Interviews for Resistance: “We Are in a Massive Moment of Transition”

Since the election, a lot more people are interested in exploring alternatives to the way things are. A longtime organizer talks about how to seize that opportunity and bring them into the fight.

Sarah Jaffe April 27, 2017

Maria Poblet is the former executive director of Causa Justa, Just Cause. (Photo credit: Josh Warren White)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. Since elec­tion night 2016, the streets of the Unit­ed States have rung with resis­tance. Peo­ple all over the coun­try have wok­en up with the con­vic­tion that they must do some­thing to fight inequal­i­ty in all its forms. But many are won­der­ing what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talk­ing with expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fight­ing for a long time. They’ll be shar­ing their insights on what works, what does­n’t, what’s changed and what is still the same. 

"It is a time of polarization. Neither of the established parties are really going to offer anything to everyday people. It is a time for social movements to lead."

Maria Poblet: I am Maria Poblet. For 18 years, I have worked in base build­ing and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing in the Bay Area, build­ing Causa Jus­ta, Just Cause, which I am now the for­mer exec­u­tive direc­tor of. I am very proud that it is such a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly held grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion, that some­body else is going to take it over and take it to the next stage of its impact.

Sarah Jaffe: What have you been work­ing on for your last cou­ple of weeks/​months at Causa Justa?

Maria: I have been sup­port­ing the team of com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers and the inter­nal lead­er­ship in try­ing to under­stand the new polit­i­cal moment and the impact we could have. Some of what we have been work­ing on is real­ly reclaim­ing democ­ra­cy as a val­ue that comes from com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and ben­e­fits com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and ben­e­fits soci­ety as a whole.

We are one of the few spots in the coun­try that on Novem­ber 9th had some­thing to cel­e­brate, which was the vast expan­sion of ten­ant pro­tec­tions, which we won kind of against all odds in the area that is con­trolled by tech cor­po­ra­tions and their inter­ests. We won these huge pro­tec­tions for the ten­ants that are threat­ened by dis­place­ment. It is because of the long-term orga­niz­ing and the abil­i­ty that orga­niz­ing builds to lead soci­ety as a whole, which is real­ly nec­es­sary at this moment.

We have been talk­ing inter­nal­ly about that strug­gle for democ­ra­cy, even though we come from a sec­tor of soci­ety that doesn’t have that many illu­sions about how democ­ra­cy works and doesn’t work. Many of us can’t vote and have been pushed out of vot­ing and have been pushed out of par­ties that say they defend our inter­ests. We are try­ing to build a new kind of rela­tion­ship to democ­ra­cy and real­ly try­ing to defend civ­il lib­er­ties as we advance immi­grant rights, as we fight gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and dis­place­ment. As I am exit­ing, I am try­ing to fig­ure out how to sup­port the next crop of lead­ers because they are up against enor­mous challenges.

Sarah: We are in Oak­land, here in the Bay Area. The Bay Area is this com­pli­cat­ed thing — on one hand, it is the most pro­gres­sive part of the coun­try. You have got some of the first places to get the $15 an hour min­i­mum wage, real­ly impres­sive pro­tec­tions for retail work­ers, and on the oth­er hand, there is all this tech mon­ey and there is all this gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and there is sort of the kind of lib­er­al­ism that dress­es itself up very nice­ly, but is also sup­port­ing poli­cies and eco­nom­ic growth that dis­places the peo­ple who have always been here. Talk about the Bay Area and what it is like to be in this weird world.

Maria: I think we are in Detroit in the 1960s. This is a boom town. What you have in the boom town is the most pow­er­ful peo­ple, the most pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions in the world, and you also have some of what could be the most pow­er­ful move­ments if they were linked with oth­er move­ments and if they were build­ing this broad­er agen­da. That is what we are try­ing to do. When you look at Detroit, when the auto indus­try left, Detroit has suf­fered for decades with mas­sive dis­in­vest­ment, mas­sive unem­ploy­ment. But, all of that came after this peri­od of mas­sive expan­sion and growth and ven­ture cap­i­tal and this feel­ing that it was invincible.

