In late November, as the dust was still settling after the midterm elections, Our Lives Editor Emily Mills spoke by phone with former Human Rights Campaign regional field organizer and current volunteer, Davette Baker.
Baker talks a bit about her own background and what drives her to do the work. She also delves into the nitty gritty of community and volunteer organizing, as well as the HRC’s newly re-energized and longer-term presence in the state.
So tell us a little bit about you and where you’re from.
I was born and raised in Milwaukee. My parents are from the South. My mom taught for Milwaukee Public Schools for almost 40 years in a world where MPS used to recruit black teachers—oh my goodness. Who knew that existed? They don’t do that anymore.
My mom and five of her friends moved from Mississippi to Milwaukee to teach black kids, and they all did for a long time. My dad grew up on a farm in Mississippi, and his dad died when he was really young, so he moved to where his mom was living and then ended up in Milwaukee, and my parents met through mutual friends, and at one point, they had me. The rest is history.
I’m a UW System grad. I love my state. I have been offered many a time to leave here and have turned it down. It’s that melting pot idea that I know some people hate. The other night, my partner and I were coming home, and he’s like, “The wind’s blowing the right way,” because we could smell the farm, and that’s how close we live to rural Wisconsin where we live on the north side of Madison. If the wind blows the right way, you can smell the cows, and that’s something that didn’t happen in Milwaukee. You could smell the yeast, or the sewage, but that was it. I love that, in Wisconsin, you can live in places where you’re really close to rural land or native land. I love Wisconsin.
Your background is in community organizing around ending mass incarceration, so you already had some visibility when you began to work for the HRC. What’s the transition been like? What drew you to this?
The work that I’m doing has been ingrained in me [by my parents], and I think I’ve run from it for a long time.
God bless him, when me and my partner were first dating, he was like, “You’re kinda famous.” And I was like, “I’m not famous. What are you talking about? Famous people have money. I don’t have any money. Famous people have people do stuff for ’em. I have to cook my own food.” But like in his eyes…. It actually humbles me to see how other people see me because when people get excited to see me, it’s so weird.
I’m just this girl with a messy house who loves Hello Kitty and wears novelty tees and boots and leggings, and my mom and sister are constantly yelling at me that I need to dress better, and they currently hate my Grace Jones haircut.
HRC hired me at the end of May. I was the last person hired to round out the HRC Rising team, so there are three other of me in the state—Eliza Cussen, Deon Young, and Breana Stanley.
They’re all amazing and great organizers, and I had never felt like I was the last hired. I always tell people that if it wasn’t for Eliza, I wouldn’t have even applied for this job. It was just such a great fit, and then seeing what we accomplished, I didn’t do it by myself. I spent the summer meeting people, talking with them and hanging out with them and then having trainings.
I am what they call a “relational organizer,” that’s how I was taught to organize, and so it’s not just for me calling you and saying, “Hey, can you do this?” [Post-election] I still talk to my organizers or my volunteers regularly, be like, “How are you guys doing? What’s going on?” One of our awesome phone bankers is in the Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus, so we’re gonna go hear the gay men’s chorus, you know? Just together as a group.
We had a celebration where I gave out certificates. Everyone that participated with us is getting a thank you from myself and from Chad [Griffin, outgoing HRC president and CEO]. I want you to know that I appreciate your help, even if you only volunteered one time, you helped what we did, and I’m appreciative of that. For some people, this was their first time knocking a door or their first time making a phone call.
What do you think makes a good organizer or supervisor in these settings?
Just getting to know people and figuring out what it is that they’re good at, and then encouraging them to do those things, challenging them to do something that they might not otherwise do. Honestly, that’s all any good supervisor I’ve had or any good campaign that I’ve worked on, that’s literally what has happened.
Organizing is just, I eat, sleep, and breathe it, and I don’t know if I could ever doing anything else now.
You said that for a lot of people this was the first time that they had volunteered. What were you hearing from people that motivated them to show up?
A lot of our volunteers went through our summer training, the Equality Action Academy. This training did two things. It brought people up to speed on the HRC and the things that HRC has done since 1980, and where we were at the moment Trump was elected, and then where we’re trying to go. The second part of the training teaches you how to organize yourself, so it teaches you how to have one-to-ones, how to tell your own story of self, and how to take those two things and empower and bring along people in your own network.
