Leadership Across Difference

An interview with leaders from Put People First! PA

The following interview was conducted with Put People First! PA’s Nijmie Dzurinko, Phil Wider and Borja Gutiérrez. PPF is a statewide membership organization led by poor and dispossessed working class people in Pennsylvania. It is leading a Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign and is a leader in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC). In this interview we discuss PPF’s role in the Poor People’s Campaign and how they are building unity among the working class. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UPoor: What are the ways that it makes sense for Put People First to be involved in the Poor People’s Campaign? Where is there alignment between the Campaign and Put People First?

Nijmie: We objectively see the strategy of the Poor People’s Campaign as the strategy of Put People First and the strategy of Put People First as the strategy of the Poor People’s Campaign. The conception that we need to unite the poor and dispossessed across color lines and all of the lines of division to build a mass social movement is central to our theory of change. It is aligned with both the history of the original Poor People’s Campaign, and also the trajectory of the new campaign. If the campaign is to be successful it rises or falls on the leadership and the organization of the poor and dispossessed, and so Put People First! PA is a vehicle to build the leadership and organization of poor and dispossessed people united across all lines of division.

Phil: Put People First! PA comes out of the same organizing tradition and network that many of the other groups that are at the core of the Poor People’s Campaign nationally come out of. Many of the groups in that network, and PPF included, have rooted ourselves in the history of the original Poor People’s Campaign as Nijmie was speaking to and other experiences of the poor organizing the poor. In particular I’m thinking about the National Union of the Homeless in the mid 80s, late 80s, early 90s; the history of welfare rights organizing; and previous significant experiences of the poor uniting across these lines of division in the history of this country, whether it was all the way back to Bacon’s Rebellion or whether it’s the mine wars in Appalachia or the Southern Tenant Farmers Union or the Black Panther Party’s original Rainbow Coalition or the Bonus Army.

We chose the Healthcare Is a Human Right Campaign relatively early in our history. But we knew from the start that we weren’t a single issue or a single constituency organization. The Poor People’s Campaign enables us to work with others in the state who are hurting on a broader agenda.

UPoor: One of the central themes of the PPC is uniting the poor and dispossessed across lines of division. Can you elaborate a little bit on what those lines of division really look like for you all in Pennsylvania and how you’re trying to bridge the divide?

Nijmie: The ruling class pushes the narrative that the working class is synonymous with white men. There is a historical reason why that shorthand is used (namely the legacy of slavery and racial exclusion of Black workers and other workers of color from particular occupations as well as organized labor). However we know that the working class is made up of people of every racial and ethnic background, of every gender, of different sexualities, ages, abilities, regions, languages, documentation statuses and religions. So you know, those are some of the different variations that we have and it’s really the ruling class that fosters divisions out of those differences, oppresses different groups differently and pits us against each other.

A few years ago we recognized we needed to develop and produce some of our own knowledge about difference and how we work across difference that’s distinct from what comes out of the ruling class and its institutions—for instance, the academy. So I and others developed this theory or approach that we call “Leadership Across Difference.” What we need is a situation in which our people, working class people, are trained and developed to respect and understand and navigate difference and also be incredibly committed to building unity. For us it’s a combination of political education and political activity. People have to be working together and be in contact and community with each other to be engaging in this work. But we also have to be undertaking political education. We also have to be looking at interpersonal relationships. Every time we convene PPF-PA members in spaces like the membership assembly and the steering committee retreat we conduct Leadership Across Difference work. In addition to historical grounding and helping politicize people around the history of divide and conquer and the history of plantation politics we also look at how our current relationships and interactions are shaped by these histories and our life experiences, so that we can be aware and agile in how we build equitable and respectful relationships across difference.

Borja: In addition to the notion of “leadership across difference” that is so central to PPF, I think that difference is also a tremendous source of strength. The unity of all of our differences is going to allow us to make systemic change a reality.

Phil: In Pennsylvania specifically, the form that the plantation politics or divide and conquer takes is pitting the big urban areas against the small-to-midsize towns and rural areas largely in the center part of the state. PPF since its origins has been really committed to connecting people across this political geography. The hatred and fear that communities across the state that are different have for each other, the ignorance they have of each other, is not an inherent, naturally occurring thing, but it’s been socially constructed over centuries. The campaign work, organizing work and all the other pieces of the work that we’ve been speaking to that bring people together across these divides in the fight for survival is very critical.

