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Lanya Shapiro & Traction

Reinventing political activism and making it fun

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2006 Citizen Award winners
Margie Ellison | Lanya Shapiro & Traction | Chad Johnston | Andrew Pearson | The Pesticide Education Project

The morning after the first cold snap of the season, Durham voters bundled up in their winter coats lined the street leading to the county Board of Elections. It was Saturday, Nov. 4, the last day of early voting before the general election: Volunteers distributed pamphlets and waved placards; candidates shook hands with potential supporters; yard signs jutted up from the weathered grass. And on the lawn across from the electoral bustle, a ragtag group of activists reveled in the political atmosphere. They tossed Frisbees and strummed guitars. They served hot chili from big white buckets and cooked veggie burgers and hot dogs on a portable stove. A veritable tailgate party for voters was under way.

Sammy Banawan, a young psychologist, approached the merrymakers to get a cup of hot coffee. "Do you know about Traction?" Lanya Shapiro, one of the activists, asked him. With her short dark hair swept behind her ears, Shapiro, in her jeans, gray sweater and an old leather jacket that gave her a slight air of defiance, ushered Banawan to a table covered with literature. "I'll tell you about it while you get your coffee," she told him. A moment later, Banawan, apparently impressed by Shapiro's pitch, signed up for the Traction listserv, joining a growing group of more than 800 young people in the Triangle.

Traction is a Durham-based social network designed to increase the number of 20- and 30-something social activists through creative and, most of all, fun events and collaborations. Shapiro founded the organization a year and a half ago to combat the political malaise that notoriously plagues Generations X and Y.

She says that too many young people find civic engagement boring or hopeless, or think they're too busy to be active in their communities. Traction uses bike rides, arts events, dodgeball games, movie nights and other activities to inspire them to get politically involved. The tailgate party at the Durham Board of Elections was the latest manifestation of Traction's philosophy: Give them fun and they will come.

"We're showing people that there are great, fun, ass-kicking activists," Shapiro says. And people seem to be listening.

This sort of civic engagement is in Shapiro's blood. When she was a baby, her family moved from her native California to a sleepy town in western Kansas and soon found that they were the only liberals and Jews for miles. That cultural isolation inspired political involvement. Shapiro's mother started a Planned Parenthood chapter and also a chapter of PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (even though none of her children is gay). Little Lanya was right in tow. "One of my earliest memories is going door to door, pulling a wagon of campaign literature," Shapiro says.

Being a political outsider in Kansas shaped her views. That status "created in me a sense of pride about being different and wanting to help people who are marginalized," she says.

The drive stayed with her through college in Los Angeles, where she organized rock concerts for the Feminist Majority Foundation in her free time, and through graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she earned her masters' degrees in public health and social work. She went on to work for the American Social Health Association, training Latino peer educators to teach their friends about HIV, among other health issues.

But it's Shapiro's work during the 2004 presidential election that gave rise to Traction. She was a key grassroots organizer in North Carolina for Howard Dean's bid for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Having recently left her full-time job, she dove headfirst into work for Dean's campaign, arranging parties and fundraisers and spreading the word about the maverick governor from Vermont.

Along the way, she noticed an apathy among young adults. "Even in 2004, people my age didn't get involved until really late," says Shapiro, now 36. "Or they didn't know how to get involved." Recalling the lack of political participation, she wondered, "If this is what people could come up with in a presidential election, then what was going to happen after the election? This is the height of people plugging into things."

When Dean failed to win the nomination, Shapiro took her short list of volunteers from the campaign and started Traction. "People need to be involved on a year-round basis," Shapiro says.

The group is nonpartisan, though Shapiro characterizes Traction as left-leaning and progressive.

For the first Traction event in May 2005, Shapiro and the other Tractivists, as they call themselves, watched Kilowatt Ours, a documentary about energy conservation and alternative sources of fuel. Other events have included "Electile Dysfunction," a discussion about the Voting Rights Act; a sushi-making workshop where attendees learned about mercury in North Carolina waterways; and a reading and Q&A session with Tamara Draut, author of the book Strapped, about the economic issues facing young adults.

The issues Traction addresses run the gamut, from civil rights, health care and the environment to economic justice, education and peace; there's always an element of fun.

Shapiro's goal is not for Traction to be the ultimate resource on all these issues, but rather for the group to connect people who are just getting politically engaged to other groups and opportunities.

"Traction is like this big pot of stew and it has some of everything in there," says Joseph Costa, a Durham sheriff's deputy who has been a member of Traction since its inception. "If you have an idea, before long you will be heading something," Costa says. "Lanya is great like that."

Not all of the get-togethers revolve around issues. Some Traction events are purely social, designed to build a network of people with common values—much like a church congregation. "I know nonprofits throughout North Carolina, and I know of no other initiative quite like Traction in the state or anywhere else," says Don Wells, who taught Shapiro when he was head of Duke's Nonprofit Certificate Management program.

Traction's reputation has spread beyond the state's borders and attracted some of the biggest liberal donors in the country. The organization was recently selected to receive the Lewis/Rappaport Homegrown Political Innovator Grant, matching funds of $250,000 to create a measurable progressive youth voting bloc and political clout in the state. Political strategist Paul Yandura led the selection committee. Yandura is also an adviser to Jonathan Lewis, the son of Progressive Insurance CEO Peter Lewis, a billionaire Democrat who bankrolls liberal causes. "The review team was captivated by Traction," Yandura says. "Lanya's leadership and approach is on the leading edge of progressive politics. She convinced us to make an investment in North Carolina."

Shapiro hopes that over the long term, more Traction members will serve on boards, donate to campaigns and run for office. It's already happening. Since joining Traction, Costa successfully ran for two offices within the state Democratic Party. Another member was selected for Planned Parenthood's Board of Advocates.

"The piece that's profound to me is that Traction is involving folks in the political process that haven't been involved before," says Jewel Wheeler, president and treasurer of the People's Alliance Fund, which funds progressive projects and research in Durham. "These are folks that weren't involved in politics but now they will be for the rest of their lives. They will have the expectation that it will be fun," she says. "That will trickle down to the rest of us."

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