N'Tanya Lee

Guardian voices: Finally, rights for domestic workers


The national domestic workers’ movement is on the cusp of making history in California. Any day now, the state’s Domestic Bill of Rights (AB 899) – only the second such piece of legislation in the country – could be passed on the Senate floor, finally bringing respect and recognition to 200,000 workers who have been systematically excluded from labor laws for 74 years.

In what could be the final hours of this hard-fought, multi-year campaign, grassroots domestic worker leaders are counting on a rising tide of public support to finally bring victory. Earlier in the month, the New York Times endorsed the bill (sponsored by our own Assemblyman Tom Ammiano), and last week’s video of support from “Rec & Park” actress Amy Poehler has led to a new surge in national support. You can learn about the group’s work and weigh in here, today.

I’ve been inspired by the National Domestic Workers Alliance since its founding in 2007, and have been carefully watching its cutting-edge approach to women’s leadership, grassroots organizing, worker rights, and movement-building. But it was not until last week, when I talked at length with one of the movement’s grassroots leaders, that the politics of this struggle became personal.

On Aug. 21, I spoke to Emiliana Acopio, a caregiver with a gentle but strong voice, fiercely proud of the love and care she provides to elderly people and a determined leader of the CA Domestic Worker Bill of Rights campaign. She was on her way to Sacramento with hundreds of domestic workers and their supporters, for possibly the 12th time (she’s lost count), to educate legislators about domestic workers’ need for basic rights like a minimum wage, overtime, and the right to at least one day of rest each week. And in the process, she educated me.

I don’t think of myself as someone who depends on a domestic worker. But Acopio helped me to recognize that my 94 year-old grandfather’s mind, body, and spirit are all in such amazing shape in no small measure because of the devoted daily care of a remarkable woman named Sandra. I love my Grandpa Lee like a second father, but the home he treasures is in Delaware and my home is here, 3,000 away. He is famously sharp for 94, still able to tell hilarious and detailed coming-of-age stories from more than 70 years ago. He still sings in the church choir every Sunday. But the reality is that every day, he needs help.

Sandra arrives every morning at the same time. Grandpa is already sitting in his favorite chair, awaiting her arrival. She asks about Grandpa’s night, how he’s feeling today. She makes his coffee, with just the right amount of the same sugar and creamer he’s been using for decades.  She puts ice in his cereal, just the way he likes it. At the kitchen counter, she carefully counts out his many medications and pounds them into a little paste. She pauses in front of all those bottles, making note of which refills are needed. She mixes her perfect little paste with applesauce and gently sets the bowl and spoon in front of him. His day begins.

Sandra is not a biological relative, but the care and compassion she shows to my Grandpa Lee far exceeds what some of my own kin are capable of. She tell us that she does it as a labor of love — but the reality is that she is a caregiver worker, and like Acopio and 2.5 million other domestic workers in the nation, she does not have the labor protections that most US workers take for granted. Her wages and working conditions are completely dependent on my family’s sense of fairness. Should we fail or forget to pay her wages, she has little recourse. Should we lose our minds and begin demanding much more work for no more pay, what could she do? She is not a wealthy woman, and her family needs the income just as much as my Grandfather needs her support.

Acopio knows about the fundamental vulnerability of domestic workers – working behind closed doors, under-valued and exploited in the privacy of other people’s homes:

They hired me to take care of their elderly parents but then expected me to cook, clean, and care for the entire family. And they were very disrespectful to me. I did all I could to make sure their needs were met, and it was important to me that their aging family members felt loved and respected. But it hurt me, especially as a Filipina taking care of a Filipino family, that I was not given that same basic respect. That’s what this is all about. Our work makes all other work possible; we need the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights because we deserve respect, recognition, and dignity.

Acopio shared with me the challenges of organizing domestic workers, the need to share personal stories and organizing victories to break through the immobilizing fear so many women – mostly immigrant women of color – face.  We were talking on the phone with the help of a translator, and it wasn’t until the interview was over that her translator explained to me that Acopio – grassroots leader, fighter for worker rights, and a longtime caregiver for the elderly – was elderly herself. At 79, she continues to work to help provide for her family back home in the Philippines.

