Person of the Week

Alison Dreith

Grass roots organizer

You can be a grass roots organizer.  Your voice starts in the community, then the state, then the country, and then the world.  Don’t give up hope because the process might seem slow.  You can make a difference.  What will make you happy is being comfortable being yourself.

 1.  What led you to the mission of being a grass roots organizer?

I really stumbled upon being a grass roots organizer. At a really young age, my parents told me I was an activist.  I wasn’t doing anything specific, but I was that person in class who could speak out for everyone else.  I think it was just born within me.  I remember as a little girl I was in the car with my dad and I heard the words on the radio, “We don’t need no education!”  I thought, “What is this?”  I asked my dad and he told me it was Pink Floyd.

I think being a grass roots organizer must have started there when I realized I was privileged.  My parents may not have had a lot of money, but I had three meals a day, a roof over my head, and parents who loved me, took me places, and did things with me.  I saw pictures of other places in the world where there were starving people.  My heart started to break.  I wondered what I could do to make their life better.  At that point I realized I could do something to help others. My dreams were coming true, so I wanted to make the world a better place and help people make their dreams come true.  Being a grass roots organizer helped me develop a whole life balancing act — learning to take care of myself so I could help take care of other people.

2.  What does this mission mean to you?

When I was in high school, President Clinton was signing into law, NAFTA – the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement.  NAFTA really hit me hard even though I was still so young.  I felt like Americans would lose jobs and they did.

Today, I see the political rhetoric of needing jobs and people saying, “We need jobs, we need jobs”, but for the past thirty years, jobs have been shipped away – outside of the United States.  Many of the jobs went to underdeveloped countries where people could be exploited.  If the jobs had stayed in the United States, people could have advocated for a better wage, forty-hour work weeks, benefits, or sick leave.  But what happened was the benefits were taken away, the jobs were shipped off, and companies made a better profit — but for what price?  Some people were calling this “free trade”.  You think “free” is going to be this awesome, open exchange, but in reality it really wasn’t.  Because of the changes, some people were being abused in other countries.

In addition to participating, organizers and activists work to move others to participate as well.  They help people take action and develop their own skills.  They work to develop confidence within the context of their own organizations.  I really started off as an activist.  There was a big protest in 1999 in Seattle, Washington and this was my first foot in the organizing activist door – besides just being a loud student in high school and sticking up for the “little” guy.

What I do now is find people in my own community and get them excited about volunteering and doing something that will make a change.  A lot of people are disgruntled with the system and they think one person can’t make a difference.  But I know that small groups are the ones that make all the difference.  People get disheartened because the process changes slow in America, but change does happen.  Look at the history of our country – the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement.  Changes have been made.

Today the issues are women’s health and education.  I’m now working at Planned Parenthood and hope to make a positive difference.  I tell my volunteers all the time that when issues are brought to the front of people’s minds, change can occur.  It can be slow, but if you are a part of the process, you’ll see change. I dream about issues and have nightmares about change because it is my job.  But issues may not be at the forefront of other people’s minds.  When we do make an effort to bring issues forward, change does happen such as candidates getting elected because people are thinking and talking about the real issues.  Our advocacy makes them realize they can participate and be a part of the change.

3.  What was your best day as a grass roots organizer?

At first I thought my best days were when I started off as an activist and became an organizer.  I volunteered with an organization called, “Foods Not Bombs”.  We would collect food and cook meals for homeless people.  We took our food on the road and would go to protests in the free trade movement and feed protesters.  This really impacted me.

However, in the past two weeks, I really had my best day.  I was at Planned Parenthood and working to build a “Women are Watching” action group to hold candidates accountable and responsible towards women’s issues.  We communicate with candidates we endorse and those candidates we don’t think are living up to the responsibility of women’s health.

I was putting together this action team.  I was getting ready for my recruiting day when all the volunteers were coming and preparing for my presentation.  I was looking forward to getting volunteers pumped up and excited.  A Missouri United States Senate candidate, Todd Akin, came out with his now infamous statement.   (When asked about abortion even in the case of rape, he replied, “From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare.  If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.  But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be of the rapist, and not attacking the child.”)

That night, my meeting participants were all up in arms and outraged.  I had never recruited so many volunteers.  Todd Akin caused this reaction by bringing the issues to the front of people’s minds.  People were more inclined to activate, volunteer, and to vote.  Even the media wouldn’t let us forget about Akin’s remarks and there is still reporting about them today.

That was my best day — when I put this action group together and everyone was so excited.  Since then I have had to put my action group together to protest a bus tour and take signatures to Akin’s office.  I had fifteen volunteers help.  This may not sound like very many people, but normally you get three or four.  What makes me happy is seeing all these women and men being so moved to doing something towards a positive change.

During one meeting I had thirty-five people and I was moved to tears hearing people’s stories about why they were coming to help.  Their stories were rewarding, moving experiences that made me realize and reaffirm that what I am doing is important and meaningful, and that people do care about the issues.  People have their own lives, jobs, and children, but still become mobilized to make positive changes in their community.  This is a part of being a grass roots organizer that is so rewarding.  You are in a small community, but that small community expands to a state, and then goes to the whole country – changing the whole United States.  When the whole United States changes, other countries have been motivated to follow.  This lifts me up and makes me excited.

