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interviews

Where Will We Go From Here?

by Lauren Schandevel
April 6, 2020

This interview with Lauren Schandevel, the Macomb County Organizer for We the People - Michigan, a non- profit started in 2017 with the mission to build multiracial working class alliances across the state through community organizing, was conducted and condensed by frank news. 

Lauren | I came on last year in June. [Organizing] is an interesting thing to try to grapple with and understand and explain to people. So I think it's taken me some time to figure out what exactly my role is in my community. It is also due to the fact that I went back to the community, I grew up in. 

frank | What does your community look like?

Macomb County is an area just North of Detroit. 

It's pretty blue collar. It's sort of famous for being an Obama to Trump district. It is where the term Reagan Democrats was coined. It’s very reliant on the auto industry. 

I grew up in Warren, which is the biggest city in Macomb county. Warren is in the Southern part of Macomb County, it tends to be a little poorer and a little more diverse than the rest of the County. I try to focus most of my work on that part of the County, because that is where the most people are and also where people are poorer and it's easier to organize people with their material interests in mind.

How would you explain the work of an organizer, and the outcomes you’re after?

The goals vary by region [for We The People - Michigan]. We have organizers in different parts of the state. Our West Michigan organizer is focused on a campaign to allow undocumented immigrants to have driver's licenses. While our Northern Michigan organizers are working on a lot of energy, environmental, and indigenous rights work up there. 

The direction I'm moving in is to build a more cohesive sense of community here in Macomb County. It's a suburb, and it has all of the trappings of a suburb, which includes isolation – people are not trusting or talking to their neighbors. But there's that added layer of people also being poor and needing help. 

I am focused on community building and political education to create a stronger sense of community and belonging. From there people can advocate for their own needs. 

Mechanically that looks like having one on one meetings, determining what people are working on, connecting them to people who are doing similar work, and supporting community groups as they arise. [Also] looking for opportunities to work around issues in the community. 

For example, there was a spill a few months back that was like a cocktail of hexavalent chromium, cyanide, and PFAS, it spilled onto one of our nearby highways and ended up in some of the waterways. Identifying opportunities like that to pull people in to advocacy work or organizing. 

Right. It's one thing in normal circumstances, but what does it look like now? How do you organize in isolation?

Yeah, I mean that's the question.

Have you figured it out in the last 10 days or what?!

[Laughing] Yeah, I've been at it for a couple of weeks. We started working remotely a little over two weeks ago. 

In Macomb County specifically, I've been pulling together contacts that I already have here. We have a call every week with someone in our Congressman’s office, one person from the county health department, and a bunch of community members. People talk about projects they're thinking about launching. There are a couple of folks who want to do a seedlings project where they're planting seeds, growing them, and giving them out to people in the community when the supply chain is disrupted, if people don't have food or can’t afford food. People will talk about what they're thinking about, what they’re working on, and solicit advice. People who are interested in doing that work with them can be connected to them.

In addition to that, We The People - Michigan, is a part of a coalition of organizations called MI COVID Community. They are making policy demands to elected officials and thinking through what advocacy looks like during this. How do we get these demands met? Those are the big things for now. I like to think about the work as separate buckets: an advocacy bucket and a mutual aid bucket.

Can you talk about those two buckets? 

Mutual aid is a term that's been thrown around a lot the last couple of weeks, but I think it originated in anarchist circles. It basically is the idea of communities taking care of each other and leveraging resources within the community to help each other – but it started explicitly as an alternative to capitalism. The way that people are using it right now is neighbors helping each other, which is fine and also builds power and alternative structures. If it's something that becomes a little bit more mainstream, I think that's a good thing. But I'm not an anarchist so I wouldn't know. 

For me, doing mutual aid here has been figuring out what the needs are, identifying gaps in services, and then figuring out ways to meet those needs. It's really hard to develop a volunteer network where people are going out and doing things, when people can't go out and do things. 

For now, that has looked like emulating some of the things that are happening in other parts of the state. For example, people are putting out newsletters to community members, talking about what resources are available in the community, what volunteer opportunities exist, figuring out ways to build community through that first correspondence.

Other communities have set up Google Voice Numbers for people to call if they need help. And so I think more creative digital strategies will emerge and people will start really getting the hang of doing this work remotely. But it's very beginning stages.

I'm working right now to pull together a newsletter with a couple of County residents just to keep everyone informed and aware of what resources are available and volunteer opportunities. That's the mutual aid bucket, which is focused on meeting people's immediate needs. 

