Messages for the Future From the Margins of the DNC

(Image: The Laura Flanders Show)Nora Lichtash of the Philadelphia’s Women’s Community Revitalization Project (left), and Philadelphia-based writer, filmmaker, blogger and cultural worker Aishah Shahidah Simmons (right). (Image: The Laura Flanders Show)

While covering the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last month, I found myself seeking a community context for the events in Philadelphia — what does this convention mean to the local voters, particularly those not connected to one party or another? Moreover, what does the historic nomination of Hillary Clinton mean for different groups of women around the country — Latina women, working-class women, queer women, single mothers? And of course, what does the convention mean to those who left disappointed, who stood in silent protest and marched outside the DNC gates to protest political elitism, reeling from the knowledge of party bias?

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

It’s clear that sustaining the effort of “revolution” — whether it’s aligned with Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, or completely outside the electoral system — will require the people to continue to grow their communities and movements. Our guests on this episode prove as much. Tallahassee, Florida Mayor Andrew Gillum says we’ll need to grasp the nuances of local struggles and respond by always holding officials accountable at the community level. Nora Lichtash, executive director of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, and Aishah Shahidah Simmons, filmmaker and activist, both attest to the erasure of women’s voices, particularly queer women of color, from progressive movements. Support the liberation of those at the margins, they say, and then we’ll all get free.

The real power at the DNC was not the spectacle unfolding onstage. It was the messages of these local leaders and activists — messages for the future, messages of continued efforts, relentless energy and a healthy sense of possibility. What follows is the transcript of our interviews with these inspiring messengers of change.

Interviews with Andrew Gillum, Nora Lichtash, Aishah Shahidah Simmons.

TRANSCRIPT:

Andrew Gillum is an up-and-comer, a rising star in the Democratic Party, who has taken the lead in Tallahassee to increase access to early childhood education, provide alternatives to incarceration for young offenders in the form of restorative justice programs, support investment in local businesses, and create a number of youth mentorship and leadership programs for Tallahassee youth. Gillum has also spearheaded the creation of the Safe Neighborhoods Project, which fosters communication and partnership between local community organizations and the Tallahassee Police Department.

Laura Flanders: Has any of what the Sanders’ campaign brought to the Democratic Party in the way of critique sunk in? Will it make any difference? Here to talk about that is the Mayor of Tallahassee Andrew Gillum… Andrew, are you feeling it? Are you feeling that the Sanders’ message or any kind of message of a critique of established Democratic Party policies got hurt?

Andrew Gillum: Absolutely. First of all, 45 percent of the delegates on the floor this week are Bernie Sanders’ delegates. I believe they say that is the highest number of delegates not there for the nominee… since Jesse Jackson, [a] pretty extraordinary feat all by itself. Bernie Sanders has had the ability in his supporters of transforming what would have otherwise been a status quo platform, leaps, heads and shoulders different, and I think more progressive than obviously what comes from the right. Even on our side, having the ability to push the limits on everything from access to college and debt and loan repayment and tuition and free tuition to the stances that he’s taken and his supporters have taken around healthcare and healthcare reform, and trying to push us just a little bit further. I firmly believe that these movements have to be bookended by folks who push us to the edges, who cause those who are in, frankly, the “safe space” to expand their authority, and it requires folks to put the markers further out in order for the party that tend to be in the middle to really stretch themselves.

What happens next? What are you going to be looking for happening next within the party?

My hope is that one will really listen because this is not going away — the challenges that are showing up in city streets all around the country — and not just the ones that we see broadcast on television, not the ones that the YouTube videos are coming out after [police brutality]. Every single day there are communities and people in communities who are hurting in real deep ways. The problems that they’re suffering from are very nuanced, but they’re granular in nature and they require real intentional planning in order to begin to lift the burden off of some of these communities that have been generationally and inter-generationally plagued by those kinds of problems. The challenge will remain. Whether we can rise to it, will the establishment rise to those challenges is a different question. It will require us to hold them accountable.

You’re a mayor, a mayor of a major city in America and a city with its fair [share] of problems — Tallahassee, Florida. What are you going to be doing coming back from this convention and going forward? What’s your work?

I’ll tell you, most immediately when I get back, I plan to do everything that I can to ensure the White House for the Democratic nominee. This election is hugely consequential. It matters who is in the White House, but it also matters who are in our states and in our cities. These problems show up on our street corners. They show up in our communities. They call on the mayor and not their president when they’re trying to get these kinds of issues addressed, whether it’s poverty, or bad health conditions moving in the wrong direction, or unemployment and stagnant wages. They show up in our streets in very real ways. I’ve got to square my shoulders to the tasks that I’ve been elected to do, which are to attack these problems, again not putting Band-Aids over the issue, but really trying to get underneath it to some of the core problems that are really driving the outflow of this, so not feeding the symptom. I think we do that too often in public policy. We’ll Band-Aid over it. We’ll hire more law enforcement officers. Well, how do we get to poverty? How do we get to creating ladders of opportunities for folks to make a better way for themselves and for their families? That’s the difficult work.

Final question: Have you been changed in any way by this Sanders revolt?

