Hope and energy for the future were the currents running through the opening plenary earlier today at Netroots Nation 2021, during an hour and a half long session that served as the bookend to the conference’s first day.
First to speak was Jaime Harrison, the Chair of the Democratic National Committee. Harrison didn’t mince words in his summation of the state of the political landscape in Capitol Hill. He spoke of Republicans’ continued efforts to block voting rights legislation, disregard health and safety, and pander to an extremist Right-Wing base. But rather than let rage and anger consume us, he urged listeners to let their actions be a call to action.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “We can hit these clowns where it hurts. At the ballot box.” He encouraged listeners to unite around “shared values.”
He closed his speech with the following words: “Our motto as activists has to be while I breathe, I vote. That, my friends, is how we bring hope.”
The plenary also featured a Q&A hosted by Marissa Molina with U.S. Representative Joe Neguse of Colorado’s 2nd District.
Over the past four years, the Trump regime undid a number of protections for undocumented people and immigrants, including fining undocumented immigrants and the rejection of new DACA applications. However, despite the danger these actions left Dreamers across America in, Neguse expressed confidence in the Biden administration’s commitment to offer a pathway to citizenship.
Neguse also addressed the racist violence towards Black Haitian immigrants at the border.
“America is at its best when we are a beacon of hope and liberty to folks across the globe,” he said. He added that these horrific actions “are not consistent with what America is and must be.”
He said that he will continue to pressure Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to ensure that this violence will not continue, and ensure the dignity of these individuals.
Next to take the stage was Joe Sanberg, co-founder of Aspiration.
He delivered a sober speech about our ongoing climate crisis, characterizing the attitudes of the Joe Manchins of Capitol Hill as “the wall of ‘It’s Too Expensive.’ ”
“We’ve all heard time and again, it’s too expensive,” he said. “But COVID has revealed that’s always been a lie. We can afford Wall Street and the forever wars.”
He went on to describe the number of myths perpetuated by the opposition to impede progress on reforms from raising the minimum wage to cancelling student debt. Relieving the financial burden on the average American liberates the economy rather than burdening it — and what’s more, we have the money.
“We can’t get that big, bold government action until we tear down the wall called ‘It’s Too Expensive,’ to protect a cheating economy, built on the twin pillars of fear and corruption,” Sanberg said.
Mandela Barnes, the current Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, followed Sanberg with a message of mobilization. He echoed the sentiments of Harrison and Neguse, sharing his story of running for office at the early age of twenty-five.
Barnes told conventioneers that Wisconsin faces a number of challenges, including having the highest income gap along racial lines in the nation.
But these haven’t been reasons to despair, he said.
Wisconsin has an opportunity to do better.
“We have done bold things before, and it’s time to do bold things again,” he said.
“Organize here, over Zoom, wherever we have to…until all our institutions are reflective of the people we’re supposed to serve.”
Following Barnes was Michigan’s U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib.
Tlaib talked about the disconnect between many members of Congress and the lived experiences of their constituents which, in her view, impeded the progress for life-changing legislation such as President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.
“Many don’t understand what it means to be underinsured or uninsured, or what it is to send their child to a school without clean drinking water,” she said.
Successful progressive policy solutions, she said, were targeted towards alleviating these pain points, whether by making it easier to undertake home repairs, building an infrastructure around climate resiliency, or expanding health coverage to include things such as dental and vision care.
Bringing these real-life narratives to Congress, she said, was the key to creating the sense of urgency necessary to get such legislation passed.
The final segment of the plenary was an energizing panel moderated by Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, featuring White House National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy and Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.
The panelists touted the planks of President Biden’s robust Build Back Better plan, breaking down how the policies are rooted in the logic of the county’s progressive values. Granholm echoed Tlaib’s statements on the necessity of passing the larger Build Back Better bill through reconciliation alongside the bipartisan infrastructure bill. “One alone isn’t enough to turn the ship on climate change,” she said.
Ali turned to McCarthy to build off Granholm’s statement, asking what she would tell somebody in Appalachia what Build Back Better would do for them.
McCarthy reeled off a long list of priorities, from investing $27.5 billion in renewable energy, funding career training for dislocated workers, cleaner and quieter trucks, increased air quality monitoring, cooling centers in schools, better housing. These, she said, are just a few of the ways the Biden administration is committed to improving the lives of the American people.
The panelists agreed that there needed to be accountability with respect to the expenditures. McCarthy explained that there were incentives built into the design of the investments to ensure that once states received the funding “it would not go to waste,” as has been a risk in the past.
Progressives in the White House, she said, want to make sure these funds are “spent in a way that recognizes our commitment to climate justice.”
Granholm cited the enforceable clean energy incentive plan built into the Build Back Better bill as an example of this state accountability in action.
McCarthy went on to say that the challenges facing communities and organizers are not incidental, but “systemic disinvestments.”
The goal is to reverse that through systemic investment.
Ali wrapped up the discussion by asking: in the face of the uncertainty and crises America has weathered over the last several years, but especially last year, how do they stay optimistic?
The administration is laser-focused on enacting policies, Granholm replied, that invest in the future through addressing climate damage. The developments she sees around her in the White House give plenty of reason to hope.
“It is a privilege to make it happen.”
McCarthy seconded this, adding that: “diversity in the community will make all the difference in the world.”
People are asking: “What things can we do in government to help people?”
She said that she is inspired by hopeful, energetic, and youthful voters and fully invested in caring for the Earth, our shared and common home.