A New Testament of Hope

"

Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

Nearly a half century ago, during the final days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, he penned what he called a “testament of hope,” an epistle he could not have known would be among his last. “Whenever I am asked my opinion of the current state of the civil rights movement,” Dr. King began, “I am forced to pause; it is not easy to describe a crisis so profound that it has caused the most powerful nation in the world to stagger in confusion and bewilderment.”

During these past few weeks, as each of us has attempted to make sense of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s senseless killings, “confusion and bewilderment” abound. In private moments and public demonstrations, we have been overwhelmed with emotion. We have grappled with disbelief, frustration, shame, and anger.

Yet, confronted anew with a crisis as old as the country, it’s my conviction that we must give our own testament of hope.

There is hope, for example, in the fact that I can compose this essay from my desk at the Ford Foundation; that a black, gay man — born to a brave single mother in a Louisiana charity hospital, the product of Head Start, public schools, and Pell Grants — can rise to become president of a prominent global foundation.

There is hope in knowing that, from the trial of conscience so many Americans are now experiencing, we can emerge — and perhaps are emerging — a more unified, more equal, more just America.

Founding Contradiction

I draw this hope from the incredible demonstrations still unfolding across the country — demonstrations heartening not only for their message, but their make-up. People of all backgrounds, young people in particular, rallying for justice is a powerful, transformative sight. I hope we keep seeing it.

Goodness knows we need our eyes opened. Too often a majority of Americans seek comfort in the idea of American exceptionalism, the idea that no matter our flaws we are fundamentally righteous and just. So it bears repeating that the United States was in fact founded on a fundamental contradiction that, two centuries later, remains dauntingly unresolved: The founders pledged their sacred honor to the idea that “all men are created equal,” while in the same instant creating a nation in which they are patently not equal.

Among the many compromises that made possible our charters of freedom were choices to count my enslaved ancestors as three-fifths of a person; to protect the bondage and sale of children; to legitimize hierarchies of gender, class, and skin color.

Alexis de Tocqueville saw this dissonance in our national character quite clearly as he traveled across our early republic. On one hand, early America was distinctive in its communitarian and entrepreneurial equality, he noted. On the other, the issues of slavery and racial inequality were “the most formidable of all the ills which threaten the future existence of the Union.”

He was right on both counts, of course. We are the inheritors of both parts of this heritage: the sense of promise as well as the tendency toward persecution.

It is understandable, then, that more than two centuries later — after a civil war and a movement for civil rights — we should feel confused and bewildered when this contradiction emerges into our national consciousness yet again.

The Moment We’re In

The story of who we are, how far we have come, and how far we still have to go — all these parts of our past are prologue to the moment we are in. In moments like this, it is useful to recognize that our present is a product of the past, mixed with our hopes for the future. We can’t, therefore — and should not be tempted to — look only at the specifics of what Michael Brown or Eric Garner did or didn’t do. To understand what happened to them, and so many others like them, we have to look beyond the immediate. We have to grapple with the past and how it infects the present; how individual episodes are linked to larger social habits and forces.

As I joined tens of thousands of marchers in Manhattan last weekend, I was struck by the powerful juxtaposition of the countless New York City police officers who helped ensure a peaceable assembly during a protest centered on the police department itself, as well as the larger justice system. It’s essential to pay respect to these courageous individuals who, more often than not, put themselves in harm’s way for our communal well-being. When individuals decide to become police officers, they are not just choosing a career; they are answering a calling. I, for one, am grateful for the service they commit to.

But the justice system is more than the people who occupy it at any given time. It, too, is the product of the past, with rules, procedures, and mores that constitute a complex web of history, practice, and aspiration. So let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that our criminal justice system — no matter the best intentions of the people who comprise it — remains functionally, structurally, insistently unjust. This is why many people, especially in poor communities of color, perceive policing as a mechanism of social control. Far, far too many Michaels and Erics have lost their lives for these communities to see it any other way.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander makes the case in her powerful book, The New Jim Crow. America’s unequal drug laws, mandatory prison sentences, and mass incarceration of black and brown men for nonviolent crimes are as onerous today as Jim Crow laws were in their day, and have set in motion a vicious cycle. Black men have their basic rights revoked, which traps families in poverty, which contributes to crime. As a result, she reports, more African Americans are part of the criminal justice system today than were enslaved on the eve of the Civil War.