It’s been 74 years since federal labor law finally gave most US workers rights like the eight-hour day, overtime, and breaks. But farmworkers and domestic workers were intentionally excluded from that law. The legacy of white supremacy and slavery meant that at the time, fully 65 percent of all Black workers labored in one of those two occupations, and there was a white elite interested in keeping it that way. Black domestic workers and civil rights leaders lobbied against this clearly racist exclusion, but that legacy of racism remains with us to this day.

Despite the organized efforts of Black domestic workers and other women of color – like the groundbreaking campaigns of the National Domestic Workers Union founded by Black domestic worker Dorothy Bolden in 1968 – it wasn’t until the National Domestic Worker Alliance consolidated more than 30 domestic worker organizations and won the groundbreaking NY Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in 2010  that hundreds of thousands of women of color workers finally have basic labor protections.

While the historic role of Black women as domestic workers – as exploited workers, courageous organizers, and even as the critical foot soldiers of the victorious Mongtomery Bus Boycott — is unfortunately ignored or misrepresented in the media, history books, and even sometimes in multi-racial settings, it is never, ever too late to fight the legacy of racism in the United States. The modern-day domestic worker’s movement is largely led by Asian and Latina immigrant women, and their fierce, creative, multi-generational and holistic approach to building this movement has lessons for everyone who cares about justice.

Time Magazine named NDWA director Ai-Jen Poo as one of the world’s most influential people back in April of this year. It was incredible, and provided an entirely new level of national attention to campaigns like the CA Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. But media attention is not the victory that 2.5 million workers want – it’s protection under the law.

What my grandfather’s caregiver receives in wages could not ever properly compensate her for her labor of love. All domestic workers – caregivers, childcare providers and housekeepers– do their work with care and compassion. They also have the right to basic respect, recognition and rights in the workplace. The thousands of stories of wage theft, failure to provide time for rest for live-in workers, and never-ending vulnerability to other acts of exploitation are simply unacceptable.

Stand with me, thousands of organized domestic workers, hundreds of domestic worker employers, the AFL-CIO, the state NAACP and more than 14,000 petition-signers; support the CA Domestic Worker Bill of Rights today. Call your Senator or Governor Jerry Brown today at (916), 445-2841. Go here for more information and help make history.

Guardian Voices: Hassle-free housing


I’m talking to the amazing organizers at Causa Justa:: Just Cause (CJJC) about their work to protect homeowners from foreclosure by the big banks, about their long history of tenants’ rights work, and what they are up to right now. Blanca Solis says they’ve launched a new campaign for what they’re calling the “Hassle-Free Housing” ordinance. She’s a grassroots leader from CJJC, and she’s asking for our support. To protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords. To stop unfair evictions. To stop wringing our hands about gentrification and families leaving the city. She says we can do something very straightforward to keep working families in their homes.
On Tuesday July 31st, Solis will join other tenant leaders, advocates and supporters at city hall to call for an end to tenant harassment by landlords. The San Francisco Tenants Union will be there. Organizers at CJJC have learned from years of experience with Latino tenants struggling to make ends meet in the midst of this rapidly gentrifying city that “one of the quickest and cheapest ways to evict a tenant is by harassing them until the situation becomes unbearable and the tenant moves on their own. Whey they leave, the landlord has an empty unit that they can rent to new tenants at market-rate rent.”
Faced with a pattern of such blatantly unfair practices, tenant activists took the issue to the voters in 2008; when “Prop M” passed, it was an important victory for this still-majority-renter-city. But then, the landlord’s lawyers got hold of it, and sued to stop implementation.
No one seems to be denying that landlords do this, and that it’s wrong. But what can a family do to stop the harassment, hold on to their housing and get some relief? Here’s where the “Hassle-Free Housing” ordinance comes in. It builds on Prop M and addresses the landlords’ legal issue. It would “allow tenants to claim damages from their landlords for each incident of harassment in small claims court to collect statutory damages of up to $2,000 for each incident.”
Sounds good, let’s do it. City Hall – get on it.
All over San Francisco, probably every night, people are sitting around shaking their heads about how expensive the city has become. How families have been pushed and priced out. Folks shrug and say “But, what can you do?”
There is a long, proud, and painful history in San Francisco of everyday people organizing to put a stop to unfair evictions, developer-driven displacement, and the over-production of luxury housing. From the African American community’s fight to save the Fillmore from redevelopment’s “negro removal” in the 1960s, to the Filipino-led struggle to stop the eviction of elderly men at the I-Hotel in the 1970s, and to Mission activists’ campaigns to control land use during the intense gentrification of the 1990’s dot-com boom. (Just this week there’s a big celebration marking the 35th Anniversary of the I-Hotel struggle.) 
These “housing justice” fights are ultimately about who has the power to shape the future of our city and who has the power to determine who can and cannot afford to live here. That’s where we all come in – all of us who are renters whose lives will be better with a “Hassle-Free Housing” ordinance; all of us whose housing is insecure – because we fear foreclosure or are a paycheck away from homelessness. This is an issue of people power, and you can do something now – attend the press conference at 10am tomorrow on the steps of City Hall, or go to CJJC’s website to sign up as a campaign supporter. Being right is good, but ultimately it’s people power that matters.
When Solis was asked why she joined the hassle-free housing campaign and why she’s coming to City Hall tomorrow, she said:
“Que los supervisores aseguren que los inquilinos estemos protegidos de los desalojos injustos por parte de los caseros y asi mismo vivamos en lugares dignos, seguros y libres de hostigamiento”
“So that the supervisors can ensure that we, tenants, are protected from illegal and unjust evictions by landlords and be able to live in homes that are dignified, safe and free of harassment”
Solis and the other incredible grassroots leaders at CJJC are full of courage and determination, and have not given up hope that there is a bright future for San Francisco. Let’s join them!

