Netroots Nation 2019: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Netroots Nation 2019 will be in Philadelphia

Good after­noon! Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of our team at the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute are in Philadel­phia today through Sat­ur­day for Net­roots Nation, where we are par­tic­i­pat­ing in train­ings, pan­el dis­cus­sions, and ple­nary ses­sions fea­tur­ing pro­gres­sive lead­ers and activists from across the country.

Net­roots Nation began in 2006 as Year­lyKos (so named because it was orga­nized by peo­ple who met each oth­er online through Dai­ly Kos) and has been held every sum­mer since. This year’s gath­er­ing in Philadel­phia is the fourteenth.

Tra­di­tion­al­ly, the pro­gram­ming on the first day of the con­ven­tion con­cludes with a con­fer­ence-wide open­ing keynote in the evening. And this year was no exception.

There were mul­ti­ple emo­tion­al and engag­ing speak­ers tonight, includ­ing Del­e­gate Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton from the Dis­trict of Colum­bia, who empha­sized the impor­tance of giv­ing res­i­dents of the Dis­trict full, rep­re­sen­ta­tive cit­i­zen­ship (no tax­a­tion with­out rep­re­sen­ta­tion!), and Jess Morales Rock­et­to from Fam­i­lies Belong Togeth­er and the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Asso­ci­a­tion who spoke about the hor­rif­ic con­di­tions at the immi­gra­tion deten­tion cen­ters at our border.

Rashad Robin­son from Col­or of Change deliv­ered a pow­er­ful speech in which he talked about embrac­ing racial jus­tice and not ignor­ing the impact of culture.

He start­ed by explain­ing the ori­gins of Col­or of Change, which was cre­at­ed in the after­math of Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, the costli­est storm in history.

“It was­n’t just the flood, it was the flood of bad deci­sions long before and long after,” he said, which left many peo­ple in pain and cre­at­ed so much loss. There was a real­iza­tion that no one cared about upset­ting black peo­ple. So Col­or of Change was born as a new way for every­day peo­ple to take action and cre­ate change, he said. Their goal was to “cre­ate a less hos­tile and more human world, not just for black peo­ple, but all people.”

They are work­ing to make sure cor­po­ra­tions are not let off the hook for the “right-wing takeover” and for cre­at­ing a false sense of neu­tral­i­ty. Late­ly, they have been high­ly engaged in push­ing tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies to make changes.

This is con­nect­ed to Robin­son’s point that we need to pay more atten­tion to cul­ture. “We can’t think we are bet­ter than the peo­ple we are try­ing to mobi­lize and engage,” he said. When we ignore the ways that cul­ture pre­cedes pol­i­cy and where and how peo­ple get their views (hint­ing, it seems, at social media as much as tra­di­tion­al media), we make mis­takes of not tru­ly under­stand­ing the way that things are going, he said.

“Cul­ture is pow­er,” he said, “and far too often we give that pow­er away for far too cheap.” He gave the exam­ples of com­pa­nies par­tic­i­pat­ing in Pride events and rain­bow-clad adver­tis­ing, while donat­ing to anti-gay orga­ni­za­tions and politi­cians; giv­ing lip ser­vice to Black His­to­ry Month; or talk­ing about wom­en’s empow­er­ment when “they care nei­ther about women nor empowerment.”

“Pres­ence does not equal pow­er,” Robin­son said. So while rep­re­sen­ta­tion is cer­tain­ly impor­tant, it is not near­ly enough.

We have to think care­ful­ly about what we cen­ter: “Racial jus­tice wins.”

It is dif­fi­cult to make change issue by issue, but if we work on racial jus­tice, we can cre­ate wins on mul­ti­ple issues, includ­ing health­care, wages, and edu­ca­tion. “Racial jus­tice isn’t char­i­ty, it’s strat­e­gy,” he said. His final point was that it’s not enough to have a list of issues to address if there is not joy to keep peo­ple mov­ing and the infra­struc­ture to make things happen.

Next, Sara Nel­son, Inter­na­tion­al Pres­i­dent of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants, spoke about the pow­er of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing to cre­ate broad prosperity. 

Recall­ing when she first start­ed work­ing as a flight atten­dant and did not receive her first pay­check, she talked about how her union “fought for me in a way I could­n’t fight for myself. In our union we are nev­er alone.”

Dur­ing her speech, she remem­bered col­leagues who lost their lives work­ing on the flights that were tar­get­ed in the Sep­tem­ber 11th ter­ror­ist attacks, and telling the sto­ry of the Trans­porta­tion Secu­ri­ty Agency work­er who com­mit­ted sui­cide dur­ing the recent Trump pro­mul­gat­ed fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shutdowns. 

