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These Activists Are Training Every Movement That Matters

What does it take to make progressive change in 2019? A nonprofit with no office and only seven employees knows.

by Tyler Kingkade; photos by Sara J. Winston
Nov 18 2019, 3:11pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's 2019 Profiles Issue. This edition looks to the future by zeroing in on the underrecognized writers, scientists, musicians, critics, and more that will shape our world next year. They are "the Other 2020" to watch. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

On Wednesday, August 14, dozens of young activists blocked the entrance to a Rhode Island detention facility holding immigrant detainees, before a correctional officer tried to drive a truck through them. The next night, in New Hampshire, four demonstrators interrupted a rally of President Trump’s (this was the one where Trump responded by insulting the weight of one of his supporters, mistaking him for a protester) by holding up banners objecting to Israel’s presence in the West Bank. A few days prior to these two incidents, 100 people were arrested for blocking the West Side Highway in Manhattan during a protest calling for Democrats to vote against funding Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Different groups claimed credit for organizing the headline-grabbing demonstrations: respectively, an anti-deportation group called Never Again Action; the progressive Jewish activist group IfNotNow; and an immigrants’ rights organization called Movimiento Cosecha. But they all had ties to one entity, unknown to the public at large though increasingly influencing the national political discourse since Trump’s election—a group known as Momentum.

Momentum is a nonprofit for nonprofits. The group calls itself a community, an incubator of movements, a Hogwarts for organizers. It was founded by alumni of protest movements like United We Dream, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the fossil fuel divestment campaigns—young people who’ve come of age in a time of political crisis. Momentum has rarely been mentioned in the press; some of its leaders were surprised I even wanted to do an article about them. Yet, in just five years, Momentum has trained more than 1,500 young activists in at least 30 states who’ve gone on to be at the center of protests that have ricocheted throughout the nation. Most notably, its training was pivotal in the rapid rise of the Sunrise Movement, the environmental activists who deployed Momentum’s methods to put the Green New Deal on the map after organizing demonstrations at Dianne Feinstein’s and Nancy Pelosi’s offices in 2018 and 2019. Those two incidents were criticized by people who suggested the young activists were foolish to agitate Democrats to support liberal causes, but they exhibited Momentum’s approach: embrace polarization with events that force people to decide which side they’re on, and shift the ground underneath politicians.

“We’re polarizing people on what they already believe in—we’re just making it impossible for people to stay in that neutral space,” said Alyssa Rubin, one of the activists who interrupted Trump’s New Hampshire rally.

Their approach can have a quick impact. In July, during the Democratic debates in Detroit, Cosecha activists interrupted Joe Biden, chanting, “Three million deportations!” Within moments, New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, pressed Biden on the record number of immigrants deported during the Obama administration. “Did you say those deportations were a good idea? Or did you go to the president and say, ‘This is a mistake, we shouldn’t do it’—which one?” Julián Castro, who was housing secretary during the Obama administration, picked up on the message as well: “It looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t.”

Momentum is a nonprofit for nonprofits. The group calls itself a community, an incubator of movements, a Hogwarts for organizers. It was founded by alumni of protest movements like United We Dream, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the fossil fuel divestment campaigns—young people who’ve come of age in a time of political crisis.

“The reality is these protests are becoming very mainstream; these are not fringe events,” said Daniel Gillion, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies how activism shifts public policy.

Momentum teaches activists how to fuse huge, seemingly spontaneous uprisings like Occupy with traditional structures of labor unions and community organizing. That means deploying dramatic demonstrations, since a simple march or rally isn’t always enough for people to pay attention, and to claim victory so the opposition can’t downplay their effectiveness. To hear Momentum’s leadership tell it, activists emerging from their training could significantly reshape politics through disruptive nonviolent protests that will chase people out of a passive middle ground, and ramp up pressure to break stalemates on issues like immigration and global warming. They disregard what is considered politically possible in favor of what would be ideal. The approach in many ways takes its ethos from what Franklin Delano Roosevelt supposedly said when the labor leader A. Philip Randolph asked him to act on civil rights: “Go out and make me do it.”

“We’ve always been told if you play nice, you play by the rules, you have a good report with some data that backs up your claims, maybe you can move some policy, and the thing is: It doesn’t work for our community,” explained James Hayes, a Momentum trainer from Columbus, Ohio. “We don’t have the amount of money to play ball in the current system.”

These progressives also realize their opposition is entrenched, however, with well-funded lobbyists and corporate interests, and a conservative Senate buoyed by the power of the filibuster.