Guardian Voices: My San Francisco


I’ve spent the last 12 years learning to love and sometimes hate San Francisco, and I’ve made it my home. A few months after my 31st birthday, I drove out here from the midwest to contribute to social change in a place where I could be Black, LGBT, and a community organizer – and not be forced to have my dyke identity matter quite so much. (More on that history somewhere else…) While doing grassroots community work in this city, I found love, made life-long friends, started a family and developed an incredible multi-ethnic community that has deeply enriched my life. Over the years, we’ve shared moments of tragedy and the sweetness of victory, and all of it together has defined a “San Francisco experience” quite different from what I expected. And quite different from what the tour guides sell.

Over these years, I developed an analysis of the political, economic and cultural life of this incredibly contradictory city. I’ve come to understand the structural roots of gentrification, the nature of corporate elite rule in a supposedly progressive town, and the challenges white activists face dealing with the complexities of politics in a “majority minority” city. But most of all, it’s the people in my particular San Francisco who I’ve come to love, and I’m now carrying all of their stories with me as I move in new directions. 

My San Francisco is the people rarely quoted in the local media and most often mentioned only in the context of one social problem or another. They are the mostly poor and working-class families of color I’ve been learning from all these years, people whose daily suffering goes mostly unnoticed, whose political leadership is rarely respected, and whose view of San Francisco is rarely taken into account. This is the San Francisco largely off the political and geographic map, where neither tour buses nor politicians tend to go.

My San Francisco has been in the southeast quarter, the Frisco where people work hard and do whatever is necessary to feed their families, have loud family BBQs in the park, and rock their Giants gear as much and as often as possible. The folks getting evicted, foreclosed on, and displaced by being priced out. They are Black and Latino folks who’ve joined grassroots organizations — mostly women — who make incredible daily sacrifices to change the world. They are volunteer community organizers, who might go to school or take care of other people’s children during the day, and organize for change one meeting at a time, at night. They face the threat of deportations, police harassment, and stressful low-wage work. When they join a membership-based organization, they get a community with shared values and support, but they don’t get money, status or personal power. The Frisco families I know and love don’t identify as “moderate” or “progressive,” but they know that rich people don’t have the right to rule the world, that public education and decent housing should be basic human rights, and that it makes no sense, in the middle of such deep unemployment, to raise bus fares and make it more expensive to take the bus to work. They have compassion, common-sense, critical thinking, and courage. They should be running the city.

The grassroots leaders, activists and organizers who’ve become such an intimate part of my life and whose stories now make up “my San Francisco” don’t align nicely with most dominant ideas about this place. They are not cool, cosmopolitan and carefree. But neither are they simply victims of downtown’s political power. Their leadership is the only hope for this city that I have.

