If you’re a badass who wants to effect change, run for local elected office

The other night, I heard an elected leader talk about her time as an activist and how the “inside-outside” approach has been a theme in her life. This local female leader is what I would label a “badass.” 

Time and age have mellowed her but if you scratch the surface, the hard-core activist is still there. To paint a picture for you, at Columbia University during the time of the Students for Democratic Society’s occupation of campus buildings, she was in the thick of it. She spent her days as a teacher, climbing into a building to occupy it with others at night. It feels a little bit like a radical ’70s Superman, teacher by day in Harlem and activist at night, changing from a cape and suit to denim bell-bottoms.

I sat there marveling that many people would be unable to square her radical acts to fight for equity as they only hear her sometimes pedantic responses at government meetings. However, city council meetings require arcane comments and a low burning fire in one’s belly to effect change.

In activism, there is a strategy of organizing called the inside-outside approach. Community organizing is the process of building power through involving a constituency in identifying problems they share and the solutions to those problems that they desire. It is mobilizing people to find solutions, meeting with those who have power to make change, and pushing policy and change that benefit the collective good. The reality of our society is inequity exists because groups that benefit from inequity hold power; organizing moves the power to those who are impacted by the imbalance of power. 

The inside-outside strategy approach, as described by The Stanford Daily, “is the general philosophy or strategy of organizing that prioritizes both those activists/advocates embedded inside political structures, and those based outside of them.” 

Any inside-outside strategy is that the inside work within the organization (transformation) synergizes with the outside work outside the organization (pressure) to change policy and make societal change that benefits the majority.

I am no stranger to organizing; however, it still left me starstruck to hear the local elected’s story and application of an organizing principle to her life and political career. I realized that the elected’s success and huge accomplishments were a result of her organizing background and ability to work for policy on the inside and mobilization of folks and community organizations on the outside. 

Understanding policy, the importance of relationships, and unifying people to fight for their self-interest and that of their neighbors is the very definition of an activist. Can it also be the definition of a good elected leader?

For the past four years, I have trained with Aftyn Behn, an organizer with Rural Organizing. Aftyn Behn is now a representative for the Tennessee state House. She, like our local elected, lives the “inside-outside” strategy. However Aftyn’s actions took on a more organizing and political theater approach. 

Aftyn showed up to all of Diane Black’s events, an out-of-touch Republican who ran for Tennessee governor, as “Diantoinette,” wearing a 2-foot-tall white wig and a pale pink period dress with a lovely smile. Aftyn drew the parallel to Black and Marie Antoinette with a strategic media campaign, attending Black’s events and talking to voters at local eateries in costume. It paid off, Black lost.

The dogged determination for change, a touch of humor, theater, relational organizing, and hard work are Aftyn’s backbones; she also knocked on 8,000 doors to win the state House seat. 

So, I’m sending a message to all activists, organizers, board members of community or faith-based organizations, PTA chairs, Girl Scout troop leaders, parents fighting for equity for our trans children, union leaders, student leaders, teachers, and neighbors who mobilized a neighborhood to advocate for safe parking—please run for office. The time is now, and we need you. 

Take Aftyn’s and our local elected’s cue: It can be fun, cheeky, and meaningful, and change our corner of the world.

Contact your local and national political party for assistance.

Let’s get some badass activists elected in 2024 and participate in the radical change that is possible with community organizing and political representation.

Dona Hare Price is a local activist and a facilitator of Dismantling Racism From the Inside Out. Send a response for publication to [email protected].

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