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Marisa Franco, Willie Baptist, Gihan Perera, Ai-Jen Poo, Steve Williams, Harmony Goldberg
Date Published: 
July 1, 2009

This roundtable is adapted from the “Left Strategy from the Grassroots” panel that took place at the Left Forum in New York City in April 2009. The panel was designed to advance the voices of grassroots organizers at this conference which has historically focused on the academic sector of the Left, but this conversation—about how left organizers and activists need to adapt our work to step up to the demands of our rapidly changing historic moment—is also sorely needed among radicals and leftists who are rooted in social movements. This roundtable intentionally brought together people who were engaged in both local organizing and national movement-building efforts. We hope this piece can provoke deeper and broader strategic debate and dialogue towards taking our work to the next level.

Marisa Franco is the Lead Organizer with the Right to the City Alliance, a national alliance of grassroots organizations working for urban justice.

Willie Baptist is the coordinator of the Poverty Scholars program at Union Theological Seminary. He has extensive experience with poor peoples’ organizations, including the Kensington Welfare Right Union and the National Homeless Union.

Gihan Perera is the Executive Director of the Miami Workers Center. MWC is a founding member of the Right to the City Alliance and a member of Grassroots Global Justice.

Ai-jen Poo is the Lead Organizer at Domestic Workers United in New York City. DWU is a founding member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a member of Grassroots Global Justice.

Steve Williams is a Co-Director at POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights) in San Francisco. POWER is a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Right to the City Alliance, and Grassroots Global Justice.

Harmony Goldberg convened and moderated this roundtable discussion. One of the founders of SOUL (School Of Unity & Liberation) in Oakland, she is a long-time movement educator and facilitator. She is currently a student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.


Why do you think that community organizing in working class communities of color is some of the most important work that leftists can be doing today?

Ai-Jen:  If we’re going to create conditions for a revolutionary movement in this country, then two key things need to happen. The first is that we need to build the capacity of the grassroots movement to really have an impact on the conditions of the working class. I think that happens through having a strong base in the communities that are at the frontlines of exploitation and the economic crisis. We also need to transform the labor movement in the United States to truly act in the interests of the working class. The grassroots movement has been evolving, and now we’re in a moment where we can start to bring these two areas of work together in a way that helps to create the conditions for a revolutionary movement in this country.

Steve:  When POWER started organizing welfare recipients in 1997, it was our intuition that we were organizing in working class communities of color who were not a traditional “working class in the factories” for a reason. There were changes happening in the economy that made these communities a strategic sector. In the circuit of capital that Marx talked about, there’s extraction, production, and consumption. We don’t think that production is the only place you can jam that circuit up; you can actually jam up the system at any of those points. Because people in the United States were getting displaced from factories, we felt that jamming up the site of consumption—and particularly in the cities—was a strategic venture, and we felt that working class communities of color were particularly well-placed to meet that struggle. The intuition that these particular communities can actually be the revolutionary subject, and not just a charitable group to organize, is critical.

Gihan:  Before we started the Miami Workers Center, we had been union organizers with a clothing and textile workers’ union in the South. Even though we were organizing when all the textile factories were shutting down, there was very little room in the union model to talk with the workers about how their issues and their experiences were connected to the dynamics of global capitalism. The line was, “Keep your factory open. Get ten more cents.” When we left the union and started the Workers Center, we were looking to do two things. The first was to speak to peoples’ experiences outside of their relationship to employment, including their relationship to race and to their communities. The second was to create an organizing model that actually took their day-to-day struggles and raised deeper consciousness out of them. Much of the community organizing work that’s taken place over the last twenty years in the United States has been anti-left. It was started out of antagonism to left movements in the 1960s and 1970s. It had a very pragmatic orientation that said, “We are just about bread-and-butter issues. We are not about ideology, and we don’t touch the system.” That has really been the dominant form of community organizing in the United States. We’re coming from a different perspective that is trying to figure out to re-found a left grassroots movement and a left organizing model in the United States.

What are the opportunities and the challenges that the economic crisis and the Obama administration are presenting to the Left and to grassroots movements?