That is where we are. We are at the top of the bub­ble. The con­tra­dic­tions are start­ing to show. These tech cor­po­ra­tions that are dri­ving dis­place­ment are hav­ing to con­tend with the anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ment that is inside their cul­ture, that is maybe against their cul­ture. They are kind of hav­ing to choose sides and what is real­ly inter­est­ing is how they relate to the grass­roots. What can we do to build a move­ment much broad­er than our base? Our base tra­di­tion­al­ly has been Black and Lati­no fam­i­lies. We were the ones at the air­port fight­ing against the Mus­lim ban in coali­tion and sol­i­dar­i­ty with peo­ple we have known 20, 30 years, but also the CEO of Google was there. It is so great that he was there. What are we going to do with that?

Sarah: That is a real­ly inter­est­ing thing because the response to the air­port protests — a lot of peo­ple were like, Oh, this is this spon­ta­neous thing.” For some peo­ple it was spon­ta­neous. For the CEO of Google being there, it was pret­ty spon­ta­neous. But, for y’all, this is what you do.

Maria: Yes. I think there is a dan­ger when you have been in com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing in grass­roots com­mu­ni­ties that have been mar­gin­al­ized for a long time to say to every­body else, Well, where have you been all this time?” That is a com­plete­ly under­stand­able emo­tion­al response, but politically…politically, it is a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty to say, These are prob­lems that you nev­er even knew were prob­lems. We have been fight­ing to resolve these prob­lems for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years. Come along. Let’s tell you what we have learned so far. You tell us what you have to con­tribute.” It is a dif­fer­ent pos­ture of lead­er­ship which our move­ments need to take on at this point. It is a time of polar­iza­tion. Nei­ther of the estab­lished par­ties are real­ly going to offer any­thing to every­day peo­ple. It is a time for social move­ments to lead.

Sarah: It has been a few months since the elec­tion and inau­gu­ra­tion, what has it been like? Have you been bring­ing in a lot of new peo­ple? Have peo­ple been show­ing up and say­ing, What can we do here? Maria, tell us what to do here?”

Maria: A lot of peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions who sort of believe that things were gen­er­al­ly work­ing turned around in this moment and said, Wait a minute. It doesn’t seem like things are work­ing and you guys have been say­ing this this whole time. So, what should I do?” It is a very inter­est­ing moment. Part of what we did in response was to, with a lot of oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, help start Bay Resis­tance which is — I think now we are 50 orga­ni­za­tions build­ing a net­work of indi­vid­u­als who aren’t part of our base. They aren’t ser­vice work­ers in SEIU. They aren’t Black and Lati­no fam­i­lies fight­ing dis­place­ment at Causa Jus­ta. They aren’t Asians fight­ing pol­lu­tion in Rich­mond that are in the Asian Pacif­ic Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work. They are peo­ple that haven’t joined orga­ni­za­tions before and they want to take action now.

We built this text loop, this mobi­liza­tion machine, turned all those peo­ple out and now we are try­ing to fig­ure out how that con­nects to long-term strat­e­gy. How do those folks start to get con­nect­ed to the strat­e­gy that has been devel­op­ing at the grass­roots and how do they influ­ence the strat­e­gy, as well? They have a dif­fer­ent posi­tion to play in the game.

And, when you think about it from a move­ment build­ing per­spec­tive, the ques­tion isn’t, Do I have a role?” The ques­tion is What role?” Most of us haven’t been trained to answer that. We have been trained to do one piece of the project and not look at the project as a whole. That is what is keep­ing us back when you think about being dri­vers of a real­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary change. It is look­ing at the whole pic­ture, which most of us haven’t been trained to do.

Sarah: We are in this moment — and this is glob­al­ly, this is not just in the U.S. — the cen­ter is col­laps­ing so now peo­ple are look­ing to the left, look­ing to peo­ple who have been doing this kind of orga­niz­ing for a long time and say­ing, What can you teach us?” But in terms of broad pol­i­tics, there is still this weird bina­ry of Democ­rats ver­sus Repub­li­cans that, in so many ways, is not even the con­ver­sa­tion we should be hav­ing. For so long, so many peo­ple have been doing their part of the thing, doing their part of the puz­zle, try­ing to main­tain some space for rad­i­cal ideas. Now there is a lot more space for those ideas, but also there are these con­stant hor­rors com­ing from Wash­ing­ton. I won­der if you have advice for peo­ple who are try­ing to expand the way they look at the world and the way they think about the world to meet this moment.

