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We Are Called to Greatness

18 Nov

Last night I was honored to receive an “Innovator Award” from Outfront Minnesota, the principal civil rights organization for LGBTQ people in our state.  Writing a speech in the aftermath of last week’s election was challenging.  Here is what I came up with.

I want to thank Outfront Minnesota for this incredible honor and thank all of you here tonight celebrating the work of this wonderful organization. I also want to thank the community of activists, the movement that I belong to here in Minnesota–community, faith and labor–and especially to the members of SEIU local 26, the janitors, security officers, window cleaners and, as of just this week, airport service workers, who have given me the honor of allowing me to be the leader of that union for the past 12 years. I also, of course, want to thank my partner of twenty years, John Stiles, who could not be here with us tonight because he had a longstanding, planned trip that he left for last Wednesday morning.

You can imagine that when he planned this trip many months ago, we had no idea that early Wednesday morning would feel like the coming of the apocalypse. I had been asleep maybe just an hour when I was jolted awake with a panic attack like nothing I had experienced before. I literally felt like I could not breathe: the only words I could sob to John were, “please don’t go, please don’t go.” I felt at that moment that my world was literally collapsing and I could not bear the thought of being without him for two weeks. I was able to eventually calm down and John made it out of the country without me making too much of a scene; but that feeling of lack of oxygen, that feeling of breathlessness, stayed with me for days after.

As I tried to work my way out of this desperation, I was reminded a lesson from Tibetan Buddhism that has helped me get through difficult moments in my work.  It is a meditation called tonglen: as you focus on your breath, you first envision yourself breathing in darkness and breathing out light. Then you envision yourself breathing in pain, breathing in the pain of others, and breathing out light. Inhale pain, exhale light. Breathe in pain, breathe out light.

The people in this room who work for social justice know that our work is hard: we see so much pain in the world, and we cannot help but breathe it in. We also encounter, create and breath out moments of joy. When we help a victim of a hate crime rebuild, when we win a higher minimum wage, when we win a union contract, these things add joy to people’s lives. This meditation has helped me out of dark moments.

A few years ago, in a particularly dark moment, I was feeling sorry for myself and at that moment, I thought, there is so much I love about the work that I do but so much that is so hard. What I wished for at that moment was that I could experience more of the joy and less of the pain. And what I learned through tonglen is that when we do the work of social justice, we cannot wish for work with less pain and more joy. The work of social justice is precisely to breathe in pain and emit light. That is the work.  It is both.

***

In 2011, I had the great honor of representing SEIU at the Congress of SATAWU, the South African Transit Workers Union. The South African labor movement was a crucial part of the struggle to end apartheid, and international labor solidarity was also key. Witnessing this congress was a transformative experience. While there, I also visited the apartheid museum and went to Soweto. The home Nelson Mandela returned to after being jailed for 27 years by the apartheid regime is now a museum in that township.

Our tour guide, an older woman, told us about the famous Soweto uprising. I asked her if she had been there during the rebellion and immediately realized it was a dumb question. “Oh yes,” she said, as she pointed to a bullet scar on her shin.

I’ve been thinking about that trip to South Africa a lot this past week.  When Mandela was finally released from his twenty-seven years of imprisonment, he was likely the only person in the country who had the moral authority to accomplish what he did, to lead that country to a peaceful transition of power. He led South Africa to reconciliation and rejected the civil strife that could have become civil war. At that moment, Nelson Mandela was called to greatness in ways that I could never imagine being called myself.

This week I have thought a lot about Mandela and about my tour guide in Soweto. I’ve been thinking of them because I have often said that organizing is a vocation of optimists, necessarily so. But in the last week, I confess that it has been existentially difficult to find the optimism, to find the joy, even to find my breath.

I cannot stand here tonight and paint a bright picture of the future for you. We will soon face challenges we have never seen before. But I can tell you is that in the face of the challenges that are to come, we are called to greatness.

When immigrants, terrified that the country has elected a man who won by demonizing them, are faced with the the choice to live their lives, even if in the shadows, boldly and with joy, we are called to greatness.

When citizens are faced with the choice of sitting idly by or providing sanctuary if the president-elect keeps his promise to immediately deport 2-3 million people, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of silence or creating an underground railroad for women who want to control their own bodies and destiny when the president-elect takes steps to ban abortion under all circumstances, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of doing nothing or insisting our local elected officials resist implementing nationwide stop and frisk, we are called to greatness.

When our Muslim brothers and sisters are faced with the prospect of being put on a registry, and when the rest of us are faced with the choice of letting that happen or fighting back, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of looking away or putting our bodies between our transgender loved ones and their oppressors when their oppressors make them even more a target as they choose to live and love as their true selves, we are called to greatness.

