Netroots Nation 13 stresses building lasting leadership

SAN JOSE, Calif. – The importance of helping people find their way to help themselves and create organizations in their own communities was the theme woven throughout Netroots Nation NN13.

Netroots, which took place this year here June 20-23, has grown from its early years as “YearlyKos,” a blogger event put on by the popular progressive blog DailyKos, to a four-day festival of panels, trainings, press events, and a large-scale fair representing over 100 organizations on the progressive spectrum.

This year’s event centered on the concept that leadership is created in the course of struggles along with building on small victories to reach larger gains.

In addition, the usefulness of the internet as a springboard toward face-to-face organizing, with media and petition tools was another topic highlighted throughout.

“Innovative Corporate Campaigns”, which could have been more accurately titled Innovative “Anti-Corporate” Campaigns as it featured the strong voices of people who have taken on many large targets and won gains for workers and homeowners who have been the most squeezed by large companies and banks for the last few years, was a particularly engaging panel.

The panelists energetically crunched out a labor 101 primer that will serve everyone who attended for years to come. Cathy Youngblood, the woman who crafted the “Someone Like Me” campaign to put a Hyatt hotel housekeeper on the Hyatt Board of Directors, helped invigorate the panel, while Maurice Weeks, an organizer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) in California, drove home the sentiment saying, “Folks are sick of playing defense.” Weeks also added that the job of an professional organizer is to organize themselves out of a job and allow the people most affected by the problem to be the ones to take leadership in the struggle.

One of the most interesting aspects of Netroots were the plenary sessions, the first of which was  a star-studded cavalcade that even featured President Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren giving introductions and comments via video feed.

Friday morning’s session, meanwhile, opened with a passionate line up in response to the devastating Newton, Conn., school shooting featuring Randi Weingarten, president of American Federation of Teachers, Darrell Steinberg speaker pro-tem of the California Senate, Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, vice-president of National Education Association, Mark Glaze of Mayors Against Illegal Guns – all moderated by progressive Fox News contributor Jehmu Greene.

To curb illegal gun ownership, “We have to change the debate!” Weingarten exclaimed.

Rep. Kelly related the devastating social and emotional costs that gun violence levies on children in at-risk communities. Over 40,000 guns are in the hands of people who are not legally entitled to own firearms, and the right wing has stymied even the smallest reforms.

Glaze made the pointed observation that what organizations like the NRA are really selling to their membership is not a message that it is your right to own guns, but that you should distrust the government.

All the panelists called for bold new measures to take advantage of public opinion, which is on the side of gun control reform, and work in the grassroots to overcome Washington’s timidity on the issue.

Weingarten recommended taking a page from successful social justice movements like the fight for LGBT rights and DREAM Act reforms, moving beyond the abstract facts and figures of gun violence and connecting the issue to the personal stories of gun violence’s impact.

The issue of connecting the personal stories to the need for political reforms was touched on several more times in events over the course of the remaining days.

The overriding tone of the entire conference mirrored recent comments of Libero Della Piana, communications director of CPUSA, on left-wing unity. Speaking on a panel sponsored by the Labor Left Forum, Della Piana said, “When we work together in the movements we come together based on common work and what we agree on, not what divides us. Left unity is the result, not the goal.”

All of the panelists affectionately related how they had found alliances with partners with whom they had not been accustomed to working before, and how the unique strengths of each allowed them to open up the throttle on new strategic methods.

The overall political orientation of the conference was weighted towards the left-wing of the Democratic Party, with representatives of the Congressional Progressive and Populist Caucus making appearances in keynotes and panels. Labor leaders were also on hand, making good use of their time to ensure there was a union voice in several events.

The conference generally served to help focus on connecting these elements, labor and the left-wing of the Democratic Party, with the grassroots – with an emphasis on how new media, especially social media, can be used to further activism and winning political goals. The presence of political leading lights, however, was outweighed by the extraordinary presence of several of the remarkable labor heroes and leaders that have been active and emerging in struggles throughout the year.

Netroots Nation official photo stream

Photo: Walmart strikers at Netroots Nation. See link to photo stream above.



Michelle Kern
Michelle Kern

Michelle Kern is Adjunct Professor, Creative Arts and Social Science Department at College of San Mateo, California. She is Chapter Chair at AFT local 1493, Organizer at AFT local 1493 and contributing writer to