It sort of plays off of and works well with relational voting, which is where you write down 10 people you know. I had a stay-at-home mom. That was really all she could do, so she had 10 people she talked to weekly. Some of them joined our HRC. Some of them signed up to volunteer. Some of them did their own list and got people to sign up or volunteer or made sure they had a voting plan. You try to figure out where you can meet people at and what they can do, and then offer them a challenge.
I also partnered with NOW, with Women’s March, and also with the Madison Time Bank. They let me do two trainings at their Share Fest, and we did a showing of 13TH, and I gave away T-shirts for people that signed up for shifts. You have to think of creative ways of just talking to people and just saying, “Hey, you know what? This is fun. This can be fun,” and we have fun. It was hard work. I never felt like I was working, though.
I had volunteers that knocked doors with every neighborhood team that they could, not even with me asking them to do that. They just decided that they were gonna help any neighborhood team that they could help, and we started knocking doors every weekend, the first weekend in September. I watched the amount of people that would show grow and grow and grow until Get Out the Vote weekend. Statewide, we knocked on 24,000 doors!
What was Election Day like for you?
You could feel it, like you could feel the energy, and it literally kept me going until about 10:15, and then I pooped out. Tammy [Baldwin] spoke, and I cried a little bit, and Sarah McBride was here because she picked us for her assignment, and I looked at everyone, and I was just like, “Look what we did. Look what we helped do.” [The volunteers] are here because they believe in this.
We could spend hours talking about where HRC has done people wrong, and I try not to. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation, but when I meet people and they have these reservations, I will say, “Believe in me, and believe that I have my community in my heart because I am queer, and I am a black woman.”
My best friend, my first partner, has since transitioned and she is living her best life now. My solidarity and my willingness to make sure that people who look like me and who love like me are protected and supported comes before any other thing, and so I will argue with membership about dead names. I will argue with this person about, “This isn’t right. We’re not being supportive of this community. When are we gonna talk about the black trans women that are dying? Why are they dying? Well, I can tell you why. Our senators signed this bill which made it harder for them, and so a lot of them are doing sex work. We need to talk about sex work.”
Like all these things that we need to talk about that are contributing to this group of amazing people having to do what they need to do to take care of themselves because we can’t change gender markers on a license quickly. All these barriers that are just so stupid. This is why I did this, because I want people in office who are going to take barriers away and make sure that we all are protected.
HRC has set up this big presence in Wisconsin and dedicated itself to staying here, so can you talk about your experience with that and where things are likely to go from here? How did it play out in this election, having that extra commitment?
Wisconsin has typically been this “safe” blue state, with Tammy as our champion. Because that was in jeopardy, I am appreciative that HRC was like, “Okay, let’s dispatch. Let’s spend some time here,” and now, going forward, they’re just gonna keep building that momentum. Our work doesn’t stop.
The next thing is working on the Equality Act. Now that we have Josh Kaul in office, let’s work on beefing up the state protections and making sure that people can get housing, and people can get jobs, and they can get their license to match, and people are able to live their best life.
Going forward, similar to Illinois, there’s the steering committee, which is a huge thing, which means that there will be dedicated volunteers and organizers doing the work here in the state all the time. We didn’t just come here for our pride. We didn’t just come here for this election. We’re here for the foreseeable future, and that’s amazing, and making sure that the folks that are really dedicated, our “super volunteers,” have an outlet to continue to keep doing the work that they’re doing, and I’m excited about that.
Madison has a mayor election coming, and we’ll be voting for county board. I’ve always been taught that your state and your local—especially your local—that’s where you can make the most impact. Having boots on the ground and people holding elected officials accountable for equality and what that looks like is so important. I have always told people, “You have every right to meet with legislators. You have every right to meet with your local county board. You have every right to meet with your mini-mayors.” That’s what I call the alders, “mini-mayors.” “You have every right to meet with these people and talk to them and tell them your ideas, and let’s help state policy.”
My biggest hope is that that’s what’s gonna be going on with having a steering committee and having organizers steered here in Wisconsin. Those things keep going forward, and we work on co-governance and working together to make Wisconsin where it’s at for equality.