In late summer, 2018, roughly 80 organizers, activists, artists and scholars assembled in Durham, NC to talk about system transformation. We came from California, Missouri, Florida, Massachussets and a dozen other places. We included community organizers, movement strategists, cultural workers, educators, electoral tacticians, and base-building leaders for black lives, climate justice, immigration rights, a just economy, and worker power. Some were students, some were decades-long veterans of radical struggles. In three days of discussion, consideration, relationship-building, and cultural exchange, we interrogated the common roots of the various crises our movements are confronting, deliberated about policy options that target those roots, and consulted strategically about what it would take to develop an independent policy program and political formation.
The first day, which focused on identifying the roots of the system, began with a slide-show taking a glance at the Populist Movement of the late 1800’s and its Omaha Platform, the 1960’s Poor People’s Campaign and its Freedom Budget For All Americans, and the Black Panther Party and its 10-Point Program, to get a sense of the overlap and differences between their various political formations and organizing strategies to advance independent, radical policy agendas. Then, William “Sandy” Darity, director of Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, delivered the conference’s keynote speech, dispelling myths that blame the conditions imposed upon black lives (wealth inequality, unstable family structure, lower educational success, unemployment, poor health, and criminalization) on deficiencies in black people themselves, instead pointing to the social and economic explanations that his decades of scholarship have focused on.
Then came a panel discussion between Nelini Stamp, director of Rise Up Georgia, Stephanie Kelton, Chief Economist on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee (Democratic staff), and Gar Alperovitz, co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative, moderated by Jonathan Smucker, director of Beyond The Choir, which touched on the contours of funding transformational policies, New Economy institutions as a base in the political struggle for system transformation, and a framework for organizers to campaign around various sorts of issues, from “structural” to “bread and butter.” The day concluded , where else, but in a bar, where we shared laughs, made acquaintances, built community, and argued about policy until the small hours of the morning.
Day two was devoted to exploring policy options that target the roots. It began with a discussion, facilitated by The Wildfire Project, between policy scholars, base-building organizers, electoral workers, and “movement pollenators” who serve a cultural or networking function, about each group’s strengths and gaps and the barriers and benefits they see to working with one another. This was followed by a presentation on recent decentralized mass mobilizations from around the world, including Spain’s Podemos, whose tools and strategies the presenters from Movement Net Labs had learned up-close on a recent trip. The group was introduced to Loomio (a digital platform for discussing, amending and voting on proposals, used heavily in Spain to develop Podemos’ program), which it used throughout the day to discuss in real time questions and concerns raised by the four policy panels.
Those panels focused on a Job Guarantee (with The New School‘s Darrick Hamilton, the Modern Money Network‘s Rohan Grey and VCU‘s Tressie McMillan-Cottom), a Universal Basic Income (with BYP100‘s Jasson Perez, Jacobin Magazine‘s Alyssa Battistoni, and Duke University‘s Kathi Weeks), transformational land reforms (with the Center for Economic Democracy‘s Aaron Tanaka, the Somerville Community Corporation‘s Karen Narefsky, and lead conference organizer Jesse Alexander Myerson), and transformational finance reforms (with the New Economy Project‘s Deyanira Del Rio, the Roosevelt Institute‘s Mike Konczal, and the Southern Grassroots Economies Project‘s Ed Whitfield). On Loomio, conference participants reviewed and amended the ideas raised on the panels, and added other ideas into the mix, generating a lively discussion around how to make a policy program so radical (root-focused) as to be universally inclusive.
In the evening, we had an Open Mic at The Carrack, a community-owned art space near where we met. Conference participants and Durham-based artists shared songs, poems, drinks, and speeches toasting from the future the victories we will win in the coming years. With our spirits lifted well over our inhibitions, continued to confer and befriend until the dawn was near.
Day three took us to Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy for programming focused on building political power for system transformation. First up was a panel discussing various initiatives and programs already in existence that focus on building transformational power, featuring Moral Mondays‘ Vashti Hinton, National People’s Action‘s Aija Nemer-Aanerud and Brianna Tong, United We Dream‘s Felipe Souza-Rodriguez and SEIU775‘s David Rolf, moderated by Solidaire’s Leah Hunt-Hendrix. This prepared us for breakout discussions of next steps, in which the seeds of several working groups emerged – ones exploring popular education around policy, the formation of an independent political force, and the question of group identity.
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