It’s the young Black women with heartbreaking stories of brothers and cousins lost through gun violence, and with less public but equally horrifying private horrors of sexual violence and abuse that have traumatized them to their core.  But they are proud to be born and raised in this city and are leading community meetings, developing campaign strategies, educating their peers about Prop. 13 and their right to quality education. I have their tears, their youthful giggles, and their dreams for the future, all here in my head. 

I have the stories of undocumented Latina immigrant women, who too suffered sexual abuse when crossing the border, but now here in the US take incredible risks and do practically everything in their power to ensure their children have a better life than their own. I have the sound of their laughter together, often in Spanish —  of  these mamas, as they make plans to call 100 people for the next meeting, and the shaking in their voice when they rise to speak out in public against the racism they witness in our public schools. These women in my San Francisco have knocked on thousands of doors, talked to tens of thousands of people about the pressing issues of our times. But they are ignored on the streets of our city and in the halls of power, invisible to so many middle class, often white, professionals and activists who just don’t know, understand, or appreciate this ‘other’ San Francisco.

I love this San Francisco, and my hope is that this column can lift up these stories in coming weeks and months. San Francisco will never, ever, become the city of our dreams until the people doing the hard, often invisible work of grassroots organizing in the communities most impacted by city’s contradictions, play a more central role in defining the city’s politics. There is new leadership emerging in communities of color, and the future of San Francisco lies in their power.

Guardian Voices: A place for rage


Just a few weeks ago, my partner came home from work in South San Francisco to tell me some horrifying news. A cop had killed a boy she knew, a Black eighth grader named Derrick Gaines. We looked at each other in the way we do when there is too much to say, our eyes wet, our hearts racing, our rage too big for words. We held our son extra tight that night.

Ayoka went to the funeral last Thursday, and was finally able to shed a few of what felt like a mountain of tears inside of her. She supported family and friends who were overwhelmed with grief, and listened to people’s efforts to make sense of this madness. But for anyone who can see the humanity of this young Black man, there is no way for his murder to make any damn sense at all.

I don’t know and I don’t care if Derrick was what the news calls “a good kid” or a “troubled kid,” a “gangbanger” or a straight-A student. What I do know, what matters to my heavy heart, and what is at the source of my rage, is that Derrick was a human being, that he was a kid, that a cop killed him needlessly and that he will most likely get away with it. There will be no apologies, no accountability, no recognition that the cop had many other options than to shoot and kill. And the absence of all this will be another silent attack on our psyche, an unstated affirmation of Black inferiority, of the lesser value of Black lives.

Derrick’s tragic murder has captured less attention than that of Trayvon Martin, but they both have weighed especially heavily on my heart. Both young, Black and male, they were supposedly “looking suspicious” in a non-Black neighborhood. Both Derrick and Trayvon were teenagers minding their business. Neither was in the midst of committing a crime – which would not in any case justify their murder but does draw attention to the degree to which their Blackness itself was apparently the crime being committed.

Both Derrick and Trayvon are dead, no one is safer, and Derrick’s four-year-old brother is left to struggle with the reality that his big brother will never be coming home again. I’ve been to more than my fair share of police accountability protests. But today, on this 4th of July, something is rising up in me that is new. It has to do with the place for rage.

Anybody Black in America has a strategy, conscious or not, for dealing with rage. Some of us are lucky and stumble upon socially productive paths – we serve, we organize for change, we become leaders in our church. Others are less lucky and make choices that lead to violence and self-destruction. Some of us stay permanently in a place of rage, and become one kind of crazy or another.

I confess to having been, for all these years, a fairly reasonable sister, reticent to fully voice my heartbreak, pain and rage about the state of my people. But I’m reconsidering this path.

The moment clearly calls for a new way. We may have a Black president, but these are dark times. It’s Trayvon and Derrick. It’s the Supreme Court’s racist ruling on SB1070, allowing the blatant racial profiling of the “papers please” provision to move forward. All the talk about government agents stopping black and brown people in the street takes me back to slave times, when we needed papers to leave the plantation, when white men were paid to hunt for fugitive slaves, and why my great great great grandfather took his family to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It was time to protect his family and leave the madness of the United States of America.