Marisa:  There is a real opportunity for us to collectively learn a different level of engagement. For a long time, the approach of the Left and the grassroots has been “No! Stop that! We don’t want that.” We’ve been very clear about who our targets are; there were no qualms that Bush was the enemy and that his door was closed. With the Obama administration, it’s not that way; it’s actually very complicated. He’s going to do a lot of things that we favor, and he’s also going to do things that we don’t agree with, as we’ve already seen. I would argue that we have to be able to engage with the Administration on a different level, on a more sophisticated level politically. There are actually a lot of opportunities for folks to access this Administration. We don’t necessarily have influence because, to have influence, we need to get up to the point where they have to listen to us. But I do think that we can access some people in this administration. That gives us an opportunity to impact the responses to the economic crisis, from the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) to the stimulus and the housing crisis. In that, I think we need to emphasize our solutions and our alternatives. I think there’s real opportunity to be able to learn from jumping out and trying some new things. There’s a balance between analyzing the situation carefully and taking risks, but in this period we have to make choices and move. In making those choices, we have to be prepared to lose and learn lessons from that, but we also have to be prepared to win and to know what will come out of that too. We have to dare to experiment with intention.

Ai-jen:  We need to get involved in fights that are already in motion, like the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Capital has formed an incredible united front to stop the Employee Free Choice Act from moving forward. Labor has framed it narrowly, but this is the kind of fight that actually has mass potential. The vast majority of people in the United States are likely to believe in this issue, and they could really throw down for it. The right to organize is a human rights issue, and it’s the role of the Left to popularize that and to frame it in a deeper political and historical context. We need to organize and talk about how many groups—like domestic workers and farm workers—are actually excluded from the right to organize and about how EFCA is a stepping stone towards the expansion of the right to organize to include the people who are currently excluded. We need to take up the fights that are already in motion and to bring what we can as a Left to those fights:  to strengthen them, to deepen them, and to have them be part of a revolutionary strategy.

Willie:  This crisis is crossing color lines and even class lines. The so-called middle class is beginning to be affected by this crisis, and the middle class has historically been crucial in terms of power relations in this country. If the power structure can maintain the middle class, then it has a social base of support. But now that middle class is being dismantled. That’s a tremendous opportunity for us, but it’s also a possible danger. As we saw in the “Tea Party” process [the 2009 Tax Day demonstrations spearheaded by right-wing groups], the Right goes after the poor whites and the middle-class whites. Meanwhile the Left focuses in the inner cities with people of color. So how do we develop a strategic outlook that allows us to counteract the Right, especially as more and more people in the middle class are having to look around for alternatives in this moment? We could lose in this game. Even though the Religious Right lost, they still have a network of seminaries and organizations in these areas outside of the major cities, in the small cities and towns. We need to reckon with these forces if we are talking about moving this country towards real change. I’m scared about the limits of our understanding. If we don’t broaden our understanding, we’re going to find ourselves pawns of a greater power game.

Steve:  If we want to meet the demands of this moment, we need a stronger Left. In my opinion, the Left isn’t composed of the people it needs to be if we want to win. Working class folks and folks of color should make up the bulk of the Left. Many people in our generation represent a bridge between the Left and the social movements that are based in these communities. When I started doing the work, I didn’t know a lot of the folks who were doing organizing and who had these kind of politics; today, there are many more of us. The challenge is that we don’t get together; we don’t have regular ways to communicate. We don’t have consistent spaces or organizations where we can have these kinds of strategic conversations. Ultimately, I think that we’ve got to create a new socialist party in the United States to meet that need. I don’t think that we’re there yet, but one of the steps I think we should take to get there is to create an organization or network of leftists who are engaged in organizing so we can begin having more of these kind of strategic conversations.

What are the main fronts of resistance that are going to develop in the next period? What are the key demands and visions that we should be promoting?

