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Mitigating the medium-term disaster and making long-term change in Miami, with Jennifer Hill

Miami is recovering from Hurricane Irma slowly, but weeks out from the storm, secondary effects are creeping in. Organizers from the Miami Workers Center have seen up close the primary and secondary effects of the disaster now, and how they impact unequally, how opportunists use the storm to push through already-existing agendas of displacement, how race and gender and immigration status shape the relief people receive. Jennifer Hill is an organizer and attorney with the Miami Workers Center and Advocacy Parters Team and she talks about the work they’re doing to rebuild and strengthen the community against systemic problems.

Like many other people, we have gone back and forth about what makes something organizing versus servicing. It is not necessarily the nature of the work. It is more, I think, the approach to the work, how one carries out the work. In the wake of a disaster, people need a lot of services. They just need a lot of very practical help. It might be giving out water and it might be helping with disaster unemployment applications, and it might be many other things. What we have started to think about that it is important to be able to respond to some of the immediate needs in the community with actual services that are helpful and we want to partner with different groups that have different expertise if they can do that. But, it is also important to try to inject political education into the delivery of services. We want to make sure that when people get information and they go to a legal clinic, like when they came to our disaster relief legal clinics, that in addition to getting information about FEMA applications and disaster unemployment applications and disaster food stamp applications, that they get time to talk and that we have time to talk with them about their rights on the job and what to do if there is a problem and they face a threat or what to do if they are not paid or whether they anticipate any problems with access to healthcare and where they go for healthcare so we can try to make sure that the healthcare centers are open and that they have the ability to get all the services they need and they know about the sorts of programs for reduced fees or for access to healthcare. We try to set up these clinics, so they get to go from one station to another station and they get the services that they need. Then, they go to a station that is really a political education station where we talk about what is needed to make sure that people have their rights and how they can access and express their rights, but also, what is needed to make the changes that will make this better.

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Taking back control of Philadelphia’s public schools, with Antoine Little and Arielle Klagsbrun

Philadelphia’s public schools have been a political football for years, under the control of the state and systematically underfunded. But after sixteen years of organizing, a new mayor and a new governor, the Philadelphia school district is going to come back into the city’s control. Arielle Klagsbrun and Antoine Little of the 215 People’s Alliance and the Our City Our Schools coalition join me to explain how, in the midst of a war for public education, they won a victory for public control.

Our City Our Schools coalition started about a year ago, under the 215 People’s Alliance umbrella. We started this fight a year ago because we knew that our children here in Philadelphia deserved more, so we decided to take on the challenge of getting rid of the SRC either through self-dissolvement or through whatever method needed to be done to get it done. We took on the fight.
It was a hard fight because we had to go out and organize communities, we had to have tons and tons of meetings with the powers that be, the stakeholders that are in place, and we had to sit down and have conversations with them and give them our vision of what the fight would take and what we would have to do in order to win the fight and be able to move forward and to regain local control.
Now, for myself, I got involved with the school situation when they decided to close sixty-four schools. One of the schools that they were deciding to close was, number one, my old alma mater, T.M. Peirce Elementary School, but it was also the school that my children attended. And not just my children, but many children in that school and from that neighborhood would be forced to walk almost over ten blocks just to get to the next school that they were talking about sending these children to. So, I got involved to say, “Hold up. No, we can’t do this.”
We went out and we organized the community, sat at different SRC meetings, testified, meeting after meeting challenging about having to walk this distance that some of these children would have to walk through and some of the communities and the neighborhoods that they would have to walk through in order to get to this school weren’t the best. So, we had to show them what he was deciding to do with this one particular school and then, from there, T.M. Peirce was one of the schools that was saved, but unfortunately, many of the other ones weren’t able to be saved. But, again, they were only in the Black and Brown communities.

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Out of the headlines, the labor movement works to rebuild Puerto Rico, with Dan Maldonado

The rumors always come when disaster strikes, it seems–failures of the disaster recovery system are blamed on rank-and-file workers. As Dan Maldonado of Teamsters local 445 notes, the rumor this time was that Teamsters went on strike rather than deliver relief supplies across the island. The rumor was demonstrably false, and indeed the Teamsters sent workers down to the island for weeks of volunteer work. Maldonado was one of those workers–of Puerto Rican heritage himself, he has family still on the island–and he tells us what it’s still like down there and why recovery is likely to take a long time, and likely to slip from the headlines.