In many cases the most fertile areas that we’ve found for organizing the unorganized have been those areas that are least inundated by the nonprofit industrial complex and by the progressives and funders. People are thirsty—they’re just looking for something to connect with and to break their isolation, something that’s real.

Nijmie: Many of the places where we have seen incredible leaders emerge are places where there’s a really clear kind of unity that has already been created through de-industrialization of communities of the poor across color lines, and people can see that all the time in their world. With gentrification in cities over the last period of time and capital coming back into cities, it’s confusing in the organizing landscape because it looks like the white people are rich and the people of color are poor. If you’re only in the city I think it really confuses people there about who is poor and who needs to be organized and who can be united, and so that for one thing is one of the critical pieces of statewide organizing.

Phil: If 95 percent of the jobs and capital is being invested in Philly and surrounding suburbs, that leaves 60-plus counties around the state that are sharing 5 percent of the job growth and capital investment and that gives you some feel for the political turmoil and crisis and polarization that’s happening, and that is at the root of a lot of what we’re dealing with.

UPoor: Something else that a lot of people within the Poor People’s Campaign are struggling with is how do you unite people across party lines without compromising any values or ending up becoming a pawn of any particular political party. I’m wondering if you guys have any experience with that in Pennsylvania?

Nijmie: Most people are not participating in the formal political process. Sometimes we get so worked up about the tension and division between Democrats and Republicans and the party system and the party line—and then there’s all the people that just aren’t participating at all, or very rarely. Much of the true work is actually organizing people who are not participating. How we try to lead in Put People First! PA is really acknowledging that voting is important, voting rights are very important, participation in the political process is important, but we also see that people need to be organized 365 days of the year to really make meaningful their participation on one day of the year. We’re not in a place in the system where we’re voting for any party that represents the interests of poor and dispossessed people. But what we can do by participating is change the terrain on which we’re struggling.

Phil: One of the moments where I really got this piece about the motion towards political independence was in the health care campaign in the Vermont Workers’ Center. They were recruiting poor and working class folks who were part of the Republican Party and who were part of the Democratic Party. And so you could go to Facebook and see folks who would say, “I’m so-and-so from this part of the state and I’m a Republican. Healthcare is a human right.” And then, “I’m so-and-so from this other part of the state. I’m a part of the Democratic Committee. Health care is a human right.” And I just started to see what it looks like to build a politically independent movement of the poor and dispossessed through a grassroots campaign on the needs and rights that people have.

Borja: We don’t have necessarily a focus on the politics or the partisanship, which would otherwise hijack the work of us raising the awareness of those that make up the body politic and the efforts of transforming the government and the underlying structures that are oppressing the poor and dispossessed. Staying away from that is a necessary element; not getting tied up in it is essential. Creating a sphere in which we’re not necessarily in collaboration with either of the two parties allows us to be able to raise awareness of the problems that exist in our society amongst all the individuals that we’re working with in the various organizations that make up the PPC, in PPF, and across the Commonwealth and to emphasize that the strength to change the system lies not in the parties but in the body politic, the individuals that make up the nation. We are the ones that need to make change happen, given the inertia of our so-called leaders.

UPoor: What did the activities of the Poor People’s Campaign look like in Pennsylvania?

Nijmie: I think we all feel like it went really well here in PA for the 40 Days of Action [40 days of nationally-coordinated action in dozens of states and D.C. that launched the Poor People’s Campaign]. It’s a lot of work, a lot of people involved. It gave us something to really rally around. It was unifying. And there were some great actions, really great civil disobedience actions during the 40 Days. The largest one was the fourth week around the right to health care and healthy environment. There were 31 arrests that day, and that week it that was the largest civil disobedience of any state in the country. PPF ourselves mobilized over 50 folks to the capital from all over the state. So that was a great day.

We, I think wisely, pretty soon after the 40 Days was over, did a strategy retreat in Pennsylvania bringing together people on the coordination team as well as others who had made a major commitment to the PPC through that process. And we self-organized a reflection. And that’s where we emerged with four main areas of focus for our base organizations and faith leaders: organizing, the modern day underground railroad/mutual aid, political education, and art and culture as the four essential components to our work in PA.