When we are faced with the choice of continuing to stay divided or uniting non-union and union workers to build power when corporations and the elite who put this president-elect into office go after workers and the organizations they build, we are called to greatness.

And because we are called to greatness, we will love each other fiercely, call out our enemies and call in our friends, creating a community of love and kindness and accountability and justice

Because we are called to greatness, we will breathe in pain.  We will breathe in pain.  We will breathe in pain.

And we will breathe out light.

Because we are called to greatness.

“Some Democrats” Suck – Or Maybe Not

9 May

This week Hillary Clinton took a surprisingly bold stance on immigration, one that goes further than President Obama and that both reporters and partisans have acknowledged put Republicans in a box.

Sorry Marco, you can't backtrack your way back to supporting immigration reform.

“Sorry Marco, you can’t backtrack your way back to supporting immigration reform”

How do we know it put Republicans in a box?  Because the response from the other side has been, for the most part, crickets.

This morning The Hill covered the issue, also acknowledging the corner into which Clinton had painted Republicans, but with a caveat:

Hillary Clinton has thrilled immigration activists with her embrace of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

It’s also thrilled Democrats, who think Clinton has taken a smart political step to solidifying support among Hispanics for their party in next year’s presidential election.
They argue the GOP’s restrained response to Clinton shows Republicans are worried about the issue, particularly given the nation’s rising Hispanic population.

“It’s definitely a very aggressive approach in attempting to court the Hispanic vote,” said Mercedes Viana Schlapp, who served as a Spanish-language spokesperson for President George W. Bush.

In part because they have backed immigration reform in the past, Republicans hope former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) could make inroads with Hispanics. But even some GOP critics of Clinton such as Schlapp acknowledge that Clinton may have made the party’s task more difficult.

So what’s The Hill‘s caveat? “Some Democrats privately fear Clinton may have promised too much,” they tell us.  Now we’re used to DC reporters allowing politicos to comment anonymously.  But, guess what? — they don’t even have anonymous sources for this one.

Go read the whole article.  They state as fact that “some democrats privately fear” but don’t even bother to tell us who these people might be or where this might have been heard.  Maybe some are saying it — they just don’t give us any actual evidence this is the case.

Earlier today, I committed a Twitter sin — I forwarded the above article before reading it, reacting to the headline, which used that “Democrats privately fearing” line that no one said.  My take: “Screw those Democrats.”

But it turns out The Hill may be making those Democrats up.

Now, if they looked hard enough I imagine the journal could dig up a weak-kneed Democrat to say something along those lines.  Or maybe, just maybe, this actually just was the correct political move for Clinton and for the Democratic Party.  Maybe that’s why the Republicans the story did quote pretty much said so.

The reality is that the politics of immigration have changed dramatically in the past few election cycles.  For many Latino voters–even those who do not list immigration reform as their top issue–nonetheless see the issue as a litmus test for the question “Does this politician like us?” Pollster Latino Decisions calls immigration a “gateway issue” for Latino voters.

And with Latinos in 2016 poised to be an even greater share of the electorate that in the past two cycles voted upwards of 70% for Obama — Republicans are right to be quaking in their boots.

Maybe The Hill couldn’t find a Democrat to actually say those words to them is a sign that the mainstream of the Democratic Party is finally getting that.

This Latino can dream. 

Through Pain, Towards Joy: Thoughts on the President’s Immigration Announcement

20 Nov

I wrote this recently as a reflection of a difficult period in my career as a union leader and organizer. I remembered it today as I watched news coverage of President Obama’s announcement tonight (Thursday) that he will take executive action to provide temporary relief for millions of immigrants living in the US but in the shadows. It weaves the very personal with a story about organizing work, and it feels incomplete, but I thought I’d post this today as a personal reflection on this moment. The president’s announcement is only a partial victory; we cannot fully celebrate until our laws are actually fixed. We must go beyond temporary fixes. This does, however, seem like a good moment to reflect on the pain we have been living and on the work ahead we have to create a future of joy.

This vacation was supposed to be a break from stress. It was on the tail end of a short sabbatical from work, and the hot sun on this beautiful beach in Puerto Morelos, 30 minutes south of Cancun, was supposed to be a reprieve. But no sooner had I put on shorts and gone out onto the sand, I noticed the spot on my foot and I start to panic. I know what that is. And it’s not the first one so I definitely know what that is. I tell myself not to freak out, that after a week of sunning I’ll see if it goes away. And I actually did manage to forget it. But on Friday of that week, when I was admiring my tan brown body –I’m Puerto Rican, I get very dark in the sun—and there is that one spot, as discolored and white as it had been before, now standing out even more from my tanned skin.

