Student Blogger Study USA

Exploring Organizing: My Internship at MRLF

A US flag flies over the exterior of a building on a clear blue day. The building reads: United Labor Center.

Every semester, one student from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Aidan Sponheim will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Inequality in America program this spring semester. Aidan is a third-year student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Psychology. Read on for Aidan’s impressions of his internship site!

Throughout my life I have struggled to define the act of “organizing.” I had no knowledge of it through my teenage years and very little during my first years of college. Organizing is new for me. Yet the one thing I understand, from the few experiences I have had, is that organizing is powerful. And as I begin to grow and learn, it is clear that organizing is very accessible.

This question of, “what is organizing?” leads me on pursuits that attempt to define justice and activism for myself, raising questions about my abilities and validity of experiences, which, in reality, will take me a very long time to process (I am a strong believer that my perception of organizing will never stop changing). Beyond this, it is clear to me as a product of my experiences in the past six weeks with HECUA that organizing is not only practiced by what I have though as the niche community of social justice advocates in this world. Organizing is used in all realms of society, in the “good” and the “bad” and everything in between. My HECUA internship at the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation has helped me begin to loosen my restricted perception of who can and should organize, and where organizing is most effective. These experiences have exposed me to the endless opportunities where change can be implemented.

In conjunction with deep discussion, lectures, field study, and homework, HECUA students are expected to intern at an organization during their program. Counted as an eight-credit course, these internships are a key component to the experiential aspect of the program. They allow my peers and I to take what is learned in class and contextualize it in a real world setting, by helping a real-world organization solve real-world issues in the Twin Cities area. I am interning this semester at MRLF and this intersectional relationship between class and the world I speak of is exactly how it shows up in my work there. Contrary to what many people consider internship work to be, my work with MRLF is fun! My experiences there go beyond the classroom; I am learning skills that will be applicable in more than an organizing setting. It is beginning to genuinely influence the values I currently hold as a human and those I am forming throughout my HECUA experience.

This is the conference room at MRLF where all of the good stuff goes down.

What is MRLF? As a labor federation, the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation acts as an umbrella organization for 175 affiliate unions in the Minneapolis and west metro area. Quite specifically, all of the unions that MRLF supports are in the area of 6 counties (Carver, Hennepin, Anoka, McLeod, Meeker, Wright). The affiliate labor unions are made up of 10 to over 7,000 members, ensuing that Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation represents and supports tens of thousands of labor union members (the largest population in any Minnesota regional federation) with the work that they do. In order to do what they do, a small portion of union member monthly dues are given to the MRLF, which in exchange allows MRLF to support unions when they go on strike, support campaigns, and provide endorsements for candidates running for office. They also have a nonprofit organization that provides financial and occupational resources and aid to union members.

For a long time, MRLF acted as a small, basic organization with only a few staff members and centered around labor union issues only. This meant that they were relying on the popularity of union labor for support to do the things they did, acting as a central hub for local union affiliates to make democratic federation decisions and to organize endorsements of candidates running for office. Yet, as the labor union movement started to lose traction amongst the country’s working class people, MRLF began to realize the power that was slowly slipping away from them. Identifying the need to bolster their presence in the Minneapolis Metropolitan area, the Federation welcomed four additional organizers to their team. The election of the first female president (Chelsie Glaubitz Gabiou), who has lead the MRLF team since 2015, signaled a move to increase diversity in the Federation’s campaign participation. They began to move beyond just working for unions to engaging with various communities to bring economic and social justice to all working people.

The way this shift appears today is super cool, and I feel fortunate to have been welcomed into this unique, progressive, intersectional community during our society’s current social climate. When I say that MRLF has helped me to unlearn my very limited understanding of what organizing can and should be, it is through exposing me to the plethora of organizing efforts that the federation works engages on a daily basis. As a result of bringing on four additional organizers to the team the federation is now able to work on various campaigns throughout the Cities simultaneously, utilizing their regional federation status as a tool to connect with all sorts of communities. Currently they are working on a multitude of campaigns that are affecting a number of different communities in their region.

One example: just recently I have become involved with a campaign to bring better racial representation to the Osseo school district board. With kids of color making up around 57% of the district’s student population and six out of the seven board members living in Maple Grove or surrounding affluent areas, representation on the board of everyone who is a part of the Osseo school system is lacking. Only one member lives in the underfunded areas of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center – these areas additionally have the highest-growing population of African American families in the state. This reality not only ensures inequality in representation of students of color, it funnels all of the intended state funds for the Osseo school district to the schools in its most affluent areas. This campaign has no real connection with the labor union community, but because MRLF has brought on these extra organizers to their team, they now have opportunities to affect change in many avenues, such as school redistricting, throughout their region.

I didn’t understand the extent of the federation’s network until I started to settle in at MRLF. I will say though, as I became adjusted to the space in my first few days interning, I clearly got a sense of how busy the federation is. With seven staff members, who all have networks of their own, there seems to never be a shortage of things to do. It also ebbs and flows. MRLF works hard around election seasons, and since there was one in the fall, staff have been vocal about how slow things seem now that the season is over. To me, as an outsider, it seems very busy all the time. Which is something that excites me. My supervisor David has got me doing a multitude of things that helps me taste that fast-paced work mode. While at the beginning of my time as an intern I was predominantly working on the federation’s Facebook page, I have slowly transitioned to helping out with campaigns. Through helping out with a campaign around increasing union membership and union community strength in Anoka county, to being part of the Osseo School Representation these organizing opportunities provide me with important knowledge. Beyond taking in these issues and becoming well-versed in understanding the key components to each campaign, I am learning basic skills that will help me throughout my entire life.

This is why HECUA is so good at what they do. They know that the things any of their students will take away from their experiences in their programs, particularly those that deal with being a part of another organization for a year, go beyond the course curriculum into basic life lessons. As I sit in meetings with the Osseo District Campaign team I am developing note-taking skills, listening skills, critical thinking skills. When I am calling Anoka county union members, I am not simply leaving message after message, I am learning how to be effective in addressing others and providing the most important information concisely. And apart from all the work I am doing, I am learning how to be with people, communicate with them and organize with them.

I guess that brings me back to my first point I made about this thing called “organizing.” In my past I never considered myself an organizer. It felt like an almost unattainable role to fill, like you needed many years’ worth of experience to engage with such duties. But being at MRLF is proving me wrong. My time with the federation thus far has taught me that not only is organizing used in all kinds of endeavors in this society, it is accessible to anyone.

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