Rick Jacobs is the chair and founder of the Courage Campaign . As their website states, "The Courage Campaign is an online organizing network that empowers nearly 700,000 grassroots and netroots activists to push for progressive change in California"
The Courage Campaign tackles many progressive issues in California including disenfranchised voters, wage inequities and the state budget crisis. It’s Camp Courage, however, which brought the organization to Fresno, in an effort to facilitate and empower citizens of the Central Valley to become community organizers and participants in the battle for marriage equality.
On Saturday, March 7th, the first day of the Camp Courage event here in Fresno, I sat down to have a conversation with Rick about his organization and his thoughts on the continuing battle for marriage equality.
Chris Jarvis: Rick, I know the Courage Campaign started on the basis of other issues besides marriage equality. How did you get involved with this battle?
Rick Jacobs: We got involved in August, although we weren’t very able to get involved directly with the campaign, so we ran a kind of parallel structure. Our team is about as good a set of online organizers as you’ll find anywhere, they’re really smart and they know what they’re doing. They saw big holes and instead of complaining about it we just filled the holes. We put together a blogger’s group to connect to people. We worked with MoveOn.org to raise money for the No On 8 campaign. We raised $250,000 working with Daily Kos . Afterward we saw there was, frankly, a vacuum, and people wanted to do something. So within four or five weeks we got over 300,000 people to sign a pledge to repeal Prop 8 and then we realized what really needed to happen was we needed to organize. This, to me, is a logical outgrowth toward making the state progressive.
CJ: What is the goal of Camp Courage this weekend in Fresno?
RJ: Our goal, first of all, is to be good guests and good listeners. Most of us come from different places and have had different experiences. The first thing, as good guests, is to be good listeners. Our second goal is to help facilitate learning. So we want to take the best practices of the Obama campaign, Camp Obama, and the United Farm Worker’s organizing which led to the Camp Obama structure, to empower people through their own stories of self and then to give people the skills to be able to persuade people, and to understand how best to deal with people when they don’t agree. We hope people will decide to plug into the Equality Hub , which is our online organizing portal.
CJ: Tell me about that, how does that work?
RJ: The Equality Hub is the same tools the Obama campaign had. There’s a virtual phone bank. You can download a walk list, so you can go out and knock on neighbor’s doors, or make phone calls from home. What we really want to do, over the course of however long it takes, is identify voters, we want to know who they are, who’s for us, who’s against us and who’s in the middle, so we can figure out a way to persuade them. The only way we’ll win our rights, completely, is if people are in their neighborhoods, talking to their friends and doing the hard work.
CJ: That’s a conversation going on right now, about how we’re going to win. The court case doesn’t look that good right now, and a lot of us felt that was the way it was going to happen. And with past civil rights battles in America it hasn’t been, for the most part, achieved by a vote, it was done through the court system. So what do you think is different about this battle and why do you think this approach is the one to work?
RJ: You know, past civil rights movements all over the world have been both through the courts and through the ballot box, and they’ve always involved struggle. If you look at the American civil rights movement in the 1960’s, the turning point was when Martin Luther King and black Americans stood up and they were beaten and dogs were set upon them and they were sprayed with fire hoses. When the American people saw that they said that can’t be right, and that was the turning point. You can’t do that to people. And yeah, you’re right, it was the courts, but it was also legislation. It was Lyndon Johnson having the guts to say okay, democrats are going to lose for the next 20 years, but we’re going to do the right thing. That’s where the civil rights act came from. I think we’re in a similar era now. Gay people have had our own struggle for some time. I grew up in a small town in east Tennessee and it took me a long time to come out and deal with myself. Now, I live in Los Angeles and I can pretty much do what I want. But I think that for a lot of people for whom these rights were just taken away by the ballot box and look like they’re going to continue to be taken away by the courts, it’s the first time in their lives that they’ve had something taken away from them. I think it’s a really catalyzing experience, and it’s healthy. Do I wish the courts would rule in our favor? Sure.
CJ: What about the differences in the mentality and intelligence of the public now as opposed to the 1960’s? In other words, if general knowledge has increased to the degree that it has, such as the fact that homosexuality is known to be natural, as it is now. If that’s the case, and voters are so much more aware of what’s going on, how do we persuade them?
RJ: I don’t think the voters are aware of what’s going on. First of all, in the campaign, there were no stories told, there was never an image of a gay couple, or lesbian couple. There was no storytelling. If you’ve seen our "Fidelity" Video…
CJ: I have. It’s on our website. It’s very powerful.
RJ: And that’s all user generated content. People sent in their stories and we set it to music.
CJ: What I liked about the video is it shows relationships and families that are already formed, and therefore, Proposition 8 is going to take something away from them. I don’t think that’s what those who voted for Prop 8 were thinking. I think they were more on the line of they’re denying us something we don’t have, as opposed to stripping us of civil rights we already are enjoying.
RJ: I think that’s exactly right. So our work now, with Courage Campaign, again we’re not just about marriage equality, we’re about progress in general, but you can’t have a progressive state if the majority can use the constitution to take rights away from a minority. Camp Courage is online work, offline work, but it’s really about empowerment. I really believe in people. Over the course of time, and I don’t think it’s going to be very long, we’re going to win. And why are we going to win? If you look at the voting patterns of the last election, overwhelmingly young people, black, Latino, white, you pick the group, voted for us. And the right wing knows that. They understand that they’re kind of running out of time.