I know what this is and a few days later my doctor in Minnesota confirms it. He took one look at the spot on the foot, said “it’s vitiligo.” My eyes well up. “Oh,” I say. “Were you worried about that?” and I say yes as a tear falls. He gives me a referral to a dermatologist and doesn’t say another word. As angry as I was at my hip, gay Uptown doctor and his utter lack of bedside manner, looking back I kind of understand why he didn’t think it was the big deal I did. Vitiligo is Michael Jackson’s disease. No one ever believed he had one, they thought he was just lightening his skin to be white, but he actually suffered from this autoimmune condition where your skin gradually loses its pigment. The darker your skin the more noticeable it is because of the contrast. Vitiligo is not deadly. It’s not a symptom of anything and it doesn’t cause anything. It doesn’t hurt, unless you count vanity.

I read everything I could about vitiligo and found a dermatologist who specializes in its treatment. There’s no real cure, although there are some effective treatments. I learned that, although they don’t know what causes it, for people who get it later in life it often comes after a period of extreme stress. That I knew about.

 

I am the president of a union of close to 6,000 over 4200 of them janitors. The members of the union come from all over the world – the industry has always been sort of an Ellis Island of occupations. Our members clean all of the downtown buildings, the skyways, the airport and commercial office buildings across the metro area. I had taken that brief sabbatical from work because the previous year and a half had been brutal. Around 4,000 janitors are members of the union and on June 6, 2009, hundreds of janitors and their families were packed into our union hall for a big meeting. Our member meetings are not usually that well attended, but just two days before we had gotten word that our largest employer was being audited by Immigrations Customs Enforcement.

What happens during one of these audits is ICE collects from an employer all of the documents that employees fill out when they’re first hired. We got word that 1,256 janitors were on a “Notice of Suspect Documents” and that every Monday for six weeks 200 would be notified they were on the list and told they had until Thursday to present new documentation or be fired immediately. No due process, no time to correct honest mistakes – they didn’t even tell people what was allegedly wrong with the documentation they did present, sometime 10 to 12 years prior, when they first applied for the job.

1256 people on a list. This was the Obama administration’s supposedly softer, gentler version of immigration enforcement. They did away with the swat team raids of the Bush era and replaced them with these silent, desktop raids. We were all, of course, panicked. What we fought for when we worked to elect president Obama was quick immigration reform. We did not get that, but we did get access. Within a week I was in a meeting in Washington DC with the Chief of Staff of ICE, and for the next month I shuttled back and forth, was on constant phone calls, begging. We need more time. You can’t expect people in three days to be able to figure out what is wrong and fix it. What if people are mistakenly on the list? When we finally got the complete list it didn’t take long to find US citizens, residents on the list. But even if someone on the list was not authorized to work, if they are indeed undocumented, can they at least be given more than 48 hours to prepare?

Hundreds turned out to meetings we’d have where we had an army of volunteer attorneys trying to help find people who might have legal recourse to a work visa. At those meetings, members agreed and understood that until we fix our insane, broken immigration laws that all we could do was buy time. We knew that people who had non-union jobs in situations like this got fired on the spot. And every day of work was eight more hours on a paycheck. We got the company to back off their initial plan of 200 letters going out a week while I continued to try to get DC to say definitively they would give us more time. For six weeks we were in limbo. DC would tell us one thing, local ICE would say something different to the employer.

Six weeks the uncertainty lasted. I got a phone call from the Chief of Staff of ICE. It was brief. She asked how much time we needed. I said 90 days. She hung up. Not long after, I got a call from our employer.  They confirmed ICE had finally loosed their grip and provided the time extension.

Right after that call we scheduled another meeting attended by hundreds. I was so happy, we had done it. I had done it. I did what no one said could be done—I got us more time. At this meeting, I think I even had a smile on my face as I gave everyone the good news. But as soon as the words came out of my mouth I realized the mistake I had made. You fucking idiot. You self-involved prick. You. Fucking. Idiot. You come in here declaring we’ve staved off the execution but here is your date certain –and you expect people would cheer? That they’d be happy? Yes, everyone said they understood that until our laws are fixed all we could hope for was borrowed time. But now, you’ve given them a date. You have 90 days. In 90 days you will be fired. And you come in here with a fucking smile?

We thought – I thought – that if we had had a big public fight with the Obama administration about this raid that we would essentially be admitting that many of our members were not authorized to work and that that would accelerate the process of firing people. And so we chose silence. Members agreed, but that’s where I led. And I was wrong. Our members felt betrayed by everyone – their employer, who of course knew, the government, who also knew, and the union, who didn’t stand up to all of this hypocrisy, even if it meant people getting fired immediately. I didn’t stand up and publicly say. This is fucking wrong. This union that had had big, public campaigns to win good contracts and affordable healthcare was silent. We were invisible. And it has eaten at me ever since.