My Life Experience

To me the injustice of our system is intensely personal. My childhood friends were cousins — boys with talents, and passions, and potential no different from my own. My mother moved my sister and me from a segregated small town in Louisiana to Texas in hopes of giving us a better life. My cousins, however, found themselves ensnared in the same cycle that has trapped so many young black men. By my count, five of them have spent significant time in prison, including one who died by hanging himself while incarcerated.

When I was in college at the University of Texas, I knew I would be held to a different standard than my white friends when it came to recreational drug use, which was prevalent, especially among the privileged students from Houston and Dallas. At a party in my dorm, when a friend passed me a joint, I knew to decline. When he was arrested later that year for possession of marijuana, his father had it taken care of. Whatever happened was expunged from his record; today he has a wonderful life and beautiful family in a prosperous Texas suburb. As a black kid — a young black man without means — I knew implicitly that if I were ever to be brought into the criminal justice system, my dreams would be snuffed out in an instant.

My point is: The distance between promise and peril, between justice and injustice, is frighteningly short — especially for people of color and low-income Americans.

No one wants this — particularly those who work in our justice system and law enforcement. This is not by our design. Rather, it’s a system rooted in that same complex web of historical inequality — racial, social, and economic — that predates any of us. A system that created the context for Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s killings, and for countless other stories just as heartbreaking and infuriating. This system is the reason we find ourselves watching videos of Eric Garner begging for mercy while receiving treatment not even befitting an animal.

This is not the America we want. This is not the America we are proud of.

Inequality Beyond Race

Indeed, this week new data showed that the income gap between black and white Americans is widening, not narrowing. We already know that overall inequality in the country is rising — meaning that the rich are getting richer while the middle class loses ground. So as the country overall becomes wealthier, people in general feel poorer. This leaves Americans of every creed and color feeling less secure and more vulnerable — not just economically, but socially and culturally, as well. And as a result, Americans — middle-class Americans, in particular — are too worried about their own problems to see a priority in the plight of others.

As the political scientist Robert Putnam has shown, within this era of economic and social distancing, we have become less motivated to solve big problems collectively. In this way, our “civic infrastructure” has deteriorated and our discourse has coarsened.

This might suggest that coming to terms with race in an era of growing inequality is harder than ever.

And yet, despite all of this — or, perhaps, in some strange way, because of it — I am hopeful. The people on the streets are making it possible.

To borrow a phrase from my youth, the whole world is watching. Up close. Just as our parents and grandparents were a half century ago — only this time on devices in our hands, not televisions in our living rooms.

This can be a tipping point, a time and place where we see the bending in the “arc of the moral universe.” While our history has been informed by a contradiction, it also has been defined by what James Baldwin called “the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”

Achieving the Impossible

So, how do we escape the quagmire? How do we “achieve the impossible” again? To start with, we need smarter investment in better policing.

We need investment in the human capabilities of our police officers — in their professional development, in their training, in their ability to relate to and understand the communities they serve. We need to redirect funding to community policing, which has fallen out of favor in the age of “stop-and-frisk” policies, “broken-widows” theory, and “three-strikes-you’re-out” theology.

What we do not need is more of the militarization we saw in Ferguson — nor more of the menacing weaponry that has been shipped from battlefields in Iraq to precincts across the United States. (And, by the way, maybe police would not have reason to be so afraid of young people with guns if guns were not so readily available virtually everywhere.) Instead, we, as a democracy, should give our police the best tools and techniques to match their best intentions and then hold them accountable.

At the same time, we need to engage with and empower communities. We need to ensure that the people affected by policy have a voice in creating it. We need to invest in our neighborhoods and cities, because while talent is everywhere, economic opportunity is not.

As I have traveled the United States — from New York to Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis — I hear the same things. People, especially young people, want jobs. They want to do well for their families, to do right by their neighbors, and to do good in their communities. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin — another gunned-down, young black man — put it so well: “People are now realizing [our movement] is not just about African-American rights; it is about human rights.”

And this larger movement for human rights is inseparable from the necessary work of repairing our broken politics — the heavy lifting of owning up to the biases and injustices that are deeply embedded within our system.

