Chang W. Lee / The New York Times

As states continued to be called for days after Nov. 3, the 2020 election hinged on key states like Pennsylvania, where Joe Biden and Donald Trump held several rallies.

November 11, 2020

‘We Cannot Vote Our Way to Liberation’: Tracing a Student’s Grassroots Organizing Journey in a Swing State

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In the lead up to the election, Amisha Chowdhury ’23 worked with grassroots organizations, supervising 7,000 volunteers to make phone calls in Pennsylvania. 

The goal? “Defeat Trump,” she said. 

Through her grassroots efforts, she embarked on a mission to mobilize working class people and BIPOC communities to vote through the labor, commitment and care of the volunteers she supervised.

Working with Generation Rising, a national organization that partners with social justice movements, particularly in swing states, to mobilize young voters to fight for immigration rights, racial justice, LGBTQ+ issues and more, as well as Pennsylvania Stands Up.

Pennsylvania, which teetered along red and blue lines last week, ended in Biden’s win with a lead of 34,000 votes, which Chowdhury described as a “big win.” 

After much of the media credited President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign with winning back “blue” states, Chowdhury stressed the importance of crediting grassroots efforts as well.

“Biden did not make this happen, nor did his campaign,” she said. “It was all made possible by progressive grassroots organizations in the working class community, especially BIPOC both in cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta and Phoenix.”

Chowdhury started organizing in high school when she worked with immigrant communities in Los Angeles and voter registration efforts with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign — her main focus was mobilizing BIPOC communities by increasing accessibility and awareness to voting.

Dedicating about 25 hours every week to these efforts, she saw firsthand the effects of grassroots organizing through translating and organizing phone scripts to different languages and reaching out to other coalitions.

Along the campaign trail this year, she found the most exciting aspect of organizing to be the community and the act of coming together. She said she was also impressed by the high voter turnout among younger voters. 

However, organizing proved to have its difficulties. 

“The challenging part was definitely talking to white voters in states like rural Pennsylvania, and engaging BIPOC youth to have those difficult conversations because we had a lot of instances where BIPOC would get on the phone and they would get abused through racial slurs and and faced a lot of hostility from white voters, especially in rural areas,” Chowdhury said. 

She said staying engaged was even more difficult when “politics is very much white suburban dominated,” adding that there were times when she found maintaining support from other partner organizations was another obstacle. 

“When we first encountered hostility, we didn’t get that much support from the partner orgs on the ground because it was white dominated, but we had to tweak our program … to build community,” she said.

Chowdhury further stressed the power of solidarity to affect change that does not only start at the federal level, but on a grassroots level — she believes that’s where the real change occurs.

“In order to overcome the hostility and keep going, we need to build community and build solidarity within BIPOC communities and working class communities and our own communities, because that’s the only way of winning,” Chowdhury said.

While Chowdhury said the celebrations for Biden’s victory were understandable, his victory is not the end. Instead, it is only the beginning — one where the new Biden-Harris administration will be held accountable, from the ground up. 

She added that she thought it was concerning that a high percentage of white people in the U.S. voted for President Donald Trump in this year’s election.

“I’m sure a lot of those peers of mine are on this campus right now,” Chowdhury said. “And I think that’s really concerning and that’s really scary for our future.”

Chowdhury said she wants difficult conversations between BIPOC and white communities to continue, and for white peers to engage in those conversations with their families and peers so the burden and emotional labor is not solely placed on BIPOC communities, a task she described as “tiring.”

She also hopes students recognize that white supremacy is not in the “deep pockets of America”, but that it’s local as well. 

“It’s in Ithaca,” Chowdhury said, echoing a sentiment that was felt at a Back the Blue Rally where a protester wore a bulletproof vest emblazoned with the far-right group Proud Boys’ logo patch.

Chowdhury emphasized the importance of continuing organizing efforts, not only as reactions to tragedy and disruptive moments, but also as an everyday practice.

“We cannot vote our way to liberation,” Chowdhury said, “but we can organize within our local community to elect representatives and put up propositions and issues on local agendas that directly affect us.”