Latest updates & projects from Lisa Fithian.
On Halloween of 2013, there was a devastating flood in Austin, TX. It was not huge ongoing news around the country and many people in Austin never registered it was going on. It was like a mini-lower 9th ward. Fast and furious flood waters coming in during the early morning hours. Six people were killed, 1000 homes affected, almost 700 were majorly damaged. People had to escape onto their roofs, some were airlifted by helicopter or taken out by boat. Lots of animals were lost, 22 horse killed – you get the picture, it was bad.
Because I had a connection with someone who lived in the flood zone several of us were able to get in during the early days to help gut homes, distribute what we could and provide a hot meal. Austin Common Ground in fact was born an for two solid months we provided a hot meal everyday, distributed clothes, food, tools, heaters and so on. Unlike Katrina however, thousands did not come to help and since the residents were denied Federal FEMA assistance.
As you might imagine the communities are working class, multi-racial and strongly immigrant in some areas. Even the faith-based, non-profit and voluntary agencies were not pulling things together to coordinate the disaster recovery work. Well on February 24th, when the person leading the effort stepped down and no one stepped up, guess who couldn’t take it anymore and stood up?
I don’t know how I get myself into these things, but in collaboration with a bunch of the residents the Travis Austin Recovery Group, TARG was created. I am now happy to say that six months later I am able to pass on the work since we were able to hire an Executive Director and knowing that I am leaving a pretty solid organization behind. It is good to know that the effective and compassionate work to meet the needs of the survivors of the Onion Creek Halloween Floods will continue until the work is done! Disasters get woven through you and while most of my work is done I will continue to support this struggle where and when I can. We just put together a Progress Report on our first six months of work….
For the past year I have been involved in a local organizing effort to address racial disparity and disproportionality in Austin. Some people say Austin is the most anti-Black city they know and I have no reason to doubt it. Across the board African Americans are at the bottom of every system in our community. There is plenty of data to back that up.
Our primary strategy has been to organize Undoing Racism trainings to build a stronger base of organizers and leaders who speak the same language and who have a common analysis and then organizing a network and projects that will build community power.
We are working with the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond. I was first trained by PISAB bac in the late 80’s when I was a Coordinator at the Washington Peace Center during a seven year process to transform the Peace Center from an all white group in a city that was majority people of color. I worked together again after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans when I was organizing with Common Ground Collective and Common Ground Relief. They trained thousands of young people who came to volunteer. It was pretty life changing work in pretty rugged conditions. Now this exciting work in Austin is taking root.
What I am excited about is the work of Undoing Racism Austin has traction and it is exciting to think about the potential of organizing toward the vision of Austin being a leader in racial equity. Several years back we organized a participatory democracy process called the that generated a community plan for the City of Austin to be a leader in sustainability. The materials and report can be found here Eco-Change Exchange.
Many of the items in this report have been achieved and now we are organizing again. This time we are taking on the root of pretty much all of our problems and issues…racism. We are already seeing positive signs of change and increasing energy.
Back in the summer of 2011, I met with a group of organizers who were thinking about a prolonged action to block the Keystone XL Pipeline in eastern Texas. It was a good conversation and the bold young group kicked off what became the Tar Sands Blockade. They sat in the trees for over a month, forcing the pipeline to find a new route and launching a new chapter in the history of environmental resistance. They also offered a current alternative to the popular model of orchestrated civil disobediences rooted in cooperation with the state.
The Tar Sands Blockade captured the imagination and hearts of many young people and more who traveled to Texas, Nebraska and other state impacted or threatened with pipeline to add their support to the residents who are standing up and saying no. From community organizing, public education, legal strategies, corporate campaigns, direct action, and more, TSB has been doing all they can to thwart these destructive pipelines. ACT has been able to support TSB with a strategy training and another strategic planning retreat in early 2013. The fight is far from over, but the passion, wisdom and talent of these young people may in fact turn this around!
Just when you think there is some room to breathe, some political space for calm, it’s amazing how a possible war can quickly creep in. While the conflict in Syria has been ongoing, with deadly serious consequences, it was the use of chemical weapons that ignited the possibility of the use of military force by the United States. We all mobilized, convened strategy conversations and made a plan to stop another war. This work was able to mobilize majority opposition to military action in about a month. The US Government threat of possible weapons of mass destruction was too reminiscent of the horrors of the Bush Administration and we were not prepared to go down that road again. There was a quick and effective global response and a new way opened to destroy those weapons. The process is still moving forward today.
This August, I was happy to attend the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington that marked Dr, Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. There was a synergy about it. I had served on the National Steering Committee for the 25th Anniversary of the March when I was the Coordinator of the Washington Peace Center. Now at the 50th Anniversary I was serving as the National Convener for United for Peace and Justice, a national network of local and national peace groups. We mobilized a small contingent to bring our bright message to this Anniversary. We gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where we laid a wreath, shared a few words and then with the support of the NY Light Brigade held a procession to the Lincoln Memorial and then on to the King Monument. The sad and perverse thing about the night is that at the King Monument we tried to spell out “I have a dream” with our light boards and the Park Police, armed with automatic weapons, forced us to leave. Our effort to leave the wreath was successful but our later efforts to take a photo of the monument with the word DREAM were again met with an overwhelming show of state power. About 10 police arrived as back up to stop the photo op of King’s message in lights at the monument itself!
