TAMPA, Fla. — In the middle of the pandemic, as people dealt with an economic shutdown and a temporary eviction moratorium, Robin Lockett, a Tampa-based community organizer, started knocking on doors in affordable housing complexes.
Together, with other volunteers, she wanted to check on people and spread awareness about local education and food-assistance resources. They were part of a non-profit called Florida Rising, a group centered around building political power for marginalized residents in the state. Through those visits, Lockett quickly realized they needed to be doing a lot more than conducting surveys.
“We found out during that stint that a lot of residents were dealing with slumlords,” she said. “People taking advantage of renters with criminal records or shaky immigration statuses. They don’t take care of the property, and they don’t take care of the people in them.”
Lockett, the regional director for Florida Rising, proposed that the group shift its focus to a county-wide canvassing effort. Joined by other nonprofits, they surveyed lower-income renters to gauge the community’s needs. In the end, they decided to center their efforts on rent stabilization, a 60-day notice requirement of rent increases over 5%, and the establishment of a city office specifically designed to protect tenants. In March 2022 they held rallies and lobbied the Tampa city council.
In a state that has gained notoriety for passing some of the most strict laws around immigration, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion and education, some of those most affected by those changes view community organizing at the local level as key to success. Whether that’s on the right or the left.
For grassroots groups such as Florida Rising, that has meant focusing on housing and abortion. On the other side, organizations including Moms for Liberty and Florida Right to Life have centered their efforts in support of more restrictive abortion laws and pushed to limit what they call a “woke” public school curriculum.
“As we have taken on more and more serious issues that deal with the intersection of economics and social change we’re starting to see the growing need of some groups to come together in a more organized way,” said Robin Ersing, director of the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida. “It’s to be able to get voices heard, to be able to create change.”
For Arlene Frances Washington, a 78-year old retired child educator, the need to get involved in community organizing began about three years ago. After moving from one place to another, she landed on an apartment for lower-income senior residents in Temple Crest, a neighborhood in northeast Tampa.
She said nothing could have prepared her for what she encountered. It was humid and dirty. The air conditioner had an awful smell, one that gave her grandson allergies, so she didn’t use it. Mold crept onto all of her belongings in the first month. There were roaches under her fridge. Every time it rained, water would leak in through the back door.
She said she complained a couple times to the building manager, but was put on wait lists. So she reached out to her neighbors, assuming they were facing similar problems. They were. At one of their informal meetings, one of the residents brought a picture of a poster they saw for Florida Rising.
“It said to ‘call us,’ so we did,” Washington said. Soon after, she became one of the 10,000 participants involved with Florida Rising.
Florida Rising was established in 2020, the result of the merger of two groups with similar missions, Organize Florida and New Florida Majority. Since then, they’ve grown to include 2,000 dues-paying members, thousands of community activists and supporters involved in different ways, from engaging on social media to attending their monthly meetings. They are based out of Orlando but have expanded to five regional branches, including the Tampa Bay area.
What makes their work successful is people such as Washington, said Sheena Rolle, the senior director of strategy for Florida Rising. They are community members impacted by policies often made in Tallahassee without any input from them. They are the ones who dictate what the group focuses on and how they go about it, she said.
“We actually talk to communities and work with them to advocate for themselves,” Rolle said. “It’s a lot of development and organizing, but our members are our base.”
Which is precisely what prompted Washington to get involved. When her building supervisors only fixed the door and offered a dehumidifier for the mold, she started to withhold her rent, she said. The organizers and lawyers from Florida Rising explained and guided her through the process. Soon, she joined the organization’s effort in recruiting more of her neighbors to petition their building to address her concerns.
“They can’t do it for you, but they show you a way to do it,” said Washington “But you have to come and be a part of it.”
Even though Washington ended up moving apartments, she remains an active member of Florida Rising and does work with them in the complex she moved into. She got her new neighbors to join, knocking on their doors and pestering them in the elevator. She goes to every event they have, but stays especially involved in their housing-advocacy.
“Every six months they want to raise our rent here,” Washington said. “So I want rent control, I want them to treat us better and respect us.
Even with all the organizing efforts, success can be hard to come by.
