Portrait of an Activist

“Tell me what democracy looks like!  This is what democracy looks like!”

It’s shouted at every march in every American city, where crowds stream into town centers to parade for political causes.  It could be heard in Riverside where thousands marched for block after block on January 20 and March 24 hoping to bring about racial justice, gun control and to advance women’s issues.

But is this what democracy is?  And is this how democratic change comes about?  We asked a local activist based in Riverside how the large marches might affect the political landscape.

Charlene McKinley-Powell can be found at these events, not chanting but carrying a clipboard, often used to register and pre-register people to vote in the next election.  At the recent March for Our Lives on March 24, she successfully registered 50 people, most of whom were actually 16 and 17 year-olds pre-registering.

A Democrat since childhood, McKinley-Powell is currently the President of the Democrats of Greater Riverside.  She and her husband Greg have been immersed in local Democratic politics since they came to the inland city in 2013.  Just a few months after moving in, she and Greg found themselves chairing committees for the club, and then she served as Secretary, Vice President, and now President.  Greg has also served as President.  It is a voluntary and unpaid passion that they undertake after they leave their jobs.  (She is an attorney who works as a public defender for San Bernardino.)  She also runs a non-profit organization, Inland Empire Resistence, which sponsors sign making workshops before local marches and demonstrations.

She admits that since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there has been increased interest in democratic activism in her city.  From a membership of 20 dues paying members, they have grown to 100.  There are many more who attend their monthly meetings, which have grown from an average 20 attendees to more than 50.

“It’s the Trump Bump,” she says.  And she hopes the enthusiasm that has engendered will carry through to the June primary and November general election.

It’s all well and good to participate in marches, wave signs and chant slogans, McKinley-Powell says,  but she wants them to do more, “campaigning, registering voters, making phone calls for candidates, fund raising, doing something practical.”

Riverside, she says, is a very active community but the bulk of the work has been carried out by older white women, people who are retired and have the time to give.  They took the lead in the Women’s March and March for Our Lives.

In addition to the Democrats of Greater Riverside, Mi Familia Vota and Swing Left also send their members out to encourage voter participation.  Mi Familia Vota focuses on increasing civic engagement in the Latino community while Swing Left encourages support for progressive candidates for legislative offices.  They all work to register voters, make phone calls, canvas to support their candidates.  The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Domestic Workers Union have helped with contributions to candidates and donating meeting space for events like the Women’s March.

McKinley-Powell’s focus is on local elections, including the upcoming June primary in which a number of currently held Republican Congressional seats are “flippable.”   One of them is District 39, where Republican Ed Royce has decided not to run for re-election.  A thirteen term Congressman, Royce’s seat had been targeted when he suddenly announced he would retire.  It was seen as an opportunity to flip the district into the Democratic column.

She is feeling guarded about the outcome in June.  In many races, there are too many Democrats running.  In District 39, there are currently six Democrats running for Royce’s old seat and in California’s open primary system, only the top two will advance to the November election, regardless of party affiliation.   It is conceivable that the Democratic vote will be so divided among the many candidates, that only Republicans advance to the general election.  In another closely watched election, District 42 has fielded three Democrats and one independent running against incumbent Republican Ken Calvert.

She worries about burn-out.  The volunteers she sees coming to help tend to be the same people.  In District 39, Riverside sends two volunteers every weekend to Fullerton, to canvas for the Democratic Party.   They are the same people who stepped up as leaders, who helped organize the marches.

And the party still struggles with its divided wings, bitterness left over from the 2016 fight between supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  While she sees the activism unleashed by the marches as a way to bring cohesion on the local level, she wonders if the unity of the crowd will last until the polls close in November.

“Will that activism and energy carry into elections, will they volunteer for candidates, will they actually go out and vote, go register other voters,” she wonders.

“Will this be a movement or a moment?”



Photography and podcast by Justin Kenward.






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