taught. It was a natural byproduct of groups of passionate, energetic people gathering together to focus their energy toward a common, positive goal.

The best thing that I took away from Camp Wellstone was HOPE.

Even the conversations during breaks and in the dining room were crackling with energy and passion. Everyone, regardless of race, sex, appearance or ability all shared a deep, passionate love of liberty and desire to make things better. There were three people in my track of the camp who had traveled all the way from New Mexico to attend. The knowledge that I am not alone in the fight to restore fairness, justice and liberty to America; the fact that there are other people out there who care as deeply as I do, gives me the motivation and energy to continue the good fight. And all I have to do to participate in the good fight is to help and support these other people. Camp Wellstone made me believe that, together, we really can change this world.

The overriding lesson of the camp is a simple one that Paul Wellstone himself used to chant like a mantra. If you want to affect political or social change, you have to “organize, organize, organize!”

The people who came out from Minnesota to put on this camp were extraordinary and inspiring in their own right. You could sense their passion and commitment to the cause of getting ordinary people involved in our political process. One of them even announced she had decided to run for Congress in Minnesota that week and we were among the first people she told. The simple fact that they were here, taking action and working constructively toward a positive goal made those of us attending the camp feel motivated to get out and do more ourselves. Historian Kenneth Davis once wrote that human history has been influenced by the presence of strong personalities in the right place at the right time, like Washington, Lincoln, or King. In my opinion, the Wellstone Action group may well be a gathering of strong personalities.

The fantastic folks at Wellstone Action have been busy. As of this writing they have trained over 14,000 people so far to either run for office, work on a campaign or work as an activist on an issue. And those of us who have been through the training are taking what we learned back into our communities and not only putting it to use, but we are also teaching others what we learned so that the effectiveness of all our efforts can grow exponentially.

For anyone who has felt the creeping sense of despair that our country is going down the wrong path and is headed straight for a cliff, that despair is caused by fear… fear that there is no solution to the problem.

But there is a solution.

The solution is for all of us who feel this way to get organized. If you aren’t sure how to do that, or where to start, of even if you just need a booster shot of hope and motivation, there is no better prescription than attending a session of Camp Wellstone.

That is why I ask that all of you reading this, who sees what I see, who feels as I feel, who would seek as I seek, to go the Wellstone Action website. Donate if you can spare the money. Sign up for Camp Wellstone if it is coming to your area. If it is not coming to you then you go to it. If you can’t travel that far then call them or write them and ask them, beg them or bribe them to come to your area. It may be the single most important thing you do this year.

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