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Self-determined governance and electoral justice, with Jessica Byrd and Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson

2018 is a midterm election year, and that means the news cycle and a lot of the political energy (and funding) will be running to electoral politics. But what does that mean for social movements, for the Movement for Black Lives? I talk with Jessica Byrd, cofounder of the Movement for Black Lives Electoral Justice Project, and Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson of Highlander Education and Research Center about what role elections play in movements for liberation, what barriers still exist to democracy in the U.S., and much more.

JB: This part of elections that I think we talk about the least is the real structural barriers in accessing democracy. Right now, our democracy is really an aspirational one versus one that we are actually finding the fruits of. What happens as we attempt to continue to access it more and more is that there are more barriers put in place for us to fully participate. When I say “us” I mean nearly everyone but white men who own land and have a college degree, etc. Those laws largely were passed as folks were gaining access to democracy and access to voting and elected leadership and finding ways to make their voices heard in our electoral system. Part of what the movement has to engage in, as well, is removing those barriers.
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AWH: I think that what has become ever more real in the southern specific context is that even with the achievements of Black liberation movements before us, specifically around voting rights and civil rights, that we deserve more than what policy ever gave us. I think that the Movement for Black Lives is really pushing both in the Electoral Justice Project and through the Vision for Black Lives policy platform, calling for what we have always deserved and not just what we would concede to.
That looks like demanding even more protections for folks that are exercising their right to vote as one particular form of participation and building people’s democracy. It is not the only tactic, but it is definitely one that we don’t have the luxury to ignore, especially with working class Black people, especially in places that tend to be more disenfranchised, whether because you are a formerly or currently incarcerated person. Alabama, again, is another case study–people who have never been convicted of a crime that are literally not being allowed to vote. We saw folks fight and win protections for those folks and over 10,000 formerly and currently incarcerated people registered to vote in this last election.

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Interviews for Resistance is a syndicated series of interviews with organizers, agitators and troublemakers, available twice weekly as text and podcast. You can now subscribe on iTunes! Previous interviews here.

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Permanent protections instead of temporary status, with Jaime Contreras


Trump has now revoked temporary protected status (TPS) for immigrants from four countries, the latest being El Salvador. Some 200,000 Salvadorans have come to the US fleeing civil war, earthquakes, and gang violence under this status, but now the administration demands they go home. SEIU 32BJ, the building service workers union, has 100,000 Salvadoran members, many of whom relied on TPS to work in the US. Jaime Contreras, a vice-president with the union and a Salvadoran immigrant himself, explains what the TPS policy has meant to people like his family and what the union is doing to protect its members and pressure Congress to fix the immigration system.

To me, this didn’t come as a surprise. We all heard the rhetoric during the campaign from this president. We knew it was coming. If there is one thing different between the Republicans and the Democrats it is Republicans say what they are going to do and they do it. Democrats, it is the ever-frustrating part where you say you are going to do something and then you do something opposite. Republicans at least stick to their guns and [Laughs] do what they said they were going to do. It is unfortunate. A lot of people were hoping it was only going to be rhetoric, but it is not a surprise.
You asked earlier “What are we going to do and how are we going to get ourselves organized?” SEIU and the rest of the labor movement, along with churches, community organizations, even the business community… The Chamber of Commerce is against eliminating TPS. Obviously, they weren’t heard. Now it is in the hands of Congress. Congress has to act and fix DACA, fix TPS, and allow these people to continue living in the United States as they have been. A lot of these people, like I said, they own homes, some of them are business owners, they have US-born children, they have roots here. They have roots here. You can’t uproot people who have been here for over two decades just like that. It is just not the American thing to do. So, we are going to be lobbying Congress and demanding they fix this problem once and for all for these people who really should be US citizens by now, if they were allowed the opportunity to do that.

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Interviews for Resistance is a syndicated series of interviews with organizers, agitators and troublemakers, available twice weekly as text and podcast. You can now subscribe on iTunes! Previous interviews here.

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Building rural power with Down Home North Carolina

Brigid Flaherty moved home to rural North Carolina after the election of Donald Trump to put her years of organizing experience to work “down home,” bringing together a multiracial organization of working-class people to build power in their communities. A year later, Down Home North Carolina has organizers and members in several counties and campaigns on national, regional and local issues, from healthcare to racial justice to energy bills. Flaherty joins me with member Kischa Peña and organizer Juan Miranda to talk about Down Home’s work in the last year and what’s coming up for them in 2018.