But Nel­son also spoke force­ful­ly about the pow­er of unions, and twice quot­ed famed union leader Moth­er Jones, includ­ing her state­ment, “You will fight and win. You will fight and lose. But above all, you must fight.” 

Nel­son also encour­aged peo­ple to join, build, and lead unions in their com­mu­ni­ties, say­ing that it is a great way to build pow­er and cre­ate change, no mat­ter where we are in an elec­tion cycle.

She not­ed that Amer­i­cans like to feel in sol­i­dar­i­ty, and that dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, some TSA agents noticed how sup­port­ive the trav­el­ing pub­lic was of their sit­u­a­tion. The threat of a strike that would shut­down the nation’s air traf­fic con­trol sys­tem forced Trump’s hand, giv­ing him no choice but to back down.

“Sol­i­dar­i­ty and the courage of work­ing peo­ple is the great­est force for good in his­to­ry,” she said. “Change comes fast when risk becomes to great for those in pow­er.” So build your union, build pow­er, shift the bal­ance, and cre­ate change.

Nel­son then intro­duced Kat Payne, a Philadel­phia Mar­riott work­er, who is fight­ing to form a union. Nel­son pro­vid­ed infor­ma­tion for a direct action tomor­row in sup­port of the work­ers. Payne came to the stage wear­ing her house­keep­ing uni­form and a large red flower in her afro. She said she is part of the “often silent and invis­i­ble army that makes this city thrive,” not­ing that hos­pi­tal­i­ty is largest-grow­ing indus­try in the city of Philadelphia.

She also explained that Philadel­phia is the poor­est big city in coun­try. That’s part of why she and her cowork­ers are work­ing with Unite Here to union­ize, argu­ing that one job should be enough.

Payne her­self works two jobs: house­keep­er at Mar­riott dur­ing the day, and bar­tend­ing at night. Mar­riott, she not­ed, is the largest hotel com­pa­ny in the world, so they should be able to pay their work­ers a decent wage.

Payne fin­ished her speech by say­ing that there is a rev­o­lu­tion in every gen­er­a­tion. “I am a proud rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Let’s make his­to­ry together.”

She then intro­duced Rev­erend Gre­go­ry Hol­ston, a local leader in Philadel­phia, who has worked with her and oth­er orga­niz­ers with UNITE HERE.

Hol­ston is the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of POWER, a coali­tion of eighty-three con­gre­ga­tions in and around Philadel­phia work­ing to cre­ate change in Penn­syl­va­nia. They have mem­ber con­gre­ga­tions that are Mus­lim, Jew­ish, Chris­t­ian, and Human­ist, and in com­mu­ni­ties that are urban, rur­al, and sub­ur­ban, and with peo­ple of all races. They have worked with unions, are part of an edu­ca­tion coali­tion, and in the crim­i­nal jus­tice reform movement.

“When we stand togeth­er, we can change our sys­tems, he said, not­ing a near­ly twen­ty-five decrease in prison pop­u­la­tion in Philadel­phia in the last year.

He then reflect­ed on the high pover­ty rate that Philadel­phia expe­ri­ences (26%, which equals about 400,000 peo­ple, about half of which are in deep poverty).

For the last fifty to six­ty years, Hol­ston said, peo­ple who call them­selves pro­gres­sives have run the City of Philadel­phia, but things have not got­ten bet­ter for many peo­ple. So who are the real pro­gres­sives, he asked.

Who are the peo­ple that are real­ly gonna stand up and cre­ate progress?

“If we’re not mak­ing progress, than you can’t be a progressive.”

He said the prob­lem is that peo­ple don’t attack the real issue and real­ly don’t under­stand the depth of racism and how it affects the nation.

Echo­ing Robin­son’s com­ments, Hol­ston said that peo­ple try to take on issues, but end up try­ing to treat symp­toms instead of address­ing the under­ly­ing causes.

You can’t talk about eco­nom­ic jus­tice with­out talk­ing about repa­ra­tions, or you’re not a real pro­gres­sive, he said. You can’t talk about mass incar­cer­a­tion if you don’t talk about vacat­ing all records and pay back wages to peo­ple that were wrong­ful­ly con­vict­ed or were vic­tims of the “War on Drugs”.

You can’t talk about cli­mate jus­tice with­out stand­ing up for black and brown kids with asth­ma and black and brown peo­ple with can­cer who have been dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ed by the sit­ing of envi­ron­men­tal­ly dam­ag­ing waste dis­pos­al and oth­er projects.