When you look at the death toll…and right now, they are saying it is 51. It may not seem like a lot, 51. But, the bigger concern is the long-term health effects. Let me give you two examples: one from what I knew from another Teamster and a personal one, myself. One, being that there was a Teamster that went to a neighborhood with a group of nurses and the lady had gangrene. Basically, she was in such a condition that her daughter kept obeying all her commands and we basically had to tell the daughter, “We understand that you respect your parents, but her mind is not there. The gangrene is getting inside of her.” We were able to get a VIP room for her. Unfortunately, her legs were amputated, but that was the only way for her to survive. Me, on a personal level, I have an uncle who is a diabetic, he had no electricity… So, for 7 days he didn’t take his diabetic medicine and he has the funds, he is economically stable to come over here, but now, because [he didn’t take his medicine], his legs got swollen which affected his kidneys and now he has got a pacemaker. So, he is in a catch 22 where he can’t get on a plane because he has got a pacemaker and he has got to stay in Puerto Rico. So, a lot of the long-term ill effects are something that we are concerned with down the road.

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From the Fight for $15 to city council, with Stephanie Gasca


Stephanie Gasca is one of many people this year moving from social movement, community, and labor organizing work into campaigning for office. She got her start with the Fight for $15, and works for Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha, which translates to Center for Workers United in Struggle, a worker center that helped bring Target to the negotiating table for retail janitors with several years of strikes. Now she’s running for a city council seat to make sure that the communities where she lives and works are represented by people who understand their struggles against state violence, against poverty wages, against racism and a vicious immigration system.

I am a mother first and foremost. I have a 14-year-old black son that I am raising here in North Minneapolis where the police have killed black men before, where the police harass our black youth on a regular basis. My politics are automatically different because of my life experiences.
Because of my background and where I come from and being one of nine children and having my step-dad being impacted by the broken immigration system and having our family being hit by poverty wages and a lack of access to education and opportunities and having my mom being impacted by not having paid sick leave, all of these things, all of these disparities, all of these specifics that everyone loves to go on about the numbers and this and this and that, that is my real life. I have a brother who just came home from federal prison in August who I am trying to support right now, helping him and ensuring that he gets a job and ensuring that he has access to the resources that he needs so that he is successful at re-entry and that he is not trapped by the system, because the system is designed to slap folks with a felony and they just keep them going back into the system.
When we talk about children being highly mobile, my niece is living with me right now who hasn’t had stable housing in 5 years because my sister cannot afford the rising cost of rent. All of these things that we talk about, I am living them every single day. So, my politics are automatically different because this is my life. These aren’t reports that I am reading. These aren’t statistics that I am looking at. This is my life and it is about a fight for my survival. It is about the fight for the survival of my family and my community. That is how I always approach my work because that is what it is. I can’t approach it any other way.

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Disrupting education for fake free speech, with Thomas Gunderson

The battles over “free speech” on campus have loomed large in the era of Trump, with conservative provocateurs invited to campuses across the country only to claim that they are being silenced when students protest them. In one of the latest salvos in the battle to claim “freedom of speech” for the Right, Scott Walker and his allies in Wisconsin are pushing a policy that would suspend or expel students for protesting in ways the university deems infringe on the free speech of another. Thomas Gunderson is a student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and is organizing against the policy.

It is especially annoying that they are just trying to do this in the UW system right now, because just in the recent year they have politically attacked both professors and students. Members of the state legislature have openly attacked professors and students whose expression, whose free speech they have found disagreeable. For anything like a free speech legislation to have any sort of legitimacy to it, the restrictions upon free speech have to necessarily be viewpoint and value neutral restrictions. That this would be the case in the UW system at the current moment is just completely unrealistic. I think that is what has many students, at least in my circles, very concerned about this, that they will be people who are targeted. Particularly a lot of minority groups at the university, those that are here are really worried about it.

