Brand new! A short documentary of the SxSWE convening Building Bridges to Empower a True Majority: Accountable Governance. Filmed in Jackson, Mississippi July 26-29, 2012. Produced by Aurea Cardiel of SouthWest Organizing Project. Special thanks to Al White of Action Communication Education Reform in Duck Hill, MS.
South X Southwest Experiment
Building Bridges to Empower a True Majority
Jackson, MS July 26-July 29
by William Copeland
East Michigan Environmental Action Council (Detroit)
It was challenging to participate fully and remain fully engaged, but at the same time keep in mind that we are not direct partners in SxSW Experiment and that the coalition building is not aimed at us. in other words I had to be ok with fully participating at the margins of the exchange.
One way I achieved this was by saying “Yes” to whatever role was asked of me. I served on a small synthesis committee of 3 people from organizations that are not in the coalition. We were tasked with giving personal evaluation as to whether the weekend met its goals. One powerful framework put forth this weekend was “We didn’t come here for answers.” The convening organizers recognized that creating models of accountable governance is a long term project. (By this weekend the partnership has already been 6 years in the making). They sought to bring in staff, youth, members of the core organizations with allied elected officials and national partners (such as EMEAC). Another framework that was discussed was the political advancement from protest to policy to co-governance to implementation as a pathway to implement policies that will be in the community’s best interests and are accountable to the community.
In my synthesis presentation I mentioned EMEAC’s Up South Down South Global South initiative. I focused on the importance of communities where people of color are numerical majority using democratic practices to create policy tools that can be shared with the rest of the nation. As a Detroiter in an 85% Black city it is a challenging research question — to do a power analysis — to understand why our local policies do not reflect the needs of this majority community. The political and strategy question is what can we do about it.
We all went out dancing on the last night. The Central Mississippi Blues Society rocked the house. During a break in the music I was asked to perform. The crowd enjoyed “Dedication,” “Respiration,” and “Organic Activist.”
Another strategy I used was limiting my Detroit comments to about 1 per workshop. I tried to make connections and highlight similarities and differences between our local situation and the situations discussed in the South and Southwest. I talked about the impact of Mayor Coleman A. Young being Detroit’s first Black mayor and raising the standard of community accountability that still haas yet to be equalled. I talked with a Mississippi school board member about their state takeover (conservatorship) and similarities of Emergency Management in Michigan.
Lastly an important strategy was building relationships during the meals, breaks, and other down time. Again, I used this strategy so that the group time wouldn’t be dedicated to relating to the issues of Detroit, but with specific individuals I could have exploratory conversations about how our socio-economic struggles, political challenges, or organizing efforts shared common similarities. In other words, we exchanged tips. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but a list that may be of significance to allies in Detroit:
Diana Lopez, Southwest Workers Union, Food Justice
I loved hearing about their Food Justice organizing and campaign work, including a campaign where youth investigate urban grocery stores in San Antonio and point out shortcomings in produce and healthy options
Javier Benavidez, Center for Civic Policy, Gentrification
He has studied gentrification and has some resources to share. We engaged in a comparison of gentrification in Albuquerque and Detroit
Amelia Hunter, Southern Echo, Digital Justice
Wants to increase broadband access in rural Mississippi. Got excited when I told her about BTOP programming and wants to share models.
Emma, Liz, etc. SouthWest Organizing Project
Using student bill of rights as organizing tool to empower youth to understand and demand rights
Mike Sayer, Southern Echo, Electoral Politics
Wants to dialogue about electoral strategies for community governance given new city charter in Detroit.
South X Southwest Experiment
Building Bridges to Empower a True Majority
Jackson, MS July 26-July 29
by William Copeland
East Michigan Environmental Action Council (Detroit)
I was tasked to represent EMEAC at this SxSW convening. I had a powerful experience and I am writing some reflections. I expect to write 2-4 reports when all is said and done.
End of the first full day. Even though I missed a significant portion of the day because of dialysis, the day was very meaningful, and set the tone for not only inspirational learning experiences but also long term communication, solidarity, and collaboration.
From the beginning a light but focused tone was set for cultural sharing and political education. At the opening dinner, the hosts made lots of jokes and kept repeating “We’re going to work hard this weekend.” This process was anchored by Southern Echo (MS), Southwest Organizing Project (NM), Southwest Workers Union (TX) who set the triple context of the South x Southwest organizing in terms of the context of difficulty and social opposition, the deep (historical) population majorities of communities of color, and the depth of collaborative & intergenerational leadership that is poised to make national contributions.