4.  What was your worst day as a grass roots organizer?

When I was working for “Food Not Bombs”,  I was on my way to the 2004 Republican National Convention.  This was during the time of the Patriot Act.  We got stopped by the police on our way there.  They didn’t want organizers and activists at the convention.  It was a very touchy time in America after the 9/11 attacks and the convention was being held in New York City.  There are always protesters at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.  Protester may have a negative connotation, but these were just activists, like environmentalists who had an issue and wanted to be heard.

I got stopped by the police for several days and wasn’t allowed to go to the convention.  I was really scared.  I let these people instill fear in me.  I was demobilized for a long time because I was afraid of my government.  Up to that point I was working for positive changes and supporting my country.  I was working to keep my community active and growing.  But afterwards, I was scared and demoralized and wasn’t as active as I could have been.  What made this my worst day was that I let my government instill fear in me and I was afraid to activate.

5.  How did you survive your worst day?

After graduation, I travelled around all forty-eight of the connecting states.  I went to Europe and became a nanny.  Then came the 2008 election.  I was from Illinois where President Obama was a senator and where I had worked on his senatorial campaign.  However, I had traveled to Amsterdam and was working as a nanny.   I watched all the United States presidential debates on international CNN and that fire started burning within me again.  I was talking to the television, yelling at the news, and crying during some of the talks.  My boyfriend commented, “You’re not crying again are you?”  I told him, “Of course I am!”  These events really got me excited again.  I realized I needed to go back home and do what I loved to do – what I was meant to do – be a grass roots organizer.  I moved back home, enrolled in school, and got my political science degree.

I worked on President Obama’s campaign and got involved in my school’s political science club and Amnesty International which I had also done in high school.  The fire was back and I knew I had to do something for others.

I was at a protest in Washington D.C. in 2004 for the IMF and World Bank. The next day there was the biggest march on Washington D.C. since the civil rights march.  All these women were walking around in these pink shirts and wearing these buttons with coat hangers on them.  I didn’t know what this meant.  When I found out what the imagery of the coat hanger meant, I started advocating for women’s health.

That imagery has never been lost in my mind.  I started working at Planned Parenthood.  I want to make sure that we never go back fifty years to where women are having unsafe, illegal abortions.  Whether it’s rape, incest, life of the mother, or if you just can’t have a child at this time in your life, I believe women should be able to make these tough decisions.  It is not a light issue.  I just want to make sure people understand where we were before abortions and that we never go back to that era.  The image of a coat hanger will not go away.  That’s what I work for every day – that we don’t go back before Lilly Ledbetter, a women’s right to vote, or legal abortion. I want to make sure women’s rights are not forgotten.

Anybody can be a grass roots organizer.  It just means you are starting in your community to make a change.  Don’t give up hope because the process might seem slow.  You can make a difference.  I get so upset at people who say, “I don’t vote because what does my vote matter.”  I have friends that are disheartened by the government and ask, “What can I do to make a difference.  Nobody’s going to listen to my voice.”  But it is by talking to other people and activating other people that your voice will get heard.  Your voice starts in the community and then it moves into the state, the country, and the world.  Your voice can get bigger and bigger.  You can do it on your own.

Here is an example.  Several of my friends were going up on New Year’s Eve to jump in Lake Michigan for the polar plunge.  I didn’t have anything to do for New Years Eve, so I said, “Can I come with you?”  They said, “Why don’t you start a polar plunge in Alton?”  I said, “OK.”  So I threw it out there on Facebook and asked our friends and family if they would donate money for us to jump in the river or lake and we would donate the money to an animal charity.

We did it.  I put the Alton plunge on Facebook and I sent out press releases to the local area newspapers and radio stations.  We were in the Alton Telegraph.  I got interviewed on WBGC.  Fifteen people came out and jumped in the Mississippi River on New Year’s Day.  There were chunks of ice floating down the river.  It was disgusting, freezing cold, and windy, but we raised money for Hope Rescues! We got about seven or eight hundred dollars.  I really felt proud of myself for raising that money and realized that I had thrown this all together just a few weeks before it happened.  I didn’t really know what I was doing, but we were successful in a short period of time.

Last year we decided to do it again.  My friend Trisha who had gone up to Lake Michigan and had challenged me to do it in Alton, Illinois, helped me this past year and we doubled out participation and money for the shelter.  This is going to be our third year and we started from nothing.  I picked a charity that we cared about Hope Rescues, we all have dogs, we love rescues and no kill shelters, and wanted to do something that would be fun, gain attention, benefit others, and hadn’t been done before.  Who would listen to us?  We were just young girls.  But people did!   It’s amazing to see what one little voice can do.  It’s like I said, “Anybody can be a grass roots organizer.  It just means you are starting in your community to make a change.  Don’t give up hope because the process might seem slow.  You can make a difference.”