Flipping the Script on Progressive Politics in Rural Arizona
Emily was just 16 years old when she knocked on Frank’s door. An Indigenous, LGBTQ+ canvasser who works for RAZE (Rural Arizona Engagement), she had been sent to the tiny town of Coolidge, Arizona (population 11,825) to talk to folks about the For the People Act, a piece of federal legislation designed to expand voting access and curtail corruption in campaign financing. When Frank—a white, Vietnam Veteran in his 70s—answered the door, she did not expect to find a passionate advocate for voting access. “Frank lived alone. He kept to himself,” remembers Natali Fierros Bock, Co-Executive Director of RAZE. But when he and Emily met, “they just chatted and chatted. Emily invited him to one of our listening sessions, and before you know it Frank was also knocking on doors, talking to people and then inviting them to join us.” The story of Emily and Frank—of people from very different backgrounds banding together for political action—is at the very heart of RAZE’s work. And it’s actually not as uncommon as one might imagine, says Natali. “We find that when we don’t frame issues as Democrat versus Republican, people in rural areas share a lot of the same values and beliefs that are actually quite progressive. Frank expressed a deep-seated belief in helping community that resonated with Emily and others at the listening session. When people feel they have a safe space to share their ideas, that’s how we grow, that’s how we build coalitions and power. “People want to do good things. They just need to know how to do them, and they need people to meet them where they are.”
From Loss to Empowerment
Natali and Co-Director Pablo Correa want to change the perception that rural areas are close-minded backwaters uninterested in progress, because they have seen firsthand that it’s just not true. RAZE grew out of Natali and Pablo’s unsuccessful bid in 2018 to get elected to the State Senate and House, respectively. “We knocked on over ten thousand doors, which is a lot for rural,” recalls Natali, “and the sad thing was people were really surprised to see us. They would say, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve never had anybody knock on my door before.’ Or if someone had come around, ‘it was only to ask for something and then we don’t see them again until the next election.’” While the pair didn’t win those seats, “We gained so much knowledge,” says Pablo. “We learned that nobody was building capacity and infrastructure in our communities—BIPOC, working class communities—especially in rural areas. Yes, there is a deep cynicism about government and feelings of neglect, but that doesn’t mean people are apathetic. They care deeply. They just don’t feel represented or listened to, and that has to change in electoral ways.”
Representation from within leads to engagement, explains Natali, a fifth generation Arizonan raised by a Mexican father and an Irish mother. “When I ran for office, there weren’t people like me sitting on any of those local seats—no young people, women, or people of color that were raising families, working class, working poor.” Initially, Natali went the party route, becoming the Democratic Chair of the legislative district where she lived and worked as a schoolteacher. “My parents were poor, but when I was growing up they were able to provide me with a beautiful middle class life, which I noticed as I became a parent was disappearing. Then in 2016, my three daughters and I put on our pantsuits and went and cast our votes; we thought we were going to elect the first female president. That experience, that federal loss, opened my eyes to how the Democrats had been utterly out-organized at a local level.” “When Pablo and I met, we quickly learned that the [Democratic] party has some problems particularly around the ability to share power, especially with younger people and browner people. They were super excited when Pablo and I showed up. But it very much felt like we were being tasked with things, versus owning actual leadership.”
The Room Where it Happens
“So when we founded RAZE,” says Pablo, “We knew we had to go upstream. Politicians at the top are passing the buck down to local representatives, because they don’t want to go on record making an unpopular decision. But people don’t pay attention to who is on the school board or who is the constable. Who even is a constable? What do they do?” he laughs. “But when we’re about to have an eviction crisis on our hands because of COVID, or a dispute about school health and safety, those seats become very important for the community.” Adds Natali, “What people don’t realize is that the guy who owns a pool company and lives two streets down is also on the state legislature, and he is the one deciding whether or not we expand Medicare; he is making decisions that affect our daily lives in profound ways. One of RAZE’s theories of change is that ‘empowerment equals existence.’ When our communities are empowered, they exist in the rooms where decisions are being made. They sit at the tables where power is wielded.” Since its founding in 2019, RAZE has had deep success organizing in areas most progressive campaigns would not bother with. They have registered thousands of voters, helped pass legislation to prevent gerrymandering during redistricting, and organized countless listening sessions for community members to learn about and get involved in the issues that affect their communities.
A Pipeline of BIPOC Leadership
And they want to change the face of leadership in rural areas. RAZE’s very first program was designed to build a pipeline for local BIPOC youth to become civic leaders. Says Pablo, “Not only does it serve the community by increasing representation from within, it also gives these young folks an opportunity to really make a difference and learn about this work, as well as giving them an alternative career path. If you’re a young person in these areas, you can work in fast food or retail. Or you can work in the prisons or law enforcement, or go off to the military, like I did. When I was 17, I joined the Marine Corps for five years, came home, started a family, and worked at one of the local warehouses driving a forklift in a freezer. But now I am an executive director. We want to give folks a third way. Pablo points back to Emily as an example; RAZE hired her as a part-time canvasser while she was in high school. “We were about to start another campaign, and we knew she was a great leader. She was wrestling with whether to stay and expand with us or go work at the ice cream place with some of her friends; and of course, when you’re in school, that’s a big temptation! But she decided to become a canvasser lead. Now she’s 18, and this last week, she was promoted to Regional Field Director, which means she is running a program with six or seven canvassers and being compensated correctly for her work. “It’s so important not just for her but for the community ,” Pablo says. “I know the intention is well-meaning, but we’re used to seeing white folks coming into our communities [to canvass]. They have a college education and they’re doing an internship through the [Democratic] party. They’re coming from Virginia or DC to knock on doors here, getting the benefit of that experience when it really should be youth like Emily.”