Maria: It is inter­est­ing, when it comes to that — it is both some­thing we have nev­er expe­ri­enced and some­thing soci­eties have expe­ri­enced for­ev­er. We are in a mas­sive moment of tran­si­tion. What is going to come next is a dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic sys­tem than cap­i­tal­ism. The ques­tion is Is it going to be more demo­c­ra­t­ic and offer more equi­ty or is it going to be less demo­c­ra­t­ic and more unequal?” We can’t con­trol every part of it. This isn’t like you go into a room and make a plan. That is not how his­to­ry works, but can we build forms of orga­ni­za­tion and polit­i­cal vision that real­ly dri­ve towards a more demo­c­ra­t­ic, more egal­i­tar­i­an society?

What is real­ly inter­est­ing is this moment of polar­iza­tion where every­thing feels unfa­mil­iar, that is actu­al­ly the space that we need­ed to make the argu­ments that we have been want­i­ng to make, because lim­it­ing pol­i­tics to You are either a Repub­li­can or you are a Demo­c­rat,” it miss­es the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple and the vast major­i­ty of their expe­ri­ence and cer­tain­ly their long­ing, their vision, what they want for their own fam­i­lies or their chil­dren. My kid is going to be grow­ing up in a world after [Don­ald] Trump shaped the econ­o­my. Oh man! A lot of us are think­ing about that. What are we going to do that sets the stage for who is next? When you think about young peo­ple — my kid is 2. He is not a good exam­ple right now. He is very young. But, their vision is real­ly dif­fer­ent. Their crit­i­cism of cap­i­tal­ism is much deep­er than anybody’s before.

The ques­tion is What are we for?” In the Unit­ed States, we have been real­ly good in the pro­gres­sive move­ment about list­ing very explic­it­ly every­thing that we are against and why. What are we for? That is a huge risk.

Sarah: Often peo­ple have had to say very specif­i­cal­ly what we are against because we can’t broad­ly say what we are against. You couldn’t say, No, we just are against cap­i­tal­ism.” You have to say, We are against dis­place­ment… We are against this, this…” You couldn’t say, This sys­tem is killing us.” That is where we are now.

Maria: I think what is inter­est­ing about this moment is that a lot of peo­ple are say­ing there are sys­temic prob­lems. If some­body could run for pres­i­dent and get mil­lions of votes and say, I am a social­ist” then con­di­tions are new. Con­di­tions in people’s minds and hearts and in our com­mu­ni­ties are new. How is our orga­niz­ing going to address those new conditions?

Sarah: That brings us to Left­Roots. Tell us what Left­Roots is and where it came from.

Maria: Left­Roots comes out of peo­ple doing com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, long-term com­mit­ted orga­niz­ers in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or who have been fight­ing around issues of pol­lu­tion and dis­place­ment and expul­sions in schools, issues that are vis­cer­al in people’s lives and that main­stream pro­gres­sives often didn’t care about. We are try­ing to build the capac­i­ties of that group of peo­ple for long-term strat­e­gy for real­ly trans­for­ma­tion­al change in our soci­ety. Left­Roots is kind of a capac­i­ty build­ing project, really.

In these con­di­tions, we can’t avoid the ques­tion of some strate­gic realign­ment. Every­body is in strate­gic realign­ment. There are peo­ple who had some shades of dif­fer­ence among pro­gres­sives that are now build­ing long-term part­ner­ships togeth­er because of the con­di­tions. There is a lot of oppor­tu­ni­ty for peo­ple who came into this work that is about con­crete reforms. But real­ly, they weren’t in it for the reforms. It was impor­tant to have a new stop­light. It was impor­tant to have rent con­trol. It was impor­tant to have a high­er min­i­mum wage. But, I wasn’t in it for the high­er min­i­mum wage. I was in it because I thought exploita­tion was wrong. So, what am I doing about that ini­tial com­mit­ment, that val­ue that I held? How is it that val­ue doesn’t have orga­ni­za­tion­al form? Left­Roots is try­ing to cre­ate the net­work of rela­tion­ships that can give that val­ue orga­ni­za­tion­al form.

