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Injecting Political Education Into Disaster Relief: Miami Organizers Teach Victims to Fight for Their Rights

After temporary relief, marginalized need permanent voice.

Some of the thousands of people waiting to receive assistance at a Hurricane Irma disaster center set up at the Hard Rock Stadium on November 7, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 89th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Jennifer Hill of the Advocacy Partners Team and the Miami Workers Center. In this interview, Hill discusses the importance of addressing both short-term and long-term needs in the wake of a natural disaster.

Sarah Jaffe: You are in Miami dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and you work with undocumented workers [and] low-income workers in Miami, in general. Start off by telling us what the scene is in Miami right now?

Jennifer Hill: There are a lot of issues because Miami is a very low-income community … with its share of problems and with a patchwork of different interests and different groups that are involved. We work primarily with low-income women of color who are trying to make changes in their lives and trying to make changes in policy in a broad agenda of issue areas that we call the “Femme Agenda” — so, for women and femmes of color. We are working in areas of housing and health care and labor and a little bit in education.

It’s now several weeks after the storm; how are the workers that you work with?

It is interesting when you have something like the hurricane or another natural disaster, because you have the immediate impacts and then you have the impacts that start to roll out a few weeks down the road. Now that we are a few weeks down the road, we are seeing the second wave of impacts. Those tend to have to do with evictions and/or employment issues that occur in large part because of the disruptions of employment and income during the actual hurricane.

A lot of times, we … have members who are saying … that they had to leave their apartments after the storm because it was uninhabitable, or repairs needed to be made and their landlords told them, “Go find someplace else to live….” So, they are paying rent and they are paying the additional housing or transportation or food costs that come from staying with friends or trying to eat out more often because they don’t have access to a kitchen … and because of that, they cannot make their rent. And because they cannot make their rent, they are now facing eviction. Or, perhaps, they suffered short-term unemployment during the hurricane, so they didn’t have their complete income, plus they had some additional expenses, and now they are trying to pay their rent and they can’t, and they are getting an eviction notice … which adds tremendously to stress and to financial challenges.

When we are talking about the work of disaster recovery, what are you seeing on the ground in terms of that? How is that affecting the people in your community?

The worker disaster recovery probably varies a lot according to how efficient the government agencies are that are delivering disaster relief. We have a lot of great public servants in South Florida who did great work and are trying to do great work. We also have some obstacles to overcome.

I should say that many … families in South Florida include both documented and undocumented members and … many … communities have a mix of people who are eligible … and ineligible for [formal] disaster relief. So, for the members that we have seen, the biggest challenge in disaster relief for those who are eligible or dependent on someone who is eligible for relief have been in programs that are administered by the state.

The disaster food relief and the disaster unemployment relief — both programs have had huge problems and those problems have not been quickly worked out. We have asked for extensions from the state; even when extensions have been granted, the programs are still full of problems….

The short-term crisis of the storm can be used opportunistically to move forward longer-term agendas of displacement or impoverishment.

Then, for folks who are not necessarily eligible for those for one reason or another, there are problems that sort of trickle out because … there is also a lot of fear that if they have to ask for time off or they have to look for help or they have to try to ask employers or landlords or anyone else to make repairs … they face the problem of potential retaliation and threats to report them to ICE, threats of arrest or deportation, a threat to make false allegations of theft. So, it exacerbates the fear that is already there…

There were reports [during the hurricane] that police were going to be checking for papers at emergency shelters … running warrants at shelters, things like that. We see this security response a lot in response to disasters.

Any kind of increase in the policing presence in low-income communities can increase fears of immigration consequences, but it is even worse now because Miami County of Miami-Dade has eliminated its prior policy of not cooperating with ICE detainers, not sharing information with immigration officials. Now that those policies are not in place, there is … this idea that … officers have much more discretion to decide when and how to call in ICE officials, and that ICE is less constrained or less worried about what they are doing, and so they could be more aggressive….

Tells us a little bit about the organizing that you are doing in the wake of the storm, and how this has affected things you were previously working on.

We always do a lot of housing advocacy, and in the wake of the storm … residents of two public housing communities … were evacuated, and when they came back … their buildings had been closed down as “uninhabitable” and they weren’t allowed to get back in.

So, folks started camping out in the parking lot of the building and trying to get … officials to let them back into their building. The building had been slated for repairs before the hurricane, but there was a sense that the hurricane was opportunistically used to try to push folks out for the whole duration of the repairs and that it maybe was going to be insecure even after that….

We did a lot of work with those individuals to help them get access to their belongings, but also to try to work with legal services officials and city officials to help make sure that this was not a mechanism for displacement. Because one of the things that we saw … is that the short-term crisis of the storm can be used opportunistically to move forward longer-term agendas of displacement or impoverishment or reducing people’s access to the basic necessities of life…. We [often] see workers who are threatened with arrest or deportation if they try to complain about workplace conditions or if they try to make change at work, if they are injured … if their wages aren’t fully paid. But in the wake of the storm, we are much more aware of how quickly those sorts of threats can be triggered and how silently retaliation can happen….

