October 26 2015

In 2006, Jerry Brown was Mayor of Oakland, Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governor of California, and grassroots politics in Oakland was losing its voice. Local communities felt locked out of City Hall, their voices not being heard. From this landscape came Oakland Rising (OR).

Leadership from four local organizations; Causa Justa/ Just Cause (CJJC), Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), and East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), came together to answer the question, “How can local voters influence the decision makers to move policies that improve the lives of Oaklanders?” Oakland Rising set out to provide the political strategy and organizing expertise to support other organizing efforts and galvanize the voting base.

Oakland Rising’s mission is to educate and mobilize voters in the flatlands to speak up for and take charge of the issues impacting our lives. The organization’s work is focused on aligning organizations, building a permanent political infrastructure, and exercising political influence.

The organizing model relies on relationship building, trust, and care for each other as organizations. In this model, organizations “…have a growing curve,” said  Interim Executive Director Jessamyn Sabbag.

Oakland Rising staff and volunteers
Oakland Rising staff and volunteers

Oakland Rising launched its first campaign in 2009. Using phone banking and door-to- door canvassing,  its outreach workers conducted surveys and provided information to residents about upcoming ballot measures. They connected with over 1,300 Oakland residents and organized dozens of volunteers to join the work.

By 2010, Oakland Rising had reached 18,000 Oaklanders. Sabbag, then field director, led this exponential growth. She said  an increase in staff (paid and volunteer) and an infusion of technology to streamline phone banking were behind the success of 2010. Oakland Rising hires Oakland residents from the areas that they serve so the outreach work looks more like neighbors talking to neighbors. It prioritizes hiring multigenerational and formerly- incarcerated outreach workers.

In 2014, the organization set its sights on two local Measures: DD and FF. Measure DD established an independent redistricting commission that would be made up of Oakland residents who would draw the city voting district lines, instead of politicians drawing the lines.  Measure FF increased the minimum wage to $12.25 per hour.

With a strong campaign and diverse coalition, Oakland Rising played a major part in the passage of both measures. It reached over 24,000 residents and has over 20 percent of Oakland voters in its database.

Today, the organization  is helping non-violent felons take advantage of Proposition 47 which can reclassify felonies as misdemeanors.  They have two years for the process; Oakland Rising is getting this information out to the community.

Proposition 30, passed in 2012,  initiated a sales and income tax increase that included a 1 percent tax increase on all incomes over $250,000. These tax dollars funded schools across the state. The tax sunsets in 2016; Oakland Rising  is working to get it renewed.

Oakland Rising’s model of place- based, local organizing is getting attention. Sabbag said that plans are in the works for a regional, Bay Area Rising organization.

Thinking about the recent organizing by Black Lives Matter, I asked Sabbag how the BLM movement has impacted Oakland Rising’s work.

“A political interruption by BLM has been able to shift the conversation to the left and acknowledge BLM,” she said. “We are looking to partner with BLM to increase the pressure on policy makers to address the issues of police brutality and racism. Forty-six percent of Oakland Rising’s voter base is Black. BLM on the ground has awakened voters, allowing us to be more bold. Voting and electoral organizing is one way to stand up for our rights.”

For more information about Oakland Rising, visit the website (link: www.oaklandrising.org) or email the organization at info@ oaklandrising.org.

This originally appeared in Oakland Voices, a citizen journalist project funded by The California Endowment.