“We are coming together as RoadMap consultants, clients, and funders to think about the current moment in the context of our work,” RoadMap Program Director Nijmie Dzurinko said while explaining the purpose of a recent online discussion. “If we step back from the nitty-gritty of the election, how do we understand the post-election terrain in terms of trends and patterns that create crises and how we stay grounded and flexible in shaping alternative futures?”
Speakers on October 21 included Cathy Albisa, Director of Institutional and Sectoral Change at Race Forward; Shailly Gupta Barnes, Policy Director of the Kairos Center and Coordinator and Editor of The Souls of White Folks: Auditing America report for the Poor People’s Campaign; and Mab Segrest, RoadMap consulting strategist, long-time activist, and Professor Emeritus, Connecticut College’s Department of Gender and Women’s Studies.
Mab Segrest: The terrain that led up to the current electoral crisis has been building for decades, with the past four years a dangerous accelerant. A scan of last week’s headlines suggested the possible outcomes – such as Pentagon generals fear that the President will pull them into election unrest, and election officials’ fears of political violence at the polls. Online, people train for “How To Stop a Coup.” Whatever comes, we know that we live in a time of escalating crises. Designed systems failures are as old as the U.S. Constitution’s provisions protecting slavery. Since Goldwater’s 1964 defeat, an extreme right has taken over the Republican Party in order to dismantle the mechanisms of governance. It sold off the Common Good in pieces as corporate spoils and pandered to Christian fundamentalists. Social spending that was, imperfectly, the redistributive legacy of the New Deal, was redirected into military and prisons and police – building a “new Jim Crow” of 2.3 million prisoners. This insurgency gained state power through racially gerrymandered elections and became a wrecking ball to attack unions, gut regulations, stack the courts, and brew climate crises. But these crises are also opportunities, and in every state and territory communities are fighting back and shaping more humane and democratic options and futures.
Cathy Albisa: Thanks to Roadmap for lifting up the intensity of this moment towards which we’ve been careening far too long. Few of us could predict how bad it would get, but we knew all of these drivers were taking our communities to a place that was increasingly untenable for us and for our democracy. I do see a common thread cutting across these various crises. It emerged more clearly during the 2009 economic collapse: the chance to push for different forms of economy and governance. And the most innovative solutions are coming from people you serve, your clients and grantees – or communities not even getting those services. We have been locked into a governance model of public-corporate partnership; but the best solutions for most people embody “targeted universalism,” centering most marginalized sectors but with positive outcomes for all in public-community partnerships.
Neoliberalism has dismantled our U.S. institutions, or they have eroded because we failed in matching them to goals — so we didn’t have a home in which our visions could be implemented. That is what governance is actually about. And the government itself is the most important institution we are losing. What is taking the place is for-profit institutions, structured to extract profit from the public, agnostic as to whether they are creating value or harm. If we are to step into governing power – it has got to be the power to make something happen, to govern and run our institutions and control our resources with inside/outside strategies. This is a moment to reclaim that ground.
Shailly Gupta Barnes: I appreciate the point Cathy makes on the question of where solutions must come from and how we must organize for them. We need structures to unleash the power breaking through in this Kairos moment. I want to share some thoughts from the experiences of the Poor People’s Campaign where we center the people most impacted by systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism, and religious extremism/nationalism.
Electoral democracy is basic to our work. There are 140 million poor and low-income (PLI) people in the United States. Some among them have real political differences, e.g., 66 million low-income white people. But underneath these differences are the common ground we have to find. So we begin with systemic racism and white supremacy, particularly voter suppression that keeps poor people away from the polls. Since 2010, 25 states have passed voter suppression laws. These PLI voters constitute one-fourth of 225 million in the U.S. electorate, and from among them, 34 million did not vote in 2016, when nationally mere hundreds of thousands of votes determined the presidential outcome. The percentages of non-voting PLI people is larger than Trump’s 2016 margins of victory in key states across the Midwest and the South. In some states that percentage of PLI non-voters is a quarter of the electorate (such as in Texas, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Alabama). In Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, just a small percentage of that low-income eligible population would offer the margin of victory in 2020.
The Poor People’s Campaign is organizing around the needs of poor people for health care and economic well-being to build that power. Any approach to social change should not minimize the actual organizing to bridge differences that shape how people relate to each other. Then, a new community of people willing to fight together and stand with each other emerges. It must be flexible, as conditions and terrains change, which in times like these can happen very quickly. The right-wing has acquired such power because of systems and structures coordinating vast networks. Our question is how we build that system, what we build it for, and how it’s grounded and oriented – our praxis of change.