The Fahey Q&A with Jamie Lyons-Eddy, grassroots field marshal with lessons for organizing in a pandemic
After organizing the Voters Not Politicians 2018 ballot initiative that put citizens in charge of drawing Michigan's legislative maps, Fahey became founding executive director of The People, which is forming statewide networks to promote government accountability. She interviews a colleague in the world of democracy reform each month for our Opinion section.
This is the fourth in a series of opinion pieces we are publishing during Women's History Month to recognize the contributions of women to the democracy reform movement.
When I think of campaign powerhouses and those who can succeed against all odds, I immediately conjure up Jamie Lyons-Eddy. She was a co-founder of Voters Not Politicians and drove our signature-gathering and voter outreach operations as state field director. Jamie now helps lead the organization as director of campaigns and programs. We had an extremely timely conversation about strategies for advancing grassroots reform efforts during the coronavirus outbreak, the critical role women leadership plays, and Voters Not Politicians' continued work in Michigan.
Our recent conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Fahey: How did you initially get involved with Voters Not Politicians?
Lyons-Eddy: I answered a Facebook post. I had just retired from teaching math, and taking on partisan gerrymandering felt like a natural way to connect with politics using math. The Roeper School, where I taught, was founded by Holocaust survivors, so there was a culture of responsibility to use our skills and talents to do good in the world.
Fahey: What was the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Lyons-Eddy: The biggest challenge was trying to create a campaign from scratch and keep everyone moving in the same direction. We tried to get as much information as we could. Then, after learning from others, we had to invent and innovate without a budget.
At one point I almost quit because the task seemed so large and I had never done anything like it before. Then a female colleague said, "If you were a man you wouldn't be feeling this way. If you were a guy you would just fake it until you make it." That was an "Aha!" moment. Many women tend to second guess ourselves and feel we shouldn't do things unless we can do them perfectly. That moment I realized that when something seems really hard, it's because it is really hard, not because I'm not good enough.
The biggest lessons about organizing a volunteer army are about delegation and communication. It takes time to train someone, but once you do, they share the ownership as well as the work. Very clear communication solves all kinds of problems. It's something we had to learn and reinforce until the campaign ended: Have good training, handbooks, conference calls, websites and emails. When people dedicate their time you owe them a clear understanding of what's going on.
Fahey: What was the most gratifying aspect of getting 61 percent of Michiganders to end the political gerrymandering of our state?
Lyons-Eddy: We felt so much responsibility to the volunteers. We asked so much of them. Once we won, we all knew all their tireless efforts had been rewarded.
Fahey: We face so many challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, including those of us working to improve our democracy needing to find creative ways to continue our work. Plenty of groups, including Voters Not Politicians, are working to get many thousands of signatures on petitions to put referendums on the November ballot. What are some lessons from Michigan in 2018 that might be particularly helpful this year?
Lyons-Eddy: In general there are huge challenges. People won't want to touch each other or share pens, and there won't be large gatherings. This is where digital organizing tools — peer-to-peer texting, an easy-to-use website and a robust social media presence — will be critical to raising awareness about the need for voters to physically sign petitions and educating them how to do it.
Two years ago one of our volunteers came up with a "micro-circulator" program. It didn't focus on large crowds as the places for gathering signatures. Instead the focus was on getting lots of people to go to work getting signatures from people in their personal networks, then getting each of those friends and family members to gather a few signatures from a few more people.
To make this successful we made sure volunteers had guidance that was clear and easy to understand. Amelia Quilon, another Voters Not Politicians co-founder, designed a mock petition with instructions overlaid on it — and with an FAQ on the back. This ensured people knew how to sign the petition, and why.
Volunteers need to understand how they get blank petitions and how they send in signed petitions. With limited access to physical shared spaces, campaigns may want to rely on mailing micro-circulator petitions and training. Overall, though, campaigns need to be thinking about how to put the safety of our fellow voters as their top priority.
Fahey: What are you working on now?
Lyons-Eddy: Defending and ensuring the successful implementation of Michigan's new redistricting process, then continuing work on structural democracy reforms in the state. Short-term, that means extending local clerks' office hours to increase voting access. And making state government more accountable. The Center for Public Integrity rates Michigan dead last in government integrity.
Fahey: Since it's Women's History Month, what are your reflections on the role women's leadership played in our campaign?
Lyons-Eddy: We succeeded because we were woman-run. Our focus was always on our goal. We had a lot of extremely competent women who were very supportive of each other.
Fahey: What's your message to young women about what it means to be an American and what role women have to play in developing our democracy today?
Lyons-Eddy: I hope the work of Voters Not Politicians and other similar stories are shared so young women know they have more power than they might imagine. Young women don't have to get permission from anyone. If they are willing to work hard, to risk failure and to put themselves out there, they can fix the problems they see in the world.