The start of an experiment
February 7th, 2020
Adapted from “Reclaiming Our Democracy,” by RESULTS Founder Sam Daley-Harris
In October 1979, I moved to Los Angeles. I was off to get rich as a songwriter so I could have more time to speak to high school students about my passion, world hunger. It didn’t work out that way – but it did work out.
I spent my first six months in Los Angeles writing songs, substitute teaching, and working on the Los Angeles World Hunger Event, which was intended to inspire celebrities and other community leaders to commit themselves to ending hunger.
At the event I met a couple, actress Wendy Schaal and songwriter Stephen Michael Schwartz. They told me they were inspired by the gathering, but frustrated. They didn’t know what to do.
I told them about my group of friends in Miami who used to write letters to Congress once a month. We agreed to invite friends to Wendy and Stephen’s home to do the same. Five days later there were 12 people in their living room. We hadn’t planned on starting an organization. We hadn’t planned to write letters at any other locations. But it was from that evening that the organization RESULTS grew.
A mutual friend of ours couldn’t make it and urged us to have another meeting at her house the following week. We did, and now we had two letter-writing groups in Southern California. Within two months I was driving to six different locations each month to lead meetings.
Our experiment had begun.
As I look back on that time, I say something now that I wouldn’t have said then: “We were fortunate that no one came up to us and said, ‘Creating the political will to end hunger – that’s vitally important. Here’s $50,000. Let’s get this organization up and running in the next six months.’”
If someone had said that, I probably would have gotten on a plane, flown to Washington, DC, and tried to find out how everyone else did it. But luckily, no one offered the $50,000 in start-up money. So all we had was time, our commitment, and the question, How can we be effective on Capitol Hill from Los Angeles? I remained a substitute teacher for the next 4 ½ years as we trial-and-errored our experiment in citizen empowerment. It turned out to be an exciting exercise in getting our democracy back.
The first 18 months were simple times. The leaders of the six groups would meet once a month to write letters and then go out and lead letter-writing sessions in their own living rooms. As we grew, and our members dispersed, they’d join monthly gatherings of group leaders by conference call. We were rather content writing letters to and getting responses from our members of Congress. And we were rather harmless because we hadn’t yet learned to work with the media.
When we set out to organize a candidate forum for the California Senate seat, we knew we had to get it covered in the media. We called and we called and we called. And in that year, we generated 13 television interviews, 23 radio interviews, 4 television editorials, and 7 feature articles. The one area we hadn’t cracked was generating a newspaper editorial. I’d spent my first 33 years in Miami, Florida, and felt that editorial writers at the Miami Herald and now Los Angeles Times sat in an ivory tower to which I had no key. But then a tip from another journalist helped me get on the phone with the right contact at the editorial board.
That telephone call and the editorial that followed altered my sense of myself and of what was possible. It was normal for me to distribute 100 photocopies of an action sheet or important article. But when that first editorial appeared, I remember thinking, “not only has the Los Angeles Times written this editorial, but they’ve made one million copies of it and they’ve delivered it for us too. How marvelous.”
My early morning dash to the front yard to pick up the Los Angeles Times was my run to democracy. I realized that I had the right job to make a difference: substitute teacher. I realized that I had the right training to make a difference: music. I realized that I had the right bank account to make a difference: nearly zero. I realized that making a difference wasn’t a function of any of these. It was a function of commitment and persistence.
This first editorial weighed a fraction of an ounce, but it was a hefty beginning.
Stay tuned for more stories looking back on RESULTS history and ahead to the future as part of our 40 stories for 40 years campaign.