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Organizing for no more Harvey Weinsteins, with Mariame Kaba and Shira Hassan

Sexual violence is in the news again thanks to allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and in the past week we’ve seen plenty of discussion about how prevalent harassment, assault and rape still are. But what does ending it really entail? What can we do to end it? Shira Hassan and Mariame Kaba are longtime organizers against sexual violence and against the violence of the prison system, and they share their thoughts and ideas for how to organize for a world where, as Mariame says, interpersonal violence is “unthinkable.”

MK: I think that is another aspect of this, for people who are counting on a criminal punishment response to this…I understand feeling completely depressed and debilitated, because that system doesn’t actually know how to hold firm for survivors. It doesn’t know how to transform harm that occurs. It is a system that most people don’t access, most survivors still never access. For lots of reasons: because they don’t want to, because they have been traumatized in the past by the system, because they don’t want the person who harmed them necessarily caught up in the system. There are a million reasons. Because they don’t want to be raked over the coals, themselves. Because they try to solve problems in community. When people do access the system, they are screwed over by it, literally, in all different kinds of ways. They, also, then feel a sense of disempowerment. I can understand that if the way you think we are actually going to solve this problem, is through that system, I can understand that sense of complete debilitating depression, because that system actually can’t do that. SH: Not only can’t the system do it, but I think our belief that it can is the part that I think we feel most betrayed by most often. I think there are some of us who have let go of that betrayal because we have just stopped trying to get water from a stone. Frankly, the stone is being thrown at us. So, we are now trying to build shelter from the stone and talk to everyone who is coming inside the shelter about what we can do. That, for me, is perhaps why I feel less overwhelmed. It isn’t that I don’t feel like “Wow, we have an unbelievable amount to do” because I do feel like that. But, I do feel like we have so many more things to try away from the system than with it. What we have begun to create is this shelter together where we really can focus on who is inside this huddle and work with each person who is there in a more meaningful way to move forward.

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Taking a knee for the Right to Know Act, with Victoria Davis and Victor Dempsey


Colin Kaepernick’s original protest, taking a knee during the national anthem during football games when he was quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers has spread across the country. Yet this year, as Donald Trump has inserted himself into the fight, many felt that Kaepernick’s original meaning–his protest against state violence against black people–was being lost. Victoria Davis and Victor Dempsey lost their brother, Delrawn Small, to an NYPD officer’s bullet last year and they are part of a coalition fighting for reforms to the NYPD’s process of stopping and searching people. And to them, taking a knee–as they did recently outside of the New York City Council demanding passage of the Right to Know Act–has a very particular meaning that they are fighting not to lose.

Victoria: The thing is that people were forgetting. It started to become a hashtag with some racist rhetoric. For the past few weeks, people have been forgetting the reason that Colin Kaepernick had originally taken the knee. He wasn’t against the national anthem, the flag, or any of those things. He was taking a knee in solidarity with the victims and the families of police and state murders. For the murdered. For families like us who have loved ones who were killed by a police officer who was hired to serve and protect.
Victor: We wanted to align ourselves with that and stand up with him and take the knee with him to show that we see what he is doing, we appreciate what he is doing and we are fighting, as well. We are not just sitting here. We are fighting. And we are going to do whatever we can in our power to help make a change, because it has to stop.
Victoria: And we don’t want anyone to forget why it was done in the first place. I think that sometimes people take hashtags and they do it for different reasons, it becomes almost like a fad, a hashtag. Taking the knee and putting faces to these victims and putting faces to the hurt, like I always say, we – meaning the families – cannot take a knee and then everything is right in our lives and we are just able to move on and move forward. We take the knee and that is taking a stand.
We still have to go back to our lives without Delrawn and Delrawn was a huge part of our lives. Things have been terrible since he has been gone. We just want people to remember exactly why the take the knee action was taken in the first place and not to stray away from that. I think too often people forget because things move so fast in life. If they feel strongly about taking the knee, then please feel strongly about supporting the families in any way that you can. It can be kind words. It can be coming to a vigil, a rally, or even just… I have seen people hashtag #taketheknee and they will write something and someone else will write something and I will counter something negative, it’s like changing the narrative. Because once we change the narrative and the way we see these police killings, then we will see it as not just a hashtag, but we will see that these are humans, these are people. Delrawn was a human. He was a kind person. He was a reliable person. He meant everything to us.

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Clipping the hedge funds that own Puerto Rico’s debt, with Jonathan Westin.

