Suemedha Sood

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?

Matt Singer

: 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.

How does Forward Montana fit into The Bus Federation?


: One of The Bus Federation’s platforms is changing democracy with bus-loads of people going door-to-door to talk to their neighbors about political issues using “listening canvasses.” Also, the Federation is sort of subservient to its member organizations. It’s the opposite of every other national organization I’ve seen, where the national chapter is domineering. In our organization, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico chapters decide their own plan, and we decide ours. Then we conference, trade ideas, and make sure we’re doing a better job instituting our plans. It’s a lot more empowering [this way].

Do you work with the other Bus chapters in your mobilization efforts?


: There are smart things to learn from other state chapters, but we have to do what works for our own state. For example, we do a little more issue work [than Oregon]. We’re in the middle of a giant health care campaign right now–House Calls 4 Health Care–where we’re going door-to-door talking to people about health care concerns and basically trying to turn Montana’s congressional delegation into a leader on this issue for 2009.

In 2007, we launched our Pink Bunnies campaign. It was the coolest voter registration drive in history because we had pink bunnies! We don’t know what it means, but it was a lot of fun. We dressed up in bunny ears and pink T-shirts and ran around town registering a thousand voters in Missoula, Montana. The entire county is 90,000 people and 45,000 are registered voters in the city, so we increased the electorate by two or three percent.

This election cycle, we registered close to 4,000 voters in one of the biggest nonpartisan voter registration drives in the history of the state.

According to national polls, energy and the economy are the main issues for voters across the country. Is it the same in Montana? What about health care?


: Energy, jobs and the economy, heath care costs and tax rates–all of those things factor into a conversation when you end up on someone’s doorstep. We’re huge believers in face-to-face democracy. The best interactions come from one-on-one conversations with other voters–not in fancy board meetings in Washington DC, but from people on the ground.

This is something we learned from [The Oregon Bus Project]. They call it a listening canvass. The tradition in American politics as of late has been to take this scientific approach where [canvassers] go to someone’s door, ask them who they’re going to vote for, what their most important issue is and which party they affiliate with. Then they thank them for their time and go on to the next door. What we know from research is that the single most powerful interaction in politics is the one-on-one conversation.

We send canvassers to people’s doors with a mind to persuade. Part of how you persuade is by listening. Instead of giving people all the answers, you ask them really open-ended questions and try and figure out what they think. They come away with respect for your organization and respect for the candidate or the [issue] you’re working for.

What have Montana constituents been telling you about their lives?


: I was canvassing once where I knocked on 30 doors and had 10 live answers and five long conversations. One conversation was with a woman whose son was going back to Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She was trying to contact the Veterans Affairs Department (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) because her son had had PTSD from his first deployment and they were sending him back. She couldn’t get any help and she was terrified. At the end of that conversation, we got her information back to a US senator’s office and hopefully she got some help.

I spoke with a teacher who started off talking about education, then she transitioned into the need for more revenue for the state of Montana, which turned into a conversation about the economy and natural resource development. Rather than finding out merely that education is her most important issue, I started to understand this person as a three-dimensional individual.

In your House Calls 4 Health Care campaign, what needs are Montanans expressing?


: People say they want to elect their own coverage. They know the system is broken and they’re worried about how much costs are going up. The other conversations are sometimes the more fascinating ones. We talked to people who say, “I think if people want health care, they need to get a job,” which is an opportunity for education. A lot of people who lack insurance are already employed.

Your focus in Forward Montana is very local. Why aren’t you interested in mobilizing for the upcoming presidential election?


: Most of us don’t have the ability to swing a presidential campaign. Almost any of us can swing a Statehouse race or a mayoral race. We focus on getting people elected in our own neighborhoods.

It seems that Bus Federation groups work hard to make political organizing feel more like fun and less like eating your vegetables. What’s your strategy there?


: One of the critiques we have of political organizing is that it either has to be fun or strategic. And often times what people mean by fun is not actually all that fun. At the same time, if you’re advancing a cause you believe in or helping a candidate become the next representative of a US office, that is fun. Some of what we try to do is figure out how to make that strategic stuff more energizing and energetic.

Trick-or-Vote is a great example of this–it’s something we stole from [The Oregon Bus Project]. The number one way to get people to vote is to show up on their doorsteps. There’s also a tradition in our society of going to people’s doorsteps on October 31st. Luckily, Halloween happens to fall five days before the election. It’s perfect. Show up just before election on people’s doorsteps in a costume. Everyone loves wearing costumes. And if they don’t, we don’t want to hang out with them because they’re not fun.

How do other political organizers respond to your more lighthearted efforts?


: There are folks who say, “You’re just helping prop up the idea that the youth vote isn’t serious.” But if we are working to making politics a little more fun, a little less serious and less intimidating as a result, then it’s all for the best.

Can you talk about how and why Forward Montana uses art and music for political organizing?


: We have lots of friends who are extremely talented [artists and musicians]. Missoula is a very strong cultural community. We work with a lot of the music producers (which in Montana mostly means producing live shows, not albums) and with venues in town. That gives us a presence at local shows from indie rock to hip-hop to bluegrass, which is a pretty big scene here.

Missoula is also a big town for First Friday art openings–the first Friday of every month, there are art openings around town. We host a specific art opening in our office to highlight political art and more politically-minded artists. We also have political poetry readings at our office. It’s a way for us to connect with a community of people who may not often be politically engaged.

Is there a protest element to art or music you raise awareness about?


: Sometimes. I would say we’re not a big protest organization. We’re friends with protesters, but that’s not us. We’re the happy, smiley, optimist, work-within-the system kids.

Forward Montana is a group of young activists mobilizing other young people. In 2008, are we seeing an explosion of politically-motivated youth action?


: There’s all this talk about how 2008 is the year of the young voter. I think that’s misleading. 2008 isn’t just the young voter, it’s the year of the young candidate, the young campaigner and the young volunteer. Barack Obama is the first post-baby-boomer presidential candidate. In Montana, we’ve got half a dozen legislators under the age of 30, and we’ve got another six running. Young people aren’t just voting, they’re changing the world.

Connect with Forward Montana for more on their projects.

Video from the House Calls 4 Health Care campaign:

Suemedha Sood is a 2007 fellow in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The former assistant editor at the Center for American Progress, she is a frequent contributor to WireTap.