“The problem they run up against is that at some deep level we may just be structurally fucked,” said Dave Karpf, a George Washington University professor who studies activism and who spent years as an organizer for the Sierra Club. “If the world’s going to get saved, it’s going to be saved by them. But also it might just not get saved—it’s also entirely possible that politics just won’t shift and nothing will get done.”

Yet until now, Momentum’s activists say, there hasn’t been a place where people could go to learn how to create a movement, nor has there been so much collaboration among young progressive activists constantly teaching each other what works and what doesn’t. The spry group realizes people might call their goals crazy, but Momentum’s leaders note the same things were said in 1960 about the push for civil rights legislation, when protesters staged sit-ins at lunch counters, and in 2004, regarding the same attempts to legalize same-sex marriage. Sunrise’s ability to catapult the Green New Deal is proof positive of the efficiency of their tactics, becoming the new strategy on the left for tackling global warming. And admitting that means admitting that Momentum, which is training several new groups set to launch over the next year, could become the new standard-bearer for progressive action in America.

The seed for Momentum was planted in 2013 at the James Lawson Institute, a symposium on organizing strategies named for and partially taught by James Lawson Jr., one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s, disciples. There, Carlos Saavedra got to know Paul Engler.

Saavedra, now 33, described himself as a “movement nerd,” constantly reading books about protest theories by academics like Erica Chenoweth, Gene Sharp, and Rick Falkvinge. “I mean, you have to understand, I eat them for breakfast,” he continued. “But when I met Paul I was like, OK, you’re the nerd. You’re way more obsessed.”

Saavedra, an undocumented immigrant from Lima, Peru, lobbied the Massachusetts legislature to give in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants, only to have it vetoed by Mitt Romney in 2004. He later became a national leader with United We Dream, pushing Barack Obama to implement a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, through an executive memorandum. Following this success, Saavedra wanted to deconstruct it and share the strategies with other activists, but found that there weren’t many places to do that. The trainings that did exist were typically closed off to people who weren’t already looped into an activist network.

Engler had been an activist for his entire adult life, too. At 18, as a student at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, he and his classmates successfully pushed for comprehensive sex education and rape counseling services. “We’re not asking here to have a revolution at school—although I think it might be kind of nice,” a teenage Engler remarked in a 1996 MTV News segment about his mission. Engler later got involved in anti-sweatshop protests and union organizing, and created the Center for the Working Poor, a progressive, interfaith organization in Los Angeles that helps low-wage workers. He also wrote frequently about the history of nonviolent protest.

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By Obama’s second term, Engler had started thinking about how organizers are “fish in water”—they only know their own strategy, and don’t spend a lot of time comparing themselves in a noncompetitive way with other activists. Engler and Saavedra clicked, and the two started talking to a team of other organizers about launching their own training program, which became Momentum. After coming up with a framework, they got the trainings off the ground in 2014. They invited people they knew from previous organizing ventures. One of them was Stephen Brackett, the lead singer of Flobots, the group best known for the 2008 hit “Handlebars.” Brackett had spent time with major figures of the civil rights movement growing up, and realized that few people understood how much fun those activists were having in the 1950s and 60s. “That stuff doesn’t make it into the Ken Burns documentary,” Brackett said.

Brackett wanted to “make actions suck less”; to get away from clichéd chants by teaching people how to come up with songs to use during protests, much in the same way that the civil rights movement did. The singing allowed them “to tap into a joy that something else was possible,” he explained. He created a module for Momentum trainings called “Why Did We Stop Singing?,” which teaches activists to take existing songs with familiar melodies, maybe even something from the Top 40, and alter the lyrics to fit the protest. In the years since, Sunrise has become well-known for this, while IfNotNow sings in ways steeped in Jewish tradition—even while riding in the backs of police vans.

These modules are taught during free-flowing but intensive three-day retreats. When I dropped in on one in mid-August, on a farm about 100 miles north of Manhattan, two dozen young activists were sharing cooking duties, arranging note cards for upcoming sessions, discussing organizing strategies in small groups, and playing table tennis outside a house after a day of sessions. People from MoveOn, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Georgia Workers Guild, and the Florida Student Power Network were among those in attendance. They considered the upcoming political year: It’s not a battle between Republicans and Democrats, it’s the populace and the elite, which have set up the political system to obscure grievances from the less privileged. “We’re all very clear that the stakes of this moment are higher than ever before,” Emily Mayer, a co-founder of IfNotNow and a Momentum trainer, proclaimed over the dull roar of crickets outside.

