Bertha Lewis is president and founder of the New York-based action think tank, Black Institute and former president and chief organizer for the community organizing group, ACORN. A veteran organizer and powerful public speaker, Bertha has been organizing since the 1980s. The following is an excerpt from a conversation recorded for Radio RP&E on the occasion of Urban Habitat’s State of the Region where Lewis gave one of the keynote addresses to the equity advocates gathered.
B. Jesse Clarke: What does good organizing mean to you and what were the issues that first got you involved?
Bertha Lewis: Well, you know, we’re a membership organization and we organize low- and moderate-income folks. We take our issues from our members and fight on things that affect them. But the fight has to benefit our members and at the same time, move public policy.
Maya Wiley is the founder and executive director of the Center for Social Inclusion. A civil rights attorney and policy advocate, Wiley was a senior advisor on race and poverty to the director of U.S. Programs of the Open Society Institute. She has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union National Legal Department, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Human Rights Watch, and the Council on Foreign Relations, among others. She currently serves on the Tides Network Board. Wiley was a contributing author to the National Urban League’s The State of Black America 2006. Ron Shiffman conducted this interview for publication in Beyond Zuccotti Park: Freedom of
Rocky Rivera (rockyrivera.com) is a hip hop journalist by day and MC by night who found international acclaim by winning a Contributing Editor position on MTV's docu-series, "I'm From Rolling Stone" (2007).
As a pinay, female emcee and artist in the hip hop industry, I deal with misogyny so much. Every time I infiltrate this male circle, I must not fall into the “Here, let me show some skin and get your attention!” because that’s so easy to do. As a woman of color in the industry, you’re marginalized, hyper-sexualized, not allowed to “play” with the boys, and not treated as a peer. The young women who aren’t coming into it with a conscious mind, they’re just hoping to gain acceptance from the mostly male hip hop audience and most times, you’re treated as a novelty.
Smita Nadia Hussain (chaaweb.org)
is a poet, blogger and photographer who serves in leadership capacities
for local young Democrat and API organizations, including Community
Health for Asian Americans (CHAA), the English Center and the National
Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF). She recently traveled
with Habitat for Humanity to build homes in Vietnam.
My parents are from Bangladesh, a country birthed from genocide. People were victimized; tongues were cut off. They wanted independence and were literally fighting for their voice. They demanded the right to speak their language and fought for democracy. When the civil war happened in 1971, a lot of the guerilla fighters were women. Many were executed. Half a million women were raped in nine months. Yet, they still stood up.
Favianna Rodriguez (favianna.com) is a celebrated printmaker and digital artist based in Oakland, California. Her composites, created using high-contrast colors and vivid figures reflect literal and imaginative migration, global community, and interdependence.
As a young Latina I felt invisible. I am the daughter of immigrants and grew up in communities of color most of my life. I felt that my immigrant family, our communities were invisible. Yet, we all carried the brunt of what was happening to the economy in the country and even throughout the world. We were experiencing the effects of injustices in our own community. The injustices I saw as a child, the racism that I experienced via the media or the school curriculum, the xenophobia directed at my parents... angered me in a way that I didn’t have words for. Art became a way for me to talk about those experiences, reframe them, and do something positive. Making art was a way to have a voice and an empowering way to fight back, instead of acting out on my internalized oppression.
We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For
Activistas from the New Majority
At the Empowering Women of Color conference in March this year, I was moved to hear Grace Lee Boggs, in an open dialogue with Angela Davis, say that we must re-imagine everything; change how we think, what we do, to re-invent our society and institutions in order for revolution to happen. And as I listened to female MC and rapper Rocky Rivera give short glimpses into the revolutionary lives of three iconic women activists—Gabriela Silang, Dolores Huerta, and Angela Davis—in the 16 bars of “Heart,” I wondered who would be our next movement builders.
Several states across the country have instituted voter identification requirements that force voters to provide proof of identity in order to cast a regular ballot at a polling place. Although these laws passed quietly at first, drawing little to no national attention, they have more recently been the subject of increased national scrutiny and debate.
Ballot initiatives play an increasingly important role in setting policy in California on every issue from healthcare and the environment to same-sex marriage. In 1911, when wealthy special interests had corrupted politics in Sacramento and crippled the people’s ability to hold government accountable, California established the initiative, referendum, and recall to give the people the power to make or unmake their own state laws and to remove their elected officials. But today, that system is not functioning as it was intended, especially for California’s new majority.
Wealthy special interest dollars fuel the initiative economy, which coupled with a lack of review and oversight, plus poor voter education on ballot measures, has led to poorly drafted proposals, legal challenges and attacks on people’s civil rights. This is not the empowering direct democracy reformers had envisioned.
In 2011, the Greenlining Institute launched an unprecedented effort to identify a set of reforms to fix our broken system. With funding from California Forward, the James Irvine Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we conducted a two-part public opinion survey of a representative sample of California adults in June and December, 2011.1 More importantly, we convened 17 community listening sessions across 14 cities to learn more about real voter experiences, attitudes and ideas for direct democracy. The input we received from the community, in addition to that from a 33-member advisory panel of policy experts, good government groups, and community-based leaders, helped us develop a reform agenda that can start to return the initiative system to its “citizen democracy” roots.
We have had an opportunity to work with Atlanta’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to create something called the Social Equity Advisory Committee, which is charged with holding the planners and others at MPO accountable for issues of equity, balanced growth and inclusion. I think now, more than ever, it is very important for us as equity leaders to not only focus on winning the game, but also changing the rules.
How do we define and measure equity through the various planning agencies? How do we create formal processes where people get involved and engage in the decision-making? How do we create spaces and opportunities for communities of color and low wealth communities to actually be engaged—not just invited to the table—as people involved in moving our communities forward?
The civic engagement process initially was created at a time when you had the nuclear family—a two-parent household, suburban America, and people who had time to get involved in meetings. Now our society is a lot more diverse in terms of age, race and income. Because of that, there are diverse ways by which we must give our community the opportunities to engage and act. For me, that is also where the sweet spot exists.
“It’s not enough for us to do the research and come up with great ideas if people can’t hold onto them.
in July 2011, an all white jury in suburban Atlanta convicted Raquel Nelson, an African American single mother of three, of second degree vehicular homicide for the death of her four-year-old son in a hit-and-run incident on a busy thoroughfare. She was also charged with reckless conduct for crossing a roadway other than at a crosswalk and faced a three-year jail sentence.
The story is tragic and seemingly incomprehensible, especially when you learn that the driver of the vehicle was eventually caught, admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs, had two previous hit-and run- convictions, and was blind in one eye—but received just six months in jail under a plea bargain. However, taken in the context of Atlanta’s history, the incident does not seem so strange and is a good illustration of the challenges Atlanta faces going forward.