Monday, January 15, 2018

A potentially powerful new coalition: Democratizephilly.org

Center: Steve Paul, Chair Democratize Philly

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate Martin Luther King Day than to encourage citizens committed to racial, gender and economic justice to become involved in the political process. Today the members of Americans for Democratic Action Southeastern PA (ADA), the Caucus of Working Educators, Neighborhood Networks, Philadelphia Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Moving Philly Forward, Philadelphia Chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), Philly for Change, Reclaim Philadelphia, and United Voices for Philadelphia announced the formation of Democratize Philly, a coalition initiated by ADA and chaired by Steve Paul. From the press release posted on the coalition’s website:
We are announcing the formation of Democratize Philly, a coalition of progressive organizations seeking to recruit and support progressive candidates to run for Committeeperson who are committed to the values of social, economic, racial, and gender justice. Our mission is to increase democratic participation, voter turnout, and transparency in Philadelphia’s political process.

We come together around this mission because we believe that a healthy democracy is built on the political participation of all its citizens. Unfortunately, voter turnout has continued to be dismally low in Philadelphia. Last November was a stark reminder of that reality with barely 20% of Philadelphia voters turning out to vote.

A consensus has emerged that our one-party town can no longer afford an undemocratic Democratic Party. The current closed, top-down party structure disintegrating into competing factions is not working. 2018 provides an opportunity for political change -- engaged committeepersons can be a powerful force, educating voters about candidates and about the democratic process.

Some highlights from the press conference:
Numa St Louis from United Voices for Philadelphia emphasized the contributions of immigrants to our society and urged recent immigrants to become engaged in the political process.

Amy Roat and Luigi Borda from the Caucus of Working Educators: We “encourage educators, parents, and public school advocates to do more by becoming an elected committee person this spring. With active members in every section of Philadelphia we are uniquely positioned to help make real change. Our goal is to do the work necessary to hold politicians accountable to provide the children of Philadelphia with the schools they deserve.”

Margaret Lenzi from Neighborhood Networks: “Unfortunately, the Philadelphia Democratic Party as it’s now constituted, is a failure at its core function of getting out the vote for candidates who have our back. That’s why it’s so important for progressive Democrats to become committee people in 2018, an opportunity that won’t arise again for four years. NN’s Committee Person Project provides training, resources and assistance to progressives who want to run for Committee Person in 2018.”

Grace Palladino from Philadelphia NOW: "2018 will be the Year of the Woman, and the National Organization for Women is thrilled to be a place where female candidates can come to get support, a platform, resources, and encouragement. I believe Donald Trump has awoken a sleeping giant, and the awe-inspiring potential of women working together is being revealed across this nation. If you are a female or feminist candidate looking for support, please reach out to NOW’s Philadelphia chapter today. We are here for you.
Grace Palladino from Philadelphia NOW

Many thanks to Emma Restrepo for a video of the press conference highlighting the speeches of Amy Roat, Luigi Borda, and Margaret Lenzi.

For decades progressives have worked to make the Philadelphia Democratic Party more democratic, more transparent. See my account of this activity in Green Shoots of Democracy in the Philadelphia Democratic Party. I think we have finally reached the critical mass of progressive activists we need for real change. Interest in the committeeperson races is far greater than I have ever seen with more organizations than ever working to educate their members about running for these seats. No doubt Donald Trump has something to do with this increased activity.

Sign up for updates at democratizephilly.org!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Feminist Activism across the Generations



I took a break from writing projects for the holidays and with my Elena Ferrante book now in the hands of McFarland publishers, I’m ready to tackle a new expanded version of Feminism in Philadelphia, tentatively titled Building the Feminist Movement, Building Feminist Institutions: Feminist Activism across the Generations.

Feminism in Philadelphia charted the growth of the second wave feminist movement with an emphasis on NOW, the major engine of institutional change. This is certainly not the complete story of the history of second wave feminism in Philadelphia. Many low-income women, disproportionately women of color, struggled in obscurity for racial and gender justice; their actions were not recorded by the local press, and they were much less likely to leave detailed records. No doubt, much of what occurred was not documented, or if documented, not deposited in libraries or archives accessible to me.

Although NOW may have been the focal point, it was certainly not the only locus of feminist activity in Philadelphia in the late 1960s and 1970s. NOW activists were focused primarily on changing the rules by which society was governed and opening up government, business and what had been traditionally male occupations to women. Some, like Philadelphia NOW founding member and psychologist Jean Ferson, were also involved in the consciousness raising movement, the feminist therapy movement and the emerging women’s health moment. There were other feminists focused primarily on creating feminist free spaces—book stores, clubs, music festivals—rather than building feminist organizations. There were feminists who did not belong to explicitly feminist organizations like NOW but worked tirelessly for gender justice in their unions, their professional associations, in educational institutions and religious organizations. There were those who wanted nothing less than total revolution and were impatient of and often contemptuous towards those trying to change existing social institutions. The energy and creativity was enormous.

When conditions are ripe, a handful of dedicated activists really can transform the world. The changes in the status of women in my lifetime have been enormous and some have become so much a part of the air we breathe that we no longer perceive the extent of the changes.

Feminism in Philadelphia focused on activism and advocacy, but a major strand of the story was left untold—the enormous energy put into building feminist institutions. The service organizations founded on a shoe string by committed feminists--the battered women’s shelters, the rape crisis centers--were beginning to receive significant funding from government and from private foundations. Yes, the funding came with strings attached and the radical edge of some of these organizations was blunted, but more women were receiving services and the women who had been providing them for free could now get jobs as service providers.

By analyzing the struggle to build these institutions, I intend to try to complete the story of second wave feminism in Philadelphia, to the extent that such a story can ever be fully told. The history of feminism in Philadelphia is a case study, a microcosm of the trajectory of second wave feminism, a story unfolding in similar ways in cities across the country. The dividing line between political activism and institution building is not always easy to draw, with many individuals and organizations involved in both. The resources available for building feminist institutions were for the most part available only in urban areas and hence their concentration in large cities like Philadelphia.

I intend my analysis of this history to be a springboard for an exploration of the very different approaches of a younger generation of feminist activists who reject the organizational model of the older progressive organizations with their hierarchical structures and elected leadership. As our society becomes increasingly mobile and use of internet technology more widespread, NOW’s geographically based chapter model with face-to-face meetings as its major organizing tool, strikes some younger members as an anachronism. Many younger feminists are creating more fluid, internet driven forms of feminist organizing rather than the hierarchical structures NOW’s founding generation developed. But can social change be achieved without the kinds structured organizations that fueled the second wave feminist movement?

Yes, the January 2017 Women’s March bubbled up from the grassroots. Established feminist organizations eventually signed on, but the initial impulse came from the grassroots. It’s too soon to tell if all that amazing energy will lead to real change. We’ll have a better idea after November 2018.