The most recent deal between Democrats and Senator Manchin has resulted in a reconciliation package that is substantial for our climate, health care, and economy – but leaves out key priorities on care, child poverty, housing, and more. And it was not very long ago that the Biden administration and Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan – a package which invested federal dollars in the communities that needed it the most. Yet, too many of those policies were limited to a short time period. As we win some and lose some in these battles for an economy that works for everyone, it is important for us to evaluate our strategies for pushing through transformational policy with grassroots organizing.
“We must meet in the streets, we must meet at the ballot box, we must meet at the political suites of this nation,” Reverend Dr. William J. Barber III said at the June 18 Poor People’s March on Washington. It’s this dynamic inside-outside strategy that we see as key to any sort of success this fall and beyond.
Our partners’ participation in the June 18th Poor Peoples’ March on Washington demonstrated the critical role of outside power in charting a different course for our nation’s future. The march, organized by Poor People’s Campaign co-chairs Reverend Dr. William Barber III and Reverend Liz Theoharis, provided the opportunity for our partners to descend upon D.C. and, quite literally, make their voices heard.
“I am here because I believe in us…If America is to change or to become what it says it is, then we will have to make it be so,” said LaTosha Brown of Black Votes Matter on an episode of The Takeaway: Deep Dive.
The show highlighted the powerful ways those on the ground showed up on June 18 to demand change from the outside, with other guests including Chelsea Higgs-Wise of Marijuana Justice, Ronald Blount of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, Brianna Puga of Comunidades Unidas, Viola Washington of the New Orleans Welfare Rights Organization, and Cate Blackford of Maine People’s Alliance.
To borrow from the show’s co-host and Community Change Co-President Dorian Warren: “Poverty is not a natural condition, but a system of policy choices.”
Our partner organizations and thousands of allies marched to hold power to account for these very choices. They showed up for the 140 million poor and low-income demanding more from those in a position to alleviate poverty in their communities. From Brianna Puga, whose work focuses on securing safe and healthy futures for undocumented families in Utah to Chelsea Higgs-Wise, who works for reparative and comprehensive marijuana policy reform in Virginia, these formidable grassroots leaders took to the streets as a movement demanding more and putting public pressure on decision-makers. In a demonstration of solidarity and camaraderie, they used the steady drumbeat of organized protest to elevate local issues onto the national stage.
“We are proud to have played a small role in capturing and amplifying that in The Takeaway episode,” Warren said.
This outside strategy is necessary, but not sufficient, to create a future that works for us all. Community Change flexed its inside power on July 12 for a joint event with Urban Institute. A Community Forum: How the American Rescue Plan is Helping Advance Equity built off of the findings of the Biden Administration’s May 2022 analysis of the first year of ARP implementation. The event featured speakers and attendees who have been committed to addressing the inequities exposed by the pandemic in holistic and creative ways, including representatives from national ally organizations, the Biden-Harris Administration, local government, and members of Congress. Most importantly, it centered grassroots partners, who provided context and dynamism to the White House’s findings and highlighted the essential role of community based organizations in the implementation of federal programs and policies.
“We need to tell the stories of the humans whose lives have been transformed because of these investments. And if we can not tell this story, Americans will not know that government can work for us.” said Prentiss Haney of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.
Haney, Clarissa Doutherd of Parent Voices Oakland, and Cate Blackford of Maine People’s Alliance each participated in panels where they focused on the critical role of grassroots groups in demanding an equity imperative across communities as the processes and programs funded by federal ARP dollars took shape.
Each of these groups was laying the groundwork for transformative change long before ARP funds became available. To Haney, strides made in his community of Franklin County, Ohio were “Not just about the resources that came in, but the steps that were taken beforehand.”
Due in no small part to years of organizing by the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, Franklin County deployed $23 million in ARP funding for the Franklin County RISE Program designed to support parents and providers struggling to make ends meet. Likewise in Maine, Cate Blackford lifted up organizing by Maine People’s Alliance as key to that state’s success in securing $20 million for climate-conscious affordable housing.
According to Blackford, “If we didn’t have this ongoing conversation that had already begun, it would have been much harder to organize for using ARPA funds to fund the permanent work.”
Other partners from the movement, including Ponsella Hardaway of MOSES and Reverend James Woodley of MORE Justice, challenged speakers with difficult questions focused on the work yet to be done to ensure ARP dollars are leveraged to secure sustainable investments and promote co-governance. Based on her experience organizing around tenants’ rights and other issues in Detroit, Hardaway reminded participants of the need for “strategies that have a longer horizon” amid competing and constantly shifting funding priorities.
Community Change staff were the critical connective tissue between community partners and national decision makers at Tuesday’s event. We leveraged our inside power to ensure those doing the work are not only visible to policymakers, administration officials, the think tank crowd, and other Washington decision-makers, but actively in conversation with them. Critically, we also wanted to ensure that partners’ efforts are credited with the transformative impact the Rescue Plan is generating in communities around the country. This is central to our charge as an organization committed to amplifying the voices of those most directly impacted by injustice.
Amid the manifold crises we continue to face, the future remains unclear. While we’re winning important things to make life more affordable, like preserving healthcare access, lowering drug prescription costs, lowering energy costs, and making corporations pay what they owe – in a reconciliation deal many thought was dead – we know there is so much more work ahead to push all our priorities over the finish line.
One thing we can say with certainty is that the work ahead of us will require Community Change and our partners to continue to pursue a thoughtful inside-outside strategy–one that both engages with and challenges those in power and exerts pressure via direct action to ensure those same folks remain answerable and accountable to the field.