CHAPTER ONE -- THE PROGRESSIVE WISCONSIN STORY
2. The Groundhog Group
3. A Non-Group Group
4. Process and Lessons Learned
5. National Applications
It is axiomatic after two decades of too many TV buys, that local and state grassroots capacity needs improvement. We also know that new approaches to build effective labor & progressive partnerships are needed. In every state, before we can really expand our voter and power base, we need to be able to catalogue and reach the 5,000-10,000 activists who actually care about progressive issues and do the work (putting up yard signs, showing up at meetings, etc).
But like many national conversations about collaboration, it's hard for state-based groups to work together. Funding is tight, everyone is busy, every group has its own "business model" to execute, and no one who is doing real work wants to go to "another" coalition meeting. The situation was no different in Wisconsin in late 2000, with one exception: a new approach to organizing based on patience, shared understandings and a new "venture catalyst" approach to state network-building was about to ripen.
Sixteen years of Republican Governor Tommy Thompson's rule can be a unifying force - especially if you are perennially on the receiving end of Thompson's blunt-nosed policies and political machinations. With Thompson off to Washington to serve as George Bush's HHS Secretary - and his long-time, free-marketeering Lieutenant Governor, Scott McCallum, now doing even more damage than Tommy - a small group of labor and progressive leaders came together in late 2000 to see how they could get past the old hurdles and take real power in the state.
The group, convened by Joel Rogers of the University of Wisconsin and his Center on Wisconsin Strategy, had all sorts of ideas about new state policy, including a unique citizen outreach effort describing the critical policy choices facing Wisconsin. What immediately focused them, however, was the task of getting back the power to try them. Key partners in that effort were the national AFL-CIO and the National Education Association, and their Wisconsin affiliates. These labor forces, nationally, were interested to see if Wisconsin could serve as a pilot for new forms of statewide network-building. In the state, labor wanted something simpler and more focused: taking back the governorship - which in Wisconsin has exceptional constitutional powers, and in a chronically divided legislature is the supreme key to all state politics - in 2002. To advance these discussions, Dan Carol of www.CTSG.com, whose grassroots political and technology firm had been involved in other progressive collaborations such as www.saveourenvironment.org, was brought in to facilitate the group's early meetings. Carol, in turn, reached out to political organizer Teresa Vilmain, a nationally-respected dynamo who happened to be a newly-minted citizen of Verona, Wisconsin…at least by Verona standards. From there, the "Groundhog Group" was born.
The Groundhog Group
The early meetings of what later came to be called The Groundhog Group were confined to a few principals and partners who knew that the old way of convening a broad-based coalition was suspect; and that a new collaborative planning approach was essential. The three major goals that seemed to unify the group's discussions and stood out on the butcher block sheets were:
* Upgrade Wisconsin political leadership -- Better Politicians & Better Policy
The group's name came from the facilitator's stated first rule: if anyone felt like they had been in the meeting before, they had to raise their hand immediately, because that would be an indicator that the group was steering off-course…to nowhere.
* Build capacity for every stakeholder
* Stop reinventing wheels and do not lose sight of larger vision
Even then however, rhetoric was tested by reality very early on, when the first meeting nearly derailed over a brewing issue that bubbled up to the surface - just which group would get to do the "candidate recruitment training contract." Things changed when the facilitator asked one question: "did anyone at the table, or in the state for that matter, have a list of which offices, from school board to statewide, that they were able to recruit from?" No one raised a hand. No list existed. And the suggestion was made that making that list, an elections databank, might be a smart project for the group to consider, and maybe do.
From there, discussions moved away from "who" would do any work to the critical first step of determining what progressive capacity, what work, was needed. A detailed assessment of critical resources and needed projects then emerged pdf. No discussion was held for two meetings about "who" would get to do the work. That would all come later.
A Non-Group Group
From the onset, Groundhog Group members realized that managing outside perceptions about what the meeting was, or was not, was as important as what went on in the room. It was critical to explain to future project partners that Progressive Wisconsin was not a threat to any existing group, but instead was meant to serve as a catalyst for new projects and partnerships. Read a copy of the group's early outreach talking points pdf.
Process and Lessons Learned
In a new era where the Democratic coordinated campaign is no longer "legal" under the new campaign finance law, the Progressive Wisconsin process could well be a model for advancing the mutual interests and issues important to labor, progressive groups, and Democratic/democratic candidates - all of whom stand to benefit from capacity-building, state network-building projects, and effective data exchange. While there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution, the PW model offers at least three guiding principles for building a sustainable, multi-issue grassroots capacity conversation in any state:
· An early assessment process is key: The first step is understanding what capacity gaps exist - because they will be different in every state. In Wisconsin, the core projects identified were budget research, a statewide job bank, candidate training, voter file improvement and activist pooling protocols. These projects have already paid dividends: the elections databank discussed at the first meeting was used effectively to activate local officials around the state in early 2002 whose share of state revenues were cut sharply by new Governor McCallum's budget pdf.
And that is cool. Because it is not Groundhog's Day.
· Non-threatening venture partner/catalyst model: Making a new membership group is a natural threat to existing players; careful creation of a venture project partnership group that can work with existing players is not. Once the assessment is done and the consensus list of undeniably, needed projects is available, a wider circle of groups are asked to the table and asked to partner on projects. Not every group needs to agree on every project; groups share what they can -- and no individual can ever be asked to deliver more than is possible within their existing network or institutional structure. To do so is not only unfair; it's unrealistic.
· Take the long view in measuring what is progress: We need to honor sustainable success, and get fired up about little things that seem simple - but if they were so simple, we'd already have accomplished them right? In many states, including Wisconsin, the development of a shared events calendar in one place is, truly, exciting progress. Progressive Wisconsin's website (www.progressivewisconsin.org) is thus very simple, but via the calendar and other means, the site is gluing together a growing conversation among groups across the state, who are now beginning to make "asks" of each other and of their activists.
No state is similar, but we do believe that the PW model of assessment-project partnerships and patience points the way towards one decent model for sustainable collaboration in the post-McCain-Feingold era. In other states, we believe that select national groups can effectively partner with local players to replicate this effort.
In short, while every state will have different conditions, and not all states will be "ripe" for the process…in many states, there is little doubt that conducting state assessments, finding the existing gaps, and then filling them with collaborative, no-brainer projects is going to move us a little past Groundhog's Day.
Got an idea, comments, feedback or a "best practice" to share or write? - let us know firstname.lastname@example.org
And if you'd like to join a new learning network to promote specific ideas and state network-building projects like PW, clue us in email@example.com.
For more information on Progressive Wisconsin, contact:
Center on Wisconsin Strategy
Carrie Lynch, Communications Director