Saturday, February 25, 2017

Lobbying With The Urban League Of Portland For Social Justice

I am always aware of the fact that Black people and white people often live in separate worlds although I do not always understand or appreciate the depth and dimensions of these worlds. I get a great deal wrong when I try to talk about this with others, white and Black friends who struggle as I do with varying degrees of success to gain understanding and make positive changes. Most often I wish that I lived in a world where awareness of the distance between us could be acknowledged and understood. Sometimes I dare to hope and try to visualize what abolishing that separation would look like.

I had the good fortune to join an Urban League lobby day yesterday and confront these questions. After a few hours of listening, conversation and work I left feeling a sense of movement and change and thinking about a few key questions.

The Urban League drew a large and politically sophisticated group of people to Salem to lobby for a bill which will give tenants a greater voice and more rights in dealing with landlords if it passes, and for a bill which will go far in stopping racial profiling if it passes. We need "yes" votes on HB 2004 (Stable Homes) and HB 2355 (End Profiling). If these bills pass, every "regular person" in Oregon will benefit and we will owe thanks and solidarity to the people of color organizations working so hard on getting the bills through.

The Urban League leadership came to this lobby day prepared with everything that we needed. The bills were easy to explain and get people motivated to support, but this was done with special respect and love and humor by the leadership---something we don't always see in white-majority efforts. People were encouraged to speak from their hearts, and it was immediately clear to me that the experience and commonsense of the "common people" in the room could carry the issues forward. I liked that the room was multigenerational and that young people were up front and helping to move us along.

White people come to these events with preconceived notions about what a Black political agenda is. We miss issues like home ownership, the importance of land, educational opportunity and healthcare and reproductive rights. We tend to take up the air in the room talking about our ideas and our understanding when listening and reflecting would be more appropriate. And I'm afraid that many of us also miss how people of color sacrifice something in constantly pushing for reforms and legislation which benefits the entire working-class and keeps a democratic agenda out front. In fact, we don't often think about intersectionality and class identity and a broad working-class political agenda in the correct context.

There are many ways to say that Black lives matter. The Urban League put theory and practice together yesterday by saying it with a lobby day for important legislation and by showing love and respect for the people in the room who are on the frontlines. White-led organizations need to take note of this and adopt those practices in a conscious effort to join what and how we think to what and how we organize. It's a profound point.

I'm doubtful about much of what I heard yesterday from leading state politicians before we started lobbying. I don't see capitalism and entrepreneurship working out over the long run, and I don't think that showing up at the State Capitol gets us much by itself. Still, I think that there are great Black leaders in this state who are invisible to whites, I take the point that people of color may indeed have to gain wealth through entrepreneurial means in order for class struggles to move forward, and I agree with the legislators who reminded us that in a given county there might be hundreds of elected positions which could be won by people of color, including many positions on land use and conservation and water boards and school boards which build towards empowerment. I also take the point that an inside/outside strategy is needed to win reforms and take power.

So with this in mind I struggled to find a place for myself as an ally in a room full of people who I didn't know and who had no reason to trust me. A leader of the local NAACP who I know joined the lobby day, a man who is a great leader and thinker, and I hung out with him, I offered to be the note taker in our group during a legislative visit because I thought that was an appropriate role for me.

Things went better than I expected they would. Four of us met with an aide to a friendly legislator, two women in our group led off with good stories which communicated the need for stable homes and ending profiling, the fellow from the NAACP branch gave a great summary of our views and I chimed in with a few points. The aide was clearly moved and quickly grasped our points. She told her own story of discrimination and said that she feels that this discrimination is pushing her out of Oregon. I hear this from many young people of color and each time I hear it my heart breaks a little.

I can't give enough respect to the two brave women and the Salem NAACP leader in our group who did so much hard work yesterday. It is no easy thing to be a person of color here and carry on any kind of activism, and especially activism which takes you to the State Capitol.

I can wonder about white people, allies and not, who should be showing up, learning and taking solidarity action. Where are we all? I see many of us at the fair work week and wage theft lobby days and turning out for environmental justice and reproductive rights. Even Senate Bill 487 and House Bill 2129, which helps to balance the scales of justice and ends caps on compensation for damages, are part of a broad working-class political agenda. All of these issues should draw people together and create new relationships based on trust and struggle. Why don't we have a common front for political struggle with people of color, the youth and working-class people in the lead?

Here is the Urban League report on the day:

On February 24, 2017, the Urban League of Portland hosted Our Voices United Lobby Day in the Oregon State Capitol. Endorsed by the NAACP Portland Chapter, Oregon Opportunity Network, Black Parent Initiative, PAALF, and PCRI, community members and leaders gathered in the Oregon State Capitol to mobilize on positive legislative policies.

There were over 50 attendees, including Urban League staff, community members and community leaders who participated throughout the day. The day started with a welcome address by Senator James Manning, who gave a rousing introduction to the important of being engaged in state government.

After being welcomed to the Capitol, Amira Streeter, Policy and Advocacy Director, and Zev Nicholson, former Organizing Director, lead the group with a fundamentals of lobbying training, that included a legislation overview and policy focus. Participants were encouraged to tell their own stories as it related to the Stable Homes (HB2004) and End Profiling (HB2355) campaigns. Many of the stories were filled with passion and profound strength, as we came together to support and lift up one another.

While participants ate lunch, many guests joined us. Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, addressed the group, championing for the passage of the bills being advocated for that day. Senator Lew Frederick and Representative Janelle Bynum also addressed the group before the legislative visits, where they answered probing questions about their views on issues important to the African-American and Black community.

For the legislative visits, meetings with key legislators were held, including Senator Laurie Monnes-Anderson, Representative Jennifer Williamson, Representative Ann Lininger, Representative Sheri Malstrom, Representative Shirley McLain, Representative Barbara Smith-Warner, Representative Rob Nosse, Representative Diego Hernandez, Representative Tawna Sanchez, Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer, Representative Mark Meek, and staff from various offices on our policy priorities, End Profiling and Stable Homes. Many of the Lobby Day attendees felt a sense of empowerment and motivation throughout the day, as well as got an opportunity to speak from their hearts on the issues that mattered the most to them.

The day ended with a tour of the Capitol, which reminded people that this was indeed their building – a place to have a voice and to represent the people and the community.

While the day was filled with rewarding experiences for everyone, the work has just begun. Join the Urban League of Portland to stay up-to-date and informed about the work we do in the Oregon State Capitol throughout the 2017 Legislative Session and how you can get involved.

Stay active, stay engaged.

Yours in the movement,
Advocacy and Civic Engagement

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