Clean Rivers, Working Families, and Big Ideas

Some of our group in Pittsburgh, oldest leader still in the fight at 102

Pittsburgh     Hit the United Association of Labor Educators conference running in Pittsburgh and then connected with Maryellen Hayden Deckard, former ACORN office director in Pittsburgh now doing the same for ACTION United.  In no time we were visiting with CWA and other union workers rallying at Verizon to support their contract fight, and then sitting down for lunch at Mexico City with a bunch of labor cartoonists.  It was going to be that kind of wild ride in Pittsburgh!

In the afternoon I stumbled into two very interesting developments.  Both are undoubtedly worth further discussion in more detail later, but give a sense of the excitement and potential in important directions these days.

When you first hear the term Clean River Campaign, it runs right by you.  Must be another environmental thing, so good luck to them, next please!  A long conversation with Barney Oursler, the executive director of Pittsburgh United, who is the driving force behind this campaign reveals something much, much different in my reckoning.  For years I have said that any organization that comes up with comprehensive solutions to “loose dogs, bad drainage, and crummy trash pickup” might just have the formula for creating power everywhere.  Well, the real deal on the Clean Rivers Campaign is coming to grip with the issues that lie at the heart of sewer, drainage, and wastewater systems.  Pittsburgh, like literally hundreds of other cities around the USA, is confronting EPA compliance agreements which require billions of dollars worth of infrastructure investment to appropriately assure clean water and upgrade deteriorating infrastructure suffering from age, lack of maintenance, and design problems.  In Pittsburgh, not unlike many other cities, the problems are magnified because of the three rivers but also the 526 different municipalities and other governmental structures that are in the watershed and have water in this race as well.  Barney and his partners, including ACTION United, are contending over coming years with pushing aside bad plans but also getting a good program which is “green,” provides community benefits, and is affordable, all of which are high barriers.  From experience fighting water privatization triggered by EPA compliance agreements, including in New Orleans where we are still in the throes of this mess, I think this is worth real study and investigation.

Discussion at Big Idea

I also ran into a team of organizers and canvassers with the Working Families Party who are now expanding into Pennsylvania.  This is fantastic news!  The Working Families Party in New York, Connecticut and elsewhere has emerged as an important ballot-line effort giving real tools to progressive issues and low-and-moderate income families.  This would be a wonderful development in Pennsylvania.  Need to find out more about this and see if you can get this Party building in a neighborhood near you!

The fun part of my day in Pittsburgh was two back to back discussions about politics, organizing, and the state of movements for change in these days and times first in the late afternoon at the Big Idea Bookstore & Café, which is a workers cooperative operating over the last 10 years and expanding, and then a more informal discussion with leaders, activists, and organizers with ACTION United in their offices over pizza.  The excuse for both of these great events were talking about my books, Citizen Wealth, Global Grassroots, and Battle for the Ninth Ward, but the conversations were fascinating on a variety of topics.

Just to share some of the pleasure at the Big Idea several folks around the circle had been active in the Occupy movement in Pittsburgh, and we had a provocative discussion about the emerging role for anarchism emerging in progressive work.  There was still a lot of mourning for the death of ACORN as well in these times when change is increasingly high on the “demand” list.  I was optimistic that a new formation might be possible, but not that we would ever be able to get the genie back in the bottle.  Similarly at ACTION United, there was deep interest in “citizen wealth” campaigns around credit card debt and collections and student debt.  People could palpably feel the future slipping away and see lives of running from debt collectors and harassment as central parts of their future.  They were groping for organizational response.

No such meeting is complete without a discussion of Fox News of course, and the first reaction when they heard I had agreed to be interviewed for a voting special they were doing on the issue of voter suppression, was that I was “crazy.”  Once I had conceded that point as factual, I made the case that we still had no choice but to try and communicate whenever we could and advance the right and just positions on issues as important as full citizen participation and the prospects for democracy.  How could we ever refuse to take the side of democracy in the debate when so many were so arrogantly now arguing for repression?

I left with lots to think about from my discussions with my new and old friends in Pittsburgh, but I left them thinking about some “big ideas” as well.

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