Imagine an event where the people in control were the house cleaners, the nannies, the family farmers and the unemployed!
A little over two weeks ago I attended the joint organizing summit and member assembly of National People’s Action (NPA) and National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). Entitled Rising Voices for a New Economy, the four-day event held in the nation’s capital gathered over 1100 members from both NPA and NDWA affiliates from around the country.
The weekend was comprised of three phases: the closed member summit for NDWA where hundreds of domestic workers and home care providers shared challenges, successes, and skills for organizing; a joint NPA and NDWA closed member summit that allowed for cross-sharing across the two movement organizations; and an open action whereby members leveraged the power built over the past year and the relationships strengthened over the last weekend to lobby their representatives on Capitol Hill and to take direct action in the streets and in front of the White House.
I was able to attend the open action on Sunday, April 28th. The mood was festive and celebratory with reggae, the blues, gospel, hip hop and Spanish language resistance music playing over the loud speakers as we waited for the official program to begin. People walked arm in arm all wearing T-shirts sporting either the NPA or NDWA conference slogans. A large group of people spontaneously began dancing at the front of the room. There was laughter and joy and there were several languages being spoken by the attendees who were majority people of color and more than half women.
NPA and NDWA are both broad-based national organizations with state affiliates that do both grassroots and broad-based organizing at the local level. The organizations employ an approach to organizing based heavily in the school of thought made popular by Marshall Ganz and the New Organizing Institute, drawing heavily on the traditions of the Industrial Areas Foundation and PICO. In this organizing model storytelling is key to building the relationships necessary to identify shared interests, organizing issues, and winnable campaigns. Integral to the organizing process is the building of people power needed to confront and make demands of those with political power (government) or financial power (corporations).
The event itself was centered around the narrative of arc of Story of Me, Story of Us, Story of Now, created by Marshall Ganz, that facilitates grassroots leaders use their personal narratives to build power. We heard from Juana who had crossed the border from Mexico and worked for years as a domestic worker before joining with others in Los Angeles to demand a shift in immigration policy with Mujeres Unidas.
We also heard from a fifth generation family farmer whose land was being encroached upon by Big Agriculture and who was fighting back with her neighbors to prevent environmental destruction and economic devastation. We heard from Shirley from Atlanta, a home care aid who discovered she was a victim of wage theft through her home care agency and organized with other home care aids to form the Atlanta NDWA affiliate. And we heard from Bobby Tolbert, a leader with VOCAL-NY a grassroots organization of people living with HIV and AIDS. Each of the leaders spoke about how their lives were personally affected by injustice and how they came together with others to build power and make positive change. This was followed by brief questions addressed to Peter Buffet of the NoVo Foundation, Heather McGhee of Demos, and Tafari Jabari of AFL-CIO. It was not at all lost on the audience that each of these guests had a few minutes to answer questions posed to them by the grassroots leaders.
What was bringing all these people together this weekend was a recognition that as they all worked for different issues, (immigration reform, fair wages, and housing for those with HIV and AIDS) the overarching shared vision was for a new economy that prioritized the well-being of people above profit. NPA in the past few years has begun to articulate its strategy in terms of a need for a New Economy. NPA lays out its 40-year agenda for a New Economy here (http://npa-us.org/files/long_term_agenda_0.pdf). All issues were put in the context of economic and political reform that ensures democratic control of government, public control of the economy, structural equity, community control and global sustainability.
While NPA and NDWA and other leaders such as the New Economy Coalition work to develop concrete steps towards the new economy, it is clear that what is needed is a broad multiracial, anti-racist, multiclass, anti-classist movement that prioritizes the leadership of those at the front lines of the environmental destruction and economic exploitation caused by the current economic system.