“I’m look­ing for a move­ment, I’m look­ing for real change,” he said. “Incre­men­tal change is not chang­ing the lives” of peo­ple who real­ly need it, he said.

Net­roots Nation Board Chair Arshad Hasan, who had wel­comed every­one to the con­ven­tion ear­ly in the evening’s pro­gram, then cam out to announce that next year’s Net­roots Nation will be held in Den­ver, Colorado.

Hasan explained that dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two years, Net­roots Nation was held in Atlanta and New Orleans, as it was impor­tant to build pow­er in the South, and that now the Con­ven­tion will be head­ing to the Rocky Moun­tain West, a region that pro­gres­sives have been fever­ish­ly work­ing to turn blue.

He then announced the final speak­er of the evening: Ali­cia Garza, co-cre­ator of Black Lives Mat­ter and the Black Futures Lab.

Garza dis­cussed how Black com­mu­ni­ties are reg­u­lar­ly left out of the pro­gres­sive move­ment, “at our own per­il.” She said the black com­mu­ni­ties are often used as “win­dow dress­ing,” to make the move­ment look diverse, but that the issues and needs of the black com­mu­ni­ty do not fac­tor into the agen­das of the cam­paigns. They are “sym­bol­i­cal­ly but not sub­stan­tive­ly includ­ed,” she said.

Many can­di­dates and elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives say that they love and respect black com­mu­ni­ties, she said, but how much are we actu­al­ly invest­ing in them? There are “too many fried chick­en pho­to ops and not enough town halls,” she said to applause, and “too many of us are pro­vid­ing cov­er for this kind of nonsense.”

Recent­ly, the Black Futures Lab con­duct­ed a black cen­sus, the largest sur­vey of black Amer­i­cans in over one hun­dred and fifty years. Some of their find­ings includ­ed that 85% of respon­dents sup­port a $15 min­i­mum wage, and 90% believe it is the role of gov­ern­ment to pro­vide health­care for all Americans.

Black com­mu­ni­ties want the same things that most of Amer­i­ca wants, she said, yet we can’t say with any cer­tain­ty that Amer­i­ca wants those things for black com­mu­ni­ties. The most com­mon thing they heard from respon­dents in the sur­vey was that no one had ever asked them what they want­ed for their future.

Black com­mu­ni­ties are being impact­ed by the same issues as oth­er com­mu­ni­ties, but often more intense­ly (as we saw in 2015 in Fer­gu­son, Missouri). 

“Stop telling us to ignore iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics and instead to the work to dis­man­tle the dis­par­i­ties,” she said, after list­ing some of the ways that black peo­ple are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ed by issues like low wages and health­care. Instead of using us as win­dow dress­ing, con­sid­er that Black com­mu­ni­ties are the por­tals to the future,” she said, and can be a more sub­stan­tive part of the movement.

Final­ly, turn­ing to the 2020 elec­tion, Garza said it “can­not be won by play­ing it safe or play­ing to the mid­dle.” The cur­rent regime has stripped mid­dle of all mean­ing, she said. “Democ­ra­cy can only be real­ized if every­one can par­tic­i­pate. More is pos­si­ble when we do bet­ter by all of us,” she concluded.

Garza was then joined on stage briefly by the Rev­erend angel Kyo­do williams, who has become a fix­ture at Net­roots Nation over the years.

Kyo­do williams (who had pre­vi­ous­ly deliv­ered the con­vo­ca­tion) asked how to respond to white peo­ple that ask ques­tions about what they are sup­posed to do in response to mes­sages about focus­ing on issues that affect black communities.

Garza replied emphat­i­cal­ly, “Black peo­ple’s issues are your issues too!” and then repeat­ed it again a sec­ond time to fur­ther dri­ve it home.

Kyo­do williams then spoke about shame and how it is built into cul­ture to make peo­ple silent. She asked what peo­ple, includ­ing white peo­ple who might expe­ri­ence shame around racism, can and should do to work through that shame.

“We have to trans­form that shame into deep and abid­ing love for one anoth­er, Garza said, elab­o­rat­ing that we have to keep show­ing up, as shame is often what keeps us from show­ing up. Even when you are expe­ri­enc­ing chal­lenges with one anoth­er, “Keep turn­ing towards each oth­er,” she said.

Garza and Kyo­do williams’ con­ver­sa­tion con­clud­ed the open­ing ple­nary ses­sion, bring­ing an end to the first day of Net­roots Nation programming.

NPI will con­tin­ue to offer cov­er­age through­out the next two days of the con­ven­tion, right here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate, as well as on In Brief.

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