Community organizer Samuel Sukaton talks about knocking on doors, electing people who can help us live more abundant lives, and geeking out over numbers.
Question: You have been working as a community organizer for the Sierra Club for almost three years. You recently finished managing the Sierra Club's involvement in four state legislative elections in San Bernardino and Riverside counties in California. What was that like? Did your candidates win?
Answer: It was a pretty good season out in the Inland Empire. One of our candidates won a come-from-behind victory against an oil-funded incumbent after maybe $6 million was spent in that race. All told, we won two out of four Assembly races (with our endorsed candidate in Loma Linda/Redlands/San Bernardino coming painfully close — I hope she runs again). We picked up a couple city council seats and a community college board seat.
Out of 10 endorsements/friends of the Sierra Club in the two counties running in November, I think five folks won their races. One (which we didn't have time to endorse in, but who is a Sierra Club member-leader) won a city council seat by something like 37 votes!
I like elections the way some folks like football — it satisfies my itch for competition, for short-term projects that require massive effort, and for nerding out over scores and how things could be played different. (Good campaign managers have to use algebra and geometry!)
What were the main issues you were focusing on with voters?
Clean air, clean air, clean air. San Bernardino has some of the worst air quality in the nation. California's filthiest natural gas plant is a couple of minutes away from Redlands Adventist Academy. Freeways, warehouses, and the region's transition from industrial to post-industrial are leaving two generations of people — many of them already dealing with our racist legacies — poor, broke, and sick.
Young folks are being asked to give up clean air for good jobs and are getting neither. The political-speak for it is “environmental racism/environmental justice,” namely, that access to Creation's natural beauty and the health and wellness that attends it is limited by principalities and powers tied up with how we practice race in this country and that those most impacted by environmental degradation have the highest stake in needing to fix it.
What did you do to inform voters of the issues and mobilize them to vote?
I talked to them. I have cousins who were colporteurs, so we have a genetic affinity to wearing down shoe leather and eating cheap meals. I'm a field person by training (as opposed to someone who specializes in press, fundraising, e-mails), so I'm incredibly biased in favor of my trade, but I won my races on the cell phone and people's front porches.
Every campaign starts with what's called a “win number” — one predicts turnout by averaging how many people voted in previous elections then works his way to a winning majority. Then, one decides how to get to that many voters: how many conversations, how many touches by mail and advertisements, how many articles or op-eds in local papers, and how much money to spend on those things?
The race that I'm proudest of was almost all volunteer. Eloise Reyes and her husband Frank were running for an Assembly seat and a San Bernardino Community College Board seat based in Colton and points further west to Fontana. Our team was all volunteer, and overwhelmingly, young and non-white. I'm talking about seventh graders knocking doors and high school students on phones, still dressed for tennis practice. We recruited young folks who were sick of the violence, disinvestment, and irresponsible government our hometowns had been saddled with and took a chance on someone who combines experience with commitment (Eloise and Frank are longtime community activists), and we saw the good guys win in a big way on election night.
What was the hardest thing that happened during the campaign?
My grandmother died about three weeks before the election. That was incredibly discouraging. We were joking about registering her to vote for the first time in that race (Eloise and Frank are her neighbors while Abigail Medina represents my parents on the San Bernardino school board), and I was the last of the grandchildren to know because work ate me alive. That nearly broke me, and it's hard to make space to grieve in the middle of 18-hour days.
Frankly, I don't think I've made space to grieve still.
So many of my friends — and Eloise and Frank and their whole family and our students — stopped and came to the Loma Linda Indonesian church to help us bury her which was so healing.
I grew up out in San Bernardino, but the Adventist community (and the Indonesian Adventist community) can be very inward-focused. I know that my community was incredibly compassionate and committed to one another, but one doesn't expect candidates to stop for a funeral, much less a funeral for someone they have never met who is beloved by someone they don't know well.
Politics can be profoundly transactional and dispassionate, but the way folks closed in around me reminded me about the grace and power that come in the work, too.
What did you learn during this recent election? How has your job changed now that the election is over?
I've developed a healthy sense of perspective about my craft.
On the one hand, I'll always rant and rave that field is everything. Like I said already, I am glaringly and aggressively biased in favor of field organizers and volunteers in the context of broader campaign and political life. I respect folks who walk and knock; I'm more inclined to listen to what they have to say; I recruit and advise the ambitious and upwardly mobile to walk or call for one campaign each cycle. I don't believe anybody can talk about politics with authority without walking and calling regularly, and I jealously defend our trade as the “heart” of political campaigns.
