Grassroots Learning: A report back from the Summer 2017 Leadership School

In the basement of the Church of the Advocate, a historic black church in North Philadelphia, activists, media producers, educators, community organizers, and students gathered on a Friday night to discuss what it would take to meet the challenges of our current organizing moment.

Iman Sultan, who interned with Media Mobilizing Project throughout the summer, wrote this piece. Photographs contributed from Leadership School participants.

Resisting after Trump

Friday, July 28, 2017

In the basement of the Church of the Advocate, a historic black church in North Philadelphia, activists, media producers, educators, community organizers, and students gathered on a Friday night to discuss what it would take to meet the challenges of our current organizing moment.

Pep and Ben of Philly SUN

“What are we going to do in this era with Trump becoming president?” Pep Felton, program coordinator of Philly Schools Unifying Neighborhoods (SUN), said. “How can we take power in this city?”

 

It was the first session of a weekend-long grassroots seminar at the intersection of media, community organizing, and social justice. Media Mobilizing Project coordinated the event with the joint participation of Philly SUN and 215 People’s Alliance. We focused on the pressing questions facing Philadelphia today: How can working-class people have real power in the city?

Participants of the School broke out into groups to discuss what it mean to organize in the era of Trump, and then shared their findings with the rest of the group.

“I’m noticing nationally people are getting involved, who weren’t involved before,” Ociele of 215 People’s Alliance said. “We need to make our voices heard and line up with other people.”

“We’re probably not the only organization in the basement of a church fighting this right now,” Antoine Little, Sr., an organizer with 215 People’s Alliance and a father of children in Philadelphia’s public schools, said.

We shared ideas of what to do in this historic moment, how Trump’s election had changed the playing field, and what that meant for activists, educators, members of community, and grassroots media makers.

Natasha, a fellow in MMP’s Movement Media program, mentioned the irony of making media in a time when people distrusted the media. Others spoke about the necessity to not just fight, but think of what we wanted to build. And many agreed on the escalating importance of local politics as a site of battle, where real change could be made, proven by the work of groups like 215 People’s Alliance’s in the campaign for Larry Krasner as District Attorney of Philadelphia.

Meghna Chandra, an organizer with 215 People’s Alliance, also shared the importance of the Church of the Advocate, which hosted black power conferences in the 60s and 70s, ordained the first women priests in the Episcopal Church, benefited from the vision of Father Paul Washington, and continues today to sponsor efforts of community empowerment and justice with the leadership of Pastor Renee McKenzie-Hayward.

After that, outside in the courtyard of the church we all gathered in a circle. The first person held a string from an unspooling ball of yarn. The challenge was to find somebody else in the crowd with whom they shared a connection, and throw the ball of yarn to them. We did this until the entire circle was connected in circuitry of red and pink yarn.

Who runs Philly?

Saturday, July 29, 2017

On Saturday morning, Milena Velis of Media Mobilizing Project showed a report to the school, called ’Connect to compete: How the University City-Center City innovation district can help Philadelphia excel globally and serve locally.

Milena of MMP presenting on the development plans for Southwest Philly

Brookings Institute, a powerful think tank, produced the report. Endorsers included Comcast, Drexel University, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the University of Pennsylvania.

 

The report evaluates Philadelphia’s medical, technological, and business industries, and made recommendations to improve the city’s performance on a global scale. It emphasized connecting Center City to the university-dominated part of West Philadelphia, calling it the ‘Innovation District’. For the authors behind the Brookings report the central problem in Philadelphia is the city’s average industrial performance globally and nationally. Innovation was the solution.

Milena also showed us the Lower Schuykill Plan, and its effect on the residents of Bartram’s Village, who fell under the territory of the plan.

We discussed the plans and what it meant for normal Philadelphians in the context of an increasingly gentrifying city.

“When I think of Boston, New York, and San Francisco, I think of the least affordable places in the entire country,” Maddie said, referring to the report’s constant invocation of some of these cities as the norm Philadelphia had to achieve. “And just places that are crushing people under gentrification, and they’re being displaced constantly. And to be aspiring for Philly to be like that is not that inspiring to me.”

The effect of gentrification on Philly, including the plans outlined in the report, was real. It continues to culminate in widespread displacement of generations-long residents to poor, outlying suburbs and areas on the outskirts of the city. Today, we discussed the possible effects of these city plans on the residents of impacted areas like the black community of Bartram’s Village.

Amendu, of Point Breeze in South Philly, recalled the time when he confronted a real estate agent for selling homes in his neighborhood.

“I asked him, ‘Who are these houses for?’” he said. “Because I knew they weren’t for the people who had been living here already.”

After the morning session, the Leadership School broke out into groups by organization to strategize and discuss what to do next.

 

Learning from victories and applying them here

Sunday, July 30, 2017

On Sunday morning, Kelly Collings of the Caucus of Working Educators presented on the Chicago Teachers Union’s gains with public schools. Kelly took us through the CTU’s history, the old guard, the emergence of the new caucus and leadership, and the climax of the CTU’s work with strike and reelection in 2012.

Before the CTU made its gains, the CEO of Chicago schools was Ron Huberman, the Secretary of Education was Arne Duncan, and Rahm Emanuel was the mayor in office. Like Philadelphia, the Democratic party machine heavily influenced union politics, public school closings in poor brown and black neighborhoods were rampant, and an over-reliance on SAT scoring persisted.

But the CTU was active, even with complacent leadership in the old guard. There were multiple caucuses in the CTU and transitional election cycles.

The Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) differed from the old guard in that it was member-driven, had mechanisms of transparency and accountability, and supported public education and a strong labor-community solidarity. CORE implemented militant on-the ground organizing, camping out to stop school closings, led citywide marches, and actively organized with students, parents and community in the fight for education. They also allied with other labor organizations, such as supporting the SK Tools strike.

“The goal was aiming union power at city power,” Kelly explained.

CORE with the CTU established itself as a forceful political actor in the city of Chicago. The CTU’s strike shut the city down and forced Rahm Emanuel to the bargaining table, leading to victory for teachers as Emanuel was forced to give them a pay raise and not implement merit pay (teachers will only get pay raises based on standardized test performance).

We learned about the CTU’s history to compare and contrast the conditions in Philadelphia and better our resistance. Philadelphia faces a tremendous crisis in public education with constant public school closings, government cuts to schools, and education distributed according to income of the neighborhood. Learning from CTU’s resistance helped us understand how we can take steps towards transforming not only public education but building working-class power more broadly in the city.

The Leadership School was just a moment, in a long-running process of organizing to change the fundamental conditions for poor people, people of color, and working-class people more broadly in Philadelphia. Perhaps the greatest outcome though were the relationships built between leaders from 215 People’s Alliance, Philly SUN and Media Mobilizing Project.