All of this will require political courage. We need statesmen and stateswomen to bring us together, not politicians to degrade our discourse and drive us apart. We need people of purpose to transcend the politics of division — in spite of the fact that the rhetoric of exclusion is such a successful political tactic.

A New Testament of Hope

Ultimately, there is a larger force at work. There is something stirring us to action — demanding that we trade confusion and bewilderment for a fight for change that only hope and radical optimism can sustain. The memories of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and too many others — the legacies of all those who suffered and sacrificed before us — deserve no less.

In his testament of hope, Dr. King wrote that “man has the capacity to do right as well as wrong, and his history is a path upward, not downward….This is why I remain an optimist.”

So, too, must it be with us. Let us continue to seek right in the face of misdirected might. Let us continue to make our way upward.

For my part, I have deep, abiding, and absolute faith that America will. Through fits and starts, feats and defeats, fairness will triumph. The irrepressible current of justice will carry us forward, no matter the impediments ahead.

Why do I believe we shall overcome? Because, time and again, we have.

Read the original post on Medium.

"

September 4, 2020

Strike Watch, Labor Day: Vonda McDaniel on Workers Redefining “Nash-Vegas” and Taking on Power in Tennessee

Earlier this summer, we had the fortune to sit down with Central Labor Council (CLC) of Nashville & Middle Tennessee President Vonda McDaniel. McDaniel gave us key insights – shared in this Strike Watch interview -  into the critical organizing led by food processing workers hard-hit in unsafe meatpacking plants in the region and throughout the US as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened.  But meatpacking is not the only place workers are rising up in the Nashville area – where organizations are redefining Black and migrant-led labor organizing in new and important ways.

As we honor the many essential workers on the front lines of our economy this Labor Day, FJE presents our continued conversation with Council President McDaniel. She shares below about important new organizing across retail, urban development, healthcare and more to ensure the growing “Nash-Vegas” actually works for local communities, especailly as Tennessee sped to re-opening. In partnership with NFG’s Amplify Fund, we will be dialoguing more deeply about groundbreaking work in Nashville in our upcoming Virtual Learning to Nashville September 21-23, 2020. We encourage funders to register here and join us as we meet with Stand Up Nashville and The Equity Alliance, and of course, McDaniel and the CLC – and engage with film, music, and more to get a sense of the critical work in this changing Southern economic hub and its implications for worker power across the US.

There’s been a lot of attention to the South in regards to re-opening and the effects of COVID-19. We’ve talked a bit about the important crisis in meatpacking in central Tennessee. How have workers been responding and organizing in Nashville more broadly?

Nashville has become an East Coast entertainment hub - they call it “Nash-vegas” right?  And so hospitality is really the growth industry in the city, alongside health care.  The hospitality workers, mostly in restaurants and some in hotels, have been organizing. In fact some have started to reached out to Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) and have started a Nashville (Music City) chapter.  As we were reopening the economy, the press wanted to know what restaurant workers were feeling about it. What the workers saw were the dangers, and we've been working with them. [ROC Music City – a Stand Up Nashville partner - has also recently brought to light individual businesses that were hiding COVID-19 exposure, and won protections for workers in these small businesses.] It's really exciting to see the growth opportunity there in terms of organizing.

In health care, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center they didn't have enough staff when COVID hit so the company brought in temporary workers. The workers – the nurses - demanded that they get hazard pay because they saw that the temps were getting paid more. So we've seen collective action there.

In the dollar stores - both Family Dollar and Dollar General - because they cram so much cheap merchandise in the stores, there’s not a lot of room for social distancing. In many cases they're not providing the Personal Protective Equipment. When they bring their own mask we had reports that workers are told not to wear them – even when they're the homemade mask that they bring. Those workers have created a Facebook group and are really beginning to organize here and in other places. They have even reached out to those workers that have unionized In New Orleans to talk about what the differences in are in those stores and what they need to do to get a union in here, in Tennessee. [Dollar General staff in conversation with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655 and speaking out about hazard pay were also targeted for firing by the company.]

One of the big issues in the South (and the Midwest) is the way conservative state governments have sought to stop everything from minimum wages to abortion through their power of pre-emption. How is this playing out in Nashville in this time?