Willie:  We need to anticipate how this crisis will play itself out. The Depression hit in 1929, but it wasn’t until 1933 until you had a real mass reaction. How do we position ourselves and anticipate leaps in development so that we can give some kind of direction to this process? Basically, I think Mohammad has got to go to the mountain ‘cause the mountain ain’t ever going to come to Mohammad. And the mountain is the people. The people are beginning to stir because of their conditions. There is often this very abstract discussion that says, “Here’s our analyses of economic and tactical developments, so therefore let’s try this or that.” It’s good to put it forward as a hypothesis, but ultimately you have to go to the mountain and engage. Because what we consider as problems might be non-issues to what they are most agitated about, what the people who are out there fighting are immediately prepared to fight over. We have to start where people are at and not where people ain't at. In the late 1980s, homeless people—out of necessity—started to take over abandoned buildings. That didn’t come out of a discussion or a sensitivity session. It was about “We are homeless. What do we do with our families and kids in the dead of winter? Where do we go?” So people started occupying buildings. Most social movements have come out of that kind of compulsion and not some great idea. That part comes later. At that time, the National Homeless Union pulled off a synchronized movement in 73 cities; we organized takeovers in thirteen cities across the country. It was an organized expression of what the homeless people were already doing. There was a pattern, although the consciousness of that pattern wasn’t there. It was just people doing what they had to do. It’s happening again today with this crisis; people are having to deal with foreclosures. Brothers and sisters in Michigan and Miami are putting people back into housing. These are patterns we are going to have to look at. We need to relate to that whole process so we can help move it forward. Having analytical tools is important, but it’s critical to use these analytic tools to study these patterns and what the people are actually going to respond to. If we don’t engage the people in these communities, then we aren’t going to be able to determine how to approach these questions. People move on their terms, not on our terms.

Marisa:  I want to pick up on that point. There are massive foreclosures happening, and there are just tremendous opportunities for tactics like occupations and squatting of vacant properties. People are taking that up in different struggles across the country: folks in Boston are doing blockades against the evictions of tenants, Take Back the Land in Miami has been moving people back into foreclosed homes, and ACORN has been doing eviction defense. So it’s already out there, and it’s happening. I think the question is strategy. Like Willie said, these actions, these movements are compulsory. They’re based out of need and out of circumstance that you can’t necessarily predict. But at a certain point, we need to ask, “What is the critical strategic points where we’re trying to go? What are the opportunities?” I think we need to connect what the banks have to do with it. The banks are receiving tax-payer dollars, and they’re evicting people from their homes. People have all this outrage around the banks and the CEOs right now. Five years ago, if you asked most people what they thought about CEO’s salaries, their reaction was likely to be something like, “Well, they worked hard for it, and they deserve it.” But now, people are pissed. They’re like, “I lost my job, and I’m getting kicked out of my house. And this fool is flying his own jet and getting paid?” There’s this real frustration with the banks and corporate America that we just haven’t seen in recent times. It’s actually becoming a common opinion. We haven’t been able to seize on that, but I think it’s an opening.

Gihan:  None of us are really making democratic demands on all this stimulus money. We should make demand for participatory budgeting at local and state levels for all of that money, including the right for community organizations to have a say in the discretion of that money. We can make demands on what will be done with that stimulus money that let us start developing and practicing alternatives right now. For example, in Argentina, they have actually started taking over factories and self-producing. We’re far behind that in terms of our struggle, but there is definitely a crisis of production here. Take Back the Land has done an incredible job of starting to take over foreclosed housing in Miami, and one of the things we’re thinking about is: Can we do the same thing around the economy? Can we demand that stimulus money goes into letting us set up a community-run recycling plant that would hire ex-felons? Can we start taking land over, developing productive capacity and start thinking about what a creative self-determined economy could be? If we can actually join forces and push for a much deeper structural program, we can push the Obama administration and develop creative ways to practice alternatives.

Steve:  The question of the role of the state and corporations in the market is in flux right now. For example, look at the stimulus money for green jobs. Obama thinks that green jobs should be developed in the private sector. His plan is not like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s where the government employed people. The assumption is that the government can’t really employ people well. But that’s something we should fight over. We should say, “You know what? The private sector already messed up the economy. They shouldn’t be in charge of all of this job creation. We think that putting that money in the public sector gives us a level of accountability that we want. We don’t want the private sector to be creating green jobs.” Another example is the housing crisis. There’s all these luxury condominiums in cities around the country that were built up on speculation. Now, they’re sitting empty. It would be interesting for us to start to take over some of those properties. We could do it very publicly and say that, “Not only are we taking over this housing because it needs to be used, but ultimately the developers received public subsidies to build them. We are reclaiming that.”