Movements for change build power across a line of difference

The 2016 campaign season was one of the most rancorous in recent memory. With the election now behind us, deep currents of frustration and anger continue to surface throughout the country, but issues of racial and economic justice have become central to the political conversation.

“Every time an election is coming, there’s hand-wringing: We only have these two choices,” says Nijmie Dzurinko, co-founder and co-coordinator of Put People First! PA, a Racial & Economic Justice Fund grantee.

“Everyone who’s working on the election says, ‘Yeah, we’ll figure that out afterwards.’ Then the election is over and everything goes back to usual, and four years later [everyone] has the same conversation.” Put People First! PA and other grassroots organizations aim to interrupt this narrative by creating spaces for people to come together and identify commonalities.

Electoral politics always creates polarization — emphasizing divides between rural and urban areas, with fearmongering in both directions. These divisions are precisely what movements for real change are dismantling in order to build power across difference. Movements that were formerly focused on single-issue campaigns are recognizing that joining together is the clearest path to collective liberation. Intersectionality has become the default lens for organizing

Breaking down traditional political divides was a core goal when Put People First! PA began in 2012. “It was founded to change what’s politically possible, and the only way to do that is to break down barriers between people and build a statewide movement,” says Dzurinko. “That’s why health care is such a powerful issue. It impacts immigrants and citizens, people of all genders, people of color, and all poor and working-class people throughout the state.

This summer, ACT UP Philadelphia, a Racial & Economic Justice Fund grantee, stepped out of its traditional organizing strategies to join in the fight for racial justice. “We’ve always worked strictly on HIV and AIDS issues,” says Jose de Marco, an ACT UP Philadelphia community organizer for more than 20 years. “But there’s no way we can ignore the social structures that are causing HIV and AIDS in our community. Depriving people of medications, making them jump through hoops, black and brown people being stopped by the police in the gayborhood — all of that ties in together.” ACT UP Philadelphia has joined forces with the Black and Brown Workers Collective to carry out several direct actions this year.

“It’s really important that we get together,” says Teresa Hill, an organizer who has worked with ACTION United, a Racial & Economic Justice Fund grantee, and One PA. With ACTION United, Hill organized in Southwest Philadelphia around the environmental and health effects of the oil refinery, calling out environmental racism — the confluence of racial, economic, and environmental justice. “It doesn’t matter what organization you’re from. It’s the same cause,” says Hill. “We’re trying to get the message out so they stop killing our children. We want to have a chance to live a life that we all deserve.”

Put People First! PA members calling out Independence Blue Cross on their predatory business practices and poor customer treatment in November after news of nearly 30% premium increases. Photo: Jamie Blair