Especially in this moment COVID-19 has presented a lot of challenges for our local government. Because of that there are things that they cannot do like paid sick leave, like property tax freezes. We're in a moment where our economy was based on sales tax which has gone to nothing, and so the revenue streams are just not what they need to be. In order to keep essential services running they have to raise property taxes, but all of the tools that local governments have to try to help in this moment have been stripped by state preemption. We've been preempted over and over again. We tried to pass living wage ordinance. We passed it; it was preempted. We passed on a ballot measure - local hire - so that we could hire local workers on public projects. That was passed by the voters of the county; it was preempted.

Those in state power have been using preemption to prevent cities from being able to do the things that they consider important to help their citizens. So we have a coalition across the state that has come together, that has been trying to run a campaign to put pressure on the governor to use his emergency powers to take action and make sure that at least in this moment that preemption is not an issue. The campaign gives us an opportunity to talk about what preemption is and how it's impacted our ability to help the residents of Nashville. I know it will continue beyond this pandemic and will only become more important to confront.

How do workers fit in the bigger picture of a changing Nashville, and the unprecedented development the city has been experiencing?

Every time you turn on the TV, they say Nashville is a city on the rise. But those in charge have been building it on the cheap. [In a telling incident this June, a 16 year old Latinx worker died falling off a scaffolding, building a new development in Nashville, with no safety harness and questionable safety practices by the company.]

"Every time you turn on the TV, they say Nashville is a city on the rise. But those in charge have been building it on the cheap. "

We have been able to work with our building trades affiliates to create an apprenticeship readiness program to recruit folks out of what they call the “promise zones” and give them the skills necessary to be successful in the federally registered apprenticeship programs and the union apprenticeship programs.  Our Central Labor Council has been a partner with that, and it's been interesting because in building that work, we've created a table that has faith partners working with us. The ecosystem is really coming together, and most of the recruits for our last class came from our faith partners. We've been able to develop relationships with the Interdenominational Ministers Fellowship which is the African-American ministers fellowship at Vanderbilt Divinity School. They recruited them out of the churches: the ministers knew they had returning citizens in their congregation that really needed a path to a different life. In reaching the immigrant community we had the Catholic Labor Network which was also really instrumental in helping us to really build a very diverse class also in our Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3) program.

Stand Up Nashville, with the CLC is part of, along with a few of our unions and Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH), have been able to really move on the policy side to increase their presence and power for working families.

How have you resourced this significant growth in labor and community organizing?

You know, it's constant.  We are really trying to organize and build, and we really feel like that in Nashville we have set the table for growth for workers. We're excited about it - we have been trying to build infrastructure here for at least the last six to eight years.

But we find ourselves trying to having to chase funding in order to continue to do the work. The folks that oppose us, they don't have those barriers.  They have sustained funding for long periods of time - it really doesn't even matter whether they're successful and accomplish the benchmarks. We really have not had that kind of investment on our side, so we have to spend a great deal of your capacity right now on that.  Our CLC is in fundraising cycle; the reason is we have staffed up a level. We went from an all-volunteer organization to one with three staff. I mean, that's not a lot, but in order to be able to do and work with the community partners, keep up with what's happening in our local government, cultivate partnerships and organize you know that takes resources – the kind that it is very difficult to find funding for. We continue to look for ways to get investment in the work because we feel like that that, over time, there is definitely a return on that investment. You can see the growth in terms of all of the varied projects that people are working on that are part of our network, particularly in this moment.

Why is it important for those interested in economic justice to pay attention to Nashville at this moment?

You know there's a saying that however the South goes so goes the nation. Whatever is really bad in the South - if we cannot improve it here then eventually, it's going to trickle to the rest of the country. History has shown us that. Folks really should understand that what we do in the South, in terms of organizing, in terms of politics, in terms of all the things that we need to change in the economy - if we can't make change on the issues that matter in the South, then how will me make national change? This is a test ground for what happens across the country. But we are movinig to make that change.

*Photo Credit: Nashville CLC.

