Episode 3: We Will Win with Jess Morales Rocketto
Huge rallies and worldwide platforms can be transformational, not only for the causes we believe in but for participants themselves. But how do we get there? For Jess Morales Rocketto, Civic Engagement Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Executive Director of Care in Action, it starts with the fundamentals of community organizing: knowing organizing is about power, listening to people describe the material conditions of their lives, embracing that everyone has a role to play, and building a path so more people can get involved. Most of all, it’s about believing that we will win.
Jess Morales Rocketto
Jess Morales Rocketto is the Civic Engagement Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Executive Director of Care in Action, where she spearheads advocacy and electoral campaigns for the 2.5 million domestic workers in this country. She is Co-Chair of Families Belong Together, the campaign to end family separation and detention, and co-founder of Supermajority, a new home for women’s activism. She served as one of the leaders of the nationwide protests of the Trump Administration’s Muslim ban.
At age 21, George Goehl walked into a soup kitchen to eat. Over time, he became an employee – first washing dishes and eventually helping run the place. Three years later, he was struck by seeing the same people in line as when he first arrived. He began to organize.
Today, George is the director of People’s Action, a multiracial poor and working class people’s organization. He leads one of the largest race-conscious rural progressive organizing efforts in the United States.
Following the financial crisis, George and National People’s Action mobilized more people into the streets than any other organization to demand accountability, help win Financial Reform, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and secure mortgage relief.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, MSNBC and others have covered George’s organizing work.
George Goehl: Hi, I’m George Goehl and this is The Next Move, where we’re talking with organizers about the craft of organizing. My guest today is Jess Morales Rocketto. Signs are everywhere that we are simply not in relationship with enough people to advance the level of change that is required. So what to do? Today we talk with someone who is applying tried and true organizing fundamentals to the challenge of organizing at scale.
Jess Morales Rocketto is the Civic Engagement Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Executive Director of Care and Action, where she spearheads advocacy and electoral campaigns for the 2.5 million domestic workers in this country. She is co-chair of Families Belong Together, a campaign to end family separation and detention. She was also one of the leaders of the nationwide protest of the Trump Administration’s Muslim ban. Let’s get into it. Hey, so glad you’re doing this.
Jess Morales Rocketto: Oh my goodness. I couldn’t be more excited to be here.
George Goehl: So how do you find organizing?
Jess Morales Rocketto: I grew up in the church. Really, really religious, both Evangelical Christian and Catholic. And so, there is an organizing work there. There’s charity, which when I first started, I didn’t understand the difference between charity and organizing like I think a lot of young folks, when they first enter into this work. And we did a lot of charity but we also did some organizing. I have a very vivid memory at 10 or 11, doing a fundraiser for a anti-abortion group.
And we went walking around, getting change for a baby bottle, that we donated through the Knights of Columbus at church. I definitely remember doing proselytizing and, I think, there’s so much about the church and organizing that have in common, just so, so much, including tactics. My longtime friend and mentor and colleague, Heather Krunk says, “Once you’ve done a conversation about whether or not you found Jesus with somebody face to face, canvassing is whatever, who cares?”
George Goehl: Right. I’m going to have to ask. Sounded like you were raised with two denominations in your life. Is that right?
Jess Morales Rocketto: That’s right. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
George Goehl: Do you feel any differences in what they taught you about organizing or one had more impact on you as an organizer than another?
Jess Morales Rocketto: Really good question. Yes. When I learned about political theater, I felt like I already understood that uniquely because I’d grown up in the Catholic Church, which is the biggest theater I think there probably is. And so for me, I really, really think a lot about the experiences that I had doing things like the Stations of the Cross, which is, if you’re not familiar, this huge reenactment that you all do together, that very much has the arc of organizing. You plan it and then you culminate in this moment and everybody has their role. And there’s so much pomp and circumstance it’s a really important leadership develop opportunity actually for kids.
I constantly think about what that was like because it was so transformative for me. And a lot of times when I started organizing it almost clicked in the same way as when I was doing stuff like the Stations of the Cross. And then the Evangelical Church is the best organizing in this country, bar none. No one can beat them, not one person, no organization, no progressive organization, no politician, nothing, no movement. They are providing you a surround sound lifestyle. So that every single thing you’re doing is about your faith and the church and what you’re trying to do together.
