Organizing Upgrade is honored to offer a preview of this insightful reflection on organizing – Engaging the Crisis: Organizing Against Budget Cuts and Building Community Power in Philadelphia – which will appear in Left Turn magazine #36 (April/May 2010). You can subscribe to Left Turn online at www.leftturn.org or become a monthly sustainer at www.leftturn.org/donate.
On November 6, 2008, just days after Philadelphians poured onto the streets to celebrate the Phillies winning the World Series championship and Barack Obama the US presidency, Mayor Michael Nutter announced a drastic plan to deal with the cities $108 million budget gap. Severe budget cuts were announced, including the closure of 11 public libraries, 62 public swimming pools, 3 public ice skating rinks, and several fire engines. Nutter also stated that 220 city workers would be laid off and that 600 unfilled positions would be eliminated entirely, amounting to the loss of nearly 1,000 precious city jobs. In classic neo-liberal style, the public sector was to sacrifice, while taxpayer money would bail out the private banking institutions.
I am at a crossroads. I spent more than half my life writing about people who tried to change the world, largely because I, too, wanted to change the world. The history of social movements attracted me because of what it might teach us about our present condition and about how we might shape the future. When I first embarked on that work, nearly 20 years ago, the political landscape looked much clearer: We needed a revolutionary socialist movement committed to antiracism and antisexism. Buoyed by youthful naiveté, I thought it was very obvious then.
These are dramatic times politically, socially, and economically. What do you think are the most significant shifts happening right now, and how do they change the context of our work?
Some important dynamics at play are the housing crisis, the financial meltdown and the rising unemployment rate. Working people – the working class, the poor and the working poor – are facing the brunt of this crisis. They are feeling the impact of neoliberalism more sharply than ever, even if they aren’t articulating it as “neoliberalism.” The response is manifested as a resentment of corporate greed. There’s a growing anti-corporate sentiment in society today, which could mean that conditions are much riper for mobilizing than they have been in the past.
Sushma: These are dramatic times, politically, socially and economically. What do you think are the most significant shifts happening right now and how do you think they change the context of our work. Clearly, your knowledge and skills base is broad. So please draw from whatever is relevant, especially from your experiences organizing within the black community as well as your media work.
Welcome back to Fast Forum! Consider it a “Plenary-to-Go” or, maybe an “Insta-Debate!” We pick a hot topic and ask 3 – 6 organizers from across the country to weigh in. They will have about 500 words to make us go “….hmmmmm.” Our hope is to draw out new ideas and to encourage new voices to take a stab at the freshest challenges facing our community. This month, we asked four organizers for their reflections on the question:
How does electoral work support or undermine grassroots organizing efforts?
Joseph Phelan initially interviewed Gihan Perera in person in September 2009. Gihan further developed these ideas after leading a get out the vote effort, in Miami, in November 2009.
We are living in very particular political and economic times. What do you think are the most significant shifts that are happening right now? How are they changing the context for left grassroots organizing?
Interviewed by Sushma Sheth