hightower winners 2018

From left: Nathaniel Groh, Committeeman Matt Flamm, Justin Lanier, Illinois 54th District Candidate Maggie Trevor, and Illinois 53rd District Candidate Mark Walker. Nathaniel Groh and Justin Lanier are the 2018 Co-Winners of the Jim Hightower Community Organizing Award.

Two Honored for Kindness and Creativity in Community Organizing Leadership

Greater Palatine Area Democrats, at their Fall Fundraiser on Oct. 15, recognized the contributions of two staff members from local campaigns. Nathaniel Groh, campaign manager for Mark Walker for Illinois State Representative (53rd District), and Justin Lanier, campaign coordinator for Maggie Trevor Candidate for State Representative (54th District).

Groh’s first act as a political organizer was slapping a “John Kerry for President” sticker on his school locker in fifth grade. By 14 he was attending meetings of the Democratic Party near his home in Mount Vernon, Illinois. Groh reflected on his motivation: “My mom worked 60 to 70 hours a week as a single mom. Not everyone should have to do that."

“I hired Nathaniel to run my campaign because he stood out as especially respectful and kind to volunteers,” Walker said. “That’s rare in the political world. He also is driven by values and not by ego.”

Those values were learned early. The Mount Vernon Democratic meetings were full of “old ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats,” Groh said, and they helped him to a summer internship in high school working for U.S. Congressman William Enyart of Illinois’ 12th District in Washington, D.C. in 2013. 

While working toward a degree in political science at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Nathaniel revived an campus chapter of Oxfam, an international organization dedicated to eliminating poverty. In 2014 he organized a busload of students that headed to Ferguson, Missouri, after the Michael Brown killing. His group worked with other nonprofits to help the community pay remembrance to that young man. In 2015, he was a summer Fellow for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, arranging meet and greets and other events in southwest Iowa.

After graduation in 2017, Nathaniel worked as a street fundraiser for the ASPCA and the Nature Conservancy, then came to the Palatine-Wheeling area as a field organizer for J.B. Pritzker’s primary run. While here he built a base of volunteers, and Pritzker won Palatine Township by 70 points, one of the few townships to go for Pritzker in the northwest suburbs.

Finding a way to bring creativity to community organizing is what drives Justin Lanier.  “Those creative approaches are huge,” in terms of engaging people, he said. “The challenge for me is how to engage people so they work for the greater good. How do we make volunteer work sexy?”

Lanier’s “ability to connect with people in Palatine and make campaigning fun has been amazing,” said Trevor. “The success of this campaign is in great part due to him and what he’s brought to the campaign and I thank him.”

Lanier grew up in Inverness, and his introduction to community work found him fulfilling his 8 hours’ high school graduation requirement at the Palatine Opportunity Center. “I really enjoyed it and just kept going back,” where he worked mostly in POC’s community garden. A photographer, Lanier took pictures of the volunteers that found their way into promotional materials for POC.

Lanier went to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for a fine arts degree in photography. While in New York City he worked for six months at the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, a bureaucratic behemoth of 7,000 employees that addressed early childhood education, juvenile justice and foster care. “I worked in this really cool office that tried to cut through the red tape and make this big, old agency more efficient,” Lanier said. Cutting the paperwork of a caseworker can make a difference when it comes to the safety of a child who is in danger, Lanier said: “it can make the difference between broken bones or a life lost.”

It was while photographing a climate change march in 2014 that Lanier became politicized, he said, as he connected with progressives at Move to Amend, a nonprofit working toward a Constitutional amendment to address campaign finance reform. He later worked as a campaign media aide for Jill Stein, making videos for the campaign.

After graduation Lanier returned to POC, where he brought a changed perspective. “People are busy addressing the immediate needs, but I keep pushing the people around me to think about how to make more sustainable changes.”  This summer he was hired by Maggie Trevor as her campaign coordinator, in part because of his intimate knowledge of the Palatine area. “I try to engage and energize the volunteers, make them feel appreciated, and do everything I can to free up Maggie,” he said.

And he continues to work at POC, particularly in the community garden on Mondays. “I want to find a way where I can get these creative instincts aligned with my work,” he said. “I see these missed opportunities where maybe we could have engaged more people by being more creative.”  

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