I have. It’s created pressure points even in my home city. While I am a mayor, I also came out of organizing on my college campus, rallying against Jeb Bush and the reformative action with this signature. I also carried food into the Florida state capitol when Dream Defenders were sleeping on the cold marble floors demanding justice on behalf of Black lives before we heard the terminology Black Lives Matter. I’m also the titular head of a police department who I have to give support to and encouragement to, but also hold accountable on the other end when things go bad. It’s a very difficult tension that I hold because I have the lived experience of a Black man in America, also raising Black kids, but I also have the lived experience of being a responsible person who is responsible for the resourcing and the outfitting of a law enforcement agency, who is charged with the conduct and the production and the safety and all that other stuff of law and order in our own community. It’s challenging. I will admit that.

The power of money, wasn’t that the big message of the senator’s campaign?

There was a huge conversation around money, the influence of money in elections. I’m a firm believer that we have to do something drastic on citizens united, maybe a constitutional amendment if it comes to that, or maybe electing a congress that’s actually responsive to the people. It’s an issue that Democrats and Republicans seem to come together on, the over-influence of money in politics and in power. Again, I have a sneaky feeling that that’s going to be a long turn. Power cedes nothing without a demand. I think it’s going to have to be a bipartisan effort, one that probably comes from the grassroots up, demanding change.

Interview With Aishah Shahidah Simmons and Nora Lichtash

Aishah Shahidah Simmons is a writer, filmmaker, blogger and cultural worker, based in Philadelphia. She is the producer of the award-winning film NO! The Rape Documentary. I spoke with Simmons and Nora Lichtash, who works with Philadelphia’s Women’s Community Revitalization Project, an organization aimed at fostering social and economic equity for low-income women.

Laura Flanders: Here in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, women have been particularly excited — especially Democratic women — about the nomination of Hillary Clinton, the first woman to run for president on a major party ticket. There is history being made here. No question. Is it a history of revolution that will bring everyone? Is it a history of revolution that will really take seriously the importance of sexism not just for someone at the top of a ticket but someone down at the bottom of one?… The headlines are blaring “Ladies first. Women first. History. Her story.” Every possible permutation of the same. Are you feeling it? Aishah?

Aishah Shahidah Simmons: It’s a surreal moment. It’s a surreal moment coming from another first with Obama, so yeah I’m feeling it in terms of I’m aware that this is history right before my very eyes.

What about you, Nora?

Nora Lichtash: I do, and the people I talk to really are feeling it. I think the images of women are so important and to see someone in that role makes me remember a lot about what I can do as a woman.

Talk a bit about your community. When you say the people you work with, who are you talking about?

Lichtash: I work in North Philadelphia, primarily with low-income families, usually women and kids, and that’s who’s poor in our neighborhood and usually in the city and around the country. Those folks run the organization that I work for.

Is that a women’s issue? Is that a feminist issue? What’s that got to do with sexism?

Lichtash: I think it has a lot to do with sexism. We don’t earn as much. What I see in our community is that people are losing jobs, losing hours since the recession… There’s no moving up and moving out based on this recession for our people.

What do you think, Aishah? How do you come to this?

Simmons: I come to this, as you already noted, [as] a filmmaker and culture worker, and have documented, specifically, violence against women, Black women in communities. What I notice is that while we’re talking about all of the tremendous inroads that’s happening in this historic moment, I think that women of color, Black women, Iindigenous women, Asian women, that we’re not included. It’s like this umbrella — but so many of the images is still of… or when we talk about these issues, it’s still a mainstream kind of issue, mainstream feminism, that we’re not talking about the margins of the margins.

You’re being kind in a sense. Sometimes, mainstream is a euphemism for white. I will say that looking at the discussion around sexism on the stage of the Democratic National Convention this week has been frustrating. I keep seeing, when the topic is feminism or sexism and the evils of the Republican assault on women’s rights, the people that speak are all white women. When the subject is racism or police killing, most of the victims are men and most of the roles that we see for women of color, Black women specifically, are griever-in-chief, not to make light of them.

Simmons: Black women’s voices have been at the forefront of these movements, but yet what gets projected are white women as victims. When we think of rape victims, we don’t think of Black, Latina, Asian.

Why does it matter that we change that?

Simmons: Because if we’re really going to stop, if we’re going to really end violence against women, all women, then we have to change our psyche about who gets raped.

What I’m hearing from you, Nora, is that our image of who is a poor family or head of a poor family, maybe needs to change… or who’s the breadwinner?

Lichtash: It’s very clear that in our neighborhood, 80 percent of those who are poor are families that are headed by women, women working very hard often, sometimes receiving public benefits and numerous minimum wage jobs, who are just trying to make it.

With all this history-making, people are very excited to be continuing the women’s movement, this one more step, but the last time around the women’s movement, it didn’t bring everybody. It was way too white, and it was way too homophobic. Have we made progress on intersecting gender with race and class and sexuality? Who wants to get at that? Aishah?

Simmons: I think we’ve made progress, but not at the level that we need to make it. Again, back to the visibility, speaking as a lesbian, the images of queer people, when we have them, they’re white. We don’t see queer people of color. We can look to the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement in terms of [that] two of the three women are queer, that queer folks have been at the forefront of so much radical revolutionary change. It’s been queer people of color.

How does that change the picture? How does that change the movement?

Simmons: I think, again, it changes the movement in terms of just the image of what evokes change, that I think that it is always the margins of the margins that free us. Of course, queer folks, trans people who are of color were at the margins. When they get free, we all get free, I believe.