So that idea to me, of how can we create a progressive lifestyle? How can we create a progressive life is an incredibly animating idea for me, still to this day. Because for my family, that was just probably the most transformative community I’ve ever been a part of. And they’re really there for you at every single moment of your life. And so it breeds a kind of loyalty that I don’t think you can get from politics necessarily because it’s not only you agree with the ideas, the church is also part of the fabric of every decision that you make, every relationship that you have.
And that just creates something that is a next level affinity that I feel we could do so much more of. And in fact, honestly, if you look back at old school labor organizing, for instance, they were very much more in this model and some of that model of organizing and leadership corresponds with their biggest moments of power. And I think that there’s something for us to learn as we think about that.
George Goehl: Oh yeah, I love this. So Catholic Church crushing it on ritual Evangelicals on all encompassing surround sound is what I’m hearing.
Jess Morales Rocketto: Yes, 100 percent.
George Goehl: Whether it’s there or later, what are some early things you were taught about organizing that you still go back to today?
Jess Morales Rocketto: Yeah. I think, I would’ve been so lucky to be able to study organizing in addition to being an organizer, which are not necessarily the same things. And I did a lot of studying of the movement around Oscar Romero and El Salvador and what they were trying to do around justice. And I think one of the things that I’ve found to be so transformative for me, and I think it totally goes back to my experiences in the churches. There was a desire to be in and of the community as a way to do for the community and for, as I am right, actually to do with the community.
And certainly, of course, my work in the Domestic Workers Now, that is at the core of what we do. And I think that I just respond so directly to that because I’ve been in things where it’s not of and for and by and with the people that you’re attempting to make a difference in their lives. And when you feel accountable to actual human beings, when you know their names, when you know where they live, you know what they care about, it feels like such a sacred honor to be able to do that with people, to take them into leadership. And then to win things, winning the things is the best fucking shit that there is. I don’t know how much we’re allowed because of this podcast, but there’s nothing like winning, nothing.
George Goehl: No.
Jess Morales Rocketto: And if you’ve been organizing for the last 20 years, 30 years, maybe you haven’t won a lot and so you’ve forgotten what that feeling is like. I hold onto that feeling every single moment of the day because it is so awesome to win. It’s so, so good. And it fuels you, it creates momentum into itself because once you know that it’s possible, it’s like, “Oh well, it could happen again.” And we even know some of the circumstances that create it happening again. And just like [Ijen 00:07:18], my mentor in Boston, the greatest of all time, says that winning is self-care. And I want to tattoo that on my body. Like, yes. You know what? We would need less sheet mass and time off and all that stuff. If we just won things more.
George Goehl: No. The most important thing and I’m so glad you raised it because I think … I mean, one, we’re trying to get a bunch of people to believe that engaging in a fight and taking risks and probably dealing with some backlash and certainly giving up a ton of time to join organizations and do all of this work is worth it. And nothing makes people more sure it is than winning. And also everything about most people’s lives has taught us that we can’t win. And so the first time we win, they’re like, “Hey, maybe this works.”
And yeah, this time it was getting an abandoned building knocked down or getting the new windows on the school or whatever. But did you just start to build people’s faith that something really is possible and then people can start to dream bigger. But people need relief, we know that. We’re always trying to win that but people actually need a reason to believe. So I heard you moved as you’re thinking about, I’m sure very specific members and people that you’ve organized.
And I know from watching your work and talking to you, you’re serious about scale. That you think to win the change people need, we’re going to have to figure out scale. How do we hold deep organizing and leadership development and being connected to members and achieve scale? And then, what tensions are there that we got to deal with?
Jess Morales Rocketto: I don’t think that it’s deep or scale. I just believe in scale so much because what I’ve seen is the act of scale can in and of itself be a transformative experience for people. The idea that they are part of literally millions, so they can see millions of people being involved, is transformational for them. So one of my best examples of this is the airport protest. So, people think that was spontaneous but nothing spontaneous [inaudible 00:09:24], as you know. And what I found from that experience was two stories that I think about all the time.
One is a woman just outside of St. Louis. She was a teacher, she damned me on Twitter. She’d never done a protest before. She said, “Well, I saw you’re looking for a protest in St. Louis. I can do it. I’ve never done this before. How do I do it?” We’re talking over Twitter DM. I don’t know this person. I have no idea who she is or what she’s like. We did a one-on-one over Twitter DM. I said, “This is amazing. Thank you so much. What makes you motivated to do this?” I asked her. And she said, “I’m a teacher and I have students from immigrant families and I want to be able to cry again. I want to be able to do something for them.”
