Getting Back to Work

Yesterday, after my conference ended, I called the M.A.S. and railed against the infantile on-line fighting about the Democratic primary.  More and more bloggers are equally fed up: Parachutec at Firedoglake takes us all to task for our blind idolatry, points out the obvious reality that neither Clinton nor Obama are especially progressive, and concludes with asking us what the issues are on which we’ll hold the incoming President accountable.  Much to his/her and my dismay, virtually no commenter answers the question, whether because they are unable to or uninterested in doing so. 

I can think of several issues, which I had the pleasure of discussing and learning more about in the company of 1,500+ conference attendees here in New Orleans this week.  We were at PolicyLink’s third Regional Equity summit, where major topics included poverty alleviation, affordable housing, racial equity, and social and economic justice.  One of the plenaries was a discussion of keeping race and equity on the political agenda in the ’08 elections (though the question came up if they were even on the agenda in any meaningful way).  Comprised of Jim Wallis, Maria Echaveste, Patrick Gaspard (EVP of SEIU1199), Antonio Gonzalez, and Dr. Robert K. Ross, and moderated by Tavis Smiley, the panel was fascinating mainly in the candidates’ varying degrees of optimism or pessimism about the possibilities for a progressive agenda, and increasing the political power of ethnic/racial minorities. (With only one woman on the panel, it was the least gender balanced of the 6 I attended, indicative of the gender bias in our political sphere, including who is considered an authority.) 

Wallis, a preacher who is white, mostly focused on the religious commitments to combatting poverty: with church groups returning repeatedly to the Gulf Coast, he described New Orleans as “converting ground” for a generation of “new abolitionists” committed to eradicating global poverty, which they believe is the “new slavery.”  (He also spoke earlier this week to 200 evangelicals in Boston, which I found particularly fascinating.)  The other panelists – Latino/a and African-American – took on the issues of the a) black/brown divide, especially as it concerns economic opportunity and neighborhood violence; b) coalitional possibilities among African-Americans and Latinos, c) tremendous voter participation and mobilization within these two broad ethnic categories; d) rural versus urban poverty; e) economic mobility for immigrants versus native-born minority groups, and f) immigration policy. 

The entire panel urged the audience to continue fostering positive social change at the community level, to continue to build what many consider to be a progressive, grassroots movement for economic and social equity in the 21st century, and to never cease the “forceful agitation” against the fat cats in D.C. in pressing for social change.  Elections, said Gonzalez, are always “opportunities” for change, but nonetheless are “blunt instruments” for making change.  Most of them advocated for small steps versus big solutions, butalso called for, as Dr. Ross put it, a “transformational frame around poverty,” versus our current “transactional frame around services” that incites fear of tax increases and the free riding of the undeserving poor. 

The final session was a feedback forum for attendees to talk about what worked and didn’t at the conference.  A major critique that I also heard during a specific session on reducing poverty was that the topic was effectively framed as a problem exclusive to African-Americans and Latino groups.  An Asian/Pacific Islander (AIPA) immigrant and native born AIPA both publicly called for greater attention to poverty among all racial-ethnic groups, pointing out that between 20-30% of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are AIPA, and that in places like Minnesota, for instance, poor whites are a major target of anti-poverty activism.  There was also a call for greater youth mentorship as Civil Rights activists passed the torch to a new generation of leaders, criticism of the absence of tenants’ voices from panels on housing, and making race, class and poverty more explicit topics of concern for progressive researchers. 

As Mayor Otis Johnson of Savannah, GA put it, anti-poverty and development activists need “specific [analyses] of people and place” in order to develop strategies and initiatives that appropriately respond to geographically diverse “pecking order[s] of social mobility” in the U.S. (Mayor Johnson also described his political philosophyas one of “incremental radicalism,” which I think describes mine too.)

Drinking all of this in against the backdrop of our current election, the frivolity of shouting at each other on-line is stark.  Panelists refrained from primary partisanship, and even took pains to consider our options under a future President McCain, sticking to a general discussion of what our “righteous work” (thanks Tavis) looks like going forward under any of the three major candidates.

Because, as Wallis put it, “Washington [D.C.] is the last place movements hit.”  Folks in D.C. think “history moves through them,” but “history does not bear this out.”  It is the grassroots that matter.

So campaign for your candidate, even preach (to the unconverted!) why you believe in them, but really consider what they can do for us, and how they can facilitate or empower our “righteous work.”  We cannot let our energy and passion die on November 5, 2008.  Hell, it’s just another Wednesday in the never ending struggle for positive social change. 


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