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Rachel LaForest and Madeline Janis on Fighting for Fairness

Economic equality advocates Rachel LaForest and Madeline Janis discuss with Bill how social action can change both policy and lives.

Part of the Series

Economic equality advocates Rachel LaForest, executive director of Right to the City, and Madeline Janis, co-founder and national policy director of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, discuss with Bill how social action can change both policy and lives. Janis led the fight for a living wage in Los Angeles; LaForest fights for fair and affordable housing across the country.

In particular, LaForest and Janis talk about the strength of human stories to power a movement, as part of a multifaceted approach that includes research, communication, and political involvement.

“You have a struggling housekeeper in a hotel who cleans 25 rooms in a day and barely puts food on the table. The idea of her being able to fight for better working conditions — a union in her hotel, a living wage — that’s going to move her a lot more than just the theory of being able to have a voice in her democracy,” explains Janis. “Although, when she finds her voice, it’s just the most incredible, empowering thing. And it’s overpowering when she stands up before a city council, or she stands up before press and tells her story.”

Using stories from real people “puts a face to the organizing that happens on the ground. It makes very real the people and the material conditions that they’re going through,” says LaForest. “It introduces neighbors to each other. It establishes trust. It’s something that really starts to build the power and a collective voice of a community, in a way that facts and figures and being able to put up front statistics just doesn’t get to.”


BILL MOYERS: “If not now, when?” Answering that question committed citizens are taking lessons learned from Marshall Ganz’s long career of organizing and activism and putting them to work. With me are two women from opposite sides of the country who are leading the way.

Madeline Janis is co-founder and national policy director of LAANE, the “Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.” The organization was created after the L.A. riots of 1992 and has helped lift tens of thousands of people from poverty, creating, quote, “good jobs, thriving communities and a healthy environment.” Madeline Janis led the campaign to pass a living wage ordinance in Los Angeles, she worked with that city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and has advised community organizations and unions all over America.

Here in New York, Rachel LaForest is executive director of the organization, “Right to the City.” Now in 11 states, it is dedicated to the principle that urban dwellers, especially the disenfranchised, have a right to shape and design the place where they live. Rachel LaForest was a student activist, worked in organized labor and at “Jobs with Justice,” where she coordinated a successful effort that raised the New York State minimum wage. Welcome to you both.



BILL MOYERS: Do stories matter as Marshall Ganz says they do?

MADELINE JANIS: I think that, very, very true that we need story strategy, especially strategy and structure. Those things really speak to the idea of a comprehensive, a smart campaign as well as having a grassroots base. And thinking through smartly what we want to win and all of that. But I would say that I think it’s more than a voice.

You have a struggling, you know, housekeeper in a hotel who cleans 25 rooms in a day and can barely, you know, make it and barely puts food on the table. The idea of her being able to fight for better working conditions, a union in her hotel, a living wage, that’s going to move her a lot more than just the theory of being able to have a voice in her democracy.

Although, when she finds her voice, it’s just the most incredible, empowering thing. And it’s overpowering when she stands up before a city council, or she stands up before a press and tells her story. So the things come together, you know, in a really amazing way.

BILL MOYERS: Ganz does say that the stories provide the motivation and the courage. Is that true in the case of the people you work with?

RACHEL LAFOREST: 100 percent. It’s interesting to hear him talk about— stories and myths and— story and strategy. So— we think— and— and our member organizations build their work off of— the idea that telling the story is what makes alive and gives dynamism to values. And so, your values are conveyed through the story that you tell.

And we see it in religious texts and it’s how we raise our children. There are, you know, lessons that we impart to our kids so that they express their values and what’s very important to them through story. And— It puts a face to the organizing that happens on the ground. It makes very real the people and the material conditions that they’re going through. It introduces neighbors to each other. It establishes trust. It’s something that really starts to build the power and a collective voice of a community, in a way that facts and figures and being able to put up front statistics just doesn’t get to.

BILL MOYERS: So, give me an example.

RACHEL LAFOREST: Right to the City has a national campaign around affordable housing called the Homes For All Campaign. And we could inundate, you know, our constituencies or a broader audience with the facts and figures that show that millions of people are on waiting lists for affordable housing. Millions of Americans are homeless.

Millions of people have been foreclosed out of their homes over the last five, six years. But rather than put out the figures, which I could read over my coffee in the newspaper and say, “This is horrible,” but rather than do just that, we are telling stories about the individuals who are living through these experiences. So, we’ve got Mark Harris in Atlanta who’s connected to an organization, Occupy our Homes Atlanta, which is a manifestation from the Occupy movement. He’s a veteran, has been evicted from his home and is fighting, cannot find affordable housing in the city of Atlanta to be able to stay.

And so, telling his story puts an actual human being behind the idea. Allows people to see him, to see Roline Burgison, who’s another one of our members from Providence, Rhode Island, who is paying 70 percent of her income to rent. So, what are the choices that she has to make around the quality of food that she’s able to put on the food for her children, where she can send her kids to school, if she can send her kids to school. How she’s able to get back and forth to work. Knowing these people, understanding them, is the best way to be able to make those linkages.

MADELINE JANIS: I think what it takes to win is all of these elements together.

RACHEL LAFOREST: That’s right.

MADELINE JANIS: And we have to be really thoughtful and we have to recognize that it’s a long haul. So we have to have, we have to organize. That’s the number one. We have to have that housekeeper, we have to have that veteran. We have to have those people coming together and organizing. But we also have to have the facts and figures and we have to put them out in a way that’s smart and that is right out there, in front of the decision makers.

And, by the way, we have to take control of our government, which means we have to be involved in politics. And then we have to put that all together with our stories and the communication.

BILL MOYERS: You recently won a campaign for a living wage for hotel workers in Long Beach, $13 an hour. How did you do it?

MADELINE JANIS: So, Long Beach is the second largest city in L.A. County. And we organized for two years in that city to win a living wage for all hotel workers. A living wage and five paid sick days. And we decided that we were going to do something differently there. We were going to do something the same in that the hotel workers themselves are telling their story, they’re organizing. But we decided to organize small businesses. So we went out and we organized 130 small businesses to be part of a “buy local” campaign.

BILL MOYERS: Why small businesses? You would think that they would say, “But if you raise wages for our workers, we’re going to cut our profit margin.”

MADELINE JANIS: I know that’s what you would think. But our polling showed that people recognized that the hotel workers who live in Long Beach, and there’re a lot of them, don’t have enough money to spend in their local stores, because they’re not making enough money. And so, and these hotels have been beneficiaries of big subsidies from the city and the government. And therefore, they should be able to pay a living wage to their workers.

So our argument was, and the small business people made that argument themselves. They were strong advocates. “We want more customers. We want these hotel workers to be able to buy our clothes and our food.” And so we had “buy local” signs everywhere. And then the most incredible thing was we won by 63percent.

And we kept seeing this, something that we thought was wrong. We had to be in an Alice in Wonderland story or something. We would see a Romney for President sign and a pro-Tea Party for Congress and Yes on the Living Wage, all on the same lawn. And that’s because the idea of a living wage for people and their neighbors to be able to spend money in local stores resonated. And the—

BILL MOYERS: With Republicans?

MADELINE JANIS: With Republicans.

BILL MOYERS: With people who might be voting for Romney?

MADELINE JANIS: Yes. People were so incredibly energized about winning. And then, you know, January 1st 2,000 people and their families got this enormous raise and paid sick days. So then we organized the State of the City for Long Beach. And, you know, we had overflow crowds from every neighborhood.

BILL MOYERS: You organized what?

MADELINE JANIS: We called it a State of the City. People’s State of the City. And we had, you know, hundreds of people. Every single person running for office, every person currently in office in Long Beach all came. And we were able to articulate this broader agenda, with, you know, all of the things that regular people care about. But it came off of the win, the fact that you, people said, “Wow, 63 percent of the people are with us.”

BILL MOYERS: I read that you did a story based strategy with homeowners facing foreclosure, that you’re doing it in 11 cities. What’s the story there?

RACHEL LAFOREST: So there is actually this brilliant organization that moves and does training for organizations in this country called The Center for Story Based Strategy. And their premise is exactly what Marshall describes. Is that values are communicated through meaning. Not necessarily through facts, but giving meaning to a set of values and being able to tell a story.

And so, we’ve got a national campaign around housing that we use foreclosure, homeowners who are facing foreclosure, homeless families and homeless individuals, renters and public housing residents for the first time really coming together to talk about how each of their stories influences each other and what each of their struggles has, in terms of interconnectedness and how there’s influence. And so, we brought them through a training with the Center for Story Based Strategy to really look at what the dominant narrative is around housing in this country.

BILL MOYERS: What is it?

RACHEL LAFOREST: Well, for a long time it’s been that your ticket to the American dream, or demonstrating that you’ve arrived within the American dream, that a piece of that is home ownership. And that owning a home meant that you have claimed a stake and you are now a part of the fabric of this country. So what did that mean for people who were homeless, who were renters, who were part of public housing?

So it created a huge chasm. And so, we’re challenging the assumption that home ownership means the American dream. But that rather that access to equitable housing and housing that is affordable and allows for people to participate in their communities is actually what the American Dream is.

BILL MOYERS: Madeline, I don’t know of anyone who’s won more organizing victories than you. Would you just tick off a few that you’ve won? Give me the headline of a few of them.

MADELINE JANIS: This past year we won this huge victory around completely restructuring our trash, the way our trash is dealt with. The way we deal with our trash in this country is an outrage, both for our planet, but also for the people who handle it.

Sanitation workers, people who sort the recyclables or people who work in the landfills. Long story short, the city of L.A. is going to be opening a new program next year. The entire city’s going to be divided into 11 regions and each of those regions is going to have amazingly great labor standards, mandatory recycling, composting and clean trucks. We also won a clean trucks program at the Port of Los Angeles.

Five years ago, where the port said to Walmart and all the big global companies, “The old Diesel trucks, you’re going to have to phase them out, and you’re going to have to use clean trucks. And you’re going to have to, by the way, you’re going to have to deal with us directly. This is not just some open market system. We actually are going to exercise some control.

Now, that victory has resulted in 80 percent reduction in pollution from the port. 80 percent reduction. Air is cleaner. You also have workers who are driving those trucks who are, have been organizing. And because part of the problem was they were all misclassified as independent contractors. It was a very, it is a very abusive industry. Well, the truck drivers themselves are starting to turn that around and win union elections and to negotiate real, decent contracts. So what we’re trying to do is imagine a new economy for all really that lifts all boats. And really get involved in our government, get people involved in our government in order to achieve that vision.

BILL MOYERS: A new economy for all. That involves a new story, doesn’t it?

MADELINE JANIS: Yes. The new story of the economy is that everybody deserves a good job and a decent life. And that our government, our democracy has the tools to ensure that. And that responsible companies are so welcome. And companies that are willing to work in partnership with community and balance their interests. We want them to do well, but with a community interest, we’ll be more successful and we’ll have greater prosperity for everyone.

RACHEL LAFOREST: I actually think that the push for a new economy is also around innovation. So Marshall Ganz had mentioned this dominant narrative that the market, the free market solves all problems. You know, has the solutions to everything that we are encountering.

And I think that a new economy actually challenges that assumption that we all have, that the market has the answers. And you can look around the world and even places here in this country, where there are innovative, economic models that are cooperative models, like cooperative food systems, cooperative labor banks, cooperative housing systems.

Where communities actually have a certain level of ownership. I think that’s a really important component of what we mean when we start to talk about a new American economy.

BILL MOYERS: Have either of you been able, with your colleagues, to sway a big corporation?

MADELINE JANIS: Many big corporations have been swayed. We believe in winning, we recognize that we’re not going to win our whole dream. We’re not going to win our whole agenda immediately. We’re going to move step by step and hopefully we’re going to convert a lot of good businesses along the way to be our partners.

RACHEL LAFOREST: Uh-huh. And change the culture. You know, you set a precedent and so then you model a culture that people want to emulate. I think for us, rather than a corporation because the last several years have really been working on consolidating a comprehensive housing campaign, we’ve been looking at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, essentially, a bank, if you will, holding most of the mortgages in this country.

And seeing many, many properties tank and go into foreclosure. And so, at the pinnacle of this fight around the foreclosure crisis, there’s been a real battle around principle reduction, which is reducing the cost of a home to its current market value, as opposed to expecting the homeowner to pay what it was when they took out their mortgage. Which would allow millions of people to say in their homes.

In addition to that there’s an obligation to fund the National Housing Trust Fund, which would create affordable housing throughout the country. So we’ve got Ed DeMarco, who’s been the acting director of the FHFA, the Federal Housing and Finance Administration, who has refused to even consider looking at principle reduction or the funding of the National Housing Trust Fund as a solution. And the win has been Obama announced that he’s going to replace this man.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve been fighting to get him out.

RACHEL LAFOREST: For years. We’ve been fighting four plus years. Some of our groups knew that this was a problem and were targeting him from five or six years ago. And it really started to develop as the foreclosure crisis hit the forefront of the headlines, that it pulled in new local and national entities into this fight. And now this man is going to be replaced. And we are in the mix of discussing the kind of person that needs to be running the Federal Housing and Finance Administration. And it took years. And lots of hard organizing on the ground.

BILL MOYERS: What kept you going?

RACHEL LAFOREST: People’s stories. People’s joys and inspiration around small victories that happen on the ground. So in Springfield, Massachusetts. Springfield No One Leaves, a very small organization there, got an ordinance passed that said that any mortgage holder that is able to foreclose a family out of their home has to pay a $10,000 bond to upkeep the property so that the entire community is not blighted and so that people’s spirits are not killed.

In Los Angeles SAJE, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy just won a comprehensive benefit, a community benefit agreement with the University of Southern California, who wants to expand out and build student housing. And they were granted $20 million in creating affordable housing, along with the student housing, and a guarantee to hire 30 percent of those jobs locally. So those small victories aggregate to this larger sort of beating heart and people feeling deeply inspired by each other. But it takes work. So a role for Right to the City Alliance is to bring those organizations together as often as possible, to talk about those victories and the models and the challenges so that there is reciprocal inspiration happening across the country.

BILL MOYERS: I’m going to give you both the last word by telling me, what can people listening do? What would you have them do?

MADELINE JANIS: There are great organizations in every part of this country. And, probably not well known. So people can be involved in multiple ways. They can be involved in organizing around a living wage campaign or around a housing rights campaign. Or a campaign that’s, you know, that’s environmental and, or building sustainable communities and good jobs.

There are, you can be involved in your church. And, you know, in churches and synagogues there are a lot of religious leaders of faith who are connecting to groups like, for example, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. In California there’re chapters all over. The National Interfaith Committee. Be involved in your union. A lot of people still belong to unions in this country.

And, but unions are made up of human beings. And those unions are not going to become progressive, stalwart leaders in this country until you and all of your coworkers take responsibility for your union. And become involved and fight for a really broader progressive agenda. There’re so many ways to become involved. And, you know, you just have your pick of them. And I would say also contribute your funding, your own personal money. You know, fifty dollars here, one hundred dollars there from everybody really adds up.

RACHEL LAFOREST: Two dollars, five dollars really adds up. And I would add that there are even smaller and more manageable things that people can do. Educate your family. Really be open to learning about what is the vehicle for your values that really gets your values expressed? You know, be open to talking to your children around, about immigration and what that fight is about. About education and what it means, what the fight looks like to make sure that they’re able to be educated. About housing. Have conversations with your community and your family. Volunteer your time, open your home for an organization to be able to hold a meeting or bring some people together. There are so many ways. But so much of it can start with how you communicate in your home, how you open yourself up to understanding what the political current is, what the political moment is and the way that you can be engaged is huge in and of itself.

BILL MOYERS: Rachel LaForest and Madeline Janis, thank you very much for being with me. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.

MADELINE JANIS: Thank you so much.

RACHEL LAFOREST: Thank you for having us.

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