My name is Alexis. I’m a community organizer, writer, and photographer living and working along the Yellowstone River in Montana, where my partner Mike and I raise sheep and goats on my family ranch. We have done a lot of work building new alliances to stop coal in my state—like bringing together Indigenous groups, ranchers, hunters, and anglers to fight proposed mines and railroads for export. I’m concerned that a lot of political organizing these days is dominated by corporate, professional messaging machines focused on numbers, with little regard for the perspectives of the folks impacted. People tell us they feel used. They’re frustrated. They’re tired of being treated as consumers rather than citizens. And in rural parts of the country that type of organizing just won’t work. You have to develop relationships, and they must be reciprocal.
As we grow the resistance to Trump and look forward, Mike and I believe the art of organizing in rural areas has lessons that could transform the political landscape for progressives. We started conducting nonpartisan citizenship trainings, called “How to Get Shit Done in a Democracy.” The first one, in Billings, was on effective commenting at public hearings. We barely promoted it, but over 40 people showed up — and we didn’t know most of them. Other topics have included communicating with legislators and their staff, or with people you think don’t agree with you. One woman who came out told us that before the training, she didn’t know public consultations were a “thing.” It turns out she’s studying to become a solar installer. People like this are having epiphanies every day across America. The political parties are not even remotely talking to them.
Because of the success of these trainings, people from all over the state have started asking us to do them in their communities. We’re also planning to do a longer-term organizing assessment—a deep dive to figure out what’s actually going on in communities that unexpectedly voted for Trump, or didn’t vote at all.
We’ve been thinking about the model of the Nonpartisan League (NPL), which was born in North Dakota in 1915, when the economy looked a lot like it does now. The NPL was one of the greatest political insurgencies the nation had ever seen. The Party united progressives, reformers, and radicals behind a platform that called for bold action on the economy’s major shortcomings. Members of Mike’s family, including his great grandfather, were part of the movement. They and other NPL organizers went and talked to farmers throughout the state, asking open questions to learn about their challenges and struggles—and then started framing progressive solutions to common problems. Out of that assessment came the list of clear demands, including a call for state-owned banks and grain mills. They built an organization and pressured politicians from both parties to commit to their platform. And much of it was enacted.
As organizers, we can’t be satisfied with telling people what to do and declaring short-term victories. We have to provide the tools for people to engage with politics beyond just voting and to think for themselves. We need an approach that rebuilds our democracy from the ground up.
Stay tuned for ways you can join our work.