Along Came Harley

Grassroots Activist Leader Augustino to Step Down from

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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