And it’s just like that moment of choice that people are making is incredible and she didn’t need to be tested, right? She was there, she was a live wire, so we needed to put her to work. So I said, “Okay, do you have some friends that live close by to you?” And she said, “Yes.” I said, “Great. You’re going to go to the airport but on the way to the airport, you need to pick up your friends. Ideally you would bring two to five friends with you but you can’t go by yourself. This is a community activity.” And she said, “Great. I do everything better with friends.”
And I said, “Okay, here’s some chants.” I’m giving her, this is what democracy looks like. This is real 101 stuff. Is there a friend that has another car? They could be the second set of people. Do you think they have some cardboard at home? And they might be able to make some signs? And she said, “Yes.” She said, “What should I put on the signs?”. I said, “What do you think we should put on the signs? It was a extremely accelerated process but we went through the basics of organizing and she was taking leadership at every step of the way.
And I did that, that night, with dozens of people all around the country. Some that I knew and some that I didn’t know. And I found that when you’re ready to ask somebody, they’re ready to go in and sometimes it’s at that site. I think it’s Fred Ross who has probably the Livewire concept, right? He talks about, whatever it is, you got to put somebody to work. Even if it’s just stuffing envelopes or picking up the phone. When people are at the apex of their energy, you have to take advantage of that. And that means that you can throw people off a cliff and say, “Hey, will you go to the airport right now and be the host of this protest?” And that is risky, there’s risk. And even in only a little bit of trust, you can get to transformational moments.
And I think it’s undeniable that that moment of the airport protests was a pretty iconic moment of the Trump era and helped catapult people to something that was larger than just being anti the Muslim ban or even just being pro immigrant. But actually this idea that we had to fight back, we had to … As Francis Fox Piven says, “Throw sand in the gears of everything.” And I learned so much that night about what’s possible. And I think a lot of times, as organizers, we’re so obsessed with capacity that we stop thinking about all of the ways in which we can invite people to transform. And that opportunity presents us all some ways that you may not even realize.
George Goehl: Oh yeah, definitely. Assuming fundamentals of organizing include things like listening, starting where people are at, agitating, landing from commitments from people. Like you said, putting people to work. How can that translate? Actually, all of those things really translate to good digital organizing or can they?
Jess Morales Rocketto: They absolutely do, they absolutely do. I never thought of myself as a digital organizer. I’ve always thought of myself as a community organizer. The way we have communities is different than it was when … Again, I go back to people who grew up in that Alinsky model. They didn’t have a Facebook group to get into formation on. You know what I mean? So, you had to have the meeting at seven o’clock on Wednesday night and you had to ask people to come every seven o’clock at Wednesday night. Because you couldn’t instantly talk to thousands of people all in one neighborhood at one time. Well, now you can. Now you could do that on five platforms, if you want, at the same time.
George Goehl: Right.
Jess Morales Rocketto: And so to me, it just makes … Mo, on the very first episode of this show, Mo Mitchell said, “Organizing is a game of addition, not subtraction.” And I think that is also a tactical comment. What if you could talk to a lot of people at one time? And I think about casting a very wide net. It’s like a fisherman, right? You could go down to the big ocean. You can’t tackle the whole ocean but the ocean is full of fish. So you’re going to set your traps out and then catch the fish. You’re not going to get every fish but if you start with 500 fish and you get down to 50, well, then you still have 50 good fish. If you start with 50 fish and you only get one of those fish, well, now you only have one fish. That’s a whole different scenario.
And I do not believe that every person needs to be at the highest level all the time. I think that lots of organizers think only the diehards are valuable but the casual observer can be incredibly helpful. It’s okay to have a lots of casual observers. In technology, they talk about the tipping point of scale. And that tipping point is small, it’s like 2,500 people. So, that’s what I’m always thinking about. Okay well, could 2,500 people do this? The only way that you get there, is if you start by casting a wide net. And I feel if more people thought about organizing as a funnel, instead of we’re going to give you your secret token after you pass a bunch of tests, we might be in better shape.
George Goehl: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’m just thinking about … You saw something happening at the border, I think, way before a lot of people in, I guess, 2018. If you could say a little bit about what you saw at the border but also the importance for us as organizers, to be tracking the context that we’re organizing in. Because sometimes I think especially deep organizing, we can not have our head looking at the stars but looking down at the ground of what we already decided we were going to do versus tracking changing conditions.