I don’t know that I can ever forgive myself for that mistake. Yes, we bought more time. And in those 90 days a couple dozen people were able to be helped by lawyers and got their papers fixed. Others at least had time to prepare. When we surveyed members, 600 said their home was in foreclosure or they feared it would be soon.   During those 90 days and after, rumors flew around. We heard some were saying that in my shuttling back and forth to DC I had actually sold everyone out. As much as those rumors still pierce my heart like a bullet, the frustration they express had an essential truth at its core. Of all the characters involved in this drama – the employer, ICE, President Obama, the union—we, the union, we are the only entity whose charge, whose reason for being, is empowering and protecting workers. And we were powerless to do anything. That we should get disproportionate blame – it may not be correct, but it is understandable.

This was not the first desktop raid we suffered. A year later, 250 more members lost the jobs. Then they started going after smaller companies. I started joking with my friends about the stress and my vitiligo, These mother fuckers are not going to stop until I am completely white.

There is a lot I love about my job. When you work in social justice and you have a victory, you take part in adding joy into the world. It’s now five years later and the raids have stopped, or paused. We’re still waiting for DC to fix our immigration laws. The vitiligo is still around, though it has not spread, and I know that the stress that I feel doing this work is nothing compared to the stress experienced by undocumented workers living in the shadows every day.

When I am in a bad place about work, I try to remember all of the joyful moments in organizing. When we work together and win healthcare and wage increases, when we fight a Big Bank and save someone’s home from foreclosure. There are many. And then I think, if only the work was more about all of those moments of joy and not all of this pain, or at least a lot less of it. I had a prolonged moment of funk centered around these thoughts.

I came out of that mental cloud reading the work of a Tibetan Buddhist, Yongey Minghur Rimpoche, author of The Joy of Living. I was especially drawn to a meditation on compassion where you visualize yourself on your in breath, taking in pain, suffering, all of the pain and suffering in the world, and on the out breath you emit life. Breathe in, pain. Emit light. Pain. Light.

I realized that in this kind of work you can’t wish for just one side of that. “If only I didn’t have to deal with all this…” The work is both. Breathe in Pain. Emit Light. And I try to remember this, especially at times when it feels just too hard to breathe.

*****

Tonight, the President will be announcing temporary relief for millions of people. I’ve been going through my head today the names and faces of former member who I know will be helped by this action, and it is overwhelming. I’m looking up old phone numbers, calling people up to invite them to a party we will be having to watch the president’s speech in Nevada where he will detail the impact of the relief the administration will provide. Yes, the Right Wing is already fighting back, talking retaliation and outrage that the President is doing the same thing that Presidents Bush and Reagan did before him.

But, tonight and tomorrow, all that stuff is just noise. We are celebrating the lessons learned of the past. We will not lead from silence any longer. We are celebrating the promise of the future. This fight is not over until we have not just temporary relief but have fixed our unjust laws. We are celebrating the lives of men, women and children who have worked through years of pain and fear to seek what all of us seek–because we all deserve to live lives of joy.

 

Minneapolis School Board Race. Some Thoughts Before You Vote.

3 Nov

In Minneapolis this year, the race for the at-large school board seats has become one of the nastiest and divisive elections in recent memory. Trying to carve not even a middle path in this fight between the union and reformers, let alone a conversation, seems impossible, especially during the heightened tensions of an election. I’ll have a much longer post-mortem after election that will go into detail my frustrations with certain segments of both the reform and union crowds, but here I’ll just stick to my pre-election day thoughts that I hope some Minneapolis voters will find useful.

Let me begin by acknowledging that everyone running is seeking what is essentially a volunteer job, paying around ten thousand dollars a year (insane when you consider they manage a budget of almost 800 million dollars). It is also a thankless job with a ton of work, very little if any staff support, and the job description consists of trying to chart a way forward for kids in the midst of lots of adults yelling at you that you are not doing your job right. Kudos to all willing to put up with the current electoral vitriol they are sustaining only to win and accept that job.

Iris Strib Editorial EndorsementAnyone who knows me knows I am not unbiased in this race. Iris Altamirano is not only SEIU-endorsed, she is a good friend and someone who worked as political director and internal organizing lead at Local 26. She has been on strike lines, is extremely smart, and her story is the one of so many Minneapolis Public Schools students. There are three viable campaigns for two at-large spots: Altamirano, Don Samuels, and Rebecca Gagnon. Ira Jourdain is also vying for a spot, but his campaign has been lackluster, though he has a base of support in the hardcore left of the teachers’ union. Samuels is the darling of education reformers and Gagnon the darling of the mainstream of labor and the teachers’ union. Altamirano’s is the only campaign that has actively sought to build a conversation across groups and differences of opinion. That is what we need in a new school board – as she says, a new conversation, led by people willing to challenge all sides to do better and focus on kids.

