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Engaging the Crisis: Organizing Against Budget Cuts, Building Community Power in Philadelphia

Kristin Campbell
Date Published: 
April 1, 2010

On November 6, 2008, just days after Philadelphians poured onto the streets to celebrate the Phillies winning the World Series championship and Barack Obama the US presidency, Mayor Michael Nutter announced a drastic plan to deal with the city’s $108 million budget gap. Severe budget cuts were announced, including the closure of eleven public libraries, sixty-two public swimming pools, three public ice skating rinks, and eliminating several fire engines. Nutter also stated that 220 city workers would be laid off and 600 unfilled positions would be eliminated entirely, amounting to the loss of nearly 1,000 precious city jobs. In classic neoliberal style, the public sector would have to sacrifice, while taxpayer money would bail out the private banking institutions.

City in crisis

Well before the economic crises of 2008, a decades-long process of economic restructuring and deindustrialization had left Philadelphia, with a population of just over 1.4 million, incredibly under-resourced. Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate out of the ten largest cities in the US, with an eleven percent unemployment rate and a high-school dropout rate that hovers dangerously around fifty percent.

The proposed budget cuts sparked waves of popular outrage especially concerning the closure of the libraries, many of which are located in low-income communities of color and serve as bedrock institutions for many basic resources. Eleanor Childs, a principal of a school that heavily relies on West Philadelphia’s Durham library, and a member of the Coalition to Save the Libraries, recalls “a groundswell of concern about the closing of the libraries… People rose up. We had our pitchforks. We were ready to fight to keep our libraries open.”

Nutter’s administration set up eight town hall meetings across Philadelphia, designed to calm the citywide uproar. Thousands of people filled the town hall meetings poised to question how such drastic decisions were made without any public input. Under the banner “Tight Times, Tough Choices,” Mayor Nutter and senior city officials attempted to explain the necessity of such deep service cuts. They explained that the impact of the economic crisis on the city had only become apparent in recent weeks, and because the city could not raise significant revenue to offset its financial loses in the timeframe that was needed, rapid cuts were mandatory and effective January 1, 2009.

Community response

In the following days and weeks, Philadelphians quickly mobilized against the decision that their public services and city workers pay for the fallout of an economic system that had already left so many of them struggling. Neighborhood leaders organized impromptu rallies at the eleven branch libraries. Along with organizing people to turn out at the Mayor’s town hall meetings, these rallies gained media attention on both the nightly news and in the major newspapers, demonstrating widespread opposition to the budget cuts. Sherrie Cohen, member of the Coalition to Save the Libraries and long-time resident of the Ogontz neighborhood of North Philly remembers her neighbors coming together to say, “We are not going to let this library close. It’s not gonna happen. We fought for 36 years for a library in our neighborhood.”

In mid-December 2008, Sherrie Cohen and attorney Irv Ackelsberg, along with plaintiffs from the eleven branches and three City Council members, filed suit against the City citing a 1988 ordinance that says that no city-owned facility may close, be abandoned, or go into disuse without City Council approval. After two days of court hearings packed with library supporters and just hours before the mandated closure, Judge Idee Fox ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and council members by granting an injunction against the closures. In her ruling Judge Fox said, “The decision to close these eleven library branches is more than a response to a financial crisis; it changes the very foundation of our City.” Commenting on the major victory, Sheila Washington, who lives just a few doors down from the Haddington branch library in West Philadelphia recalls: “I’ve never been so proud in my life to sit in that courtroom and see justice get served. The Coalition out-maneuvered the Mayor and I don’t think he’s gotten over it yet!”

Grassroots leadership

Initially a non-profit advocacy organization, the Friends of the Free Library (FFL)—itself largely funded by the city—coordinated the opposition to the mayor and positioned itself as the leader of the struggle by attempting to negotiate with the City. Without community input, FFL proceeded to put forth a series of low-level demands calling for “shared sacrifice” and a three-day-a-week schedule for the entire library system. Having established itself as a mediating force, FFL’s centered its efforts around media attention and backroom negotiation, shying away from any community organizing or alternative legal and civil disobedience strategies.

Community leaders, rooted in the neighborhoods where libraries were about to close, decided they could not afford to settle with the FFL’s “shared sacrifice” strategy. People who organized the very first rallies to defend their neighborhood branches came together with a broader layer of organizers and activists who wanted to support the fight against the budget cuts, and the Coalition to Save the Libraries (CSL) was formed.

The CSL quickly set up a working group structure, loosely based on a spokes-council model that allowed for a multiplicity of work to happen simultaneously. We divided into working groups representing our tactical focuses: media; action; outreach; and influencing decision-makers. Each working group included a mix of people, some experienced in a particular area and others who were coming to the work for the first time. Members taught each other how to draft media talking points and phone scripts for outreach calls, prep meeting agendas and media spokespeople and write press releases for actions at City Hall. With the intention of structuring the leadership of those most affected by the budget cuts at the center of the organization, CSL formed a coordinating committee where multi-racial and cross-neighborhood membership was prioritized. Weekly meetings featured rotating co-facilitators, usually paired across difference as a way to underline the importance and power of multiracial and intergenerational organizing in Philadelphia.

The CSL was born just weeks before the libraries were mandated to close, which left us with a very short timeline and very high stakes. Organizing in the midst of the economic crisis was fast-paced, anxiety-ridden and offered little time to think about long-term vision and strategy. Nonetheless, CSL’s campaign to keep the libraries open and fully functional consistently attempted to combine short-term demands with a long-term vision for educational and economic justice. The Coalition argued that defending community access to public educational resources—computers, books, librarians—becomes even more important in times of economic crisis, especially in light of how many low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia have been systematically stripped of these resources over the last few decades.