The Black Community faces Depression-level unemployment, a resurgence racist Right and a level of state violence in our everyday lives that is largely invisible to most non-Black people. We have the greatest number of Black people incarcerated of any time in American history; there are more Black men under the control of the criminal justice system today than there were in slavery in 1850. In supposedly progressive San Francisco, Mayor Lee is openly considering New York’s notoriously racist “stop and frisk” policing policy. And even without such a draconian measure, the data already tell us that the majority of Black boys in San Francisco have been stopped, harassed, or arrested by the local cops by the time they become adults.

In the face of what can only be considered extreme conditions, extreme violence and extreme disenfranchisement amongst my people, I confess that I have failed to take the extraordinary measures that are plainly necessary.

See, the thing is, I had good home training and was socialized to be a nice Black girl. I can code-switch and communicate with nearly anyone with a passion that generally gains respect. Even when in the midst of political battle I don’t scream and holler, and have allowed any number of white people to do and say racist things and get away unharmed. Like so many of us, I try to be a Black person with dignity, without losing my shit. As Michael Jackson would say, I’m a lover not a fighter. This strategy has helped me gain social status, an elite education, and some middle class comforts of American life.

So what to do with this rage? What’s the path beyond reasonableness that does not lead to self-destruction? On this 4th of July, I’m remembering our freedom fighters Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and asking them for wisdom. In my own way and in these times, I want to walk with faith and fearlessness as they did, and not be afraid to put my body on the line for freedom. What sacrifices will we all need to make? What creature comforts or career plans will we need to put aside? What will it take to build a movement that lifts up the value of Black life and our place in a better, more just society?

In Michelle Alexander’s stunning book The New Jim Crow, she makes a clear case that since we won the formal battle against Jim Crow in the 1960s, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” This contemporary, supposedly colorblind, system of mass incarceration and social control of Black people makes our work more complicated, our moral outrage less understandable and our courage ever more necessary.

Let’s build a movement for racial justice, honor our rage, and find a way to be the Frederick Douglass’ and Harriet Tubmans of the 21st century that these times require.

To support Derrick Gaines’ family, donations can be made at any Wells Fargo to the ‘Derrick Gaines Memorial Fund’ account #: 1636477653.

You can check out Michelle Alexander’s work on the New Jim Crow here. And stay tuned for community organizing against attempts to bring “Stop and Frisk” to SF.

Guardian voices: Outside the Bay Area Bubble


This week I’m back in the midwest, where my roots are strong and my mother is approaching her retirement years. I’m thinking about the vast geographic and cultural distance –both real and imagined — between the San Francisco, California where I now live, and the great state of Iowa, which made me so much of who I am.

Here I am, sweating through a ridiculously muggy midwest summer heatwave, thinking about how it is that I am black, a lifelong social justice activist and organizer, and a married, dyke mama who hails from a small, working-class Iowa town where sweet corn and tomatoes once grew in my own backyard.

When I tell people that I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, there is a kind of shocked silence I’ve become accustomed to. I’m used to people’s confusion about how I – given my politics and identities — could possibly be from such a place. And, while I find it extremely problematic, I’ve also gotten used to a dismissive arrogance about Iowa, a comfortable ignorance about the heartland, and a total failure to comprehend why I long for my Nana’s lilac-lined house at 1339 10th Street and why I have so much hope for middle America.

I work, organize and am raising a family in the “Bay Area bubble” but being from Iowa has developed in me core values that are decidedly anti-bubble, and deeply pro-working America. My ancestors built the wealth of this nation, and I consider the whole place mine – to love and rage over, to listen to and understand, to organize and to challenge. I have not committed my life to social change just for a privileged few on the East and West Coasts. This is, fundamentally about all of us, the 99 percent in San Francisco, through the heartland, down South and all the way to upper tip of Maine.

My four-year-old son was born in San Francisco, and he is a proud Frisco kid through and through. We have a multi-racial community that dances and organizes for justice together, he considers Salvadoran pupusas a special treat, and he loves remembering the day the Giants won the World Series and it seemed like everyone in the city was a member of the same big family.