Minneapolis kids are in crisis, especially kids of color. We have the greatest racial disparities in outcomes in the entire United States. Let that sink in. Worse than Mississippi, worse than Alabama, worse than Texas, where Iris Altamirano grew up.

Iris knows the plight of Minneapolis kids; she too was expected not to succeed. She is the proud daughter of a janitor who worked at her high school. When the superintendent of that school found out that Iris had been accepted to Cornell University, he did not celebrate her as the first student of any race to be accepted to an Ivy League from his district. No, he pulled her mother aside in the hall she cleaned every day and asked her, “Why your daughter?” Iris’s mom replied in her accented English, “Why not my daughter?” Iris and her mom cracked the code. They figured out a way for her to be successful in a system stacked against her. She has since then dedicated her life to changing that system. She will be the first Latina elected to the School Board and the only member with a direct connection to the largest community of immigrants in the city.

If Samuels and Gagnon get elected together, the school board will be bitterly divided, polarized—and the polarized debate has helped no one, especially kids. (More on that in the post-mortem).

DFL-endorsed Altamirano came in a strong third in the primary, but there are only two spots open on the board, and she is clearly the underdog. She is up against former City Council Member Samuels, who last year ran for mayor and won the highest number of second third choice votes and support across the city. He had a network of donors ready to go and the passionate support of some key stakeholders, including former Mayor Rybak. As soon as he announced, electing Samuels became the top priority of the “reform” crowd.

Then you have the incumbent, Gagnon, for whom the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation re-wrote the rules of endorsement in order to support her, choosing for the first time not to screen candidates and instead support the “DFL ticket.” That meant labor could put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the DFL while she could say she is not beholden to labor. (That is literally why it happened; it’s how she wanted it). It is abundantly clear that, if the rules of the game are re-written to fit one person, that person is your priority. Having been a strong supporter of labor, especially the teachers, on the board, re-electing Gagnon is the top priority of most the “union” crowd.

Coming out of the gate, Altamirano was neither group’s top priority. Unlike Gagnon, she is not wealthy enough to feed her campaign with thousands of dollars. Unlike Samuels, she is not known citywide. Although she comes out of the labor movement, organized strike lines and helped thousands of workers in the Twin Cities make their jobs better, no one has rewritten any rules to support her. The DFL endorsement was valuable; that and Altamirano’s tireless work got her a decent close third in the primary. Third place doesn’t get you on the school board.

Post-primary Altamirano continued a strategy of talking to everyone and began gaining their support. Reformers who donated to her did not give in as high quantities as they did to Samuels, and although she does not agree with them on all issues, they have seen in her someone who will at least listen and talk. Likewise, teachers and other union folks have invested in her campaign. She has run on her organizing experience, even when many in labor have attacked her viciously (and I do mean viciously) simply because she does not believe that being pro-labor means you have to close off communication with everyone else and be open to ideas wherever they come from.

Her work to engage people across groups has garnered her high praise. Just today, the 2014 Educator of the Year, Tom Rademacher, endorsed Iris, writing: “The conversation needs to change. I respect Iris Altamirano for her willingness to talk to everyone working to make schools better. Iris seems to understand that our biggest problems need allies more than they need enemies, and has refused to take the easy way out of picking a side in an argument and scoring easy points attacking others. Again and again, she has refocused the conversation through this campaign on finding solutions and staying centered on our students. She has my vote for Minneapolis School Board.”

In a surprise to the establishment, newcomer Altamirano also received the endorsement of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Are there also people supporting her candidacy financially—principally through independent expenditures that she legally has no control over—who progressives disagree with on a whole host of issues? Absolutely. Why should you support her anyway? Because, in a world where money flows into elections to absurd degrees, Altamirano has been upfront about the fact that she is talking to everyone. If any of her critics who also cannot afford to self-finance their campaigns would care to run for office in the current campaign finance climate, I look forward to watch their learning curve.

In sum, whoever of the other two frontrunners you like, Samuels or Gagnon, Altamirano should be your other choice. If you want someone who will lead a new conversation, vote for Iris. If you are passionate about Rebecca Gagnon, you should also support Iris. If you are passionate for Don Samuels, you should also support Iris.

This race has been hard on everyone involved. Both the reform and the union side have engaged in tactics I find deplorable (more on that later). If the each group’s work gets Gagnon and Samuels elected, each will have elected the candidate they really wanted and the opponent each deserves. Minneapolis will have the most divided and divisive school board in memory, and we will have a much more difficult time healing from this election and focusing on kids.