The focus was on Black, Latino, and Native communities– They set the tone in terms I was familiar with: “We are under attack” “The war is real” I met a brother from Detroit (who actually grew up in the same hood as Rayven and had people in common) who graduated from Tougaloo in Jackson. He talked about how coming down to Mississippi helped him see the systematic struggles and societal warfare in ways that were invisible to him back home in Detroit.
During the first day’s orientation we saw a film that showed highlights of the first convening (San Antonio, November 2011). One thing that struck me was the political commitment to intergenerational organizing. In EMEAC and Detroit, we are growing youth organizing capabilities, but SxSWE organizations are including significant youth outreach, participation, and facilitation in their campaign work and political action. This weekend was thick with high school age youth up to young adults in their early 20s (I’d estimate 40% of attendees in this range). The workshops were designed to elicit significant political discussion and have enough energizers and interactive activities to keep young activists engaged for 8+ hours per day. This also is a testimony to how the young activists were prepared to be engaged in the space. At no point was there a separate “Youth Track”; they engaged with us on all questions and activities. There were some questions where it was asked “How can youth engage in making accountable community governance?” This intergenerational model of activism challenged me and gave me a lot to reflect on.
At the end of the first day we saw a powerful movie called “Precious Knowledge.” This film describes the struggle to develop and maintain Mexican American/La Raza Studies in Arizona, where state lawmakers called the courses “unpatriotic” and “critical of the founding fathers” and “pro-Marxism and revolutionary” and successfully fought to get these courses removed from public schools and universities. I was moved to the point of tears to see this youth organizing in action. Not just young people communicating to each other, but young people being transformed by Knowledge of Self and fighting the power structure to hold on to that dignity and demonstrate it in the public sphere. To see these youth fighting for the high stakes of their own education (and education of future generations) was powerful.
This concludes my first report. A running theme I wrestled with all weekend is the propensity of young Detroit activists (20s and 30s) to not engage with systems of powers. We spend time teaching youth practices of growing food, leadership development, and parallel structures. It’s as if we gave up on the system and democratic ideas and lean towards underground values. I know this comes out of a critical assessment of living in a society that has been underdeveloped and disinvested in the last 40 years (since before many of us were even born). With the struggles over Emergency Management, the continued gutting of our public school system, and the revisions to the city charter this is an appropriate time to analyze our models of organizing. I would like to engage with Detroiters and activists from other regions to gain clarity on effective long-term political strategies for building up the Detroit community.
In the fall of 2009 in the small South Texas town of Hondo, three Mexican American city council members were officially recalled after a yearlong process that included petitions, protests by opponents of the recall, and a Justice Department Review. The city council members were recalled on the following grounds: “failure to meet their fiduciary duties by taking actions that placed the City of Hondo’s financial stability at risk.”
Underlying these accusations was the reality that Hondo’s 5 person city council had never before elected a majority of progressive candidates that made the issues of the predominantly low-income Mexican American residents a priority. The new council members instituted changes such as giving city employees raises and implementing city-wide home weatherization, beautification and street, curb, and drainage repair projects. The new council members also fought to have a more transparent governance process that was more accessible to community participation. Controversially, the city council voted to cancel the proposed expansion to city hall and the police department, and reduced the proposed energy rate increase to provide relief for the city’s poorest residents. Recall supporters and opponents disagreed about these measures and whether the city’s budget was properly balanced. Community support for the council members was evident at public meetings and protests. However, recall proponents eventually collected the required number of signatures (only a fraction of which were Latino residents) and eventually won the recall by 43 votes.
While this story out of Hondo did not receive substantial media attention, a more recent situation in Jasper, a small town in East Texas, has highlighted the all too similar reality in Southern politics. Last November in Jasper, 3 black council members were recalled after hiring the city’s first black police chief, Rodney Pearson. A group calling itself the League of Concerned Citizens started a petition to recall the council members on the basis of “incompetence, misconduct and malfeasance in office” (malfeasance is legalese for wrongdoing which violates public trust).
The group maintains that the recall efforts had nothing to do with race (although apparently all of the people who signed the petition were white), but stemmed from the belief that Mr. Pearson was not the most qualified candidate for the position. As a result of the recall election, the three black council members’ positions were filled by white candidates. The council, which is now a 4-to-1 white majority, voted last month 4 to 1 to fire Mr. Pearson based on his performance in the position. Mr. Pearson, who filed a complaint against the city with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and is preparing to sue, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I feel that I ran the department as best as I could with the support that I had.”