I believe that intentional, compassionate, face-to-face conversations between people who inspire trust get people to vote. That's the great lesson of all the disruptive campaigns, from Cesar Chavez and the UFW driving Bobby Kennedy to victory in California in 1968 to Barack Obama stampeding to two terms in the White House in 2008 and 2012. As I said this weekend to a friend who specializes in finance: “I’m a field nerd; fight me. Oh wait, you can't because my feet are stronger.”
On the other hand, realistically, field is maybe five percentage points in a race — probably less. If you're unpopular, you're tied to bad policy, you're getting wrecked in the newspapers, you're running with an unpopular president, you're dealing with a major scandal, the civil society institutions in your district have rejected you, voter registration numbers are against you by large enough margins, or if you have low name identification or not enough money to sustain an operation, the most authentic, genuine, or engaging field organizers and volunteers can't save you.
It's a sort of tension between “what I can control” and “what I can’t” that Sabbathkeepers who are saved by grace just might be familiar with.
Do you feel California voters are in a very different place than much of the rest of the country? What do you think of our new president?
Is California different? Yes and no. Yes, in that our communities have been presented with choices earlier than other parts of the country and are, perhaps, in a different historical moment politically. (Proposition 187 predates “building a wall” by a generation, for example.) No, in that I don't think the choices California has faced and made are uniquely different from those other states and that the Union generally is facing.
Those choices and their consequences are being played out differently in different states, which explains the gap. Furthermore, the numbers from the recent post-inauguration march suggest that there isn't something unique about California's rejection of the incoming administration. (One number I saw that made my breath catch was 3,500 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.) Rather, California's rejection of the Trump administration — from 750,000 on the streets of Los Angeles on January 21 to the first resolution considered by the 2017-18 Assembly being a full-throated defense of immigrants — is the product of the same process the rest of the country is going through a couple of decades earlier. An image that comes to mind is California's Senate President pro tempore, Kevin de Leon. De Leon was a major organizer of the opposition to Proposition 187 in 1994 and now manages our upper house. The young people who led chants, brought out friends, or walked their strollers after Trump’s inauguration (much like Kevin De Leon did 23 years ago) will “sit in deliberative and legislative councils” (to borrow from EGW) much as Senator de Leon does now.
Regarding the gentleman who has moved into the White House: Maranatha. A lifetime of training by Indonesian immigrants so excited to keep the Sabbath in freedom in the U.S. has me praying always for those whom God and the electorate have seen fit to impose over us, but I'm thumbing through my copy of A Thousand Shall Fall these past few months.
You were born in Pennsylvania to Indonesian parents and graduated from University of California, Los Angeles. You grew up Adventist? Are you still an Adventist? Why or why not?
I was raised Adventist (though the Indonesian churches I grew up in serve meat). My parents felt very strongly about public school, so I didn't see the inside of an academy until I was 17 (and then only for a choir concert), so I went through San Bernardino public schools and got my BA at UCLA. I'm still Adventist — I attend church pretty regularly.
How did you get involved in community organizing?
Mostly school, a little church. When I was at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) I met Zach Hoover, an LA Voice PICO organizer and colleague of Geoffrey Nelson-Blake (who has graced these pages in the past) at Hollywood Adventist, which was then pastored by Ryan Bell and involved in local anti-poverty work.
I ran in anti-austerity, pro-public education circles at UCLA, working on making the UC more affordable for students, more accessible to undocumented students (this was pre-DACA), and more accountable to the service workers, lecturers, and graduate teaching assistants who provided so much frontline service to students and kept the place running. While my values (religious freedom, protection in the workplace, democracy as the best vehicle to pursue freedom and joy in a broken world, education as a public good) come from my childhood in San Bernardino, I started to learn my craft in school and after graduation.
Do you like politics?
Chris Matthews writes in Hardball that it's the only game for grown-ups. I'm not sure how I feel about that — I like board games, and we're dealing, in the final analysis, with people's lives, so he's not quite correct, but I think the work satisfies me on a lot of levels.
Intellectually, the problems that come with elections and with legislation are interesting to solve. Frankly, working at the intersection of science and politics (liveable wages on a liveable planet, space exploration, environmental justice, and good jobs) is both urgent and fascinating, and something I'd like to do more of.