Deep Canvassing vs. Parachuting
Pablo explains that it has been critical to RAZE’s success to develop “rules of engagement” for building coalitions in rural communities, rules that differentiate them from the canvassers who parachute in just before an election. “You can’t be outsiders looking in. We are right here in the middle. There is an economic crisis happening right now, and the fear just adds to the cynicism. You have to start with the day-to-day, kitchen table issues: ‘I can’t put food on the table, my hours are getting cut.”
“And that that goes to the deep organizing, building relationships,” adds Natali. “It is the antithesis of dumping money into a rural county every two years and then leaving. We need to move away from shallow mobilization. At RAZE, we never start with a federal candidate. We start with the elected positions that are closest to the people who are opening the doors we knock on. And we never go in and tell the community, “This is the problem that you should be worried about.” We lead with questions, we lead with “Tell me more.” We lead with curiosity and wonder, so that we can help to heal the divide in our country.
Grace and Love for a Community that Feels Abandoned
Rural communities in Arizona, home to large concentrations of Latinx people, have been heavily hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, both in terms of illness and death as well economic fallout. “When people opened their doors,” Natali says, “there was a lot of hesitation. What we found was that people felt abandoned.” RAZE chose the moment to pivot their attention to census work to raise the count of residents in underrepresented communities. “It is incredibly important work,” says Natali. “Community resources are directly tied to the census count.” In addition, RAZE created a detailed safety plan for canvassing during the pandemic, which they shared with other movement organizations. “We ran the entire program in 2020 with no COVID cases. We’re very proud of that.” Beyond gathering census data, RAZE’s canvassers found themselves distributing information to cut through all the disinformation and confusion surrounding COVID, vaccines, and public policy. “People have a thirst for information, they want to keep themselves and the people they love safe,” says Natali. “They appreciated having us at their doors because they were able to share their stories and be heard. And we were able to provide information and be validators. We know we’re not going to change hearts and minds overnight, but we are slowly becoming trusted messengers by building relationships with people in our own backyard. “It goes back to that piece of meeting people where they are,” she continues. “We completely understand that people go to work all day, then they have to stop at the grocery store on their way home, they have to make dinner, do homework, bathe the kids, put them to bed. The last thing they want to do is go to a Legislative District meeting or a town hall. Add they’ve been ignored for decades. So we are focusing on changing institutions instead of blaming people. We are coming in with humility, leading with values and, quite frankly, grace and love.”
Healing the Divide through Vulnerability and Trust
“This is hard and heavy work,” says Pablo. “It does weigh on us. When we’re talking to folks at a town hall or a listening session or at their doorstep, we are showing up as our vulnerable selves. We’re mixing in a lot of soft skills; we’re not just hitting doors. Elections are important, but we have to do [outreach] in a way that is healing for the community. And because we’re vulnerable, we have an exciting and creative environment where people feel safe to share ideas. Together we can come up with creative ways of solving issues that would not have surfaced otherwise.” “Trust-based grantmaking has helped us to make space for that creativity,” says Pablo. Natali adds, “Good organizers come from the communities that they’re organizing, and very often that means poor working class. But when you start fundraising, you have to totally adjust your relationship with money. We have to be incredibly aware and real about that issue. Early on, we didn’t even have the ability to dream about what to ask for, or a realistic idea of how much things cost. That’s an incredible learning curve for an organization. I remember when we sent our first budget to one of our mentors and he said, “This is your annual budget? This won’t get you through three months!” You have to have people willing to have open and honest conversations around money and be willing to examine their own personal baggage with money. “This highlights an incredible need in movement work for executive directors to get training around fundraising and speaking to donors,” she continues. “I remember the very first grant that Pablo and I got, it was for thirty thousand dollars and we were like, ‘We made it!’ And the funder said, “This is not a lot of money, you know. Let’s help diversify your portfolio.’ It’s so amazing to work with funders like that because the staff had experience in organizing first. So they created a space that allowed us to be transparent, that allows for learning and for us to feel safe.
Room to Breathe
“It’s like that with Satterberg, too,” says Natali. “Satterberg was our first multiyear grant, and it gave us the breathing room to be creative. It enabled us to do more than just knock on doors; we could do the long-term relationship building that organizing requires. When you’re not living hand to mouth, you can think clearly, and it expands your options. Before, we were like, ‘We can only offer this person a six-month job.’ Well, that immediately diminishes your hiring pool, because who can afford to take a six-month job? I don’t think most funders necessarily know the difference that multi-year funding makes in an organization. “When we’re working with people who share the same value lens, there’s a little bit more space for nuance. Satterberg has a greater understanding of what’s happening on the ground, and therefore they trust people on the ground. We’ve been approached by some national funders that, to be very frank, were run by old, white men, and it seemed like all that mattered to them was the numbers. They were paying for a result; people were commodities to them. Pablo and I really had to check ourselves and say, “That’s not the money we want.” Now we’ve learned to say to funders, “If you can’t trust what the people on the ground are telling you, then we have nothing for you. We can’t jump through hoops. There’s work to be done.”
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