FJE’s Strike Watch is a regular blog and media series dedicated to providing insight on the ways in which grassroots movements build worker power through direct action. Our ultimate goal: inform philanthropic action to support worker-led power building and organizing and help bridge conversations among funders, community and research partners. We are grateful and acknowledge the many journalists and organizations that produce the content we link to regularly, and to all our participants in first-hand interviews. Questions on the content or ideas for future content? Reach out to robert@nfg.org

August 4, 2020

A Letter from IRSG Members in Honor of Isabel Arrollo

Dear Friends,

Isabel smiling and reaching up to a fruit tree in an orchard.On May 16, 2020, we lost a fierce, beloved leader in California’s Central Valley, Isabel Arrollo. Isabel was the Executive Director of El Quinto Sol de America, an organization founded by her mother, Irma Medellin, based in Lindsay, California. Isabel’s passion and strong strategic lens helped grow El Quinto Sol into a driving force for change in the Central Valley. From her early teenage years, Isabel worked at her mother’s side, lifting up community voices in local and state decision-making, and supporting residents across Tulare County’s unincorporated communities by connecting youth to arts and cultural work, and uplifting the tools to build civic participation and political power in the community. In recent years, her passion and vision to create an Agroecology Center in the Central Valley has lit a flame — one that we need to keep aglow.

In addition to the collective deep grief and sadness at this time, we are also angry and frustrated by the accumulated conditions of environmental, economic, and racial injustices that facilitated the process of her passing. We understand that extractive systems like industrial agriculture, subsidies that perpetuate land tenureship rooted in the forced migration of peoples and Beings, the exploitation of workers, and the polluting of the water she bathed in and the air she gasped onto holding onto the hope of survival and thriving of her people and their knowledge, are responsible for her illness of Valley fever, her death, and for the displacement of life of her future lineages. This racially targeting phenomenon is a form of prolonged violence, and as allies and co-conspirators in the struggle for justice, we need to show up to defend our neighbors and human relations.

We honor the life labor Isabel held as an organizer and community member, which went far beyond her role as Director at El Quinto Sol. She supported her community every day, and also invited folks outside of the community to witness and learn about the issues that are often invisibilized via the dust of pesticides and toxins, and the shadows of the fields. This included hosting funder tours for our philanthropic community during which she generously extended her energy to educate visitors and allies on the intersection of issue areas, and with great skill found multiple ways to illuminate the work for a wider audience, and moved us toward a tangible transition of wealth and power. She did this even while her health was failing; she did it for the livelihood and wellness of her people and her community.

Losing Isabel is heartbreaking, and our hearts are with her family, her co-workers at EQS, her wide and diverse network of friends and co-conspirators, and the many folks she mentored and stood beside every day, including youth and mixed documentation status farmworker communities. She dedicated her life to protecting the health of our air, water, soil, and peoples. Isabel was a brilliant visionary who helped lead the Community Alliance for Agroecology, and held such beautiful, powerful dreams for transforming the Central Valley’s food and farming systems from the ground up. Isabel will be forever remembered as a fierce advocate and as our caring and thoughtful friend who always made time to listen and offer words of encouragement, joy, and laughter. In this global moment of so much pain, loss and fear, we are called to action to uplift the voice and vision of leaders like Isabel, and carry them forward.

We ask that you seriously and thoughtfully consider these two requests:

  1. Isabel speaking to a group in front of a neighborhood bus stop.Make a contribution at this moment, at whatever level, to the environmental health and justice — and agroecological — organization, El Quinto Sol. The contact there is Olga Marquez, olga@elquintosoldeamerica.org.
  2. Become a funder accomplice in achieving Isabel’s and others’ dreams in the San Joaquin Valley — join us in support of the creation of an Agroecology Training Center, by and for a collective of Latinx and Indigenous farmworking families, Indigenous people from the region, and other family farmers. El Quinto Sol, as well as other groups like the Community Alliance for Agroecology, Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN), Foodlink Tulare County, Quaker Oaks Farm, and Central Valley Partnership are moving forward in their visioning and planning, and seek collaboration with funding partners, especially in this moment.

If you would like to learn more about El Quinto Sol and the Agroecology Training Center, or if you are interested in collaborating with us as we move forward, please reach out to one of us (contacts below).

In the meantime, read inspiring coverage of the work of El Quinto Sol here: https://civileats.com/2019/08/12/this-mother-daughter-team-is-building-new-leaders-in-californias-farm-country/
 

Thank you, and be well,

Paola Diaz (paola@11thhourproject.org)

Marni Rosen (marni@colibrigiving.com)

Sarah Bell (sarah@11thhourproject.org)

Kat Gilje (gilje@cerestrust.org)

Kassandra Hishida (kassandrahishida@allianceforagroecology.org)