While Florida Rising and the other groups got the Tampa City Council to approve most of their proposals, the members ended up voting 6-2 to stop the rent stabilization measure from being on the ballot. At the time, ABC Action News reported that it could have been because of the legal liabilities of the measure. State lawmakers had made rent control illegal and some of the city lawyers involved said the measure would likely be challenged by the state government.
Lockett also pointed out that the vote happened in the summer of 2022, around the time Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration in Tallahassee had become a lot more aggressive towards dissenting opinions. That same day, he dismissed a liberal state attorney for disagreeing with his policies on abortion and gender therapy.
On immigration, despite the organized “Un Día Sin Inmigrantes,” a day without immigrants in Spanish, labor strikes and rallies that popped up across the state on June 1st, DeSantis signed what is currently considered the strictest bill in the country. Under Senate Bill 1718, hospitals are required to ask for citizenship data prior to someone receiving care, out-of-state licenses can no longer be accepted as proof of citizenship, and someone who shelters a person who is in the country without status could be charged with the felony, according to the Florida Policy Institute.
“These types of laws will keep families living in fear,” said Sonia Moreno, the membership organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “And it will keep people from getting support and benefits. Agricultural workers, construction workers, they don’t get supported. They think they have to be grateful for the work they get but anti-immigration laws keep them working in slavery-like conditions.”
Moreno started to organize around immigration issues after she lost her Temporary Protected Status in 2005. She said she doesn’t know why her application was denied 11 years after she came to the country, a time during which she made a life for herself, working a consistent job and having two children in the United States.
Also known as TPS, Temporary Protected Status is a program for some people already in the United States who the government deems unable to return safely to their home country. Different presidential administrations have started and stopped TPS qualifications for different countries: Trump took Honduras, Moreno’s home country, off the list in 2018. Tt was re-selected for the program in June.
Moreno said she joined the Florida Immigration Coalition, an advocacy non-profit dedicated to building “pro-immigrant power,” because she was tired of living in fear. When she left Honduras in 1996, she said goodbye to her 11-month old son, and hasn’t seen him since. She didn’t want to lose her other children too, but she felt she was putting them at risk every time she left for work or drove. She needed guidance and a community to lean on.
The Florida Immigrant Coalition helped direct her to resources she could access without fear and introduced her to a community of people in similar situations. She said the group showed her signs of hope, they felt like different reform policy was within reach and could change lives. They also taught her about the different routes to citizenship and the rights she was entitled to, regardless of her immigration status.
After a few years of volunteering, she was selected to join as a part-time organizer at a storytelling workshop they hosted. Now she works full time, directing people to different campaigns and connecting them to resources.
“Migrant labor, undocumented labor, has so much power here,” said Moreno. “We have so many families, so many workers, that don’t know how to ask for the support they need. Without our work they have no support, no protection, no community.”
In 2019, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that there are roughly 772,000 undocumented people in Florida. Using that data, the Florida Policy Institute estimated that the economic impact of the immigration bill would reflect that power: they estimated it would cost the state $12.6 billion and impact other parts of the economy significantly.
Moreno said her own experience and connection with the issues have helped her gain the community’s trust which in turn has meant more people joining the effort. It’s a ripple effect, she said, those members then talk to their own family who talk to their friends and family.
“That’s how we build,” she said, “that’s how community organizing and my work as a membership organizer makes us strong.”
On July 1st, the day the immigration bill went into effect, there were protests and rallies across the state. Florida Rising, in collaboration with a host of other organizations including the Florida Immigrant Coalition, hosted rallies in four major cities called “Freedom For All,” which included informational speakers explaining the details of the laws.
Washington, who said she is typically more involved in housing advocacy, attended the one in Tampa and said she learned a lot.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “I didn’t know a lot of the folks involved before then, but I’ll be back for the next immigration thing.”
Recently, Florida Planned Parenthood enlisted the help of Florida Rising and the Florida Branch of the ACLU to try to get abortion rights on the ballot in 2024.
“We’ve had to link arms and organize harder across the state,” Rolle said.
Aisha Baiocchi is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University studying journalism and international comparative studies. Reach her at aisha_bee [at] me [dot] com and on Twitter @_aishabee_.