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Thursday, July 11th, 2019

LIVE from Philadelphia: Netroots Nation 2019 opens with a focus on equity, justice for all

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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