But today, I’m writing from a cramped apartment in a seven-story public housing building in Michigan where my mother now lives with her scores of books, photography equipment and cute dresses from QVC. She and I are from a clan of Gibsons, black folks from working-class Iowa where my great grandparents worked on the railroads, and where my grandfather slaughtered pigs and went on strike with his white coworkers to defend the gains of their union.

We’re from the Iowa, where my mother attended black churches as a child and found Islam as an adult, and where she, as a struggling single mother, read black feminist poetry and first fought battles with Ronald Reagan’s backwards welfare policies.

We’re from the Iowa that is a center of agribusiness and everything that’s bad about corporate food production in this country. We’re from the Iowa that rallied for Jesse Jackson’s run for president, voted for same-sex marriage, and where Obama won the caucuses back in 2008.

But Iowa has also gone from unionized, inter-racial meatpacking plants to non-union poultry factories that exploit undocumented Latino workers from as far away as El Salvador and Guatemela. We’re from the Iowa that is indeed mostly white, where my first best friend grew up – a sweet white working class red head – and our mothers shared survival stories of single, working-poor motherhood. And I’m from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa that, unlike San Francisco, is actually growing its black population and is home to a thriving center of African American community history.

For most of my adult life, as I’ve been marching against war and racism, I’ve also been defending this Iowa, fighting against the tendency toward self-righteous superiority I’ve found among too many activists in the Bay and on the East Coast. It’s the same arrogance that the Right exploits in its scandalous but effective pseudo-populist campaigns against so-called liberal elitism.

It’s my experience that people on the left think they know what it means to be Iowan. Iowans are used as stand-in for a stereotypical idea of backwards, irrationally racist white America that ‘doesn’t vote its class interests’; Iowa is a convenient marker for everything less cool, hip, cosmopolitan and liberal than, well, San Francisco.

This kind of dismissive arrogance leads to a refusal to develop, in any meaningful, long-term way, an organizing agenda for the majority of the country, and has been one of the errors of progressive politics for a long time.

We can change this. When we are thinking about the politics of immigration policy, Occupy Wall Street, gay marriage, the movement against corporate food policy, or the politics of race, poverty and labor unions, we have to think about Iowa. Think about the white working class Republicans. Think about my mom’s friend in Iowa, raised on an old fashioned farm and now leading an organic farming collective there. Think about the proud struggle for small farms, union work, and participatory democracy there.

And think about what it will really take to make the Bay, Iowa and the whole nation a place where we can all develop our full human potential, have true mutual respect for one another, and are able to struggle through our deep divisions without exclusionary moral superiority, top-down “we know what’s best for you” politics and where all of us who want to live out our old age on a quiet lilac-lined porch in Iowa, can do so in peace and dignity.
As we make our plan to build a new progressive majority, let’s stay open-minded and take our organizing to a whole new level.

Guardian Voices: On losing


I’m turning 43 today and feeling glad to be alive. I would love to be writing about the joy of raising children and the mysteries of the universe. But instead, today I’m thinking about last week’s elections, about losing and the nature of long-term struggle. I’m thinking about being born black in 1969, and how, in fact, our side has been losing my whole life. And while this sobering reality about the balance of forces in the nation could make a sane person completely despondent, today I’m considering it a challenge to radically rethink the way we progressives try to change the world. 

The truth is that despite historic victories and truly incredible grassroots organizing over the last several decades, we’ve been getting our asses kicked for a long, long time. Since the right and the state got together to crush people’s movements of the 1960s. Since the Republicans built this rightwing coalition, began pushing wedge politics, winning the hearts and minds of white working people, and winning elections all over the country. And since capitalism shifted gears in the 1970s – we call it neoliberalism now — and the war on poverty was pushed aside to make way for the war on poor people specifically and working people generally. Since then, our cities have lost good jobs, union members, safety net services, and in San Francisco, more than half of the entire black population.

Thanks to Fox News, billionaire Republicans, and fragmentation on the left, conservative ideas about government, about individual vs. institutional responsibility, and about the supposed virtues of free markets have taken a powerful hold over the thinking of most Americans. One result: Last week in Wisconsin, despite the truly historic mobilization against the right’s Scott Walker, labor and social justice forces lost a big one. And here in San Francisco, in the heart of the “left coast,” progressives lost control of the Democratic Party to that special brand of “moderate” big-business Democrats who are socially liberal but have been making me embarrassed to be a registered Democrat since – well, since Bill Clinton was in the White House.