Then there's the advocacy bucket. Focusing on how this moment is, in a way, a window of opportunity to advocate for some of the things that we've wanted for a really long time, including paid sick leave and Medicare For All. Being strategic in how we do that advocacy and tie it to this current moment is really important.

I know there's a group in Michigan called Mothering Justice, which had paid sick leave on the ballot in the last election we had, it passed, and then it was repealed during our lame duck session in the legislature. They're looking to mount that campaign again and bring that back. 

Apart from the actual advocating for issues – it’s, what does this political moment mean? I think at any point in history where you have massive economic devastation, there's always a choice made between two visions of the future. Either you're going to choose potential fascism, or a more progressive left-wing vision for what our country could look like.

I think when America emerges from the pandemic, and people are in really dire economic conditions, there's going to be a lot of competing rhetoric. We are going to hear a lot of scapegoating of China and of immigrants and of Asian Americans and of whoever else. People are going to be susceptible to that. Which is why it's so important on the left, to build a proactive counter argument to that, and make the case for inclusive economic justice that points the finger at the real enemies, which are corporations and rich people and shitty politicians. 

There will be a rhetorical battle when this is over, which will really determine what direction the nation swings.

It's important to be proactive about what narratives we're putting out. Because if we don't put anything out, people are going to subscribe to the thing that they hear repeatedly, which is this right wing narrative, present before COVID, that says your economic conditions are so dire because of the immigrants taking your job and the people of color who are on welfare and the countries like China who are like stealing our jobs. That sort of stuff. We are going to see a lot more scapegoating, and we have to be really mindful of that and be really aggressive and combative.

Have your goals as an organizer shifted in terms of national electoral politics?

My job has never been organizing around electoral campaigns, so my work really hasn't changed in that way. The approach I like is thinking globally and acting locally.

I do organizing here and try to build community here and build trust and build power for people to fight for the things that they need and want with the knowledge that this strategy can be applied more broadly.

It's really a case study in human behavior doing this sort of work. As I learn more and more about how, particularly working class people, who I grew up with and consider myself a part of, how we think and how we respond to certain strategies organizers use, how we respond to political education and community building activities, is important and applicable for building a larger working class movement that cuts across race and ethnicity and geographic location, and can actually build meaningful power in this country. 

How can people get involved?

There's that mutual aid route people have been taking. You're seeing networks arise all over the place. Even in places where mutual aid networks didn't exist before. A lot of these groups are pretty public on social media. There have been Facebook groups that have emerged in Michigan that are specific to a region. And a lot of it is just like resource exchange. If people are thinking through more robust volunteer opportunities, like delivering food and supplies to people and figuring out how to grow food for folks you could also probably find those people through those social media platforms. 

Then there's the advocacy side of things. There are a lot of campaigns mounting from this, including campaigns for rent strike, and campaigns that have doubled down on the need for universal healthcare. Because we're all working remotely, those have been pretty accessible. And a lot of folks have switched over to virtual meetings. 

I know groups like Sunrise have had a series of webinars that folks can sign up for.  Every night they have training online you can attend to get a better sense of how climate activism and COVID fit into each other. I know there are lots of national and local groups that have done similar things where they've been hosting public meetings and webinars and trainings for people virtually. 

What is the most urgent advocacy work? Specifically in an area like yours.

The rent strike, in the way that I've heard it used, is basically advocating for a rent freeze. A lot of folks can't afford their rent anymore. I think that's probably necessary work that needs to happen here. In Macomb County, especially because the Southern part has a lot of rental properties, and a lot of evictions, and a lot of foreclosures. A lot of that could be mitigated, hopefully through a rent strike if we're very thoughtful about it, although that's not something that I'm really planning for right now. 

In Macomb County in particular, we have an older population. A lot of them live alone. A lot of them aren't on social media. One thing we've been thinking through that's pretty specific to this community is how we get the word out to those people and disseminate information to them, if we can't do it virtually, and we also can’t interact with them in person. Thinking through what flyering could look like, or what safe door to door delivery could look like, and it’s something we're still grappling with. Some of the most vulnerable folks are people who aren't very well connected as it is to their neighbors.

Have any of the tactics you've been deploying right now worked better than others?

I put together a Facebook page called Metro Detroit COVID 19 Support which has probably been the most useful and popular tactic I've tried. It’s basically a place for people in Metro Detroit to offer and ask for resources. Leveraging existing relationships, and pulling people into virtual meetings together so they can cross pollinate ideas has also been really useful. The last couple of weeks have been the strategizing phase of things. And I've just now started to try things with people in my community who are also starting to try things. I don't think we'll know what is really effective for a few more weeks, until after we actually try it and evaluate it.