Also, we’ve been doing the canvasses, a speak-out in August. We did canvasses in Altoona, Philadelphia and Phoenixville. So we have been responding to these calls for deep-dive organizing canvasses and registering people for the movement who will vote.

Borja: The way that we’ve looked at political education is that it’s been fundamentally focused on advancing our base-building and organizing work: political education as an instrument to raise awareness of the four evils that the Poor People’s Campaign is tackling—systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation, along with the distorted moral narrative; political education to raise awareness of the obstacles that we’re facing whether it be through power analysis or by studying the political economy within Pennsylvania; but also political education as a way of bringing in new members into the Poor People’s Campaign. We’ve seen it as an incredible way of informing the strategic, tactical and policy work that we do, as both something that is counter-hegemonic, but also counter-educational, in the sense that we view it as helping to teach us what we weren’t taught in our various educational institutions. And so we’ve done this through different approaches. We’ve done different types of political education sessions; we’ve had discussions around key texts, but we’re also going to be looking at doing a lot more power analysis and analysis of the political economy in Pennsylvania, creating instruments and materials to bring new members in and to orient them, looking at leadership across difference and what that means not just in PPF but also in the PPC.

UPoor: Could you explain more about the arts and culture and mutual aid working groups of the PA PPC?

Nijmie: We have an awesome theomusicologist, Jacob Butterly, who’s a member of Put People First.

Phil: You can see tons of potential, and where it has existed it’s been an incredible source of sustenance and inspiration and community building.

Borja: The arts are also an incredible source of political education—the arts are such a quick medium to really advance the education of all of us, whether through music or through visual arts or through other means. I think it played an important part in the 1968 campaign and it’s playing an important role today. It’s really one of the first things that people always talk about, particularly during the 40 Days of Action when we were debriefing—one of the items that they kept coming again and again to was the importance of movement songs, not just to build community but also to raise awareness of many of the issues that those songs were talking about.

Phil: And as far as this “underground railroad”/”mutual aid,” we still need to do more to collectivize and discuss this. One of the things that probably most moved me during the Campaign was just seeing the actual organizations of the poor in Pennsylvania find each other through this process. At the center of the Campaign we had a real solid set of groups that were organizing the poor, composed of the poor and led by the poor. But one of the things that became clear in that process was that the members of each of our organizations have the struggles and challenges of each of the other organizations.

And so one of the leaders from CADBI (Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration) would comment “Yeah man, all of the leaders in CADBI, many of them have health care struggles.” And leaders from MILPA (El Movimiento de Inmigrantes Líderes en Pensilvania) would say the same thing. Many of the folks in PPF have housing struggles, and ACT UP Philadelphia has been really organizing some serious work on the housing front in Philadelphia. One of the groups has experience in defending and advocating for and supporting parents, women in particular, whose children are being threatened with being taken away by the state, and so they rallied around one of PPF’s members who is facing that kind of situation.

We’re just trying to convene folks to begin this piece of the work in Pennsylvania and it builds on the history of past organizing. I mean, the phrase “Underground Railroad” suggests there were folks from all walks of life who supported the escape of fugitive slaves and participated in that—first and foremost the fugitive slaves themselves—but others who were rallied in that. Other moments in US history have displayed this aspect of organizing as well. Look at the Black Panthers and their free meals—breakfast, lunches—and health clinics and legal clinics and helping family members get to visit their loved ones in prison, etc.

UPoor: What do you think has been accomplished with the Poor People’s Campaign so far in Pennsylvania? Do you have any lessons learned?

Nijmie: I think there’s the formation of a coordination team, which is chiefly comprised of and led by organizations of poor and dispossessed people, which I think in and of itself is really a feat. I think that we were able to make some inroads, build some more relationships or strengthen, deepen relationships with some more portions of organized labor.

It’s been a really powerful learning experience and leadership development opportunity for Put People First members to take on leadership and roles in the Campaign.

Phil: There are faith leaders in different communities, a good many of them I’d say in central PA, who were very animated by the Campaign who have been despondent at the state of their denominations, their congregations—their engagement on these issues or their indifference and apathy towards these issues—and I think who were very much part of the moral revival in PA.

One of the things we’ve gotten out of the process is just an experience as an organization with civil disobedience. For PPF just the collective experience of engaging with others across the state in six weeks, 40 days of moral nonviolent civil disobedience has been really good to add to our nonviolent arsenal of tactics and tools.

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