This post was created by the South by Southwest Experiment, representing Southern Echo, SouthWest Organizing Project, and SouthWest Workers Union, and is based in conversations that have taken place with communities in New Mexico, Texas, and Mississippi.
Beginning Thursday, July 28th, 2016, over 130 grassroots organizers, community leaders, and elected officials from New Mexico, Mississippi, and Texas, will be gathering in Downtown Albuquerque for a deep conversation about “Accountable Governance” with the South X SouthWest Experiment (a black-brown-indigenous partnership of people of color led grassroots organizations that includes SouthWest Organizing Project, SouthWest Workers Union, and Southern Echo). The subject, grounded in the rich political moment of the summer of 2016, will advance a set of principles aimed at improving government’s responsiveness to the struggles endured by everyday people in our day to day lives.
Contrastingly, this conversation takes place in the face of a 50-year conservative movement that has built a neo-liberal agenda, including the building of social structures, the rollback of democratic practices, voter exclusion, big money in politics, militarization of police, and the use of anti-immigrant rhetoric to stoke deep resentment amongst their base. They have also worked for decades to downplay the role of government in addressing our communities’ struggles, including defaming government and characterizing it as the problem, dismantling essential public services by cutting taxes, deregulating safety and ending protections, and defanging organized labor and other groups who fight back. Using racist dog whistles, their mantra is simply that “wasteful government takes the hard-working white man’s earnings and gives it to lazy people of color who don’t deserve it.” We all are left feeling the vortex of despair.
This weekend’s accountable governance summit challenges that dominant world view and is focused on achieving a representative democracy that responds to our community’s struggles with the level of urgency that they deserve. Our efforts focus on the health of our base, not the health of the elite. We strive to reinstate the valuation of our lives, to hold on to gains made, and to win in much bigger ways that affect our families’ daily lives. We seek to build the infrastructure necessary to build a new center of gravity that transfers power to those closest to the pain, not just to challenge and tear down that which oppresses us.
Our summit also takes place in the context of the Summer of 2016, a period which has been encapsulated by deep racial tensions around the televised police shootings of black victims like Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Soon thereafter, several high profile shootings of police officers took place in Dallas and Baton Rouge. In addition, 49 mostly Latino LGTBQ victims were killed in mass-shooting in Orlando, Florida. Yet overall crime trends across the country are dramatically down over recent decades.
In addition, much of the country has found itself in shock and awe at the rapid rise of Donald Trump to the Republican presidential nomination, using a campaign based on fear and anxiety about the country’s well-being. Earlier in the summer England voters successfully removed themselves from the European Union and many attribute the “#brexit” to widespread fear-mongering about immigrants. As if to reveal the foundation of where much of the angst was coming from, Iowa’s U.S. Representative Steve King wondered aloud on national television about what contributions any “subgroup of people” had made to civilization in comparison to the white race, a blatant premise of white supremacy.
Has Barack Obama’s service as President of the United States over the last eight years represented a transition into post-racial America? Simply and straightforwardly, “no.” Since 2008 the Voting Rights Act has been eviscerated in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder and the imbalance is increasingly clear to our communities that the color of one’s skin and the amount of wealth that one has determines access to and the power to hold accountable the educational, economic, and political systems of this country. The right wing quickly struck back with its takeover of state politics in the 2010 elections and has diligently worked to dismantle participation of working families and communities of color in any democratic process, including making voting increasingly difficult through measures such as Voter ID and diminished voting accessibility.
The agenda is clear and the moves are strategic in the attempt to privatize public education and profit from systems that tear communities of color apart. Many states have found themselves funding prisons at higher levels than early childhood education and mass incarceration is finally beginning to receive the critique it deserves. Our brothers and sisters are missing, often locked up at disproportionately higher rates than whites for the same crimes. They are not dead, but rather locked behind bars, unraveling the threads of our families and the often privatized prison system is doing just what it was designed to do as a multi-billion dollar industry.
Our communities have never stopped experiencing systemic racism, yet our power rests in the empowerment of what promises to be a new American majority with a fresh set of values around equity and social justice. Moving from moment to movement will require taking an incredibly disciplined look at how we steer the ship in a different direction. Despite the daunting political landscape, recent acceptance of 21st century technology’s contributions to people power offers many promising possibilities for galvanizing our people.
One of our greatest thinkers, Karlos Gauna Schmieder, talks about how our social networks have the power to bring people together, and use systems like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and PokemonGo to move together in ways unseen for generations. The beauty of social networks, much like the concept “you are what you eat,” emphasizes that “you are what you’re connected to.” While this has proven semi-powerful for Donald Trump and his personal twitter account, our strength in numbers and the connectivity of movements like #blacklivesmatter promises to be even more powerful. The rapid nature of this societal transformation, far faster than the Industrial Revolution, is breath-taking, but it is one that is dramatically more accessible to our people – because our whole lives are social networks! Our networks are our power! They enable us to connect, to lift up ideas in new ways, and to hold systems accountable. It’s not easy to intimidate a network. The concept of a few people in a room determining the future of our governance is quickly losing its power. Instead, the power of mapping networks and matching them to the political map could be the X factor in empowering a true majority going forward.
That said, the 2016 New Mexico Accountable Governance Summit will strive to create a set of principles around the spirit of governance that will begin to steer the ship in a promising new direction. Early in the 1990s, environmental justice leaders came together and created the “Environmental Justice Principles” and the “Jemez Principles” – and those one-page documents have served as “gold-standards” in guiding environmental justice work ever since. Our work seeks to achieve the same level of meaning on the topic of representative democracy. We strive to achieve a radical democracy represented by elected officials committed to confronting generations of imperialism, colonization, oppression, enslavement, racism, and imposed poverty. We reject a mainstream politic that is rooted in domination and control, that privileges the whims of a free market and the privatization of public assets, that conversely denies the historical realities of long-standing struggles, and that is informed by an ineffectual politics of meager compromise and a philosophy of self-advancement. That politic has led to an upward transfer of wealth, that defends the military status quo, that subjugates women, and that is responsive to large donors and not the urgencies of The People.
Instead, we envision governance that understands long-standing struggles such as hunger, poverty, and income inequality as the outcomes of white supremacy, cultural oppression, land theft, disrupted food systems, exploitation of labor and resources, unrestrained capitalistic greed, and environmental injustices. Our people are not morally flawed or lazy; they’ve constantly overcome countless structural and systemic obstacles against all odds. We believe that our government will be emboldened and strengthened by elected and appointed public officials who represent historically excluded backgrounds, particularly poor women of color, and who place the broader community interest over their narrow ambition and self-interest. We seek to shed light on the myriad pressures that elected officials are faced with once they get into office, and then to also engage in new meaningful ways to support their impact.
As our friends at Demos often emphasize, our efforts must “lead with race,” because the opposition is already doing so with their dog whistle racism. Instead, we believe that our success depends upon raising people of color as the protagonists in our own struggle. As grassroots community organizations, 90% of what we already do is “candidate development” – and the work ahead requires us to build our pool of candidates several years out, to prepare them to run for office, to connect them with mentors, and to help develop the economic and employment conditions to make it possible for them to be able to run and serve.
Truly accountable governance affirms a long view of the generational struggle and seizes the value of engaging and empowering our young people and people of color to assume the roles of architects and decision-makers in our collective overcoming, to ensure continuity of the movement. Once fully functioning, that governance will be deeply participatory beyond simple voting, and will bring together resources at all levels of government to support the collective dreams of its people. We look forward to the rich input that participants will have into developing a set of accountable governance principles and we hope that this weekend’s convening will add significant value to our people’s promising outlook as the rapidly rising New American Majority.