It's Time to Change Who Is in the Room When Decisions Are Made About the Economy
"What does inequality look like where you're from?"
This is the question that kicks off the first event of the National People's Action Rising Voices for a New Economy Conference, a gathering of more than 500 activists and organizers hailing from every corner of the country: Low-wage workers campaigning for a higher minimum wage in Michigan; Farmers organizing against factory farming in Iowa; Community activists pushing for corporate accountability in Maine; Co-op workers building sustainable, affordable housing in Buffalo; Racial justice advocates in Minnesota; Local groups fighting gentrification in Los Angeles and for affordable housing in New York City.
All gathered in Washington, D.C. to meet, exchange strategies and build power.
"In Minnesota, a black person is three times more likely to be unemployed than a white person!" one voice emerges from the crowd.
"In Detroit it's so bad that you can throw a stone from an abandoned house and hit a Starbucks!" another participant called out.
The mood at the convention is festive, with red white and blue balloons floating above the chairs and rousing anthems blasting from the speakers between panelists with people getting up to dance.
This year in particular, something special is happening. The National Domestic Workers Alliance Conference, an annual conference bringing together domestic workers from across the United States happening next door, is joining the National People's Action conference. The result is a room filled with 2,000 nannies, home-care workers, and organizers fighting for causes ranging from raising the minimum wage to immigration justice to "banning the box"--a campaign that calls upon corporations to eliminate the question asking if applicants have criminal records that is quickly gaining momentum in several states.
Central to each of these dialogues is a vision of a new economy; an economy based on racial and immigrant justice, and holding corporations accountable to people.
"We are America and we should shape the future of this economy," National Domestic Workers’ Alliance executive director Aijen Poo begins, addressing the crowd assembled in Washington, D.C. "Just down the street people make decisions about the future of this economy every day.The rooms where those deals are cut don't look like this one. But they should."
Looking around, there are people from all different races, ethnic backgrounds and walks of life. Many are immigrant women and women of color. Some speakers addressed the crowd exclusively in Spanish, making translation devices essential to anyone not perfectly bilingual. Portuguese, Taglog and Nepali translations were also available pointing to the diversity of the crowd assembled.
"They are making decisions that create an economy that makes us invisible," she continues. "Not just a few of us, not 100s, millions of us are erased by this unequal economy. Millions of us trapped in poverty wage jobs, two million are locked behind bars and 1100 are deported every day."
Patricia Fuller is one of these millions working a low wage job, and living in poverty. A Detroiter and veteran of the auto industry, Fuller used to earn a living wage from General Motors, she lost her job when the plant was sold. Now she is living in poverty.
"I thought I was earning enough to retire in a few years," Fuller told me, speaking about her old job. "Now I can't afford to bury myself. If I were to die, I couldn't afford my own funeral."
In order to make ends meet, Fuller periodically sells her own blood plasma to augment her income. She also recalls taking the bus for months to afford the $120 needed to fix her car.
After years as a low-wage worker, she joined Michigan United as a volunteer to push state legislators to mandate a $10.10 minimum wage.
"An honest day's pay is all we ask," she continues. "I see so many kids running around, joining gangs. That would stop if you offered them a decent wage. It would make them able to do something they really want to do--whether that is construction, brick laying or plumbing. Our crime rate would plummet."
Fuller’s story is one of hundreds present at the National People’s Action convention—low wage workers turned organizers, fighting for greater economic justice and accountability of corporate power for those like herself at home in her community.
But will Washington listen?
Tomorrow, the convention continues as activists from both National People’s Action and Domestic Workers United converge on Capitol Hill to rally to demand Congress to wage the minimum wage, cut corporate tax breaks and other policies that made the old economy unsustainable.