These stories highlight the problematic relationship between governance, power, and race in American politics. While we now have more elected and appointed officials of color than ever, they still face tremendous challenges when in office and often times lack adequate systemic and in some cases lack enough community support as well. These challenges are even greater in communities with deep divides along color lines and painful histories of race relations, widespread in the South and Southwest. During the Hondo recall community members recalled the stories of the walkout of 1974, when Mexican American parents pulled their children out of schools to protest unfair treatment and in some cases abuse. In Jasper, a town still struggling to heal from the horrific murder of James Byrd and the visible vestiges of segregation in spaces such as the town cemetery, racial tensions have escalated with racial slurs surfacing at a City Council meeting and on Facebook.
These stories remind us that getting people of color elected into office is not enough. Ongoing efforts to minimize the participation and rights of communities of color exist and are compounded by the systemic pushback that occurs when our candidates do make it into office and make policy changes that diverge from the status quo. These stories emphasize the need for governance and organizing models that lift up the needs and interests of historically excluded communities of color and low wealth and supports our officials in the decision-making process. It also highlights the need for black, brown, and other communities of color and low wealth to work together to share struggles and successes, and support each other to build collective power that takes our histories, culture, and current needs into account.
Ultimately the recalls in Hondo and Jasper show that racism rears its head especially where power and control are concerned. Part of dismantling the deeply rooted racism that still exists in our communities requires fighting exclusion from effective access to the political process both internally and externally.
These stories show the present day reality in communities across the South, Southwest, and elsewhere in the country. With the increase in elected officials of color, and the subsequent pushback and the rise of race silent and rights-diminishing policy, it is a critical moment for our communities to organize to create change at the systemic as well as local level.
Building Bridges to Empower a True Majority – new video produced by Al White of Action Communication Education Reform (Duck Hill, MS) documenting the proceedings of the first SxSWE Building Bridges convening in San Antonio, Texas November 17-19, 2011.
by Juan Reynosa, SouthWest Organizing Project
The landscape of our country is ever-changing. Recently released Census data shows that “minority” births outnumbered white births for the first time and that the country is becoming what is considered “majority-minority.” While people of color will soon be the majority in our country that does not necessarily guarantee that we will be able to gain power within institutionalized systems. We must continue learning how government has worked against us throughout history, and how to connect our struggles in order to build community power and hold governments accountable to our communities.
6 years ago, Southern Echo, the Southwest Workers Union, and the SouthWest Organizing Project came together to begin the process of sharing histories and building relationships amongst communities of color across the South and Southwest regions of the United States. This process has flourished into a collaboration known as the South by Southwest Experiment, which is now moving into a process of reflecting with other communities from across the country on the critical importance of accountable community governance.
Our country has a lot on its horizon, from redistricting political boundaries for the next ten years, to continuing to work hard to get DREAMers and other undocumented immigrants the rights they deserve, assessing the impact of US Supreme Court decisions … and let’s not forget the upcoming Presidential election. This is a pivotal time for our communities to be a part of the decision-making process.
So here at the South x SouthWest Experiment we decided to continue an ongoing conversation amongst people of color and low wealth communities about our collective work to make government work for us and more accountable to us. As we like to say at the South by SouthWest Experiment “We are organizing our communities to become architects of policy, rather than objects of policy.”
Building upon our shared legislative, census, redistricting, and education policy work, the South by Southwest Experiment developed an accountable community governance model rooted in history and the shared challenges we’ve faced. The question now is where do we go from here? We would like to share our experience with others in our region to promote accountable governance, as well as learn from others about their victories and best practices within an accountable governance model.
Thus we are gathering here in Jackson, Mississippi to convene our Building Bridges to Empower a True Majority: Accountable Governance conference. This week we will continue this conversation with at least 150 allies from across the country in order to prime ourselves for so many of these upcoming governance tipping points that are on our plate.
Having this conversation together will only to help open more doors and opportunities for people of color and low wealth communities as we move towards being the new majority. The South and Southwest regions have long been mired with stories of struggle and government abusing their power; it is time to turn that story around into one of people of color binding together to achieve community power and a government that works for them. This is not an impossible idea, rather it is one that is achievable through our process of relationship and trust building amongst communities in order to have the foundation to move forward as one.
The convening this weekend is fertile ground for story sharing, sharing of best practices, and developing a shared analysis to achieve a more accountable government for our communities. As I said, this is a big stepping stone in this process and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.