This has been a moment where we really have tried to think about, “How do we start doing a better job of putting in place mechanisms that will allow people to reduce the potency of these immigration-related threats?” … we have to get better strategies for reducing the incredible effectiveness of these threats.

We are in this moment where the entire world seems to be talking about sexual harassment and sexual violence … I wonder if you could talk about that in relation to what happens after a disaster and what happens to people who aren’t as famous….

There are pretty clear statistics that rates of intimate partner violence go up in the wake of disasters…. Our experience has been that it is going to take a lot more advocacy because we have three completely entrenched problems: the problems of intimate partner violence and the problems of anti-immigrant attitudes, and then the policing control response in communities of color. We have to keep fighting on all of those fronts.

We believe it’s important to try to inject political education into the delivery of services.

It is important to look at the gendered and racialized dimensions of disasters and disaster responses because these things really do have a multiplicative effect. If someone is subjected to more violence because of the stress that goes up with the hurricane, but then they also have fears of turning to officials for help because of all of these well-founded fears of not getting the help they need, and then, on top of that, there is a police presence that enters the community with the idea of controlling “bad actors” as opposed to assisting victims….

One of the tensions in post-disaster work is … between being an organization that does political organizing and doing service provision, and the struggles with trying to figure out what is the best use of your limited time and resources…. I wonder if you can talk a little about that, and how you have been grappling with that as an organization.

Like many other people, we have gone back and forth about what makes something “organizing” versus “servicing.” In the wake of a disaster, people need a lot of services. They just need a lot of very practical help. It might be giving out water and it might be helping with disaster unemployment applications, and it might be many other things.

What we have started to think about that — it is important to be able to respond to some of the immediate needs in the community with actual services that are helpful, and we want to partner with different groups that have different expertise if they can do that. But it is also important to try to inject political education into the delivery of services. We want to make sure that when people get information and they go to a legal clinic … that in addition to getting information about FEMA applications and disaster unemployment applications and disaster food stamp applications, that … we have time to talk with them about their rights on the job and what to do if there is a problem and they face a threat or what to do if they are not paid … and where they go for health care so we can try to make sure that the health care centers are open and that they have the ability to get all the services they need….

We saw tremendous problems with the way the state allowed applications to be processed for both the disaster SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] and the disaster unemployment work. Those programs are only for families who are eligible and documented. But because those programs were administered in such a bad way, not only are the people who are eligible negatively affected, but the other people who may or may not be documented … [are also] affected.

If we are not focusing at every single moment on the right to have a voice, then we are going to keep losing ground even if we deliver and answer need.

We talk to people about: “How do we make sure that the state extends these programs and does better next time around?” because one thing that is certain is that there is going to be another hurricane…. We have to do a better job of demanding that the state is prepared to provide the services that exist and not create obstacles in the way of people accessing these services.

The other thing we really want to do is … educate people about the community groups that exist and get more people involved…. We might not do all of that in one conversation, but we want every single conversational opportunity we have with individuals in our community; we want there to be both a short-term and a long-term impact. The short-term impact might be the information about immediate needs, but the longer-term impact has to be information about making voices heard by acting collectively together. Every contact has to be both practically useful and, also, politically meaningful.

What is the most important thing for people … to know, and what can people do if they want to be supportive to the communities that are trying to recover?

I guess I would say to get rid of this sort of simple division between the notion of “services” and “organizing,” and start thinking about how to inject everything we do with a dose of broader vision or creative conversation-making. I think we have to think about: How do we build pathways for communities to have a voice in decision-making in creative ways every single day? How do we support that and how do we create relationships so that folks who are not in an area that is currently being hit by a disaster are also hearing from the people who are affected?

There is a tendency to just say, “Everything sucks” or “Everything is great” and nothing in between. And it is a really in-between space. Yes, there are people who are doing amazing, wonderful helpful things, but there are systemic problems. How do we get to the systems that are making these disasters not only have this short-term impact that is really hard, but how are we making sure that we are putting in place the monitoring to make sure that a hurricane doesn’t spawn privatization of the schools a year down the road? How are we putting in place the kinds of connections so that voices can be lifted up in ways that are a little more complex and a little more thoughtful and a little bit more about trying to see the relationship of, for example, retaliation or threats of retaliation, to access to food, to access to decent housing?

The interplay of anti-immigrant policies and actions with day-to-day needs is complicated, but it is super important. If we are not focusing at every single moment on sort of the organizing rights or the right to have a voice and the right to be free from retaliation for lifting your voice, as well as the substantive needs, then we are going to keep losing ground even if we deliver and answer need.

That is what I guess I think is important. The people who are not in a place currently being hit by a disaster should think about the needs that others are focusing on, but also should help keep driving an agenda that makes it possible for the people who are in a disaster zone to lift up their voices and complain or reach out for services without facing repression and retaliation. Those organizing rights, activist rights, information rights — whatever you want to call them … the way those rights can be eroded is something that is really scary.

How can people keep up with you and with the Miami Workers Center?

We are on Facebook and we have websites. The Miami Workers Center is just called Miami Workers Center on Facebook. That is probably the best way to keep up with what we are doing. Then Advocacy Partners, which is the legal counterpart, is under Advocacy Partners Team on Facebook, too.

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.

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