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Roughly 60 people turned out for last weekend's "We Got Next" training event for political hopefuls.
Roughly 60 people turned out for last weekend's "We Got Next" training event for political hopefuls.
Photo by Saraana Jamraj

Broward Dream Defenders Lead Charge for "Next" Political Hopefuls

We all know who Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is. Although she represents New York's 14th congressional district, which includes the Bronx and part of Queens, in South Florida and across the country we even know her by her initials, AOC.

But are our own elected leaders that well known, even to us?

Several activist groups teamed up recently to host "We Got Next," an event to teach aspiring leaders the ins and outs of political candidacy and campaigning.

The driving force, organizers say, is the reality that many elected leaders do not serve their constituents — and so those who actually do fight for their communities' best interests should be running for office, challenging incumbents, and blazing new trails.

The Dream Defenders, an activist organization founded in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, works to encourage investment in empowering traditionally marginalized communities rather than putting money and resources toward prisons and policing. They are currently running a campaign to end cash bail, arguing that it disproportionately harms those in poverty and people of color, and the group is focusing on state attorney races across the country.

The organization made headlines last summer after successfully pressing Florida Democrats to stop accepting money from the nation's largest private prison company, GEO Group, and other private prison companies. GEO, based in Boca Raton, then threatened to sue the Dream Defenders.

"We are tackling the systems that criminalize us, through community organizing. We are empowering young people all over Florida to take leadership in their communities to fight for change," says Nailah Summers, the Dream Defenders' communications director.

This was part of what motivated "We Got Next," which took place this past weekend at the Hard Knocks Strategies office in Fort Lauderdale. Joining the Dream Defenders in organizing the effort were the Working Families Party, New Florida Majority, and Faith in Florida.

"Run for office, manage a campaign, rep your people, 'cause we got next and we ain't looking back," promotional flyers for the event read.

And dozens of attendees, more than 60 people, showed up to learn how to do just that.

Lisbeth Chavarria was among the attendees, and though she doesn't immediately plan to run for office, the 19-year-old welcomed the experience to learn more about political organizing. Chavarria is currently on a fellowship with the Dream Defenders until December. She says her experience as a young, undocumented immigrant led her to activist work, which she hopes to continue.

"The first thing they said was, 'We stand in solidarity with you,' and that was so powerful," Chavarria says. "I've never had a community until the Dream Defenders. There's no family like it."

Throughout the two-day workshop and training sessions, that family also welcomed new members. Various speakers taught future political candidates, campaign managers, and community organizers the essentials of running for office and promoting their causes.

Jennifer Perelman and her campaign team attended, hoping it would help them further prepare for her upcoming race next summer. Perelman is running against Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the embattled former Democratic National Committee chair who represents Florida's 23rd district.

"I've had the same representative for 15 years," Perelman says. "I'm motivated to get corruption and corporate money out of our district."

Perelman has vowed not to accept corporate PAC money. She says the community networking and lessons offered in events such as "We Got Next" give her and political hopefuls like her the chance to grow and expand their campaigns.

Angela Burns, who has worked as a public school educator for 32 years, was also there to learn about challenging an incumbent, as she will be running for Delray Beach City Commission in March against Deputy Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson.

"Delray is a great city, but it's not great for everybody in it at this time,” Burns says. She said of the weekend of intensive training "they're giving me a road map."

The event was led and attended largely by younger people, people of color, women, and those at the intersection of all three groups. Throughout some of the presentations, it was clear this brought a unique perspective.

Lessons weren't limited to lectures and PowerPoints and were complemented by memes, gifs, supporting soundtracks, and workshop activities that involved plans of action for the campaigns of fictional characters (among them, Dobby the Elf).

Organizers also covered a range of topics from the history of grassroots electoral wins, messaging, and budgeting, to how to maintain volunteer participation, managing teams, and strategic campaigning.

Carlos Naranjo, a community organizer for the New Florida Majority, says the event helped to make opportunities for positive social change more accessible. One of the big takeaways for Naranjo was learning how organized people can beat organized money.

"We learned various on-the-ground concrete models and tools that demystify the electoral power system," he says.

Dream Defenders co-founder Nelini Stamp, who is also National Organizing Director of the Working Families Party, helped lead the event. Her experiences traveling across the nation to help create and organize local progressive infrastructure and helping with the elections of exciting political candidates proved an inspiration to those at the workshop.

Naranjo says such examples of success in politics working for social change are encouraging.

Event organizers are planning more training sessions early next year. Each group also holds its own regular events, and all welcome future leaders to attend.

"So much of our current legislature and local elected officials are serving an agenda that hurts our communities and our planet," Summers says. "It may seem scary to run for office, but we want to train young people to run and manage political campaigns, so that we can change this state forever."

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