Clinton’s “ending welfare as we know it” third-way politics made it ok to talk about ending poverty while at the same time helping people get rich at the expense of poor people all over the world. Gavin Newsom was our local version – more socially liberal, and therefore successfully confusing to a lot of people, but he was nonetheless made of the same cloth.

Are you ready for the good news? Well, not quite yet. I didn’t mention the economic crisis.

If this were a boxing match, I don’t think the referees would have trouble judging this one. The current economic crisis was indeed once a crisis for capitalists — some financial institutions were forced to close shop, other lost billions and Wall Street seemed for a while to be in complete disarray. At one point, one third of Americans supported the Occupy movement and thought socialism was something to consider.

But even taking the ongoing Eurozone crisis into account, the US corporate elites in 2012 are more like a dazed prize fighter momentarily wobbly on his feet than a boxer who’s down for the count. Now, four years after the financial crash, the crisis is primarily a crisis for the rest of us, and our suffering is real. Even the middle class has taken serious punches, and our communities are badly bruised.

Good political spin will not change these real conditions. And the problem is not that organizers and activists, here in the Bay and around the country, aren’t brave and brilliant and working just remarkably hard. And even creating new forms of activism and alliances for the 21st century. But we have to think differently about how we do politics.

Most fundamentally, after so many years of losing in one way or another, too many social justice activists have lost hope of ever winning a truly more just society. Too many of us have settled for short-term gains, defensive fights, and building organizational power.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m deeply committed to local organizing that builds leadership and political power and win’s concrete improvements in people’s lives. But we will certainly never see the society we hold in our dreams without a bold, audacious belief that we can in fact win and govern our city, our state, and the entire country. Like the right – which was, objectively speaking, once weak and playing defense — progressive forces have to share a common belief that we too can build a majority, that we can govern the entire country based on values of racial justice, equity, sustainability and the collective good.  There’s a big difference between losing and feeling, en masse, like losers.

There is so much already in motion to build upon, so much potential to seize the opportunities that this historic moment provides. Inspired by Arab Spring, we too can be bold and audacious in our visions of what’s possible. After we rally against what’s wrong, let’s make plans for how we are really going to solve the crises of the 21st century and make the world a better place. Local political battles are essential opportunities to build new leadership (especially in communities of color), to change everyday people’s consciousness, and defend the ground we’ve already won. Across the nation, more organizations should take lessons from efforts like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, San Francisco Rising, CA Calls, and the national Unity Alliance that are breaking the fragmentation of progressive forces, moving beyond organizational ego, and consolidating people power. But above all, we have to let go of the idea that it’s someone else’s role to run the world or that having power is just for self-serving politicians. Unafraid of power and determined to slug it out, let’s make my next forty years about how we turned it around, had the Right on the run, built a movement and a society that we are proud to leave our children.

We are not down for the count. We are still in the ring swinging. Our opponent is powerful, and we’re already weak from a long fight, but we have the capacity to regroup, take advantage of our opponent’s weaknesses and make the most of our strengths, plot a new offensive strategy, and win — and win decisively. Losing is part of political struggle, it’s part of history, but there are more rounds to go. And what’s even better, unlike boxing, in the real world of building a movement for social justice, we engage in the struggle together. What happens next is up for grabs, and history is ours to make.

N’Tanya Lee was formerly the director of Coleman Advocates and one of the founding members of San Francisco Rising. She’s a veteran organizer with racial justice and LGBT and youth movement struggles in New York City, Michigan and the Bay. She now works on national movement building projects, advises local social justice leaders and is raising a son with her wife in Southeastern San Francisco.

Racial justice: A to G spells victory


OPINION On Tuesday, May 19, poor and working-class families of color packed the San Francisco School Board with a powerful message of hope, opportunity, and justice: we want the right to a secure future in our own city. To get a good job here, we know we need a high quality education that prepares us for college, career, or union trade — not poverty or prison.

After a year of research, organizing, and talking to thousands of families, collecting 3,000 postcards, and mobilizing hundreds of parents and youth, our proposal — that every San Francisco student have access to the so-called A–G classes — was approved, setting the stage for a systemic change in our public schools that could dramatically improve the lives of tens of thousands of students of color over the next few years.

