By Aidan Charles
When I was first asked by RAD to go to the Peoples Summit I didn't know what it was. After researching the event and some of the speakers, and their organizations, I saw it was an opportunity I couldn't miss. Seeing that the event was specifically designed to discuss the next stage of the movement was more than ideal because the burning question on most Sanders supporters minds at the time was exactly that, where to go from here? As a new activist it was heartening, and so exciting to get keyed into so many players in grassroots activism across the country!
Right after walking to the opening reception I met an activist from Reclaim Chicago, a local People's Action affiliate. Once inside I was sat at a table with some activists from Flint, Michigan! It was so inspiring to hear about Reclaim Chicago's work with university students organizing some real direct action, but I was enraged and appalled to find out from the Flint activists that their emergency manager is still in place and that not much has changed. I could already tell it was going to be a great weekend because of how supportive the crowd was. With raucous cheers at the mention of revolution and real change. I never realized just how many local affiliates People's Action had across the country!
The plenary that night included Roseann Demoro, Juan Gonzales, John Nichols, Rosario Dawson and Naomi Klein who sketched out the different currents which became the wave that was the Bernie Sanders campaign. All of them emphasized the existence of different movements pre-dating this election season, and how, because of this, the movement would continue after. The next morning before the plenary they had a segment called “stories from the field” showcasing activists and leaders from a wide variety of social movements and causes. With an overall theme of racial justice, three different speakers spoke separately about black justice, muslim persecution, and indigenous rights, all three of which to me highlighted the lack of progress in America's racist ideologies.
The plenary was called “understanding our movement moment” and my favorite speaker from that was Francis Fox Piven, a renowned social researcher. From Piven there was a ringing call to have a hands-on approach to change, reminding us of the fierce fights for trade unions and civil rights, and how the people must act vigorously because these struggles are never easily won.
The next plenary featured Nina Turner, Tulsi Gabbert, and Jesus (Chuy) Garcia. Nina Turner ROCKED the crowd and got numerous standing ovations echoing her call to action with the phrase "doers of the deeds.”. Tulsi was my favorite for this plenary because her entire speech was devoted to our interventionist policies throughout the world and specifically in the Middle East, a topic that is not often enough touched upon in American discourse.
My two breakouts were “building independent political power” and “runaway inequality” (economics for activists). “Building independent political power” had a lot of presenters from different people's action affiliates like Maine People’s Alliance and Michigan United, as well as Richard Eskow who is a pretty big name and was one of the head speechwriters for Bernie Sanders. The People's action affiliates talked about their different organizations’ key issues and victories and what they focus on in order to be successful. Leadership training was a term that kept coming up, though I wish they further explained the avenues through which people can obtain that training. Another presenter mentioned the need for a coalition of grassroots organizations so that we can have a larger voice while at the same time not competing for the spotlight as different larger organizations might. They allowed questions at the end and I asked about specific leadership training opportunities that they would recommend and they recommended the weeklong People’s Action leadership training. So I'll be looking to do that at some point for sure.
The second breakout was “runaway inequality” with Les Leopold, founder of the Labor Institute. It was very informative and included the statistics that Bernie references quite often, as well as many others that detail the redistribution of wealth to the top 1%. The people speak was dramatic narrations of selections from a People's history by Howard Zinn and were amazingly powerful because they could almost perfectly apply to many problems of today's United States. Underlining the systemic class divides of capitalism. Interestingly, about a week before I left I ordered “A People's History” from Amazon, so now I'll really be able to solidify those narratives in my mind.
The closing day we got to organize regionally and talk about concrete next steps for each of us by individually filling out commitments as well as having a discussion about the obstacles in our way and solutions to them. Overall the weekend was hugely empowering and was much needed to stem my reoccurring pessimism. I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to go and was constantly awash with excitement and optimism. That being said, there were hypocrisies as with anything, most notably the representatives there were not as diverse as Chicago itself or even the serving staff, and interestingly there was many disposable items throughout the entire event. Also, the water coolers were from Nestlé. While I may be overthinking it, I think this brings to light an interesting point about idealism and reality and the intersection of activists and society, because even in our efforts to organize against the dominant system we use its infrastructure, which is subject to the system's often destructive underlying ideologies and tendencies. Think about someone driving to a climate justice rally for example.
To conclude, I can't thank Rights & Democracy enough for the absolutely incredible opportunity to grow as an activist and a dissident. Leaving the summit I have a profound sense of purpose to continue on the path I've set for myself; becoming a civil rights lawyer and participating in as much direct action as I can, ideally participating in whatever new party will inevitably surface. Coming back to Vermont my focus will be on the local front as there is so much to be done even in a progressive state like Vermont: we still don't have an ethics commission, a living wage, or affordable health care! Sometimes I feel helpless when I think about all the work to do, but that's why I find it so fulfilling to participate in an organization that lets me fight for myself, for others, and for our values. It's impossible to thank Rights & Democracy enough for providing me with an outlet for action!