Before Tenisha Idowu decided to shake the hand of Dale Robertson, founder of TeaParty.org, there was a long war between her head and her heart. On the one hand, the image of Robertson holding a sign that read, "Congress=Slave Owner, Taxpayer=Nigger" burned a hole in her memory. But Idowu was now the "point organizer" of the Houston Coffee Party, a local chapter of a national grassroots movement that wants to bring civility and inclusiveness to political discussions. She wanted to end what seemed like irrational shouting during the healthcare reform debate in 2009.
So when a fellow Coffee Party organizer introduced Robertson to Idowu by email, she decided to invite him to their strategy meeting on March 16. As Robertson, Idowu and other Coffee Party members debated different solutions to reforming health care, they didn't find a common approach. But that wasn't the point, Idowu said. The point was to begin a conversation in person where people with very different viewpoints develop some empathy for each other.
It was this very sentiment that inspired documentary filmmaker Annabel Park to launch Coffee Party USA in January for those who felt their voices had been drowned out by the conservative tea party movement. Ever since Idowu started volunteering in February, the Houston Coffee Party has met almost every week. As of April 8, The Coffee Party's national Facebook page boasted 197,721 fans compared to the Tea Party Patriots' 158,768.
Mother Jones talked with Idowu about her work with the Coffee Party.
Mother Jones: What does volunteering for a Coffee Party look like on a daily basis?
Tenisha Idowu: As we grow, I'm really focused on building the structure for issue groups. We in Houston are broken into education, healthcare and money in politics issue groups. We have a lot of people show up at the big meetings and we have good conversations, but the conversations are much more specific and concrete at issue groups.
MJ: Which issue has the most energy in Houston right now? What's really moving people to come to these meetings?
TI: Education. This is Texas and we have the State Board of Education that made all of those proposed amendments to the curriculum. Education group is really passionate to make sure we respond to their changes during an open comment time. We just finished our final draft statement and are in the final stages of getting that out.
MJ: What kind of people attend the Houston Coffee Parties?