BF: When we were looking at the political makeup of North Carolina and what had happened since 2010 and the far-right takeover of the state and then moving into 2016 and watching that happen at the federal level, it felt like the best offense that we were going to have was to make sure that we were building strong local leadership in places in North Carolina that weren’t necessarily the places that had a lot of infrastructure. For us, this felt like a long-term project that needed to happen in order to make sure that working people got what they deserved, were able to build their leadership, and flex their muscle so that we could really be making winds that could change people’s lives in the years to come.
We said in November that we were going to start Down Home and then actually got off the ground in June this year. We have been around for about six months. Originally, it started out just Todd and I doing the organizing. I moved back to the mountains where my mother lives and I was actually living with her for the first few months and Todd was organizing in Alamance in the center part of the state. We just got out on the doors using a listening survey. We went with three broad questions, basically, which were: What are the issues that matter most to you and your family? Who or what is responsible for those issues? What are your solutions?
I think one of the things we really felt we learned from the 2016 election is that a lot of working people don’t feel listened to. The parties have never contacted them. It felt like a lot of people were speaking for them and yet they were like, “Y’all have never come to our door. You have never sat in our living room.” Again, we have only been around for six months. We basically used the first four and a half/five months to just listen and use that survey to really be able to develop the leaders and develop the issues that would be the things that we were going to fight on as Down Home. That is really how we got started.

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Interviews for Resistance is a syndicated series of interviews with organizers, agitators and troublemakers, available twice weekly as text and podcast. You can now subscribe on iTunes! Previous interviews here.

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Launching the new Poor People’s Campaign with Rev. Emily McNeill


When Martin Luther King Jr. died, he was in the middle of building the Poor People’s Campaign–a multiracial endeavor challenging America’s persistent class divide. But the campaign was left unfinished, and the class divide has only gotten worse and will continue to do so under the latest policy from the Republican Congress, a massive package of tax cuts for the rich and tax hikes for everyone else. So a group of organizers and faith leaders is coming together to finish the work that King started and launching the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Rev. Emily McNeill is part of that campaign in New York State, and also director of the Labor Religion Coalition in New York, and she looks back on the year that was and forward to the campaign coming up.

I think that is a really important aspect of the campaign and it is intentional—to be pushing back on this myth that we all could raise ourselves up by our bootstraps and just continue to accumulate and become rich. It has obviously never been a reality in the history of the United States. But, there is also this history of people on the bottom, in all sorts of ways, coming together and organizing and claiming their identity.
One of the explicit goals of this phase of the campaign is about changing the moral narrative of all these issues; around racism and poverty and militarism and ecological devastation. Part of the narrative that the campaign wants to shift is that being poor is something to be ashamed of and instead to say, “No, poverty is something that our society should be ashamed of. We have nothing to be ashamed of if we are not making ends meet because there are structural reasons for that and people are getting rich off the fact that we are poor.” To claim that, that “We have nothing to be ashamed of, the people that are perpetuating the system are the ones who should be ashamed” is a big part of the messaging that we want to get through to people.
That is what comes across in the testimonies that the campaign has already been putting out from directly impacted folks from around the country, people standing up and saying, “There is nothing wrong with me. I am not…” There is a great video from this young woman who was part of the launch event. She is from Grays Harbor in Washington State and talking about, “I was homeless not because I am lazy, but because society doesn’t have any problem with me being homeless” and just really naming that she is not ashamed and she has no reason to be ashamed to be poor.

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Interviews for Resistance is a syndicated series of interviews with organizers, agitators and troublemakers, available twice weekly as text and podcast. You can now subscribe on iTunes! Previous interviews here.

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Organizing one by one for DREAMers and system change, with Alfredo Pacheco


Coming down to the end of the year, the DREAM Act that Democrats and even some Republicans have claimed to want to pass for years has still not been passed, despite renewed urgency due to Trump’s rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program implemented by Obama. Organizers around the country are demanding action, including Alfredo Pacheco of Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, who took a group to Washington, D.C. to join a massive protest December 6th. But fighting for the DREAM Act is only part of the work that Pacheco does, and he explains how it all connects, as well as what he’s looking forward to fighting for in 2018.

Whenever people say “power” you imagine a lot of things, like, “Only people with money have power.” That is my first thought. But, when you learn that, you have a group of people, you have you, that is power. If you tell them what their rights are, that is power. Now, if you get collective power of people and you start teaching them how to create power with money, community, you put all of those things together, you have more power. And it doesn’t take just one person. Everybody can move together and change that, and do that. That was the big thing… I was confused about that at first, but then over the year of practicing more and more and more, you start to understand that. That power can be used in a good way and a bad way. We have to learn how to use it in a good way and for our own benefit.
[People] should know that no matter how difficult the fight looks, it is not impossible. That is the truth. I lived like that for twenty-seven years thinking that it was impossible to make a change. But, now you’re seeing it more often. Look at what happened in Alabama. Collective power by organizing people.

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Interviews for Resistance is a syndicated series of interviews with organizers, agitators and troublemakers, available twice weekly as text and podcast. You can now subscribe on iTunes! Previous interviews here.