What’s underreported right now?

It's really important, if we're talking about what work looks like in Michigan, to also connect with some of the organizers in Detroit, which was hit really, really hard by Coronavirus, because of all of the health issues and environmental issues that existed before the virus. There are a lot of people who have been doing work around those issues for a really long time who can speak to that. Particularly folks who are doing advocacy around the water shutoffs.

In 2014, 2015 Detroit started shutting off the water of people who couldn't pay their water bills.

That was also happening in Macomb County, but nationally it was talked about in terms of it happening in Detroit because that was where it was most prevalent. At the beginning of the crisis, in early March, our governor announced a moratorium on water shutoff which was great, but it also meant that people who had had their water turned off already still needed to get it back on.

There was quite a backlog because the city had three plumbers on staff who were turning people's water back on and they just weren't moving fast enough. So folks in Detroit, like Monica Lewis Patrick from We The People of Detroit (which is different from my organization and I know it’s confusing), folks from The People's Water Board, Nayyirah Shariff from Flint Rising were basically tirelessly both pestering the governor to mandate that water be turned back on and do a statewide moratorium, and also delivering water to residents who didn't have water through their taps. That is one snapshot of myriad issues that Detroit has faced and has contributed to the influx of COVID cases there. A lot of those are environmental and public health related.  I think if I were to point you in a direction of where to get a better sense of what's going on, it would be with some of those organizers and activists.

Have you found yourself asking any new questions – questions you weren’t asking 6 weeks ago?

I also have all of the very nit-pinky questions about the virus itself and how scared I should be of it and how I protect myself. I totally get that. 

From the standpoint of an organizer, a couple of questions I've had and haven't really had answered because there is no answer right now is, what does this mean for my community and the nation and the world? How do we use this moment to turn things around and fight for more equitable and just policies and to fight for a better world, a world that's more prepared to deal with something like this, but also can deal with it more equitably? How do we develop a robust social safety net for our most vulnerable? How do we see the humanity in people who are poor or incarcerated or undocumented and instill that in people so that this doesn't happen? Those are all questions that are emerging for me.

Where are we going and how do we ensure it’s better than this?

It's a huge moment for compassion and empathy. But it’s also a blatant example of systemic and institutional failures. Will those two overlap politically? 

Oh my God, that's a great and important question. And I hope I can do it justice in my answer. I think that people are starting to make the connection in more subtle ways, right? I am also checking Twitter and seeing people say, “we are housing folks who are homeless now, we could have done that this entire time.” Or you know, “we're providing free public transportation. We could have done that this whole time.” Realizing that a lot of these problems existed because people didn't have the political will to make solutions happen. I do think, though, that we need to be really adamant and proactive and strategic about how we're making those connections for people. 

That's why I say that this is an opportunity to really start fighting for the things that we've always wanted and needed because there's clearly a story here about how our institutions failed everyone because they're stacked against poor folks and in favor of wealthy folks. But if we're not telling that story, someone else will tell a different story. Being really intentional about crafting a narrative about what went wrong during this crisis, why it went wrong, who is responsible and then applying it to some of our other fights like universal healthcare and paid sick leave. But I think especially this ties in well to something like climate change where it does impact everyone, but it impacts them unequally. Because people have access to resources that mitigate some of the effects of it.

I read something the other day saying this will be the death of celebrities. Detachment from the real world has never been so apparent. 

Yes – most obvious to people is the testing disparities. People are seeing celebrities with no symptoms getting tested and then they're seeing their loved ones dying and not being able to get tests or treatments. That is a very staunch example of what that inequality looks like. And it's really affirming for me, because I was already railing against these things before this happened. And now it feels like more people are sort of flocking to my corner and I welcome it.

That's nice. It's nice to feel welcome. There is sometimes a fear of when something clicks and you're like, shit, somebody has been telling me about this for 10 years and I haven't really realized until now. 

It feels less good to be right than you would think, doesn’t it?

It reminds me a lot of the 2016 election when folks were like, Oh my God, this is so fucked up. We need to do something. I think a lot of people think that Trump is like the worst thing to ever happen to America, when there were all of these issues that existed before, and precipitated the rise of Trump – he wasn't just an anomaly. I think about this moment like that. Like there are things that people have been talking about for a really long time, like the importance of a universal healthcare system, and how unequally resources are allocated in this country. And this is a very stark example of that. And it's a very dramatic, awful thing that had to happen for people to see that. It's very similar to how I think a lot of people thought about Trump's election.