What are hedge funds for, anyway? That’s the question that the Hedge Clippers, a coalition of organizers and researchers targeting secretive financial institutions, has been asking for a while. They’ve had some success, notably in getting New York City’s pension funds out of hedge funds, and they’ve set their sights on Puerto Rico’s debt and the hedge funders that own it. Jonathan Westin of New York Communities for Change and Hedge Clippers joins me to discuss.

Essentially, they are glorified debt collectors. That is what the hedge fund managers are acting as. In many cases, they are the ones that hiked up all the spending and borrowing. They created the debt and frankly there is no reason Puerto Rico should pay it back. That is part of what Trump was talking about when he was talking about cancelling the debt. I actually think there are a lot of people in this country that can sympathize with the huge amounts of debt that are piling up and the question of “where is all of this money going in our country and in our economy, and frankly, globally?” It is a continuing push and consolidation of all of the wealth and capital in this country going to folks like these hedge fund managers, while every day Americans are struggling and having to rely on debt to live. This is everyday America. “I am able to pay my rent and water bills by living on credit cards. I am able to send my kid to college by borrowing tons and tons of money.” So much of how we live now is debt created by Wall Street. In this case, it is an entire island and country that they have impoverished. I think we are now seeing the tragic ramifications in a post-Hurricane Maria world. The only way they are going to get back on their feet is with heavy investments into the infrastructure of Puerto Rico and not putting that money into the pockets of hedge fund managers that are trying to collect immoral debts.

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Turning up for DACA recipients, with Ricardo Aca

Ricardo Aca has renewed his DACA several times and in the lead-up to the deadline imposed by Trump’s rescinding of the policy allowing immigrants who arrived as children to remain in the U.S. he divided his time between helping young people renew their status and demanding that members of Congress step up and pass a DREAM Act to give them legal status. But it’s not just young people who came here as children who should be allowed to stay, he argues–it’s time for the U.S. to recognize the status of all immigrants.

We struggled a lot to get to where we are today. Even this label Dreamers, which we kind of no longer want to be associated with, because at the end of the day we are the representations of our parents who are the original Dreamers and people need to know that. That is also part of the reason why we are asking for a clean DREAM Act where we deserve to be here, but also, our parents deserve to be here. We don’t want to compromise our future because we don’t want to be separated from them who are just as important as we are. We are the representation of them because they wanted us to get a better education, they wanted us to have better jobs, which we do have. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without the work of our parents. That is something that people don’t really know in this narrative. People think of our parents should be considered criminals because they broke the law, but they don’t know what it is like to come from somewhere like Mexico or Venezuela or Colombia where there is a lot of political struggle. They don’t know what it is like to be living in this country where you don’t have access to resources, you don’t have access to education, you don’t feel safe, there are drug cartels. People need to know that there is a reason why we came here and now that we are here, this is where we consider our home and this is where we want to be.

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Challenging the frame around gun violence, with Patrick Blanchfield

After the Las Vegas mass shooting, calls to do something once again fill the airwaves and the press. But what can be done? The answer is not so easy; there is not a fully-formed, workable policy apparatus simply being held up by the NRA’s cash and Republican votes. Patrick Blanchfield is a writer who has gone deep into gun culture and gun violence in America, and he joins us to discuss what does work, what doesn’t work, and how our knee-jerk desire to “do something” can actually be put to good use close to home.

The big theme, there’s two parts. One is just resist the frame. The Democratic Party does not need you to support expanding the no-fly list in order to give the NRA what it deserves. The Democratic Party can take care of that themselves. They will keep doing it. That is the one thing that they will do a sit-in for, they are willing to go to bat for it. Instead of even falling into the wormhole of gun control debates on the national level, think about gun deaths on the local level. Think about who in your community is the most vulnerable to winding up dead because of a bullet.
When you start asking that question, you see across the country some really surprising grassroots coalitions coming into being, or operative for some time, that are doing really substantive things that are helping lower that toll of violence.
This is two things. One: Where is the activism happening? Two: What is the room for actual interventions that are meaningful? I won’t get too inside baseball, but the way in which gun laws have taken shape, particularly over the last 30 or 40 years, means that most interventions that are meaningful are happening on the state or even more often on the municipal levels. That is legislatively, but also in terms of activism.

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