Along Came Harley

Grassroots Activist Leader Augustino to Step Down from PUEBLO

HarleyAugustino is not exactly Central Casting’s idea of a charismatic populist. Speaking before city councils, the county board, and at other public forums, he often looks a decade younger than his 27 years, earnest and dorky-looking in his inevitable T-shirt and jeans. Yet he and the grassroots lobbying organization he has led for the past two-and-a-half years have achieved enormous success pressing the agendas of Santa Barbara’s working poor. Activists new and old, Spanish-speaking and English-speaking, have rallied behind People United for Economic Justice Building Leadership Through Organizing (PUEBLO). Augustino’s name is so synonymous with PUEBLO that his announcement that he will be leaving its top post has observers wondering if the fledgling organization will thrive without him at its helm. Surprisingly, most people Augustino has worked with, or against, gush that he is sensitive, passionate, articulate. Not everybody, of course, is so flattering. One elected official who crossed swords with him complained that dealing with Augustino is “like trying to talk to the Apostle Paul — there’s no give in him, it’s like he’s taking orders from somewhere else, from his true-believer philosophy.” One thing everybody agrees about is the intensity of his focus. Like the two-time AAA Pitcher of the Year that he was in high school, when Augustino winds up and starts throwing, he does so with deliberateness and accuracy. The apostolic analogy is apt in this way at least. In the City of Santa Barbara, where PUEBLO began, Augustino has succeeded in mobilizing neighborhoods of the working poor into a political force to rival the upper Eastside neighborhood associations and downtown merchants’ groups. Spearheading campaigns but at other times riding in like cavalry to assist lonely tilters at windmills, PUEBLO volunteers and staff have won one political victory after another. They persuaded the City Council to dedicate millions in downtown redevelopment money to affordable housing. They convinced the Metropolitan Transit District to provide discount bus passes for daily riders. Recently, PUEBLO successfully lobbied the Santa Barbara City Council to mandate a “living wage” of $14 per hour for workers hired by companies with city contracts. In 2003 and again in 2005, PUEBLO backed winning council candidates. They registered voters and got out the vote in areas where turnouts were historically negligible. The organization never seems to sleep. This fall, PUEBLO opened offices in North County, where progressive activists welcomed them as liberators. Former Lompoc mayor Joyce Howerton, who for the past decade has battled the right-wing Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business, enthused, “COLAB is not the 800-pound gorilla anymore.” Given this momentum, it seems an odd time for Augustino to be stepping down. A burnout factor may be part of the reason, nonprofit work being as all-consuming as it is, but the prevailing wisdom is that this change is key to the grassroots organizing philosophy to which Augustino subscribes. The proper aim of organizers is to make themselves obsolete by cultivating a broad base of political leadership, said Dave Fortson, founder and former executive director of the progressive Santa Barbara Community Action Network. Otherwise the membership becomes codependent. “I guess we’ll see,” he added, “how effective Harley’s organizing was.” Mobile Activist Unit At La Casa de la Raza, where PUEBLO has its headquarters in a sunny peach-painted tower room, director Raquel Lopez said PUEBLO has created a durable structure. Instead of forming and re-forming around crises and single issues, PUEBLO has full-time organizers who are ready to mobilize around a wide range of problems. The difference with this group is paid staff, according to Lopez. PUEBLO raises much of its funding via house parties, whose primary purpose is to court donors — and not for charity. “It’s not ‘Give us money to put food in bowls,’” said Fortson, “but ‘Give us money so we can get in the faces of elected officials — some of whom you voted for.’” PUEBLO’s primary donors, though, are its unpaid volunteers — boardmembers and neighborhood organizers who contribute hours week after week. Recognizing that PUEBLO could not survive without these unsung heroes, Augustino has studiously refused to let his own personality dominate their message. For a guy who has met just about everybody in town, very little is known about him — at least, very few people are willing to talk about his background. According to UCSB sociology professor Dick Flacks, who taught Augustino, he was raised in an upper middle-class family in the left-wing bastion of San Francisco. According to other sources, he attended Lowell High, a prestigious public school, where he pitched his way into the California Interscholastic Federation’s Hall of Fame. His father was a member of the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Association who successfully saved Pier 7 on the Embarcadero from a tourist invasion, preserving it for local families who want to go fishing in the Bay. At UCSB, Augustino majored in >>> sociology, minored in Japanese, played saxophone in the UCSB Jazz Ensemble, and was active in social justice issues. After graduation, he sat on the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District Board — which is essentially the local governing body for I.V., and was instrumental in founding a tenants’ union there. In forming PUEBLO, Augustino recruited one of the most important political organizers in American history, Dolores Huerta, to conduct training classes for staff and volunteers. Huerta, with César Chávez, founded the United Farm Workers during the 1960s, using organizing traditions stretching back at least to the 1930s. According to Augustino, Huerta’s methods lend themselves particularly well to female leadership, because Huerta is inclined to seek out the people who do the household budgeting and organize the quinceañeras. Following Huerta’s instruction, PUEBLO conducted hundreds of “house meetings” in Santa Barbara. These are structured like nothing so much as a series of political Tupperware parties. Someone invites a few neighbors or friends over to their home, where Augustino or other PUEBLO members listen to the concerns they would like their government to address. After a few training sessions, neighborhood volunteers began walking door to door, gathering signatures and registering voters. Then the neophyte activists met and negotiated