This Thing Called Social Change: Building Support for California's Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act

On Dec. 1, 2011, I was laid off from my position as a part-time lecturer at San Francisco State University due to an unexpected $250 million in cuts mid-year. I was hurt deeply by this, not only because of what the layoff meant for me professionally as a young teacher, but also because it included deep cuts to the undergraduate program from which I had just graduated.

The next week, I attended the bi-weekly meeting of the Jeremiah Fellowship, a national yearlong leadership training program, in which I had begun participating that fall. At this particular meeting, we each were asked to choose a social justice issue important to us and to design an action project around it. Immediately, all I could think about was how frustrated I felt about my state's failures in funding public education, raising state revenue, reducing debt and engaging in wasteful spending. I feared, however, that my colleagues would view these challenges as significant economic issues in our state, but beyond the realm of something we could take on as a group. After all, the goal of our coming together as fellows was to come up with something we all valued that we could work on together as a group. I needed their buy-in.

So, while unsure of my -- our -- ability to positively impact such challenging issues, I met with nonprofit leaders in California to research state debt, revenue and public education.

To my surprise, I found a coalition of organizations working on California's substantial, structural fiscal challenges in concrete ways that empowered people at the local level. Their work was based on the California state tax initiative, Proposition 30, the Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act, which had just been introduced and approved for November's ballot. Prop 30 is a progressive tax initiative that proposes a tax increase on the top 1 percent of income earners in our state as well as a small sales tax increase statewide, in order to stop more devastating cuts to our public schools and to guarantee public safety funding.

Four months later, I felt confident in the focus by so many groups on Prop 30, I pitched the idea to my fellow fellows that we too, as a group of people committed to affecting positive change on social justice issues, should tackle building support for Prop 30. We convened as a group to discuss options for our primary focus over the next year. My proposal was written, I had practiced my pitch, and I was ready to tell everyone why the Progressive Taxation for the Common Good campaign (as it has come to be known) was the right choice for us.

Two days before the meeting, I received another layoff notice. This time, it was for my job as a special education instructional assistant with the San Francisco Unified School District. I channeled my frustration into the Claim Your Campaign meeting and felt gratified when the issue I once hesitated to take on was adopted as our primary campaign. People did want to talk about big issues like debt and public education in California, and they were ready to make their voices heard. Moreover, we were able to connect our campaign to a national movement through the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable and its 2012 civic engagement project. I had found my voice and a purpose for my story.

We immediately jumped into action to convince California voters to vote yes on Proposition 30 on Election Day.

As we near the elections, I am facilitating meetings at California homes, where we discuss how our state's fiscal problems affect us as individuals and as communities. Together, we explore Jewish texts to analyze how Jewish tradition encourages ethical interaction, particularly through the idea of collective responsibility for our neighbors. Mostly, though, we push aside the rhetoric and dissect the facts of Prop 30. We discuss how if Prop 30 passes on Nov. 6, it would raise funds for early childhood education, higher education, healthcare, childcare and other critical services for Californians. We end every house meeting by offering concrete action steps. I've been inspired by how participants have been moved in large numbers to sign up for get-out-the-vote activities such as phone banking and door knocking, to host their own house meetings, and to pledge to tell 10 friends why they are voting yes on Proposition 30.

For the first time in my life, I feel empowered as a change-maker in my state, the greater Bay Area community, and right outside my own front door.

Johana Gordon serves on the Bay Area Regional Council of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, which is part of the national Jewish Social Justice Roundtable. She lives in San Francisco and can be reached at