Jess Morales Rocketto: Yeah. So let me talk about tracking changing conditions because I think it explains how I could see that. The one thing about the Internet that is so fascinating to me is that you can be basically anyone who you want to be. And the way that the algorithm works on your average social media platform, based on what you engage with, based on what ads you click on, who your friends are, they’re making a lot of assumptions about you. So gaming, the algorithm has enabled me to have a media diet, which I think is Eli Pariser’s phrase, “That lets me see things differently than I would as an individual.”
Just intaking the news and I think it’s been so helpful because what I was seeing at that time was in all these different places where my media consumption is very different, the same thing was starting to pop. And that was when it was ho, hold on. There’s a moment. People won’t remember this but at the beginning of the family separation crisis in 2018, what people thought is … It was, where are the children? We thought kids were missing, the way that they used to put missing kids on the milk carton. And I was on a vacation, it was the first vacation I’ve taken in years. It was the longest vacation I’ve ever taken in my life.
And I’m just seeing this from thousands of miles away. And I called Ijen and I was like, “Hey, I don’t come back for two more weeks but you got to get moving on this because there’s a moment right now but we’re about to lose that moment. So I was seeing this narrative opportunity and or crisis. It was unclear what it was going to be. At the same time, there was a policy problem that was starting to percolate. The SLU sends out a report. We made that report go viral. I did this big tweet thread. I organized a bunch of my other friends who had some semblance of Twitter followings that was similar. And it just started to pick up steam.
So then journalists were saying, “What is where all the children mean? Are the children really missing?” And people were starting to read that. People had been grappling with, what’s actually happening right now at the border? And what we were offering is not only just a narrative frame, families belong together but also a demand, families belong together. First day of action was small. I think there were eight events. The next week of action, there was like 15. The third week of action, there was 30. And then after that first month, then it became a movement. I mean, that’s the only way to describe it.
Things were happening that we had nothing to do with but they were in our frame. They were with our message but we never talked to those people. They never talked to us. Artists were creating things in museums. And then we started the idea for, “Okay, let’s get everyone together. Let’s do a big set of protests on one day.” And that was 766 protests all around the country in every single state, all around the world. That was huge. But there was also what people don’t realize is we’re still going. A year later, we had a massive set of actions around closing the camps.
Now we’re leading around the situation, that’s happening at the border under president Biden and we have never stopped. And we have never been out of the headlines. Being anti-gay with separation is a core issue of the democratic party. President Biden campaigned on the Family Reunification Task Force. And I really truly believe that we were issuing an invitation to people and we were mixing it with digital organizing, with communications, with organizing on the ground, with actions, with cultural, all of that stuff was a signal to people that both, this is worth your time and also there’s a place for you. And I think that’s still true to this day.
George Goehl: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think that’s right. I feel like you’re describing the in-digital organizing or in this case, just there’s many ways to listen. So we can go knock on 50 doors and not even listen. We can do one-on-ones with a bunch of clergy and listen but we also can just … Because of the always evolving media landscape, we can listen through that and we can listen through digital and then we can see things that we wouldn’t be able to see. If I go knock on 800 doors over a few weeks on the West side of Chicago, I’m going to have some insights. Like oh, abandoned buildings are really big here or the lack of loans that people can get or the fact that the schools suck.
I’ll know and then I’m like, “Okay, I found something that’s widely and deeply felt.” And you were tracking a crisis but also a crisis that was potentially widely and deeply felt. So that’s, I just think, a lesson for all of us. And then I think in the way the campaign was designed and what you’re describing is also something a ton of people could see themselves in. It was the design of the campaign. And the design of the brand was majoritarian.
Jess Morales Rocketto:
George Goehl: A little fact that I actually spent a long weekend digging up. I should have asked somebody with some data skills to do it. But of those 760 some actions that happened on June 30th, 49% of those happened in counties that went for Trump and a huge number in counties that went to Trump for by 66%. That’s possible because you picked a frame that a lot of people could see themselves in. A lot of the folks, rural folks, that we had organized cookouts and passed the hat for bond for immigrant families were not progressives. But they thought the separation of families, parents from their children, this is like a bridge too far.
Jess Morales Rocketto: Yes.
George Goehl: Okay. So in organizing, we have probably more axioms and slogans than about any profession I can think of. Do you got any favorites?