with other stakeholders and powerbrokers —from environmentalist groups to traffic engineers to church groups. One government official half-jokingly griped that when he scheduled a meeting with Augustino to hammer out the details of a compromise, he was surprised to find six other people with him, all taking part in the negotiations. Dave Davis, former head of planning for the City of Santa Barbara and later chair of the Metropolitan Transit District board, bore witness to one of Augustino’s early organizing feats. Davis walked into his first board meeting to find 150 people — including young children — holding signs, chanting, and filling out speaker slips to protest a proposed hike in bus fares. What impressed Davis was not only the fact that PUEBLO packed the meeting room of an insular board accustomed to operating in privacy and obscurity. It was that Augustino provided “constructive criticism,” Davis said. The board was in a tight spot because the members had to consider also the demands of its drivers and mechanics amid rising fuel costs. Augustino presented solutions used by other agencies and even did a budget analysis. “Harley really tries to understand others’ points of view,” Davis said, “to try to bridge that gap to achieve his goals.” The deal’s clincher was that in exchange for a reduced-fare bus pass program, PUEBLO promised to help MTD raise funds in the future. That promise was kept. PUEBLO is leaning heavily on the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments to provide MTD with a pot of money that it can control so it doesn’t have to continue to manage as a line item on other agencies’ budgets. It may be true that Augustino keeps his promises — which are not given without a decision by the PUEBLO board. However, there is no guarantee that a mobilized constituency of traditional, socially conservative families won’t turn around and campaign in opposition to the positions of liberal donors. Right now, PUEBLO is working hand-in-glove with environmental organizations on transportation issues. Among these is the Sierra Club, whose national organization has taken stands on border issues that are anathema to much of PUEBLO’s membership. “An alliance may be temporary but it transforms each organization. It’s about building relationships,” said PUEBLO’s Ana Reza, who works as a pastoral associate at St. Mark’s church. “It’s about the wholeness of the community.” Though PUEBLO primarily represents the poor working people of Santa Barbara, a majority of whom come from Latino backgrounds, a diverse group of volunteers mans the PUEBLO offices located at La Casa de la Raza — phone-calling to get people out for City Hall meetings, filing, making copies, compiling data, getting out the vote. In other words, they do the same thing that citizen groups have always done. Civil Servant One part of the Augustino magic that seems to have stamped itself upon the organization is the civility with which he operates. This is evidenced in the number of times per day that Augustino says thank you. In reporting on current campaigns and victories on the Web site (sbpueblo .org), he is meticulous about naming the names of officials who voted in favor of PUEBLO’s positions, urging the membership to “say thank you” to them. During the recent march against immigration bills, PUEBLO’s North County organizer Raphaela Moreno made a point of welcoming all the organizations participating in the demonstration, including a big cheer for the police who were assigned to monitor it. This is in contrast to the more polarizing and rancorous rhetoric associated with some more recent Chicano activism. While Augustino may make enemies, he doesn’t make enemies gratuitously. Whether or not PUEBLO will continue to embrace this more inclusive brand of politics, so selflessly established by Huerta and Chávez, remains to be seen. But the quality cannot be underestimated. Miguel Ramirez, a former construction worker and PUEBLO volunteer who is the third full-time organizer besides Augustino and Moreno, believes this is in harmony with traditional Mexican patterns of courtesy and respect. Another critical political skill PUEBLO fosters is research, said Esther Aguilera, who, along with her PUEBLO board co-chair Ana Reza, recently answered questions at what was for them another kitchen klatch. “We don’t get up there in front of City Council and just talk,” said Agui- lera. “We come well-informed.” Staff and volunteers first pick the brains of everybody from bureaucrats to businesspeople, and study how other communities have solved problems similar to ones Santa Barbara faces. Then they carefully “articulate” their message. They “dialogue” with other powerbrokers. Both Aguilera and Reza agree that it’s not so hard once you begin: You just sit down and ask, “Where do you stand on this?” said Reza. Next, they develop strategies. Gratuitous insult is “not strategic.” Saying thank you is strategic. So is talking to the media. In short, Aguilera said, “A lot of work is needed in this community to keep our representatives accountable. So yes,” she said, “we are going to go to call on them in a respectful and ethical way. But the people we put in office, we do expect to represent the community well. They are there because they want to make a better community. We all have the same mission,” she added, “just different agendas. That’s politics.” If all goes according to plan, then, many newly empowered workers will by now have learned how to advocate for their own interests, and PUEBLO will persist as an irresistible force for inclusive democracy. On the other hand, Augustino has political skills and savvy that are not easy to replicate — which may explain why the PUEBLO board is conducting a national search for a new director, even though this seems contrary to the emphasis on building leadership from the grassroots. Boardmembers are enigmatic on the subject, only responding that they are not xenophobic. Reza is incredulous at the idea that PUEBLO is dependent on Augustino for its survival. “I give a lot of time and money to PUEBLO,” said Reza, “and I would never be part of an organization like that. It would be unhealthy if it were all about Harley.” Aguilera and Reza, who consider themselves newly empowered politically, can’t imagine the genie fitting back into the bottle. “As I walk and talk and deal with officials, I am getting over my fears,” said Reza. “People who have done that really understand that when Harley leaves it won’t fall apart, because once you’ve done that you know your power.”

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