Looking Forward to 2011

Happy New Year!
2010 is just hours away from being a memory. For me personally, it hasn’t been a bad year. From a political standpoint, for Democrats, liberals and progressives it’s pretty well sucked. I won’t go through the long list of setbacks, because I don’t think its constructive to looking forward right now, but I do think that whatever those failures are to you, its best to take not only the outcomes but the actions that led to the outcomes into account going forward. That’s the only way anyone can really learn from the past. That’s the only way I learn from it anyway.

Here in Memphis, 2011 holds at least four elections that we know about right now. The House 98 primary happens on January 20th, the MCS vote is going to be in mid-February, and the
House 98 General wraps up on March 8th. Then there’s the City elections in October. If Stephanie Gatewood wins the primary in 98, and the MCS resolution is rejected, there will likely be another election to replace her on the MCS board. That’s a whole lotta votin’. The big question is how many will actually vote?

From my perspective, it seems like people kinda shot their wad in the 2008 Presidential election. That election saw 66% registered voter participation. In elections held since then we’ve been seeing anywhere between 10% and 40%. I understand that Presidential elections are a big draw and 66% was a huge outlier, but damn, why is voter participation so low in all the other elections?

I don’t really have an answer to that, but I’d be interested to look at who votes most consistently and which areas of the city get what. I bet there’d be a correlation.

Part of that correlation may have to do with the ability of people to lobby their elected officials. If you run in the same circles, there’s a greater chance that something you say to an elected official will happen. This is about incidental access, not something nefarious.

Another part of that correlation may have to do with the fact that people of like social standing tend to live in the same areas. If you look at every City Council district in Memphis, there’s at least one precinct that has more affluent folks which seems to be where the elected officials come from. Again, nothing particularly nefarious, just something to note.

It seems like most electeds don’t have that many Town Halls Meetings, so unless you attend public meetings regularly or have some other incidental affiliation in common, chances are you aren’t going to
run into them. Maybe more of them go to community meetings than I know about. Honestly, there are too many to keep up with, and I’m not all that interested in stalking all 60 something of them (13 in
the city, 13 in the county, 9 MCS, 7 SCS, and 21 in the state legislature and that doesn’t count all the surrounding ‘burbs and towns).

In any case, this isn’t a pile on electeds post, just pointing out the obvious, if you or your community has a need, you’re probably not going to get it by yourself. You simply don’t have the access, or the political wherewithal to get it done alone. Chances are you’re going to have to band together with other people
who share your interests to get it done. If you’re a part of a constituency that votes regularly and is otherwise politically active, your chances of getting whatever it is that you want done is probably even better as a general statement.

Tennessee Equality Project Rocks!
One group that has been really successful both here in Shelby County and Statewide is TEP. For our purposes, I just want to focus on what TEP has done here in Shelby County (not to diminish anything else, it’s just closer to home). TEP represents the GLBT community. Unlike other groups, there’s not a specific area where you will find members of the GLBT community (save me the Cooper Young jokes). There’s not a specific race, or socio-economic background or any other traditional identifier to figure out where or who these folks are.

Truth is, there are probably members of the GLBT community in every precinct in the County. So how did a diffuse group of people that represents around 10% of the total population of Shelby County get a resolution passed in the County and heard twice on an ordinance in the City? They were organized. They had a goal, they had a plan, they executed that plan and got results. Did they get everything they wanted? No. But they did make some headway, and they showed their political chops. That’s something big.

In the run up to the 2011 City elections, it will be interesting to see how they use this organized effort. I’m really proud of the Shelby contingent of TEP. It would have been easy to sit around and complain or talk or just generally do nothing posing as doing something. They did something, and I believe they’ll do more in the future.

Without taking anything away from TEP, they’re a pretty small percentage of the local population. For instance, over 48% of households in Memphis make less than $35,000/yr. 20% of all Memphians of voting age live in poverty. That’s a HUGE number, nearly 136,000 people of voting age in Memphis alone. What would happen if just 10% those 136,000 adults banded together and demanded the City and County do more to address poverty or help eliminate blight or enact tougher regulations on rental property owners, or enact better renters rights? What if they lobbied the School board and demanded greater access to educationally fulfilling Pre-K or more educationally focused after-school programs? What if they rolled up in Nashville, with the local poor people, and poor people from Knox and Hamilton Counties and demanded the state do more to help create better conditions or more opportunities to help get them out of poverty, or provide funding for more enriching educational opportunities? What do you think would happen?

I think if they were organized, goal focused, understood and used the process to their advantage, and just a little patient they would get everything they wanted and more. I think that if they maintained this effort for several years they would remake a lot of policy that helped people in areas outside their homes, like in rural Tennessee where steadily increasing poverty rates are dismantling small communities.

I think it would transform the state and eventually create a rising tide lifting people out of poverty, creating better jobs. I think it would empower people in our state to understand which things really are a zero sum game and which things aren’t. I think it would challenge the existing political status quo which is designed specifically to ensure some people have power and some people “stay in their place”, whatever that place may be. I think it would completely turn the entire political dynamic on its head.

Why doesn’t it happen? Lots of reasons, but mostly because people don’t believe it can.

Can it happen? Absolutely.

Looking forward, I see a lot of opportunities for the people who want to make a difference in Memphis and Shelby County. The key is getting organized, understanding the process and using your voice to communicate your needs then using your vote to make it happen. It won’t happen overnight, but if you keep at it, it will, eventually.

My wish for 2011 is that the people of Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee and hell, the rest of the country not only find their voice, but use it. What’s happening now, the top down structure that we’ve maintained at the exclusion of our own interests not only isn’t working, it can’t work. We have to flip the script and build from the bottom up if we want better results.

My goal for 2011 is to do exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t know what, who, or how but I do know that I can’t sit here and write on this blog and talk about someone else doing something more while I’m doing the same stuff I’ve been doing since December 1, 2006. I work really hard to keep up with what’s going on in the City, County and State governments, but what I’m finding more and more is that keeping up isn’t enough, I’ve got to get up.

I hope together we can find not only our voice, but put it to use in a set of common goals, as well as the motivation and action to back it.

Cheers and Happy New Year!

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