If we talk about values, I try to elect people and make laws that allow my own family and people like us to live more abundant lives. Most of political values can be rooted in an experience I've had with a parent, one of their siblings, or one of my cousins. I want my mom to have the protection of a union, not just lawyers to defend her right to the Sabbath. If budgets are moral documents, I want California's to honor people like my late grandmother and uncle who care for some of California's most dangerous patients at Patton State Hospital I want my cousins not to have to pay for college if University of California Riverside is a better fit than Loma Linda University. I want my sister and her husband not to lose their house to fire or their kids to respiratory illnesses caused by climate change and pollution. I look down my pew in any church on Sabbath morning and see folks who might get deported, or whose kids benefit from DACA, or who are victims of police brutality.
Emotionally, I'm drawn to the organizing/campaigns/field world because it's hard. It's generally difficult because the work is as grueling as it is inconsistent, and it's particularly difficult for me because of who I am. Organizing as a discipline and the subdisciplines of political field work do not lend themselves to the strengths I had as a child or the career assumptions for young man growing up in the Indonesian community or the Adventist faith. I do think I have a bloody-mindedness, an intransigence about choosing to do political work (and, to my mind, the hardest kind of political work) when my contemporaries are going to professional school or working in healthcare.
Finally, it satisfies my need to geek out. My sister follows the Steelers, and my dad fills out his March Madness bracket every year. My mom stitches and watches Law and Order. I practice writing a better phone script and play saxophone.
Do you believe it is important for people of faith to get involved in politics?
Yes, politics is for everyone. Being a partisan might not be. Being a candidate or an aide or a campaigner might not be. And that's fine. But being able to talk to a neighbor about safe streets, good schools, and where your tax money goes is as difficult as it is necessary.
For those more inclined toward the critically necessary tedium of committee work, monitoring local councils and boards, or managing the day-to-day life of volunteer organizations, there are thousands of places that our unique skills as Adventists involved in the life of our church (I remain in awe of potluck planners, nominating committee members, elders, and deacons) can fill well.
As an example: The Sierra Club is generally seen as one of the great DC-based players in the environmental/conservation community with lobbyists stalking the halls of Congress. And it is. It's also hundreds of small groups of people leading hikes, maintaining trails, searching for rare flora and fauna, and enjoying the world's natural beauty in their own backyards. How many of us ex-Pathfinders would be enriched by, or be of help to, a local Sierra Club group somewhere near Berrien Springs or Loma Linda?
Do as much as you can, whenever you can, wherever you can. Run a cleanup with your Assembly member. Run for the school board.
While my own politics are very clear here (I'm left-of-center, an assertively partisan Democrat, and somebody who identifies himself very clearly with labor unions and the environment), I want to emphatically say that politics is for everyone, regardless of party. Adventists have acquitted themselves well on both sides of the aisle. Dr. Bill Emmerson served with distinction as a Republican in both houses of the California Legislature; Jerry and Shirley Pettis, of course, represented Loma Linda in the House long and well, while Roscoe Bartlett served Maryland in the same capacity. On the Democratic side, Justin Kim ran a strong campaign for Congress in the seat the Pettises occupied, and Sheila Jackson-Lee continues to represent Houston, while Nathan Blake in Iowa lost a very close primary for the State Senate and continues to serve on his school board.
What do you feel the Adventist church does well? What could it do better?
I don't feel qualified speaking to that question directly because I'm not deeply embedded in the organizational and cultural life of our church — the different schedule and different community public school provided always kept me a bit apart.
I think that Adventists in California make more space for for ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity than most of the Protestant churches I've passed through. When I went to church with non-Adventist friends, I might catch a verse of a praise song in Spanish every now and again or a story about the heathens in the mission field.
Conversely, my mother says grace, studies her Bible, and takes sermon notes in Indonesian, and most languages have at least one church in the community I grew up in. There's a comfort with non-white, non-American, and non-English speaking cultures and languages in Adventism I've not seen elsewhere in the non-mainline Protestant world — we aren't weird. We aren't held up as “the mission field.” We're just another kind of Adventist, albeit with specific types of cultural and political baggage.
I apologize for getting unnecessarily political (and I'm very excited to see the comments section for what I'm about to say), but I remain confused about the conflict over women's ordination. That may have to do with my separation from the community at large or my Californian origins, but if the the Most High sees fit to bestow the Spirit of Prophecy on a woman, why should women be uniquely barred from ministry? My cousin is a Bible teacher at an academy. If she's qualified to teach Scripture, why couldn't she (hypothetically) be qualified to preach Scripture?
Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years time?
I'm not sure. I like my job, but the instability of campaign work is starting to wear my family out. I might pick another trade and continue to volunteer. I'd like to be in southern California.
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