In just five years, momentum has trained more than 1,500 young activists in at least 30 states who’ve gone on to be at the center of protests that have ricocheted throughout the nation.

The group avoids saying any of the other strategies are wrong, just that they are different theories. “We’re a community of practice, not a church,” noted Seth Woody, Sunrise’s Iowa director and a former member of the Momentum core team, which is sort of like the group’s board of directors. The harshest critique of alternative tactics I heard was that they want to go beyond growing their email lists, and instead create the triggering events that cause the public to come to them, and the politicians to react. In other words, rather than exclusively doing things in reaction to the news, the groups involved with Momentum want to make news.

Change happens when it’s “costlier for politicians to support the status quo than to oppose it,” the group’s co-founders wrote in a Resistance Guide in 2017, which distills what they think makes social movements successful. Movements can continue only if they have broad appeal, and can self-replicate by adding more activists and trainers to combat burnout and continue growth. “I learned that in the DREAM movement,” Saavedra said. “You have to multiply yourself by 100. So IfNotNow learns from Cosecha, Sunrise learns from IfNotNow, and so on.”

Lissy Romanow was hired as Momentum’s first executive director in January 2017, and today leads a team of seven from her home in New Haven, Connecticut. There’s no Momentum office; its staff are spread around the country, and so are the group’s advisers and trainers, many of whom are involved in an assortment of offensives, including Sunrise, IfNotNow, Cosecha, a campaign for impeaching Trump, and Black Visions Collective, which grew out of the Minneapolis chapter of Black Lives Matter. Some of these groups are also holding their own trainings, which further distribute Momentum’s theories and strategies. Everyone in this orbit is juggling multiple projects; arranging interviews for this story in some cases required scheduling two weeks in advance, and if a phone conversation ran long, I could usually detect the person was receiving a call on another line.

Romanow was drawn to her particular role because she prefers coaching activists behind the scenes rather than being the one with a bullhorn at a protest; though the 35-year-old Massachusetts native has a background of community organizing around economic justice. She spends most of her day on video calls over Zoom, chatting on Slack, trying to keep up with planned trainings and the activists who are setting up a constellation of organizations that’ll go public over the next year. Momentum wants to “launch a wave of movements that will wake millions of people up to our power,” Romanow declared. “This is a much larger project than simply moving a political party to the left,” she added boldly. “It’s a matter of transforming our entire government to reflect the will of the people for the first time in U.S. history.”

Funding is a challenge for Momentum. Donors haven’t yet been convinced that training organizers is just as important as funding the organizations they belong to, Saavedra and Engler both said. (Momentum just received its federal nonprofit status last year, so public versions of its tax filings aren’t yet available.) Romanow travels one to two weeks out of the month, typically crashing on people’s couches to keep costs down so the group can spend more on trainings, she said. They charge a tuition to attend them, but also don’t want to deny anyone who can’t afford it, so attendees get financial help if they need it.

Now that Momentum-affiliated groups are gaining steam, they’re facing the question of how to approach the presidential election. Momentum’s founders have nearly written off the GOP because of the party’s focus on white Christian men, so Democrats appear to be the only vehicle for many of their goals. But Momentum’s activists emphasize that this means keeping the heat on Democrats, not becoming cheerleaders or partisans.

“It’s also true if we want a president in this political moment—or any candidate—to actually have the power or the sort of push or permission to do the work they need to do to transform the country, they need a movement behind them,” said Dani Moscovitch, a Momentum trainer and IfNotNow co-founder.

Momentum could be right. Or the results of Sunrise may have been the peak of influence for Momentum. Gillion, of the University of Pennsylvania, worries that if there are too many protests, people may begin to tune out.

It’s increasingly hard, however, to dismiss Momentum as a fringe group with no sway. Already, several of Momentum’s co-founders and trainers have become high-ranking staff at the Justice Democrats, and on Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaigns. And Democratic presidential candidates are mimicking (whether consciously or subconsciously) language used by Momentum, with several—including Sanders, Warren, Julián Castro, and Cory Booker—saying that they’re trying to build “movements” to win.

“This is actually how we have won anything in our history; making these things visible doing boycotts, doing marches—this is a revival more than anything else,” said Nicole Carty, a Momentum core team member. “When times were hard, when things were tough, when things were in crisis, this is what has worked to get us out of crisis.”

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