The march the next day felt great despite the sea of barricades set up to control the flow (I wonder who is on the board of the barricade makers’ companies…). There was a sea of humanity, young, old, black, white, yellow and brown. Everyone was happy and the generosity of spirit was palpable. United for Peace and Justice made posters and distributed thousands for free. It was great to see how many people wanted something with the word peace on it.
In fact, in our organizing in advance of the march, one woman spoke of the importance of not seeing the peace movement as a separate movement but seeing instead that people in every movement are supportive of peace. I wish after all these years of organizing that I felt like this is true, and I know that at times it is. The march United for Peace and Justice initiated February 15, 2001 was the largest global mobilization in history – 11 million people said no to the US war in Iraq.
But it was now over ten years later and Trayvon Martin had just been killed, voting rights were under attack and a possible war with Syria was starting to brew. Our country has been reeling from the economic collapse and mass wealth theft of 2008, the awe of the Arab Spring and the rapidly growing Take the Square and Occupy movements. This was an important time to be in the streets and I was so glad that I was. I got to see friends new and old. I got to feel the power of the youth. I got to hear the songs on the breeze, carrying us all. It was just a great day all in all and I hope that the seeds once again planted grow strong and deep until we meet again.
On June 25th, Wendy Davis engaged in a filibuster to stop the ALEC-backed Republican drive to strip the people of Texas of their access to abortion and other reproductive health care. I was in the Capitol Extension when the Republican’s third attempt to shut her down succeeded and women spread throughout the building surged toward the Senate Chambers. We began to roar. Over the next few minutes, history was made. The proceedings struggled to continue, stymied by the noise. Though a vote was finally taken, it was after midnight and the session was technically over. Confusion arose, so the Republicans changed the clock to say the vote was complete by midnight and the Second Special Session was closed. This is how it goes down in Texas.
Luckily, some trusty photographers had photos of the vote and the clock and were able to prove that David Dewhurst was lying. So the Republicans were forced to call a Third Special Session that would require hearings and action by both Houses again.
It was here that a new phase of work began. ACT initiated a meeting with close to 70 people from many groups who agreed to form an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, reproductive justice direct action initiative. Rise Up Texas was born and quickly began to organize to include those voices previously left out of the debate and to prepare for nonviolent action.
Rise Up worked hard to coordinate and collaborate with all the various forces, but found ourselves marginalized again and again. What a shame. Opportunities like this do not often arise and when they do, it is so important to pursue them. In the end it became clear that our goals were different. The more mainstream groups saw the filibuster itself as the victory and began working to position Wendy Davis to run for Governor. Our goals were to make sure that the Legislators and public new about the impact on poor, rural, and marginalized communities, and show that the people of Texas were not going to take this lying down but that we were rising up and fighting back.
The stories go on and on about all the hearings and testimonies, the all nighters, the great actions – shoes, drums, letters and more, singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” as an anthem, tampon-gate, Dewhurst lying about protestors smuggling in shit, that they completely missed the chains that allowed some brave young women to lock down with painful images of the consequence of illegal abortions. Then there was the nonviolent sit-in, dispersed brutally by police, several were tased and two were taken to the hospital, one needed for stitches in his head. There has been no consequence yet for any of this. Despite the brutality Rise Up mobilized when the Governor prepared to sign the bill into law – we silently held the space for those who could die as a result of their actions and then we wailed and wailed so he could not sign the bill in peace.
Our work made international and national news with stories and images in major dailies and new station. The women of Texas did not take this lying down and we are continuing to organize to turn this around.
I had the privilege of offering training at the Transit Workers Union Young Workers Summit in New York City. It was April 30th, a day before their May Day in mid-town Manhattan. The action went beautifully, with everyone having a strong feeling of empowerment. We were successful at achieving all of the goals – including getting into every lobby we intended in order to deliver their message. This new experience will go a long way I think in empowering the young workers to build a powerful union – in the buses, subway and in the streets. Check out this TWU May Day Action here (more…)
It is amazing for me to see grassroots community institutions like the Washington Peace Center not only survive – but thrive for 50 years! WPC holds a special place in my heart. I served as a coordinator there from 1987-1994 when I left to join the labor movement. I learned so much here about building organization, coalitions and movement building as we worked to build an anti-racist, multi-cultural organization in the Nation’s Capitol. I am so proud of the Washington Peace Center and it’s terrific staff including Sonia Silbert and Dany Sigwalt! It was wonderful to see so many old friends and new singing, eating, sharing stories and dancing the night away. Here are links to photos and the new WPC 50th Anniversary Video just released!
On April 29, the Kalmanovitz Initiative at Georgetown University launch their digital history project on the DC Justice for Janitors Campaign. Justice for Janitors changed the lives of thousands of people and set a new model for winning in the labor movement. Since 2010, at Georgetown we’ve been collecting the stories of DC Justice for Janitors—union activists, politicians, employers, community leaders, and janitors themselves. I played a fairly significant role in organizing the actions and the bridge blockades. I have worked on many a janitor campaign since include Denver, LA, Boston and Houston. I learned so much from the janitors and organizers in this work and in many ways it has helped me build the template for what I call Kicking Corporate Booty. Check it out here: Justice for Janitors Digital History Project I also wrote a small piece about it in Beautiful Trouble which you can check out here: Beautiful Trouble Justice for Janitors Case Study.
I love going through my files. I am always finding cool things. I happened upon this recently and am only now getting to post it. This is a great graphic image that illustrated what happens at the intersection of the major oppressive systems. This is from the National Organizers Alliance, NOA Gathering V at Sonoma State University in CA during July of 2001. Doesn’t this just about sum it up? (more…)