Sarah: We have been talk­ing about how there is that space for that now. Peo­ple are look­ing for that now. Peo­ple are look­ing for the thing that says, This is my polit­i­cal home and this express­es my polit­i­cal val­ues as a whole.” We have seen a lot of growth of dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions since this elec­tion. My short ques­tion is: What is next?

Maria: I think what is next is a real reck­on­ing with where we made mis­takes. Real­ly, in the U.S., in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing, actu­al­ly, in orga­niz­ing in gen­er­al it is easy to say, Well, that was them. Democ­rats made this mis­take,” It is true and it is not true. All of us have a fam­i­ly mem­ber who vot­ed for Trump. Giv­en that real­i­ty, what are we going to do to address that? We weren’t built to orga­nize those peo­ple. What do we need to build to orga­nize those peo­ple? What is the new scale? What is the new campaign?

There are promis­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties around uni­ver­sal health­care in Cal­i­for­nia, sin­gle pay­er in Cal­i­for­nia. There are the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a sanc­tu­ary state in Cal­i­for­nia. Cal­i­for­nia is a real­ly inter­est­ing place because we have been major­i­ty peo­ple of col­or for a long time and it hasn’t always meant pro­gres­sive change. In fact, what you have had is peo­ple of col­or and women who rep­re­sent” pro­gres­sive change by their stand­ing in lead­er­ship, but not by their exer­cis­ing of lead­er­ship. The dif­fer­ence between stand­ing in the lead­er­ship posi­tion and being from a mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ty and act­ing on behalf of mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties is the orga­niz­ing of those com­mu­ni­ties, which is stronger than it has ever been.

Sarah: So I for­got to ask about sin­gle pay­er, but yes Cal­i­for­nia is — for many rea­sons — very impor­tant. There is this trend that says, Cal­i­for­nia and New York should secede.” But, on the oth­er hand, there is the pos­si­bil­i­ty for Cal­i­for­nia to pass real­ly incred­i­ble pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion and lead the rest of the country.

Maria: Absolute­ly. When the Bay Area with the most pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy ideas which come from the most pro­gres­sive grass­roots orga­niz­ing leads Cal­i­for­nia, Cal­i­for­nia can lead the nation. Instead of dis­en­gag­ing from the nation, you could have Cal­i­for­nia say, We are not going to pay our tax­es unless these val­ues that we hold core around diver­si­ty, inclu­sion and this vision of what a major­i­ty of peo­ple of col­or in the nation looks like get met.” That would be amaz­ing. We are far from that at this point, but we are a lot clos­er to that then we were just two years ago.

I was involved [in] this fight to cre­ate the sanc­tu­ary poli­cies in San Fran­cis­co apply­ing to eco­nom­ic refugees instead of polit­i­cal refugees. That was in the 1990s and 2000s. There was no way that was going to pass on the state lev­el. We had no shot at all. There was nobody who would talk to us about it. After Trump got elect­ed, the gov­er­nor was say­ing, I am for a sanc­tu­ary state.” I have no idea what it means” is what he was say­ing to him­self on the side, but All of a sud­den I need to stand for immi­grants and I don’t know what that means and I have to reach all the way to the grass­roots to grab a pol­i­cy to tell me what that means.” Well, that is a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty for us.

Whether or not that is real depends on the lev­el of orga­niz­ing, how much we push. When the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment comes down how­ev­er they come down, are they going to stand in defense of immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties and against exploita­tion or not? That depends on the lev­el of orga­niz­ing. The rise of the right has cre­at­ed all of these oppor­tu­ni­ties for the left because the cen­ter is… The cen­ter road is bombed out. You either have to make a hard left or a hard right. We are like, Hard left! We are over here! Put me in, Coach!”

Sarah: How can peo­ple keep up with you and your work?

Maria: I am at @mariadelpueblo on Twit­ter. We will see where my work is next. I am try­ing to build an inde­pen­dent polit­i­cal organization.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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