Children at the Border: This is what Progressive Leadership Looks Like

23 Jul

The situation at the border is horrific. Thousands of unaccompanied minors are arriving to the United States and turning themselves in to Border patrol agents. I have no doubt that if these images we’re seeing from the border came from an other place in the world, we’d be calling it what it is, a refugee crisis. The Beltway reaction has been largely political and cowardly. Anti-immigrant politicians have tried to seize the opportunity to reframe the immigration debate around border security after losing so much ground since the 2012 elections, when the Latino vote walloped the GOP for being anti-immigrant and obstructionist on the question of immigration reform.

The debate has opened rifts in the GOP, exposing e party’s problem with expanding its base. Discussing the issue, Bill Kristol said to Latina Republican Ana Navarro, “You’re not as Republican as me” (psst, Ana… He means you’re brown).

But Democrats haven’t fared much better. The president quickly called for quick processing and deportation of minors. As did Secretary Clinton, who heartlessly said the children “should be sent back.”
20140723-064806-24486881.jpg

The White House played dirty with Maryland Governor O’Malley when he stated, “It is contrary to everything we stand for to try to summarily send children back to death.” They leaked a conversation the governor had with White House senior adviser Cecilia Muñoz, suggesting that the a Governor had hypocritically told them he didn’t want the border children sent to Maryland. If you read the Politico article this story was leaked to, however, it is clear that is not at all what the governor said. He was advising them not to send children to a specific facility in Maryland, an area that is extremely conservative and where children are likely to receive the same harassing welcome they’ve seen in some parts of Texas and California. Days after the call with Muñoz, that facility was hilariously sprayed with misspelled graffiti: “No illeagels here. No undocumented Democrats.”

20140723-070715-25635169.jpg

O’Malley 1, White House 0.

The other bright light in all of this: Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts. Announcing that his state would welcome a group of unaccompanied minors and fighting back tears, he said, “My faith teaches me that if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him but rather love him as yourself.” See his entire emotional speech at Mother Jones.

What Patrick and O’Malley are showing is leadership. I’ve heard that some in DC have seen polling showing that the border security frame is making American reactions to the crisis less than humanitarian. Leadership means looking at polls like these, understanding what’s right and what’s wrong about an issue, and deciding to do your best to change that popular opinion. By leading.

Interview with Chipsterlife

13 Jul
Chipsterlife

Chipsterlife

Chipsterlife – which, by the way, is the best name for a Latino podcast, ever – interviewed me this week. Filiberto is another recovering academic doing social justice work, and his podcast is pretty cool. You can listen to the podcast here.  His synopsis:

Based in Minneapolis, SEIU Local 26 under the leadership of Javier Morillo-Alicea has been at the center of the fight to defend low wage workers against increasing wage disparities in our economy and society. Most recently Mr. Morillo-Alicea was arrested at the Minneapolis Airport,

“13 people, including leaders in the disability rights community, community activists, and SEIU Local 26 President Javier Morillo-Alicea were arrested today at the Minneapolis-St. Paul  (MSP) International Airport in an act of peaceful civil disobedience. The arrestees were highlighting the poor conditions facing passengers with disabilities and elderly travelers, a consequence of the poverty wages and lack of resources provided to the workers sub-contracted by Delta Airlines to provide wheelchair and electric cart service.”
http://seiumn.org/2014/06/16/disability-rights-advocates-among-13-arrested-in-civil-disobedience-at-msp-airport/

Our conversation was a wide ranging one discussing Mr. Morillo-Alicea’s vision for change and the relationship between SEIU and low wage worker center CTUL and the role in general of worker centers in the fight for a better economy. We also discuss his flooded office, as Mr Morillo Alicea describes in his own words, “The river has flooded into the basement at Local 26. Bring your bathing suits everyone!”


He also participates in a podcast, “Wrong About Everything is a fun, irreverent and bipartisan podcast focused on Minnesota politics. “

 

Representative Kahn Apologizes; now let’s build OUR community

20 Feb

Disclaimer: I wear several hats in the political world.  While I am president of a local union, I also do occasional political commentary from a progressive, Democratic perspective. I am, as well, a member of the Democratic National Committee and, therefore, an officer of the Minnesota DFL.  My opinion here is – just that – my opinion.  It is not a political statement about the race for Minnesota House seat 60B in that it is not an endorsement of a candidate. Neither SEIU nor I individually have endorsed in the race up to this point.

I. Representative Kahn does the right thing

Two days after she making an extremely inappropriate comment to press minimizing the violence that occurred at Cedar-Riverside on February 4, and one day after doubling down on that remark, State Representative Phyllis Kahn has done the right thing and apologized.  And it was not one of those “I’m sorry if you were offended” non-apologies.  Kahn wrote on her “Re-Elect Phyllis Kahn” Facebook page:

As I said last night at the caucus, I oppose violence in any form. It has no place in our democratic process. I apologize for the statement I made minimizing violence. That was not my intent when I spoke and it certainly never has been my belief. Violence of any type is entirely unacceptable. Our caucus on Tuesday night was a peaceful, positive step- and one that I hope will guide us throughout this process.

Representative Phyllis Kahn

Representative Phyllis Kahn

Thank you, Representative Kahn for doing the right thing and apologizing for an extremely offensive statement.

When I started writing this post it was titled “Representative Kahn Must Apologize or Resign.” Like many others, I was distressed when on Tuesday of this week MinnPost published an article quoting Representative Phyllis  Kahn as saying:

Kahn dismissed Omar’s injuries, acknowledging that she didn’t know whether Omar had been sent to the hospital and had the forms to prove a concussion. “I participated in the process when it was much more unfriendly to women than that,” Kahn said, describing a time she said she got the equivalent of a death threat. “Once that has happened, what’s a punch?”

Kahn was referring, of course, to the events of February 4, when the Cedar-Riverside caucus convened at the Brian Coyle Center was shut down when violence broke out. Ilhan Omar, a DFL activist, vice-chair of Senate District 60 and aide to City Council member Andrew Johnson was beaten badly enough that she was taken to a hospital, where she was treated for a concussion, lacerations to the face, and a sprained neck. “What’s a Punch?” was an astounding thing to say, and DFL and social media circles were buzzing with horror.

Seemingly refusing to see Omar as anything but a political enemy, Kahn showed callous disrespect for someone who was injured, and in the process seemed to be condoning or even encouraging political violence and violence against a woman. When the MinnPost article was published, February 18, I assumed we would hear a flood of denunciations from public figures demanding  that the Representative apologize. When Wednesday past without that happening, that evening I posted on Facebook:

A full day has gone by since a DFL elected official minimized violence against a woman with “what’s a punch?” and this is not scandalous? Would we ever stand idly by if a Republican were to say something like that? No, we would be calling on that person to apologize or resign.

Again, to be clear – I am supporting no one in the race for 6OB and SEIU has made no endorsement, but this is beyond electoral politics. Phyllis Kahn must apologize, and DFLers must demand that she do so.

The evening of the 19th, the Cedar-Riverside Caucus was re-convened and, instead of seeking reconciliation, Representative Kahn seemed to double down, miniminizing the violence even further.    MPR reported:

Kahn also questioned the extent to which Omar was injured.

“I’m just pointing out there should be some evidence, and if it’s true, then it’s true,” Kahn said.

When a reporter suggested that her remarks sounded less than conciliatory, Kahn said, “I’ll let her friends and associates be concerned about her health.”

I understand the reluctance some of Kahn’s colleagues, some of whom have told me privately they were appalled by her statements, to denounce her words publicly.  Kahn is an institution in the Minnesota House.  She has been a trailblazer for women’s rights in her long, storied career.  As a profile in Governing says:

Among the 45 laws she’s succeeded in passing are milestones such as the state’s first computer-crime law and the 1975 Clean Indoor Air Act, the nation’s first law to mandate nonsmoking sections in public places such as restaurants. But she’s best known as a champion of women’s rights issues. She won landmark victories cracking down on anti-female violence, creating gender-equity for sports funding, and establishing a woman’s right to keep her own name after marriage.

Respect for that career, however, is no excuse for silence. Some would argue that respect for her legacy is precisely what should have led her friends to intervene with the Representative.  I believe some of those colleagues did step up today, resulting in tonight’s much-appreciated and much-needed statement.

 

II.  Now can we all stop calling this a problem in the “Somali Community”?

One of the things that has been most distressing about the news coverage and commentary about the events at Cedar Riverside is the degree to which, explicitly or implicitly, people talk about this as a problem “in the Somali community.”  Can we just stop, please stop this. Just. Stop. As Carla Kjellberg writes in a hair-on-fire blogpost, “THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM WITH THE SOMALI COMMUNITY. IT IS A PROBLEM WITH OUR COMMUNITY.”

Exactly. This is our community.  Our City Community. Our Minnesota Community. Our DFL Community.

Why has this situation pained me, personally?  Because I am a member of the DFL Party. Because  I am the President of a union with hundreds of East African members, many of them deeply engaged in the political work of the union and engaged in this race. Because  I abhor political violence and I want the communities that I live and work in to be democratic, pluralistic, and welcoming to all. For all of these reasons and more, It is in my and our self-interest that we get to the bottom of what has happened so that everyone I know and love in this state  can live in peace and exercise their political voices without fear of retribution.