Jess Morales Rocketto: I’m a nerd. I keep an actual list of these sorts of things. I think they’re so helpful. And I really do cherish what I think of as the oral organizing tradition. There’s something very beautiful about the artwork really does get passed on through person. It’s very old school in that way, you know? It’s like the bards of old and I just love that. And mine is that, probably my life motto truly is, that I believe that we will win. And to me, the most important word in that is, I believe.
Because I think a lot of times organizers are not tapped into their own personal why. Why are you doing this? What is getting you out of bed? You have to go out and convince a bunch of people that this is the year we’re going to pass immigration reform, even though we haven’t passed it for 50 years. Well, if you don’t believe that deep down in your soul, you are not going to be successful. You just aren’t.
George Goehl: Okay. Last question here. You’re starting a new organizing training center. If you were only going to teach three things, what would they be?
Jess Morales Rocketto: The first one is that organizing is about power. If you’re not contending with power, if you’re not tangling with power, you’re not organizing. The second one is that you are trying to make a material difference in people’s lives. If you don’t understand what that material difference is, if you can’t explain that material difference to people and if they can’t feel that material difference, you’ve got to rechart your course. And the third one is, everybody has a role to play. And in fact, the more we can give people that role and that invitation, the more sophisticated our movements will be and I think the more that we’ll win.
George Goehl: Okay. When you launching this organizer center? I’m ready to send a bunch of people.
Jess Morales Rocketto: You know, George, it’s funny because one of my very first jobs in organizing and probably the place where … Not just where I learned a lot of stuff but where actually, I feel like I got the language and the models for this, was the New Organizing Institute, which is sadly now defunct. And I think one of the things that I learned at the New Organizing Institute that was so important, is they were dogmatic about the craft of organizing. That this was something that you should learn, that you should develop, that it is actually a true craft.
It is that it literally and that there are master crafts people that do the work. But they weren’t dogmatic about what the craft could be. So you could try different things but all of it had to live with these basic ideas that really do come from good old community organizing that we’ve been practicing for decades, hundreds of years, maybe even. I still feel the loss of the New Organizing Institute. And I just think that if we don’t get something like that again, there’s real danger because you have these folks who think that organize memes is organizing. And organize memes is community building and fun but it’s not organizing.
George Goehl: No. We used to call that a flyer.
Jess Morales Rocketto: Yes. George, thank you. Yes. I needed a vocabulary for that. Yes.
George Goehl: I’m so glad you’re saying this. And yeah, there are core fundamentals in the craft that we got to stick with. And we’ve also got to stay curious, inquisitive, about where we’ve maybe hit a ceiling or we got to adapt. And I feel your entire organizing career has been a model in that. So this was super fun. Thanks for doing this Jess.
Jess Morales Rocketto: So fun, George.
George Goehl: Wow, I’m definitely going to listen to that again. Jess’s choice of, I believe that we will win, as a favorite organizing Axiom, rings of faith. In this case, in the craft of organizing. I believe good organizing requires listening and it just shows we can listen in a bunch of ways and the creation of families belong together. I hear listening at scale, taking full advantage of all the ways we have today to understand what people are thinking and feeling. Also how the fundamentals of organizing can be applied to all kinds of mediums.
I love Jess’s story of doing an abbreviated one-on-one with someone over Twitter and asking the person on the other end, why they felt moved to act. Jess demonstrated curiosity about the other person and sought to understand their interests, not over coffee at the diner but a thousand miles away through social media. I hear a call for whole person organizations that create next level affinity, whether through a mutual aid or through ritual that connects us at an emotional level to the organization, all creating a feeling of being part of something much larger.
You can learn more about the work that Jess is doing with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Care and Action at people’s action.org/next move. Jess can definitely be found on Twitter. You will find her at Jess L-I-V-M-O.
This podcast was produced by People’s Action in the Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Our senior producer is Sara Pellegrini. Our development producer is Melissa Lo, production manager, Shelby Sandlin.
- Jess mentioned being moved by the work of Monseñor Oscar Romero, who was murdered in El Salvador by a right-wing death squad. Here’s a piece about Romero, who was named a saint by the Roman Catholic church in 2018.
- Jess was part of the delegation that went to protest family separations at the Ursula Detention Center in McAllen, Texas in 2018. Read more about that here.
- This Teen Vogue piece captures the magic of June 30th, 2018, with nearly 800 Families Belong Together events across the country to protest family separations.
- Here’s an interview with Jess on how she stays in the fight.
- Jess doesn’t write articles about organizing, but she does tweet about it!