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Change We All Believe In

Progressive activists, leaders gather in Denver for convention kick-off event

BY Adam Doster

'Democrats still face a schism between who it goes to bat for -- money or people,' said Sirota.

DENVER – On the day before the official opening of the 45th Democratic National Convention, the “who’s who” of political and media elites gathered to prepare for the glitz and glamour of the week long proceedings. They were met by hundreds of protesters critical of the Democratic platform who snarled traffic for hours. And somewhere in between, an estimated 500 conventioneers and local citizens convened at The Big Tent- the convention’s activist hub – to participate in “Live From Main Street,” a town hall where progressive leaders and an energetic crowd debated the important interplay between activism and party politics.

Hosted by GritTV’s Laura Flanders and produced by The Media Consortium – a network of progressive media outlets – Live From Main Street Denver–“So You Say You Want Change? The Opportunities and Challenges Ahead”– was the third in a series of five town hall meetings across the country in five months. In this installment, provided as a live, streaming webcast, Flanders interviewed a diverse set of progressive change-makers to discuss the nuts and bolts of harnessing electoral energy into tangible change – and how much of it is really happening (or possible) this election cycle. In front of a packed house, opinions varied about the efficacy of the Democratic Party in achieving progressive goals, but all agreed that grassroots pressure and accountability is they key component in realizing those ends.

“Barack Obama is a phenomenal candidate, but Barack Obama didn’t make this progressive movement,” said Van Jones, founder and president of Green For All. “The pro-democracy movement made him.” And in the policy world, Jones noted that legislators are already implementing progressive ideas long derided by conservatives as “pie-in-the-sky” solutions, such as sustainable alternatives to oil consumption.

Despite these accomplishments, panelists asserted that is there is still room for growth. Founder and Director of Colorado’s Alternative Radio David Barsamian challenged progressive activists to push Democratic Party leaders to enact a more humane foreign policy, one that focuses the nation’s resources on diplomacy and development instead of throwing them “down the shoot into Pentagon crapholes.”

President and Co-Founder of the Center for the Advancement of Women Faye Wattleton shared Barsamian’s sentiments, commenting that the recently released party platform contained few explicit references to women’s rights. “Fifty-seven percent of Democrats are women,” she said, “and our presence needs to be more dominant.”

The town hall also focused on the issues within the Rocky Mountain region. Of course, Denver hosting the national convention is no accident. In a region that boasts a rich history of conservation, social tolerance, and worker’s rights, Democrats have gained strength using an approach that Lt. Col. Jay Fawcett called “pioneer pragmatism.” Fawcett, founder of Colorado’s Western Strategies Center and a former congressional candidate, says Coloradoans in historically conservative districts aren’t interested in either dogmatic views on hot-button social issues or the fear-based campaigns conservatives like Karl Rove have perfected to drum up right-wing support. Instead, they want legislators to discuss policy issues substantively, work across the aisle when the opportunity presents itself, and pass bills that make a difference in people’s lives.

Panelist Andre Banks praised Fawcett for his emphasis on hope and consensus-building, but the Deputy Director of the online citizens’ lobby Color of Change warned against the common tendency progressives have to ignore issues of racial justice, especially in a party as ideologically and socioeconomically diverse as the Democrats. “If we don’t put [racial justice] at the center,” he said, “we wont get to the end points we want to see.”

Bestselling author and In These Times Senior Editor David Sirota reminded his fellow panelists that pioneer pragmatism and racial justice are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the best way to appeal to voters of all stripes is by reversing the 30-year class war that’s pitted ordinary people against Big Business and the lawmakers who do its bidding – Democrats included. “Democrats still face a schism between who it goes to bat for – money or people,” said Sirota. “If we’re going to address globalization and wages, immigration … and educational equality, we need a party willing to be the people party.”

Congresswoman Donna Edwards, who closed out the event, is a card-carrying member of the people’s party. Elected in a June special election after ousting 15-year incumbent Al Wynn in the Democratic primary, the charismatic Edwards was once skeptical of the work done on Capitol Hill. Now, she thinks it’s crucial for progressives to stand strong in the halls of Congress and push the nation’s agenda leftward. Karren Pope-Onwuke agrees. A lawyer, community activist, and DNC delegate from Edwards’ district, Pope-Onwuke worked for three years with church ladies and young political rookies to elect Edwards, a move she told the audience will have a lasting impact in Washington. “We are people who have struggled and survived and decided we want to make a difference on the inside,” she said, “and I think we can do that.”

Will the glacial pace legislation often takes in Washington discourage the two women from Prince George’s County? Not likely. Edwards knew the risks when she accepted the job and she intends to plug away at issues important to her constituents, like health care and foreign policy reform. Both also reiterated the importance of community involvement in pushing legislators to stand firm out positions on which they might otherwise compromise.

Before voters go to the polls in November, LFMS will host two more forums–in September, LFMS will visit Columbus, OH to discuss voting rights and one month later, the program will convene an all-women panel on national security in Seattle, Wash.

[Editor’s note: In These Times is a member of The Media Consortium – a network of 45 of the best independent journalism organizations in the country. To find out more about Live From Main Street, visit www.livefrommainstreet.org.]

Adam Doster, a contributing editor at In These Times, is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former reporter-blogger for Progress Illinois.

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