When even well-meaning commentary, such as former Mayor Rybak’s statement at the re-convened caucus, suggests that the first caucus reflected badly on the Somali community, we are failing to take collective responsibility, failing to call on all of us to look at ourselves.   And this focus on the “Somali community” has been politically convenient for the Rep. Kahn.  It has allowed her to absolve herself of any role in the discord, saying: “This is kind of a fight between different parts of the Somali community. I’m essentially irrelevant to it, in terms of any real part of instigating, or encouraging, or anything like that.” That is simply not good enough.  When your supporters are dropping homophobic literature against Mohamud Noor critical of his support for marriage equality – whether you want them to or not—it is your problem.  And when political violence breaks out on your behalf it is your problem and you must denounce it unequivocally. Tonight’s apology is a very good start.

It is not simply in an abstract sense of community that I say this is not just a Somali problem.  By talking about it this way, we are missing an important part of this story. In the process are also missing some important elements of this story. In her Star Tribune commentary about caucus night, Ilhan Omar writes:

“…a small group has decided that one Somali elected official is enough and now the community should sit down and be quiet. This small group is aided and abetted by influential people outside the community who do not have our best interests at heart. I have now been called an “outsider” and worse by those who attacked me.” [emphasis added]

That seems like a pretty clear line of inquiry for the media that has been writing about this story.  Who are these people?  The most obvious figure to look into is Brian Rice, the powerful lobbyist who – it is well-known—helped Abdi Warsame organize during the redistricting of Ward 6 and who was a strong backer of his city council candidacy.  What say you, investigative reporting media?

III.  No, things were not simpler when the caucuses were “composed of the Teamsters”

From the outset, Representative Kahn has had things to say about the controversy that were, at best, odd.  First, despite the fact that the disruption had meant that no delegates were selected in this heavily Somali precinct, rather than join the chorus demanding the caucus be reconvened, Kahn instead seemed to cast doubt on whether it was appropriate to do so:

According to Kahn, state law only permits postponements of caucuses for weather-related reasons. “Can you say a bad social climate is the equivalent of bad weather?” she asked.

This statement added fuel to the argument many in the community were making, that the violent disruption was precisely designed for that desired outcome – to ensure no delegates were chosen.  The best way to defend herself from that charge would have been to call herself for a reconvening of the caucus. That would have been the high road, given the wide recognition that Noor had overwhelming support there.

And then there was this unforuntate gem:

“We used to have better control when the caucuses were composed of the Teamsters,” Kahn said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning. “This was a pretty big fight.”

Some tried to suggest to me that Kahn was making a joke. Obviously, the guy calling himself a Thug in Pastels is not averse to having fun with the stereotype of union thugs.  The “Teamster” era is juxtaposed as different from Cedar-Riverside in that this one was a really big fight. If it’s a joke, it’s a really offensive one.

What was even more disturbing was the tone deafness about the racialized image conjured up by that particular turn of phrase.  You cannot get away from the fact that the Ghosts of Caucuses Past are, well, very white ghosts. This not-so-coded language has contributed to the discussion of the situation at Cedar-Riverside as a problem of the Somali community and therefore of the Somali character.  And to view this as a question of the Somali character is – there is only one way to say it— deeply racist.

(Let me be very clear about what I am and am not saying.  I am not saying Representative Kahn as a person is a racist – so please spare me recitations of her admittedly strong legislative record on civil rights.  What I am saying is that she has been irresponsibly careless with her language and, in so doing, evoked racist imagery.  I am talking about her words and her actions; that is all any of us can be judged on.)

IV. Apology Accepted. May We Learn as We Move Forward

I reached out to Ilhan Omar about Kahn’s apology.  She had this to say:

I appreciate Representative Kahn’s statement apologizing for her unfortunate and painful choice of words regarding the violence of February 4. Her comments have spurred an outcry from many leaders across Minnesota. What occurred that evening was not just painful for me but for our entire community. We can only heal when we all accept that violence has no place in our political process. I thank Rep. Kahn for making that clear with her apology tonight.

As we await the police and DFL investigations into the violence that occurred that night, I hope our community — our city, state, DFL community — absorbs and learns important lessons from these events. We must take political violence extremely seriously and denounce it quickly and without hesitation.  We must also resist the temptation to see our immigrant communities’ problems as only their concern.  New people entering the political process is a wonderful thing.  It means we cease being fractured communities. If we are going to truly become one, democratic community, when one corner of our world has a serious problem, it is our problem.