A–G describes the high school coursework that state colleges require for admission. Setting A-G as part of the graduation requirement will finally give low-income black and Latino students access to high expectations and our state college system.

We will have to stay on top of the district and monitoring will be intense and long-term, but we have parent and student leaders ready for the task, because their own lives are at stake.

Our experience is that thousands of parents and students get the issues, but that so many San Franciscans, even progressive ones, just don’t. In San Francisco, 75 percent of children are black, Latino, Asian, or Pacific Islander, and more than 80 percent of those families are low income. A full 90 percent of the students in public schools are students of color. This means kids’ issues in San Francisco are issues of racial and economic justice.

Our issues are often not the ones that make front page news. Education outcomes for black children — right here in San Francisco — are the worst of the state’s urban districts. But this gets lost in the inside baseball reporting about City Hall politics, the flinging about of political self-righteousness, and frankly, issues like JROTC.

We believe that organizing families for racial equity in our public school system is core to a progressive agenda in the 21st century. Consider the following.

•<\!s> Young people’s future in the 21st century San Francisco economy now requires a college education. More than 50,000 blue-collar jobs that paid a living wage without requiring a degree have disappeared from SF over the last generation.

•<\!s> Only one in three students from SF schools graduated from high school prepared for a four-year university in 2008. Without access to college and career-ready A-G classes, most graduating students weren’t even eligible for either the U.C. or California state universities or prepared for a union apprenticeship exam.

•<\!s> Most black, Latino and Pacific Islander students do not have access the A-G college, career, and union trade path in San Francisco. In fact, five out of six Latino students and 9 out of 10 African American students graduated without the A-G classes required to even be eligible for a U.C. or state university.

This new school board policy might be one of the most important steps toward racial equity in a generation. Join our work to make San Francisco public schools a vehicle of economic opportunity, racial justice and democracy. *

N’Tanya Lee is executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth.

SF, the next generation


OPINION Do you dream of a city where housing is affordable, where the diversity of our heritage is celebrated, where there are good schools in every neighborhood, where all children are safe, and where the next generation reaps the rewards of their families’ hard work?

This dream for San Francisco is possible. But it will require our determination to claim San Francisco as a city of opportunity for all. And it starts with our children — the 100,000 children who call this city their home today. They deserve the opportunity to see this dream come to life.

But the future being built before our eyes threatens these dreams and the values that have made San Francisco great. With 25,000 luxury condos on the way and very little housing planned that low- and middle-income families can afford, San Francisco may become a city only for the wealthy, with all its neighborhoods sold to the highest bidders.

And without affordable family housing or quality education, the children of today will be shut out of the city’s prosperity, unable to afford to stay in the city they call home.

We have called on the mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the superintendent of schools, and the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education to commit to Next Generation SF — a broad and long-term agenda developed by our parent and youth leaders to claim San Francisco as a city of opportunity for all.

The Next Generation SF agenda has three priorities:

More affordable family housing. Double the city’s current affordable family housing pipeline of 1,500 units (recently revised to 1,700) to 3,000 units by 2011. This seems modest when two-thirds of the city’s families (about 39,000 families) are currently in a housing crisis, according to the city’s own data.

Good schools for all. Increase the opportunity for all students to go on to college or living-wage work, with an emphasis on students who are currently being left behind. Make the racial achievement gap in the SFUSD public schools (the most alarming gap in the state) the number one priority for the soon to be hired superintendent of schools. Raise the achievement of all students so that at least 60 percent of students in all racial groups have the opportunity to go to college by 2011.

Safety and security for all. Increase city budget investments in the safety and economic security of SF families, above the legal requirements. After running last year’s successful $10 million Budget 4 Families campaign, we are supporting this year’s Family Budget Coalition $20 million campaign for high-quality child care, violence prevention and alternatives to incarceration, youth employment, family support services, and health and after-school services.

But in order to create hope and opportunity for all San Franciscans, it will take the whole city to raise the next generation. Join Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth and more than 80 labor and community organizations May 12 at the Rally for the Next Generation at the Civic Center from 11 a.m.–1 p.m. *

NTanya Lee

NTanya Lee is executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth.