San Francisco A 6 AM flight from NOLA and hours circumnavigating the Bay because of the Bay Bridge repairs on a beautifully sunny Sunday from airport to Benicia Bookshop for Citizen Wealth to Tides Momentum Conference at the chic W in downtown left me dragging wagon until the JBL Award winners had their chance to thank the crowd. This year we had focused on grassroots leaders of the immigrant rights movement that had made a major difference, and they brought reality and, well, momentum to the room.
The JBL’s, as we have fondly called them for more than a decade, were named for Jane Bagley Lehman, one of our dearly departed shining lights from the Tides Foundation’s early board. Every year they recognize someone whose public advocacy from the local level has impact on national policy. Salvador Reza, leader of the fight against Sheriff Arpaio and the outrages of the Homeland Security 287(g) program, Artemio Arreola, the political director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and one of the sparkplugs of immigration reform, and the widely known leader in this movement, Angelica Salas, from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) were the awardees.
The Momentum Conference specializes in presentations. The designs are strong and moving. The speeches are concise and timed to the second. The graphics and video are hip and grabbing. The momentum is fast paced with a strong up beat.
Artemio, Salvador, and Angelica all struck different notes after they were introduced by Russell Long one of our committee collective. Yes, it was partially the welcomed accents and grammatical flourishes that add life to the language, but it was also the passion, sloppy and strident, as it burst over the two minute limits in each acceptance speech. These were not slick appeals to the intellect delivered with poise and wit, but hammer strokes to the heart that spoke from pain and urgency about life and death. These were calls for help for a cause that is struggling to hold the national light, but is every present in the raids in Phoenix, the worker centers of Los Angeles, and the hometown associations of Little Mexico in Chicago.
Salvador told me later he was surprised so many people he spoke to at the conference knew about Sheriff Joe and had heard about the problems in Phoenix. This is the reality of someone fighting day to day on home turf. It matters little to him whether this has been the subject of editorials in the New York Times, because the Times do not change his problem with the Arizona Republic. When he looks out at the Momentum crowd, he doesn’t see his people, so he doesn’t assume support, and in fact clearly it surprises him. He doesn’t these people in Phoenix or hears their voices.
Artemio had spoken about how he was going to use the money, $7500, which came with the award. Suddenly, he was a philanthropist speaking to philanthropists. Part of it was going to the hometown association in the Mexican state where he was from, part of it was going to help three families in Chicago struggling to survive as they faced exportation, and part of it was going to a new project that ICIRR was trying to start to add to the voices. Didn’t he know that it is hard to track accountability in granting outside the US? Didn’t he know that money is “wasted” when given to individuals? Didn’t he know you get “more bang for your bucks” when you support established organizations and not new ideas? Didn’t he know that $7500 was chum change?
Hell, no! He was betting it all to win, place, and show!
The JBL’s were followed by a “fishbowl” discussion that was excellently moderated by Alexis McGill Johnson and featured the calmly collected and incisive remarks of Congresswoman Donna Edwards from Maryland’s 4th District and the surprisingly frank and engaging Ben Jealous, a young man on the go who is now trying to remake the NAACP on its 100th anniversary. All of it was fascinating and timely, and they did a great job.
Unfortunately, they had to follow the passion of the immigrant rights warriors making these great leaders of our times seem stilted and artificial next to the heartfelt pleas of Salvador, Artemio, and Angelica to the Momentum participants for help and action right now, this minute, and no maybes.