August 8, 2008
“Moving Forward” is the first in our new “Speak UP!” Q&A column series by Wiretap contributor Suemedha Sood
In Missoula, Montana, people know Forward Montana as the kids who knock on their doors in costume on Halloween. Only, instead of asking for candy, they try to get people to vote. It’s not just a holiday effort; Going door-to-door is what the organization is about all year round.
Forward Montana is one branch of The Bus Federation, first launched by The Oregon Bus Project. The Federation gathers energized people for neighborly voter outreach events, taking communities by storm and changing the way activists canvass. Proving that the best politics is about more than talk, their model is rooted in one-on-one conversations where organizers actually listen to the people they’re soliciting.
Wiretap recently contacted Matt Singer, one of the founders of Forward Montana. His group wants to see nationwide changes, and they plan to spur those on by focusing on the cities, counties and neighborhoods of his state.
“Our hope is that we generate thousands of activists and dozens of leaders,” Singer told Wiretap. In a recent conversation, he explains just how Forward Montana is making that happen.
Wiretap: Forward Montana sprouted from a group of young people wanting to become politically active. What were the organization’s founding principles?
: We were looking for [a voting group] that focused not just on college but a broader [demographic]. We were looking for something more election-oriented. Historically, community organizing has downplayed the role of electoral politics. That was a broken model. At the same time, we didn’t want to go the party front–so many people in College Republicans or Young Democrats of America want to hobnob with US senators or work on the hill. We wanted to find people who wanted to change the world.
What is the age range for activists involved with Forward Montana?
: The average age of our staff is 25 and the average age of our board is 27. One of our volunteers just turned 80. We have couples that are 16. Frankly, we’re trying to go older and younger than that range.
How did your group first launch into the political arena?
: In 2005, we did some legwork in coalitions with other organizations. We helped pass one bill (PDF) that was a response to a young woman near Missoula [County] who reported a sexual assault that happened at a party when she was 16. The cops responded by giving her a citation as a minor in possession [of alcohol]. We were outraged that [the police] made a young woman reporting an assault a lower priority than cracking down on underage drinking. So, we went to the legislature with it.