Liberal activists this week learned of the death of Xavier Lopez-Ayala, a campaign veteran who passed away suddenly at 26.
On Tuesday night, a group of us stood four or five deep at the New Organizing Institute (NOI) in Washington, listening as friends recounted stories of their time with him.
“You all are the busiest people. We schedule our weekends two months in advance. But with a couple hours notice and a Facebook event invite, you’re all here,” said Peter Albrecht, advertising director at New Partners.
Behind the speakers a slideshow scrolled on a big projector screen. Some of the images had been memed, others unadorned. There was a smiling man in every picture – Xavi, as he was known.
Many people were closer to Xavi than I was. I’m using some of their stories here—with permission—and my own experience to introduce you to a man by painting a picture of his community, and bring you into our community by painting a picture of a man who embodied it. Like every community, ours has a few core values. Xavi lived and loved each of them.
Invest in each other
Most of us live our work. We’re personally invested, driven by conviction and passion. But there’s always too much work for us to do. So the only way to win is to help each other get better, and help new people grow. Xavi loved that.
D.C. can be a cutthroat town, a zero-sum game of influence and power, where your success comes at my expense. But not in that room on Tuesday.
Many of the folks in the room knew Xavi from New Media BootCamp, a training ground for digital campaigners. We never had to ask Xavi to coach at BootCamp. As soon as applications were announced, he’d ask us when he could show up. Nurturing new digital campaigners invigorated him, and he took the responsibility seriously.
I remember sitting across from him last summer, coaching a group that was having problems working together. Within two minutes he had them laughing, and drew them out of their trenches. Then he dove in and asked pointed questions about their plan to lead them back into the work. He didn’t shrink from the challenge of a tough group, and he didn’t let them off the hook once he had them.
“I’d go to movies with Xavi, and he’d lean over and say, ‘Sure, they’ve got a Latino guy playing the janitor,’” recalled Asher Huey, senior associate at the American Federation of Teachers.
Whether he was calling out stereotyped casting or testing a “best practice” online, Xavi wasn’t satisfied with “because” or “that’s how it is.”
That’s a trait he carried proudly, one that’s core to our community. You’ve probably read about the analytics and the data mining. But what’s harder to write about is the kind of culture it takes to make that work.
Every time you field a test, you have to be willing to be wrong. You have to be willing to fail, own the failure, learn from the failure, and still willing to question the next assumption.
Xavi pushed all of us around him not just to admit something was but to ask why, and to see if it could be some other way.
It’s bigger than any of us
Another friend described how he and others began writing down the ridiculous things Xavi said, then creating memes.
To be memed is something special. Ryan Gosling gets memed. Willy Wonka. NASA’s Mohawk Guy. So even though the memes were poking fun at him, Xavi took it as the highest compliment. It meant in some way he had become bigger than himself.
“When he found the site, he got so excited. He started opening up private Facebook albums just so we could take more pictures to make into memes,” said Richard Allen Smith, communications director at In the Public Interest
To fit into this community, you have to understanding that the goals we’re fighting for are bigger than our personal outcomes. That’s what drives you to share everything you know with a new person who could compete with you for a job in two years. It’s what allows space to try and fail, to be wrong as often as you’re right. But it can be hard when you have your heart on the line.
In 2008, Xavi started with Team Hillary. But when the dust settled, he joined Team Obama full force. He wasn’t unique in the switch, but I know people who worked with him, people who were on Obama from the start, who told me they thought he must have started with Obama because he was so passionate. It takes courage to go from the losing team to the winning team with gusto — courage and understanding that it’s not about any one of us.
Take care of each other
When work follows you around in your back pocket and 5 p.m. stretches past midnight, it’s easy to forget lunch and dinner. Sometimes you need a friend to make you leave your desk for a burrito, or put down your phone and just talk at the bar.
Xavi was the kind of person who could pull you out of a room you’d locked yourself into, and the kind of person who could bring a room together.
He was a center of gravity without dominating. When you were around Xavi, you felt like someone cared that you were there, even if you weren’t talking to him. He infused the space with a kind of unencumbered joy and enthusiasm you couldn’t escape.
And he was in a lot of rooms.
“Xavi took a picture [of me] and sent it to my mom,” said Kyle Weidleman, a strategic communications specialist at AFSCME. “What I didn’t see was the text he sent right after. He said, ‘I’m taking care of Kyle.’”
If NOI serves as a nucleus for the community, Xavi was like a proton. Whenever there was a gathering, he was right near the middle. I looked over his action history as I prepared to write this. I was amazed to see how many events he attended, how many ways he contributed. In the lines of a spreadsheet it was easy to see how many lives in this community he touched.
And looking around the room, watching Facebook and Twitter (where he was trending Tuesday), it was easy to see in real terms.
Our community is one smaller today. By living our values, Xavi helped shape, foster, and grow something that’s carrying forward the ideals he loved. It’s not an old community, but it’s one with bonds that run deep. They run deep because of people like Xavi, who understand that no one has all the answers, but that we can find them together. Who understand that we have to invest in each other, and that what we do together is bigger than the sum of our parts.
When BootCamp rolls around in June, the new class won’t get to meet Xavi. It’ll be the first since 2009 to miss that chance. But one of the key principles of physics is that energy can’t be destroyed, only transferred. I’ll miss my friend. But I’m going to sleep tonight knowing that the community will carry forward the ethos he loved and the spirit he embodied.
Evan Sutton is digital director at the American Federation of Teachers and a former communications director for NOI.