Maurice Mitchell mesmerizes: He’s got that rare ability to weave big concepts together simply, often by discarding preconceptions. “Voting is one tactic,” Mitchell tells me. I’d asked him about voting rights. Every vote matters—each is amplified in significance, in fact, given trends in voting and barriers to the polls—but “when we say ‘democracy,’ we don’t just mean voting. Protests, grassroots lobbying, and other activities demonstrate who we are, what we believe in, and the vision of the world that we want.”
Mitchell took over as national director of the Working Families Party in April 2018. He came into that role with a goal to build the party as “the expression of a multiracial populist grassroots movement.” Founded in 1998, the WFP has chapters in 16 states and more than 200,000 members across the country. They describe themselves as fighting “for an economy that works for all of us, and a democracy in which every voice matters.”
The party runs local and state campaigns and trains and supports local and state leaders. Its aims are things such as increasing minimum wage and securing paid sick leave, meant to immediately improve the lives of working people, as well as campaigning for big-picture policy shifts affecting taxation, school privatization, job creation, and student debt.
For that, and more, they organize—that’s Mitchell’s forte. Every month, thousands of the WFP’s members call, knock on doors, and otherwise contribute to efforts to grow the party, mobilize working people, and hold elected officials accountable.
Prior to joining the party, Mitchell had distinguished himself as a leader in the Movement for Black Lives and as co-founder of the Blackbird Project, along with Mervyn Marcano and Thenjiwe Tameika McHarris. The trio formed Blackbird at the end of 2014 as an anchor to support black organizing nationally. They envisioned creating and upholding a decentralized but organized structure.
“There was a movement building, growing, and we wanted to follow the lead of thousands of people—young black people—who had become politicized,” Mitchell says.
Blackbird supported protest-organizing—for example, around “the lack of indictment in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases.” They worked on everything from direct interventions to mass-mobilization days of action. It was, in Mitchell’s words, a “low-visibility, high-impact project.” They provided communications and organizing assistance, developed local and national policies and strategies, and offered training. “The work didn’t have an end point.”
How, then, did Mitchell end up at the WFP?
The answer is a set of questions he poses to himself periodically. “I consider where I would like to grow and sharpen myself based on time and place, based on conditions in the country and the world,” he says. He goes where the answers send him, he tells me. Even if it incurs discomfort, doesn’t appear to make sense, or forces him to shift roles or jobs.
“It’s my duty, or honor, to put as much of myself into the struggle to create a more just society as possible,” he says. He attributes this to his early life influences, his grandmother and parents, “hard workers,” as he describes them with a sort of firm reverence, from Trinidad. Growing up, he says, he “experienced complexities around race, class, gender, and immigration” that made “life more complicated.”
Mitchell calls the first 20 years of his career his “organizing life.” “I worked hard to maintain a low profile and be a behind-the-scenes organizer and lift up others,” Mitchell says. That was, “by design, high-impact, low-profile, low-ego work.”
Now, as national director at the WFP, he says he’s working just as hard to be a very public leader. Most of his audiences these days are new. “I want to demonstrate what I think is principled public leadership,” he explains. “One that is about collective accountability and responsibility, not ego or credit.” Modeling that ethos is critical: “I don’t want these ideas to be considered niche or fringe—out there. These are ideas that should have value and salience to any working person.”
Right now, Mitchell perceives simultaneous deep crises. There’s a climate crisis, yes, but also an economic crisis. “Most people are underwater, underemployed, overemployed,” he says. He describes what he calls an “emerging migratory crisis, not just south of us but all over.” There’s potential for existential crisis. If “existential” seems like an exaggeration, here’s your reminder from Mitchell: “We have a decade to address climate or cities will be underwater.“
As head of the WFP, Mitchell has prescribed and is attempting an intervention at the scale of the crisis. “Current systems elites live in another universe,” he says. “On the other hand, the U.S. political system is a great place for intervention because that’s where all these crises collide.”
That means “if we want to end the climate, economic, geopolitical crises, this would be the place,” he says. He and others straddling the political-movement divide must come together “to drive this much-needed conversation that’s needed, that speaks clearly to the scale of the harm.”
The need for intervention is critical. “If we don’t fix the economic crisis, we will lose a generation of people,” Mitchell says. “They’re at risk of being captured by the ultra right wing, because they’re at least providing conversation around these things.”
We can’t pretend that traditional political leaders are up to the task, which makes it all the more critical that nontraditional leaders undertake that intervention.
The WFP has been an amalgam of grassroots organizations and unions. Mitchell envisions transforming it into a true mass party, continuing to bring in member organizations but also opening the party to individuals. Mitchell is looking to mechanisms such as text messaging and web outreach, but also at recruiting field organizers. “We’re going to organize year-round in communities around the country, give individuals the tools to party-build and participate in their own democracy,” he says. That’s the work the traditional parties should be doing and aren’t, according to Mitchell.
Just as I’d come to expect, Mitchell had a perfect endpoint for our conversation—the first of many. I ask, What’s your goal as a senior fellow at Prism with your next new audience? “I want to help migrate people from deep interest in issues online to becoming grassroots leaders,” he says. “Readership to leadership, subject to agent.” He’s seeking people who are deeply interested in issues to come along.
Rebecca Pilar Buckwalter-Poza is deputy managing editor of Prism. You can follow her on Twitter @rpbp, and you can follow Prism @ourprisms.