CJ: So what do you think is the motivation of these people on the right who keep working against us?
RJ: I think that for groups like Focus On The Family, for campaign consultants like Frank Schubert, who ran the Yes On 8 Campaign, this is money. This is for them to get richer and richer. The more he can stir up social divisions, the more he can get paid.
CJ: And religion, we know what it’s about for them, but I often look at what the Republican party says and does and I’m continually astonished. They work harder and harder to restrict Americans and they don’t seem to care that they’re creating this backlash and destroying themselves in the process.
RJ: They do, and that’s why I’m pretty optimistic. You know, you learn a lot when you go home. I’m not from Fresno, but it’s a lot like where I’m from in Tennessee. Even when I go home now, I’m a little more careful. I don’t like that about myself, but I’m more careful. But I also know that my parent’s generation, 70’s and 80’s, they get it more and more, they’re more and more comfortable because one of their own is out.
CJ: The Central Valley. Do you believe this is one of the more critical make or break areas of the state?
CJ: So what do you say to some of the people who aren’t that comfortable, here in Fresno, which is very conservative, about going out door to door and talking about this issue to people?
RJ: Well, I think first we have to listen. We don’t want anyone, anywhere, especially in the Central Valley, to do anything that they feel is unsafe. We do want to help them find that power, that personal power, to move a little bit out of their comfort zone. Part of that is we want to get them into a program. We say, here is how we’re organizing, by county, by neighborhood, that you’ll be working with people you know, that we’re providing resources. You can’t have people go out by themselves. But some people won’t want to do it. So they can make phone calls, or do other things. We want to provide a range of things, just as the Obama campaign did, that anybody can do. You can plug in here or there, so everybody can find something they can do.
CJ: What happens if the court rules against us?
RJ: There will be protests. I think that’s great. We now have the opportunity though, if the court rules against us, to show who we really are. And if we really want to win, I’m hoping people can maybe volunteer to give three hours a month and maybe do a buddy system where you and I agree that we’re accountable to each other. Imagine if all the energy that goes into the marches, if when people went home after that, they did more.
CJ: Since it can be a headache creating initial form or structure, people can go to your website and get the tools they need?
RJ: Exactly. We’re doing our first organizing meetings next weekend. I think we have 30 or 35 scheduled all over the state. We’re not asking for money, we’re asking people how can we give you the tools and the training you need to use them. You, in Fresno, are going to know better than we are what the best approach is. We’ll give you tools, we’ll give you a sample script, but maybe you’ll say, you know, this script doesn’t really work in Fresno and I’d like to suggest this or that.
CJ: And I think people are exhausted by the constant approaches by a lot of organizations for money, without seeing a lot of accomplishment.
RJ: Well, I’ll be honest, we need money. This weekend cost us about $40,000. So we need money, but I think we’re much more transparent about how it’s spent. Since November 5th, we’ve hired 5 full time organizers just for this issue. This is our second Camp Courage, and we’re going to do at least two more.
CJ: Let me go back to what we talked about before, about the protests. How do you feel about those? Do you feel they go too far, not far enough?
RJ: I think people are going to do what they’re going to do. I hope that collectively we can help everybody come up with some good messages. Fresno and the Central Valley, in a way, are ground zero. People can take to the streets of West Hollywood, but it doesn’t really mean anything. What we need to do is figure out how to export resources to you, because over time this is not just where we win on this issue, it’s where we win on a lot of issues.
CJ: I think there’s a thought that runs around the Central Valley that, you know, we did a lot of work before the election, and then we see the vote against us is around 70% and we feel like we’re not even making a dent.
RJ: Yes, you are making a dent, because the flip side is that 30% voted for us. So what if we connect a bunch of those 30% people, and what if each of them can get one more person?
CJ: That was something else I wanted to talk about. I know when I’m at events and I’m talking to our straight allies, I feel they may have more power than we do in certain ways. They’re not seen as outsiders when they’re talking to people.
RJ: Absolutely. Again, there’s not a clear analogy of the civil rights movement. What African Americans went through in this country is a unique experience, uniquely horrible. And now, happily, I think, pretty wonderful. I mean five years ago, even two years ago, a lot of people said a black man could never be President. They’ll never be able to see that again.
CJ: But although the struggles are different, the reasoning used against restricted groups is very similar.
RJ: That’s right. So your idea that our straight allies have more influence in certain courts of opinion is exactly right, because they’re part of the fabric. So if we can help them to be better advocates for us, not that they aren’t already, but we can provide more tools, then we can win. Again, Lyndon Johnson was not a black man, and the Senators and the members of the House who voted were not black, and a lot of the freedom riders who went south were white, so the changes didn’t happen because only black people thought a certain way. That’s what’s going to happen here.
CJ: Well, you know, it’s fairly easy for us in the Central Valley to feel some sense of disconnect from the big cities, and we’re very happy you’ve come to help us.
RJ: We’re so excited to be here and have the opportunity to be here. And one of the commitments we’ve made to ourselves, and that we’ll make to the people here, is that we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to figure out every way possible to provide resources here and to build you up and help you use the strength you already have to help you do more. That’s our job.