CSL developed a collective analysis that saw libraries as much more than mere buildings with books, but rather, as powerful organizing bases across the city. As Sherrie Cohen put it: “Libraries are one of the few government-sponsored institutions left in our communities. They are a beacon of light in our communities, a sanctuary, a community center, a hub of information and resources.” Closing the 11 libraries would be an attack on poor and working people throughout our City, because as Carolyn Morgan, Coalition leader and Southwest Philly resident unequivocally put it, “Taking away these materials would be a form of murder because the mind is not being fed. Just as the physical body needs to be fed in order to be healthy, the mind needs to be fed in order to grow in wisdom and knowledge.”

While the Mayor was proposing stark neo-liberal solutions—including a proposal to sell the eleven library buildings and turn them into privately managed “knowledge centers”—we were demanding that public services be considered common, neighborhood-owned institutions. A common refrain of the CSL has been, “You can’t close these libraries because they are not yours to take!” Looking for more action oriented strategies to involve people outraged by the Mayors proposal, the CSL began to create a community budgeting process for Philadelphia by establishing a “People’s Court”—a series of actions outside of City Hall coinciding with the opening day of legal hearings, which stated that it was “illegal” to close down the 11 libraries.

Strategic alliances

Building a strong cross-neighborhood alliance to fight the library cuts became central to CSL’s strategy and was successful for a few reasons. Connecting structurally segregated neighborhoods in Philadelphia meant that we were inevitably building a multiracial, cross-class, intergenerational organization, which we learned holds tremendous power and potential. Gregory Benjamin, Coalition leader and Southwest Philly block captain remarked, “The citywide coalition was dynamite. It gave us an opportunity to connect with other people, communities and ethnic groups that really had the same concerns that we had.”

By bringing different people from different neighborhoods together the Coalition built a very real feeling of collective power. Sheila Washington recalls: “I was invited to a Coalition meeting and it was wonderful because I was so stressed out. They were removing books and packing up our library. They were moving the after-school program. And I thought, oh my God, what is this neighborhood going to do?” Organizing to defend the libraries helped us cope with the incredibly difficult economic times, together. The budget cuts were coming down in multiple neighborhoods across the city, mostly low-income neighborhoods, and by building alliances among people who were experiencing the effects of these budget cuts, our organization replaced feelings of isolation and shock with feelings of strength and a belief that together we could win.

Strategic alliances were built not only across neighborhoods but also across generations. In Philadelphia, a majority of elementary schools rely heavily on their closest public library. With this in mind, a group of third graders led one of our most creative actions—a two-mile book trek from their school to the library. Through the action, young people demonstrated the extremely negative effects of the proposed closings simply by the distance they walked. Along with strengthening the popular struggle to save the libraries, youth-led actions like these served to build power among the students themselves. Katrina Clark, the students’ teacher, says that whenever they talk about the civil rights movement or other human rights issues the students refer back to the book trek and say, "Like what we did with the libraries?" She added, "They now have prior knowledge about what it means to fight for their rights…Honestly, that’s what education is about. It’s about empowering students to change the world and giving them the tools they need to do it.”

Long haul

What ultimately stopped the eleven libraries from closing was the combination of CSL’s short term demands along with its long term vision and popular organizing strategy targeting multiple pressure points. The Coalition accurately assessed the moment and turned widespread anger around the budget cuts into an organized power base; we helped file a lawsuit against the City and organized turnout at legal hearings; and we seriously prepared for a library takeover in the event that the lawsuit failed. Together, the CSL implemented a successful model of crisis-response organizing by channeling popular outrage into a strong, unified cross-neighborhood force that framed the debate in terms of economic and racial inequity.

Even after winning the court injunction, Philadelphia is still struggling with constant staffing shortages and reduced operation hours due to an $8 million budget cut to the library system. As the library campaign drew to a close, the CSL redirected its efforts to protesting pool closings, attempting to grow and develop into a multi-issue organization. It was a logical extension of our initial work, as the pool closings affected the same constituencies that were hit hardest by the library closings—poor and working people of Philadelphia.

Because we see this as a long-term struggle, we’ve been working to transition our organization from a crisis-response, single-issue coalition into a multi-issue, long-term grassroots institution in Philadelphia. In order to build for the long haul as an organization, we have continued to tie the budget cuts together and show how they are interconnected, train and develop our leaders, and maintain our cross-neighborhood network. This article is part of our effort to document and reflect on our work as we gear up for the US Social Forum in Detroit this summer.

Our city is in dire need of multi-issue grassroots organizations that are led by poor and working people fighting for social and economic justice and oriented towards organizing to build power in our communities.

Our victory and the relationships we’ve built in the process have given us the inspiration to continue to struggle. Betty Beaufort, Coalition leader and a resident of the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia offers powerful advice: “Fight for what you want cause if you don’t fight, you not gonna get nothing. Cause life is a struggle and you wanna turn a struggle into a movement. Don’t get discouraged, cause some days you might say to heck with it, but we need to fight on. Being involved in the Coalition has reminded me of my own strength. We have to be reminded of our own strength because there’s always gonna be something we got to fight for, and I’m ready for the fight!”

Kristin Campbell in collaboration with Andalusia Knoll and with additional help from Alia Trindle and Sarah Small. Inspired by Eleanor Childs, Sherrie Cohen, Sheila Washington, Carolyn Morgan, Katrina Clark, Gregory Benjamin and Betty Beaufort. Kristin Campbell grew up in Philadelphia and is a member of the Coalition to Save the Libraries. She has been involved with student, anti-war, global justice, and community organizing efforts over the years. For more information on the CSL please see their blog at: