Q. and A. with two JP activists

Ruth Birnberg and Esther Kaplan are two Jamaica Plain residents who are longtime activists. The two have been traveling out of state as part of “Trip to Flip”, an initiative to flip the House of Representatives from Republican to Democrat. The Gazette recently conducted a question-and-session through email with Birnberg and Kaplan about their activism and “Trip to Flip.” (The session has been edited.

What is “Trip to Flip” and what organizations are involved with it?

“Trip to Flip” (T2F) is an initiative created by a group of eight Boston area residents who had previously volunteered for Presidential campaigns in areas of the country considered more contested than Massachusetts. We had meaningful experiences and wanted to encourage other folks to leave the Blue Bubble of Massachusetts and help in other parts of the country. We heard that many folks might not know how to go about doing that so we decided to make it easy.

We set our sights on winnable swing House districts where we could make a difference. We used Cook’s Political Report and Sabato’ Crystal Ball to identify districts rated as Toss-Ups. We decided to focus on districts that were most in need of volunteers. We reached out to campaigns and asked if they needed volunteers, if they would use volunteers from outside the district, when they could use help, and other logistical details such as whether they could provide volunteer housing. Our group divided into roles as liaisons to campaigns, recruiting volunteers, and assisting those who sign up online.

We are affiliated with Swing Left. We are on their website and appreciate their helping us promote this opportunity.   Open to all, we know this is not right for everyone. We are finding great interest amongst Baby Boomers who are lucky enough to have the time and resources to go “Trip to Flip”.

Q.: How did you become involved with organizing “Trip to Flip”?

A.: Esther: Ruth and I and two friends volunteered for the Clinton campaign in rural North Carolina in 2016. It was a transformative, eye-opening experience. We were given lists of occasionally voting Democrats to reinforce the importance of that election. In those three counties those lists were 95 percent poor African-American. We witnessed voter suppression – in overt and subtle forms – aimed at discouraging them from voting. Just some of what we saw: the elimination of Sunday early voting to eliminate Souls to the Polls, one early voting location per large county where many did not have cars and there was no public transportation, scare tactics to discourage convicted felons who were now eligible to vote, many changed polling locations with no signs indicating the new location on Election Day, and some pastors organized to tell their congregations that ‘the Bible says that women should not lead’.

We wanted others to get outside the Blue Bubble of JP and Massachusetts, experience and get involved with what’s happening in other parts of the country.

Ruth: Esther told me about a new group of people she had met who were getting together to talk about inspiring and helping others to go on the type of trips we had done in 2016 canvassing for 10 days in North Carolina.  I decided to get involved because I found that my work in 2016 had such a large impact on me and that over the past two years when I talked to others they were motivated to learn more and to think seriously about going outside Massachusetts.

For many, including me, it can be scary to think about knocking on doors in a part of the country where you do not live. Even when you get past that fear and decide that it is really worth doing it can feel daunting to figure out where to go and how to connect with a campaign and what is the campaign going to ask you to do. We created “Trip to Flip” to make it possible for someone who had never gone elsewhere to campaign, to provide support needed, answer questions, and develop pathways that enable them to take the step to go to another state and canvass.

Q.: What are some of the races that “Trip to Flip” will be volunteering for?

A.: “Trip to Flip” is focusing on swing House districts, currently represented by Republicans, that are rated as Toss-Ups. We chose 12 campaigns in locations farther away from Democratic strongholds and therefore having a greater need for volunteers. These candidates include Cindy Axne in IA-03 (northwest Iowa), Dan McCready in NC-09 (suburbs of Charlotte and a rural stretch along the South Carolina border), Jared Golden in ME-02 (northern Maine), Colin Allred in TX-32 (Dallas suburbs) and Brendan Kelly in IL-12 (southern Illinois). There’s a list with descriptions of the districts and candidates at bit.ly/2ApdD56. T2Fers are leading groups to Maine, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

Talk a little about the importance of this year’s election.

Ruth: With both sides of congress and executive branch controlled by Republicans we have seen how the extreme branches of the party have been able to push through policies that only benefit the wealthy in this country, are racist in tone, are tearing apart legislation that results in many losing access to health care and this is only the beginning. It is only through shifting where the power lies will it be possible to stop this onslaught. I see the first real possible step is to “flip” the House of Representatives.

Esther: I think we are fighting for the soul of our country and the battle is not here in Massachusetts. If we do not take back the House and assert some oversight over the Trump administration and a check and balance on the Senate, I fear that Republicans will have further devastating impact – on the environment, our international stature, a democracy of/for/by the people not the oligarchs, an economy that provides real and equitable opportunity for the middle class and those more disadvantaged, the expectation of an ethical government, the normalization of misogyny and racism, and much more.   Trump has made it clear that he does not care about marches and petitions, he only understands power. We must regain electoral power.

At the same time I recognize that our country is so divided. We need more person-to-person dialogue. We must listen to each other, discuss values and issues in a civil manner, and find solutions with input from diverse points of view. T2F is one small way to put myself in a place that is not an echo chamber, that allows me to really listen to people with real concerns and a different point-of-view and have them hear mine, and to encourage those not using their electoral voice to be heard by voting.

Traditionally, Democrats have low turn-out for midterm elections. That has to change starting now.

Have you always been an activist? What inspired you to become involved with politics?

Ruth: As a youngster growing up in Washington DC I was active in the Vietnam anti-war movement and then stayed involved on and off as issues rose to the forefront. The majority of my activism though has been focused on being an advocate for the arts. I was a dancer/choreographer/teacher for many years. I then moved into working as an arts administrator supporting the arts and creating programs that help them sustain their lives as working artists. I continue with this work today.

In the summer of 2016 I started feeling that making donations and putting in a day here and there was not enough. Not only did I need to do more than scream at the TV and complain with friends but get a better understanding of how others felt outside my Jamaica Plain blue bubble.  This led to my seeking out people who had previously gone to other states.  Now I am addicted and dedicated to taking these trips as often as I can fit them into my life.

Esther: I also grew up in D.C. and Maryland suburbs (we didn’t know each other then) and policy and politics as a reflection of values was in the air we breathed at home and at school. In 10th grade I served on a host committee for the November Vietnam Moratorium and in 11th grade I canvassed the neighborhood to advocate for adding a student representative to the county school board, a radical notion at that time.

My professional life has focused on providing the ‘advantages’ that I had to others – a good public education, access to the arts as part of an effective education and satisfying community life, understanding and appreciation of cultures beyond my own, etc.

I moved to JP 40 years ago and have been a member of the Ward 19 Democratic Committee for 24 years.

Q.: Anything else you would like to add?

A.: You can still get involved and it doesn’t have to cost a lot. We’re both just back from a week’s “Trip to Flip”. The Last Weekend of November 2-6 is the most important time to ensure turn-out. Go to www.swingleftboston.gov/trip-to-flip, read the webpage and sign-up.

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