We must help our neighbors today while also organizing for long-term change in the future.
I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone when I say that politics today makes people feel disconnected. We seem to be more divided than ever, and we’re left with a sense of dejection at how little we can control or change about the status quo. However, I can tell you from my own experience, community organizing and mutual aid are great ways to take a step toward your own agency and feel a direct connection to your community.
My life has always been about organizing and finding a way to make real change through action. That’s why I’m running a grassroots campaign to represent California’s new 23rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives, which includes the communities of Victorville, Hesperia, Big Bear, Joshua Tree, Twenty-Nine Palms, Yucca Valley, Barstow, Redlands, and Loma Linda.
I’ve been involved in community aid since I was a child. Growing up, my family ran a homeless outreach program every weekend called “Soup to Go.” It provided meals and supplies to those in need, and from an early age, I learned that extreme inequalities prevail in our society. But I wasn’t without hope. I formed relationships through the outreach program and saw how a meal could uplift the spirit of others. Those Saturdays were the catalyst in my lifelong commitment to bringing positive change — no matter how small.
I got my first taste of political organizing, as a lot of folks do, volunteering for big national or state races. I knocked on doors for Barack Obama in Virginia in 2008, Elizabeth Warren in 2012, and Bernie Sanders in 2016. While these experiences helped me cut my teeth in the electoral organizing arena — there was something missing. To be blunt, electoral organizing felt disconnected from real, tangible change that could help a friend or neighbor better their life. That’s a feeling I’m sure many have felt and continue to feel.
But electoral politics holds power. I felt as a budding organizer a deep desire to contest for that power on behalf of working people while continuing to provide direct aid to my community.
So, I went local. Enter the Jessica Salans Los Angeles City Council election — a scrappy, grassroots campaign where the only voter targeting we could afford was to circle the district and knock on every single door. By day I was the campaign’s organizing director, by night I drove Uber full-time to stay afloat — but that’s how much I believed in the power of local organizing. The calling was too strong for me to ignore.
And while the campaign came up short, the movement born from the campaign had created massive change for Los Angeles. The team of activists and volunteers who helped drive the Salans campaign eventually teamed up, and we helped lay the groundwork for the organization today known as Ground Game LA.
For many reading this, I don’t need to explain the importance of Ground Game (and if you’re not a member, you should be!). But Ground Game was influential in flipping a U.S. House seat from red to blue in 2018 for Katie Hill, the first openly bisexual member of Congress, and they continue to lead the charge in Southern California on issues like housing affordability and ending houselessness in Los Angeles.
For me, these experiences led to stints as a journeyman political organizer — doing groundwork for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New Georgia Project’s Ossoff/Warnock special elections, and Sen. Sanders’ historic Nevada Democratic Caucus victory. I learned pretty quickly that having structure and clear goals for a campaign is the key to success. One of the staffers who was in charge of organizing these goals was Cody Hoskins. He’s now my campaign manager. In fact, my entire congressional campaign team is made up of community organizers.
What my organizing experience taught me is that it’s always possible to make real change. Even when campaigns are deeply financially outmatched, or come up short on election day, it’s not a wasted effort if you keep the team and community active by working towards justice.
Is the system flawed? Yes. Does it have a long history of keeping working people from having a seat at the table? Also, yes. But that does not mean we, as organizers and activists, should completely ignore contesting for power. With the right strategies, I believe we can accomplish the mutual aid work that is so important to helping our neighbors today while also organizing for long-term change electorally for the future.
Although it may seem that we’re more divided than ever, I find myself feeling more connected through organizing — it brings people together, not just in politics, but in life. To me, where there’s organizing, there’s hope to create a better society for all. That’s exactly what I’m aiming to do with my campaign.
Derek Marshall is an openly gay progressive Democrat, community organizer, and longtime LGBTQ+ rights activist running for Congress in California’s newly drawn 23rd District. After studying politics and international relations, Derek moved to Germany to help found a global research initiative alongside the United Nations and later joined the online travel agency KAYAK as Director of Internationalization. He is endorsed by the California Democratic Party and is running on a progressive platform anchored by policies such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and a housing and local jobs guarantee. He currently resides in Victorville, CA, where his 2022 campaign is based.
Knock LA is a journalism project paid for by Ground Game LA, which has endorsed Derek Marshall for Congress. This article was not authorized or paid for by a candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate.