You graduated in 1999 from Brown
University, where you were active in various activist organizations.
Working in Providence now as a community organizer, how has your
activism changed since college?
I never learned the true principles of organizing until I left
college. What I mean by that is that I was still stuck in this community
service model of justice. Even at a school like Brown, students
aren’t taught what power is. They’re taught what power
is in such an ambiguous, amorphous, really complicated way. I spent
two years working on a project on how ‘humanitarian intervention’
in the south of Sudan is nothing more than an exercise of continuing
imperialism. I did a documentary on relief workers and how turn-over
rates among of relief workers and the psychological dilemmas of
among those with good intentions are just part of the larger U.S.
foreign policy machine.
It wasn’t until after I returned to Providence, when I started
working with certain community groups, that I learned that organizing
starts at home. The world is a grid of power relations, and you
can attack, and you can restructure, and you can really address
that grid of power relations wherever you are in the world. Wherever
you are in the world you can deal with it: it’s a matter of
staring into the grid and finding out which is the best entry point
in order to change or restructure the grid the way you want it changed.
For me, at that time, I realized it wasn’t about going to
Sudan or wasn’t about doing any of that stuff: it is was about
how, in Providence, we could change that grid of power relations.
I was hired by Jobs for Justice as the full-time director and worked
on the Living Wage campaign, and two years later we are still working
on the campaign.
I would say the primary difference between my student activism
and my current activism is that as a student at Brown University
for four years, I wasn’t taught what organizing was. Not in
the classroom, and not outside the classroom. I did some organizing,
but I didn’t know what it was called. There were teach-in’s
on some things, but it was more of an exercise in education and
not in action.
When I was a student, and certainly after I was a student, I had
so much ideological “blah-blah”. I was taught to be
the liberal and critically think and critically examine all of this
stuff, but I would still get nervous if I walked into a union hall
with mostly Latina women. Race issues, gender issues, class issues--
all these things. Now I’ve reached a point where I don’t
think twice: half my day is spent with workers.
I think students, more than anything, to be a successful activists,
need to learn to take risks and make yourself look ridiculous. That
means dealing with a certain level of fear, and understanding that
you’re not in control of the situation. When we work with
the Brown students, we’ve been really trying to encourage
them to go to union meetings and to figure out easy ways to talk
with workers. It’s an easy thing to do, but there’s
a level of anxiety there that only experience can overcome.
People often think of Living Wage
campaigns as focused solely on increasing worker wages and benefits.
But many activists picture the Living Wage campaigns as part of
a much larger struggle. What’s a successful Living Wage campaign
Our Living Wage campaign means nothing if two things don’t
happen: number one, we do a successful job of figuring out ways
to change the debate about economic development in our city and
our state. For us, this means going into community centers, going
into church parish basement halls, doing bilingual workshops over
and over again about what bottom-up economic development is and
what it means. This means going through the basics, looking at how
cities are structured, where the revenue comes in and how the revenue’s
distributed, and very basically going through this stuff and saying
“we can think about this different ways.” If we’re
not able to change minds, and change the way the debate is shaped
around economics, we will have failed the Living Wage campaign even
if it passes.
Second, the campaign is useless and nothing more than a shadow
of my ego or someone else’s glory if we don’t shift
the power grid like I was saying earlier. We have two workers in
our campaign who are now running for political office, and, of two
more people who have been active in the campaign, one’s running
for Senate and one’s running for City Council. I can give
you concrete examples of how we’re changing the way leadership
happens in the state by putting a bus monitor on the radio or putting
a teacher’s assistant on the nightly news. Now they are the
new Latino leader, when previously the Latino leader was the corporate
person from Fleet Bank, Rhode Island.
We’re trying to create and change who the leaders are. But
in the process, the way the power grid changes is when we bring
200 workers to city hall and they realize that city hall is messed
up. Then they realize what’s the next step: “Okay, you
run for office.” Elections don’t always change the power
grip, but people understanding how city politics work and taking
shape of the issue for themselves will.
So those are the two things. If we’re not able to change
the debate on economic development in the state, and if we haven’t
built power for low-wage workers, changing the way low-wage workers
relate to their union, the way they relate to their communities,
and the way they relate to their supposed leaders, then we will
have failed. But I think, on both of those, we’ve done a pretty
good job overall.
The Brown activists I’ve
interviewed have mixed feelings about the campus campaign. At the
same time, support and enthusiasm for the city campaign has grown.
How have the students contributed to the city campaign?
Brown activists have done a number of things for the city campaign:
first and foremost, they always bring students to events, which
is always nice.
There’s a couple stories: number one, they produced a comic
for our the kick-off for our living wage campaign. The comic was
put in the hands of the electrical workers union. The comic basically
implied that the trade unions were racist, and so that comic basically
got one of our closest allies in the trades drop out of Jobs for
Justice and drop out of the Living Wage Campaign. So that was a
harmful effect the SLA had on our campaign.
One our most important votes on the City Council is the area of
town that Brown University sits in and a lot of the students live
in. So we’ve asked them over the last year to really dedicate
themselves to building a strong committee and building up strong
relationships (good ally organizing) with businesses, with churches,
with community groups, and with residents that live around Brown.
They’ve been disappointing in a lot of ways in making promises,
and when not being able to fulfill those promises, not saying “we
can’t do it.” We invested a lot of our coalition time
in trying to build relationships with students that would do that.
However, it’s coming around again: in the last couple of
months they’ve been doing a lot more work. I think they’ve
done a good job in working on winning their particular vote. It’s
a simple question where we approach them and say, “We need
you to win one vote for us, and it’s where you live. You can
do it. Here’s a list of three hundred people in that ward
you can talk to.”
Academic economic theory and research
has a very mixed record with activists I’ve talked to. How
do you approach economic arguments in the Living Wage activism you
When I was a student at Brown, I tried taking so many economics
classes, and I ended up taking zero. I actually went through weeks
and weeks of these classes, and then just stopped. Part of it is
that you’re learning a poisonous language, and I was worried
about it poisoning me because the system is structurally messed
up. But I also think I haven’t done a good enough job of examining
(and I think I have now, because of this Living Wage campaig) how
one develops different economic development models. Now I can sit
in a room with the city’s finance director, the mayor, the
director of administration, and the head of the economic policy
council and can run them into the ground. The language they speak
is now the language I know and can deal with.
How do you deal with anti-Living
Wage groups, such as the Employment
Policies Institute? Groups such as these get funding from vested
interests, such as the restaurant industry. How do you compete?
It’s not about whether our propaganda’s better than
the other side’s—we have to show that it works. If it
doesn’t work, we need to think of something else, and if it
doesn’t work because we aren’t enforcing it, that’s
not good enough. If we think Living Wage ordinances are really going
to solve the problems of low-wage work, temp work, privatization,
the lack of a middle-class in our cities, we have to show that it
is doing that. I think ultimately, in terms of who’s on what
side in this nation, we have to be able to give concrete examples
of stories. We’re not going to win the fake numbers war. We’re
going to win it because we’re actually winning it. We think
that we have more truth than they do. We’re trying to win
a progressive proposal in a moderate (if that) city government.
Obviously, my identity is shaped by the work I do as an organizer.
If three years down the line we pass this thing and it’s not
working, I’d be the first one to say let’s do something
different. If we don’t, then what’s the point? If we’re
not being honest with ourselves, it’s going to catch up with
us. I do think it’s a partisan battlefield and people are
wearing flags and making state flowers out of their campaigns, but
I think it’s going to catch up with you at some point if you’re
not falling on the right side of the issue.
Maybe that’s why I don’t like politics, or political
elections, or working on campaigns: it is about the win. I don’t
think it’s about winning. One of the legacies of Martin Luther
King, Jr. was that, above anything else, he was a great organization
builder. He was a tremendous organization builder. He built breadth
and width in the organization, from SCLC to SNCC. I think he was
almost there, but it shows you his inability to really do that,
because when he died, they died.
The point is that Living Wage campaigns are about a different type
of infrastructure building that activists and community organizers
forgot over the last thirty years. They’ve forgotten how to
do it. And Living Wage campaigns are an attempt to rebuild that
infrastructure that’s been lost.
What advice to you have for the
students working on Living Wage campaigns?
I think students have the ability to be amazing organizers in four
The first way is, since they are at centers of knowledge production,
to utilize their location. For instance: we have to produce newspapers,
fliers, research reports, and analyses—all different kinds
of “sit at a computer for a couple of hours and hammer out
a fact sheet.” Students can do this. They have access to high-speed
computers, they have access to the internet, to big libraries—they
can do this type of research for campaigns such as ours.
The second thing is, since again the universities are the center
of knowledge production, students have the capcity to hold public
forums, workshops, teach-ins, and anything else they can do to expose
the issue and try to find the truth about the issue. We keep pushing
the Brown Student-Labor Alliance to do public forums, to bring in
some academics, some activists, the Chamber of Commerce representatives,
and host a debate. We keep pushing them to use the university as
a tool to get at the heart of the issue.
The third thing that student activists and student activism could
contribute to a living wage campaign is the ability to energize
and bring a vitality. The workers in our campaign are mostly bus
monitors, teacher’s assistants, and bus drivers. And these
are mostly 33-50 year old Dominican, Bolivian, Haitian, and Liberian
low-wage immigrant workers. They’re working two jobs, and
when we have a meeting and stuff, students have the ability to make
puppets, drums, and a real youthfulness to meetings. I think that
is really, really powerful. The success of a campaign can turn on
the energy in a room where you have a meeting.
The fourth thing is utilizing, again, the location of where students
are, which means utilizing the power of their university and organizing
inside their university. A large part of what, in the past year,
I’ve tried to encourage among the campuses we work with (which
is Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island College, and
the University of Rhode Island) is building multi-issue or multi-racial
coalitions on campus. How do you as a student-labor alliance (you’re
all white kids) talk to other student groups who are on campus around
this issue? Because, you know what, when you graduate you’re
going to be like me and you’re going to have to be doing the
same thing. You might as well start now.
Utilize the power of the corporations. The university is a corporation
in the sense that it tries to influence sweat-shop policies and
living wage policies on campus. What happened at Harvard is a key
way to utilize the power of your university to influence other campaigns.
In fact, the effect of the Harvard Living Wage campaign was to make
the living wage issue on everyone’s mind in Providence—that
helps us. That helps us tremendously.
Understand that a lot of students have fathers and mothers who
are corporate executives. I think it is just a simple matter of
talking to them, saying, “I want to talk to you tonight. I’m
learning about this, the living wage campaign means this, this,
and this, and this is why it’s important.” Put a lot
of time into it and understand that there’s a lot of political
and economic power of parents at Brown University.
The difference between an advocate and an organizer is that an
advocate wants to win, and an organizer wants to build. It’s
not about winning a Living Wage ordinance, it’s about building
a coalition, and it’s about building one that has power. What
we’ve done is create a coalition of over 200 small businesses,
community groups, ministers, and many other groups. We had to do
the painful, painful work of organizing one person by one person.
It is less about wages and it’s more about putting a coalition
in place so that three years from now we can raise the Living Wage
even higher. If we win this in Providencem we will take it to the
state level. And what do we need to do at the state level? We have
to build coalitions.
For me, it’s a glorious victory when we can have our coalition
meetings and everyone shows up and there’s a sense of camaraderie,
togetherness, solidarity, and all this other stuff. For me, that’s
the primary goal of the Jobs for Justice coalition: to rebuild the
movement. That’s the painful work of organizing.