USC holds equal rights ‘boot camp’

“Are we ready for equality?” Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asked same-sex marriage activists gathered at USC during her keynote address.

About 160 students and community members gathered at USC this weekend for “Campaign Boot Camp.” The program, titled “Education and Empowerment for the Grassroots” included seminars and workshops, that sought to educate attendees about civil rights activism and political campaigning.

Keynote · AJ Tarleton, a participant in the Campaign Boot Camp, introduces Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. - Photo courtesy of David McCoy

Keynote · AJ Tarleton, a participant in the Campaign Boot Camp, introduces Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. - Photo courtesy of David McCoy

The Campaign Boot Camp ­— inspired by Pelosi’s book of the same name — focused specifically on preparing to continue the fight against Prop 8, the ballot proposal banning same-sex marriages in California. The proposition was passed in November 2008, overturning legalization of same-sex marriages by the California Supreme Court six months earlier.

“I believe in equality for everybody. The more that we can inspire people to be involved in public service, to be involved in something better than themselves, the more that we can get,” Pelosi said in an interview.

The event was organized by the coalition Organizations United Together West — a coalition of about 40 different equal rights organizations. OUT West composed an interactive training program with the support of other national organizations, notably Equality California and the Courage Campaign.

“I think this has the chance to impact the very near future, with candidate races and also with the upcoming marriage equality battle that will take place in the next couple of years,” said Chris Hauck, an OUT West event coordinator. “People actually have real-world lessons that they can apply, not just theory.”

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who sent a letter to the participants praising their desire to take action, promised to assist the activists in their fight to overturn the marriage equality ban.

“I don’t believe that we should discriminate against any of God’s children,” Villaraigosa said in an interview. “We should promote the institutions which have always been about families. That’s why I’m so supportive of this issue.”

As part of the boot camp, USC hosted speakers, election simulations and educational series on campaign operations, due in large part to the effort of the school’s LGBT Resource Center.

“It will get people prepared and ready for the next marriage equality battle, but then again, it’s not just about marriage equality. It’s about how these tools and techniques can be used for any sort of campaign,” said Vincent Vigil, director of USC’s LGBT Resource Center.

The focus of the boot camp was on dealing with challenges and frustrations of running any sort of political campaign.

“It’s incredibly hard to be patient when you’re trying to change the world and when you think the world is denying you the very basic human right, but learning to be operational and strategic in our thinking without sacrificing or compromising any of our principles — that’s the ultimate test,” Pelosi said to the participants.

A number of the attendees took part in a quick-paced campaign simulation on Saturday, forcing them to think through and implement campaign strategies in one hour that would typically take place in the nine months before any election day.

People with limited campaign experience worked in teams to learn how to manage a political campaign for the first time. The simulation was based on a state the size of Maine with the demographics of California to make it relevant to advocates of marriage equality in California.

“They’ve given us a look into how a nine-month campaigning process works and the realities of it, the limited knowledge that you’re given at the beginning and how you have to work with that and how you have to work with other people,” said Gregory Oertel, a freshman majoring in music performance.

Only one out of 17 teams that undertook the challenging campaign- simulation game won their ballot measure, demonstrating the inherent difficulty of passing a controversial issue like marriage equality. Fleischer said that it was common for all teams to be defeated in the simulation, reflecting real campaign efforts on gay marriage.

“Many people don’t know how hard it is to win these campaigns,” said Kathleen Campisano, who co-authored the simulation game and is a senior field organizer with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “It helps them understand the frustration; it gets them to really understand that we’ve got to be really smart campaigners to make sure that we can win these elections.”

Participants and speakers at the Campaign Boot Camp also weighed in on the debate over when the gay marriage ban will be contested.

While the organization Love Honor Cherish is positioning itself for a 2010 ballot initiative for marriage equality, Equality California and others are setting their sights on the 2012 election.

Keith Peyton, a senior majoring in international relations and the lavender commencement project manager at the LGBT Resource Center on campus, said that marriage equality will likely be seen on the 2010 ballot.

“It’s definitely practical,” said Peyton. “Six states have already legalized gay marriage, California just went backward.”

In addition to the workshops, several notable activists spoke at the weekend event, including the Reverend Eric P. Lee, the president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles.

“It starts with you to change the societal attitudes about LGBT justice,” Lee told the audience of activists. “Be passionate about justice universally because the fight for justice is not self-serving, but selfless. Look to serve the needs of humanity before our own needs, then our needs will take care of themselves.”

Lee paralleled the denial of fundamental human rights to the LGBT community to the African American civil rights battle and added that proponents of marriage equality must have a personal and unwavering conviction that they deserve equal justice, liberty and legal rights.

“The only thing that sustains us is knowing that it’s right,” Lee said. “Someday you will achieve it.”