Category: Interviews

Fridays with An Activist: Damen Alexander, March for Our Lives STL Organizer

Photo courtesy of Niles Zee Photography
An interview series with local activists about their work in Missouri.

Tell me about the goals for March for Our Lives STL.

The goal of the March was to get politicians to listen to us. Politicians have been non-starters on gun legislation for too long. Not just Republicans, but Democrats too. The March put a referendum on complacency. We are here, we’re listening, and we’re taking notes. If you don’t enact the change we want to see, we will use our voting power to vote you out. After the March, we want politicians to treat us like voters, and not kids. Our message has the force of the vote behind it.

How did you spread the word and get people involved?

Facebook was the most effective option. We had 3K people RSVP on Facebook. 15K showed up. That shows you the energy, commitment, and dedication of our generation. 15K people showed up in the cold and rain to march.

Is gun violence the main issue you’re passionate about? What other political or social problems concern you?  

An issue I care about that doesn’t get a lot of attention is voting rights. People talk all day about voter ID,  registering voters, and all that jazz, but for me, voter rights are much more than that. We need to make sure the voting electorate is more engaged, inclusive, and responsive. There was a study done that said people who come of voting age in mid-term years are less likely to vote over the entire course of their life, then someone who came of voting age in a presidential election year. That’s absurd.

We need automatic voter registration. We need to reflect and ask ourselves, “Is a random Tuesday in March, April, August, or November, the best voting day?” For me, personally, I don’t like the idea of partisan election officials at the county and state level. No way should our Secretary of State be partisan. They protect all of our voting rights, not just their party. There are little steps we can take to make the electorate more inclusive. The right to vote is the most important, most precious, and most sacred right. It should be protected with the eye of a hawk.

Do you plan to keep doing this type of work? If so, in what ways?

Here in Saint Louis, this is not only a March. Other marches have been critiqued for only talking about white lives. Historically, when a social issue leaches onto the white community there is IMMEDIATELY a call to action. We have town halls, reports, hearings, all the works. Meanwhile, the black community has been faced with the said issue for years and decades. You can see that without the drug epidemic, the AIDS epidemic, and now with gun violence. Here in Saint Louis, the black community has been plagued by gun violence for years. Mike Brown and Anthony Lamar Smith are victims of gun violence. They are victims of state-sponsored gun violence. Why are we just now mobilizing?

205. That’s how many people died in our own streets last year from gun violence.  It’s time we showed up in the streets not just for students or mainstream issues, but for our neighbors, our brothers, and our sisters too. I don’t think the work of the March is done until all of Saint Louis can stand together and realize Black Lives Matter.

As for specifics, there are town halls, lobby days, and an art show planned. A lot of the time our government is seen as elitist. We feel it’s run by the privileged, we feel only work for the privileged, only the privileged participate, and only the privileged can make the change. Well, we’re knocking down that notion. We are targeting inner-city youth who have never been involved in any type of government. We are providing them an outlet to hold their elected officials accountable. And with the art show, we’re also proving students a chance to express themselves, and make money.

So we’re more than a march. We want to be in the community. We are the community activist.  All details on the art show, lobby day, and town hall, TBA. (edit: Town Hall has since been scheduled: https://www.facebook.com/events/239592749944949/)

What do you think veteran activists can do to invite and welcome younger people into the fold?

I believe veteran activists have been very inviting already. Real activists show up for every single thing, every single day. Many of them were at the March, and we even invited them to our VIP area. Cori Bush, an activist and Congressional candidate helped us lead the March. State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. and the Rev. Daryl Gray both spoke at our March. This has been a two-way street. There were no hard feelings.

What message do you hope high school and college students receive from the work you’ve done?

The only message I have is the vote. If you are 17.5 in Missouri, you need to register. Today. This is all hypothetical until we go register, mobilize, and vote. This change only happens with all of us united.

/ In Interviews / By Jen / Comments Off on Fridays with An Activist: Damen Alexander, March for Our Lives STL Organizer

Fridays with An Activist: Christine Hedges, St. Charles Resistance Organizer

An interview series with local activists about their work in Missouri.

Tell me about the organizations you work with and how you think you’ve been most effective.

I was one of the founding members of Take Action St. Charles, one of many ‘huddle’ groups formed after last year’s Woman’s March. I’ve worked with the national #Resist movement supported by Meetup.com. I’ve been hooked into Moveon.org’s field network for about a year now. I was part of the initial Gateway Advocacy Network (GAN) group working to coordinate the efforts of progressive groups across the bi-county area. And I was an intern with Moveon.org’s Resistance Summer in 2017. And there is a brand-new St. Charles County Progressive Dems group, which I have joined.

One of the things I do all the time at work is plan & facilitate meetings, so stepping in to fill that role when it was needed helped those groups to be more cohesive. As time passed, all the different groups ended up moving in this or that direction, depending on how ‘active’ the group wanted to be, their particular interests, and a variety of other factors. But one of the other things I do at work is team-building and I believe that through planning events and maintaining communication channels (Facebook, email, Slack), I’ve managed to help keep the people who want to be engaged in contact and informed.

How did you get started?

I had always been politically well-informed, but mostly inactive aside from voting every 2 years. After the election in 2016, I disengaged completely for a couple of months, even closing my Facebook and stopping reading the news. After the 1st Muslim ban, I realized that I couldn’t stay on the sidelines anymore.

I started with Google and I found the Indivisible Guide, which led me to Liberal Women Unite (just a Facebook presence at the time). I found the Women’s March website, which led me to the huddle that became TASC. In the past I never talked politics with anyone. Finding people who felt as strongly as I did about the same issues was life-changing. I wanted to keep showing up and taking action, working for change.

How do you mobilize people?

This was actually one of the lessons covered during our MoveOn Resistance Summer program- and it’s not easy. One thing you need to do once you know someone is interested in getting involved is to try to build a relationship with them. Engage and ask them questions about themselves and what they’re interested in. Then you need to find a way to tie those interests into some action that they can take to help your mutual interests. Bottom line though, it’s about relationship-building, if you want to keep people showing up in person.

What’s the main issue that you feel passionately about?  

There are so many issues that I’m passionate about! My campaign is focused on responsible use of our taxes. I am truly angry at the ways the County is spending our money- I can give examples if you like, but the bottom line is that the County police all got shiny new cars last year and many friends and family of our County Executive seem to have cushy jobs with the government. And at the same time, there are low-level jobs going unfilled because there is no public transportation and a lack of affordable housing in the County.

Once I am in office, I will work to address those things, but I’m also passionate about addressing structural racism, strengthening the social safety net, and providing a full range of health care (reproductive included) to every citizen.

How do you stay inspired and engaged with the work?

The people! I have made so many friends and met so many amazing people! Also, there is so much to be done to get this county, this state, and this country moving in a better direction, that I feel obligated to keep pushing. And it’s not always work, there is enough of a social aspect to this activism that I’ve found myself in that it hasn’t gotten old yet.

Advice to other activists? 

No one is going to give you a list of directions, there’s no guide for this. Find a group through Google or Facebook or maybe by reading news websites or blogs. Get in touch, find out what you can do to join, volunteer to help them somehow. Follow your passions and know that even the smallest efforts move us the tiniest bit in the right direction. We’ve got a lot of work to do but don’t get discouraged. As MLK paraphrased from a quote by Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

How do you see St. Charles County evolving, in the business, political, and community culture?

The County has grown tremendously over the last 1/2 century and that growth continues. It was once a Democratic and union-strong place but over the last 20 years has gone strongly Republican, for a number of reasons. In the last year, though, I’ve seen more people of color, more LGBTQ people, more progressives, more women willing to stand up and make their voices heard. I want to continue to amplify those voices- I think that diversity of viewpoints across the County’s business, political, and cultural lives can only make us stronger.

If you could change or improve something about St. Charles County, what would it be?

I’d love for it to be more diverse culturally, I’d love to see the Metrolink extended to the County, and I’d love to see a newspaper (or news website?) cover news and events here more thoroughly. The only way you can know what happens at council meetings (city or county) is to actually attend them. And there’s so much more going on that people should know about.

What do you think is the most pressing need for the people in your area?

Public transportation and affordable housing. Also, the people of the County should have more opportunities to engage with and learn from black and brown people. And that’s on white people to make this a comfortable place for black and brown people to be, not on them by any means.

What are your thoughts on some of the legislation being enacted in our state?

I’m horrified by what I’ve seen. Republicans want to take away women’s reproductive rights, they want to put LGBTQ youth at risk, to make trans people’s lives harder, to slash taxes for corporations and then cut services to Missouri’s elderly and to public education. In addition, they have no respect for people of color or for women. I can’t wait to see my friends like Gary Wester, Jim Klenc, Curtis Wylde, Peggy Sherwin, Scott Cernicek, and Helena Webb take their places in the MO House and for Patrice Billings to sit in the MO senate.

Add any additional thoughts you’d like to share.

Running for office, at any level, is a lot of work. I’d encourage anyone reading this who is also interested in being the change they want is to find a campaign and volunteer for it. They can find mine online but there are plenty of others and we all meed folks’ time and money if we’re going to win.

/ In Interviews / By Jen / Comments Off on Fridays with An Activist: Christine Hedges, St. Charles Resistance Organizer

Fridays with an Activist, Ep 2: Cori Bush, Local Pastor and Community Organizer

Episode 2 of an interview series with local activists about their work in Missouri.

Tell me about your work and your organization.

Recently I began getting involved working on homelessness in St. Louis as an independent citizen, not as part of an organization. I am a registered nurse and I worked at a community-based mental health organization in St. Louis City. Many people who are experiencing homelessness are uninsured or underinsured, they sleep outside, lose their meds or can’t afford them. I see the effects that structural problems have on real people and our politicians aren’t vocal enough. I don’t understand it, because everyday people are in dire need of support. It goes beyond housing and we lose sight of the big picture. We are failing some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

How’d you get started?

Growing up, my dad was involved in politics. I learned from him and the seeds were sown young. I am ordained as a pastor and that increased my involvement with community work, feeding people and being very active in the streets. My commitment to the work also strengthened when Mike Brown was murdered.

Thoughts on the recent election at the federal and state level?

Mortified to say the least. I can’t believe we will have five conservative statewide officials. And when you think about the regression all the way up to Trump it’s overwhelming. I can’t picture Missouri under Greitens and I anticipate heavy law and order rhetoric and expansion of police.

How do you mobilize people?

It depends on the task; we have a strong activist community. I am active on social media and use it as a mobilization tool. I have a good network and know who to call so I can put stuff together. I also reach out to clergy and elected officials.

What’s your issue personally?  

I don’t have one. Its homelessness right now, but I work hard for marginalized communities, whoever it is. Silence is violence and I refuse to be a part of the injustices that run rampant in our society.

Advice to other activists?

Follow your passion, let it drive you and never back down. There is no activist god, no one is ordained. You just have to be active and do the work. It’s a learning by doing process.

Thoughts on the state of progressivism in St. Louis?

I love it. So glad I could join, meet wonderful people and contribute. Despite the recent election results we kicked butt and made our state recognize the progressive community. I’m excited to keep working and fighting for justice with these people.

Book recommendations?

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Where do We Go from Here by Dr. King, Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Dr. Angela Davis and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

How do you stay inspired and engaged with the work?

I was fighting back tears on the way here tonight because I saw people who needed help. The work is never done, so it’s easy to stay engaged. Just by seeing people who need help and seeing people being active in their communities. My heart breaks when I see injustice.

If I were in charge in St. Louis, I would…

Work to ensure that marginalized communities are taken care of with continuous resources: jobs, homes and training. We can’t move forward while leaving some people behind.

Feedback Encouraged.

Fridays with an Activist, Ep 1: Faizan Syed, Executive Director CAIR-Missouri

Episode 1 of an interview series with local activists about their work in Missouri.

Tell me about your work and your organization.

CAIR stands for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.  It defends civil rights in Missouri; like the NAACP for Muslims. But you can’t just sue everyone all the time, so you address the culture problem. We have to challenge and change perceptions perpetuated by the media and the Islamophobia industry — lots of educational work, youth empowerment, working with elected officials, building alliances in the community. We engage in community building, hold events, rallies and marches, creates councils, have open houses and host a Capital Day for legislative work in Jefferson City.  

How’d you get started?

I studied physics, astronomy and math at Drake University. Then I got swept up in the politics around the Iowa Caucuses in 2008 with Obama, Clinton and McCain, so I switched my majors to politics and history. Then the Ground Zero controversy made Islam an American issue. With the pastor burning Qurans and the right-wing media always making CAIR the villain, I knew I had to work for them. They needed a director locally, so this was my first job out of college.

Thoughts on the recent election at the federal and state level?

Nationally, we were shocked. The day after I saw six, seven, eight year-old kids scared for their safety. I didn’t even know who was president at age six. We had multiple instances of hate crimes against Muslims in St. Louis. It was a mainstreaming of the alt-right, of Islamophobia.  The election brought these from the fringe to the mainstream of American society.  

In Missouri, (Governor-elect Eric) Greitens made fake ISIS hunting permits, but ISIS isn’t here. So he created an image that matches innocent people living in our community. Local candidates ran on an anti-Syrian refugee platform. It was all lies and public manipulation. Missouri went super far right and we will see legislation proposed to create anti-Sharia laws and internment camps for refugees.  

How do you mobilize people?

There are 115,000 Muslims here, mostly in St. Louis and Kansas City. You mobilize them by community building, getting groups together and assessing strengths. Get people to come to events, then you can have a ground game and start registering people to vote, getting emails and building a movement. The hope is recent political events will double our attendance at Capital Day. We need to build ourselves up first.   

What’s your issue personally?  

I care about mobilizing American Muslims because they historically don’t vote or act. We need to change culture in the American Muslim community. Also, I want to unify the community so an issue in KC creates action in St. Louis and vice versa. We can always do more for each other.

Advice to other activists?

Donald Trump is not our challenge; apathy is the biggest issue. Fifty percent of the people didn’t vote. It’s easier and more productive to mobilize Muslim communities than to spend all day yelling at racists.

Thoughts on the state of progressivism in St. Louis?

I would argue that most Americans are progressive, we just aren’t unified.  Progressive values help the poor in middle Missouri, but those people vote against their interests. The election was a triumph of identity politics.

Progressives need to go to areas that don’t currently support them with an issue-oriented educational campaign. Customizing an economic populist message to fit a rural/Christian audience. People get distracted by issues that don’t affect them, because what’s real is complicated. It’s easier to yell about nonsense.

Book recommendations?

Read philosophy and religious books to get a grounding on your values. I like anything by Noam Chomsky. Read history.  

How do you stay inspired and engaged with the work?

This job is not work to me, I love it. I’ve never worked a day in my life. Every day is different and I see things getting better. In the Quran it says something bad might happen, but it’s actually really good for you. We will get people mobilized because of the bad and scary times.  

If I were in charge in St. Louis, I would…

That’s a good one, I don’t know.  

Feedback Encouraged.