The Center for Popular Democracy works to create equity, opportunity and a dynamic democracy in partnership with high-impact base-building organizations, organizing alliances, and progressive unions. In this edition of Press Play we talked with Oona Chatterjee, their Chief of Base-Building.
I've been to so many protests myself, but the ones that make me the happiest reach a certain positive pitch. It's so joyful to be surrounded by people who share concerns, such a relief to know that none of us are alone, to come out of the shadows, and it's so moving to be with people who are a hundred times braver than I am -- and to feel that I can offer a modicum of support. - Oona Chatterjee
NYXT: How did The Center for Popular Democracy come to exist? What societal problems are you trying to solve?
Oona Chatterjee: The people who founded the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) came from the grassroots organizing world. They understood that a healthy democracy needs to reflect the voices of the people who live in it. And you do that by engaging people in issues that really matter to them, and helping them to organize themselves and share their voices and build real power.
CPD is an ambitious, exciting effort to share best practices across these local state-based groups - to share communications, infrastructure support, expertise.
We are a democratic organization that helps people to make changes that matter to them. We have incredible experts here supporting the voices of our constituents around immigration reform and humane border policy, healthcare and women's reproductive rights, affordable housing, environmental justice, education, criminal justice reform, vital worker reforms (minimum wage increases, paid sick and family sick leave policies, fair workweek), corporate accountability (including an end to forced arbitration clauses). AND -- democracy reform -- an end to gerrymandering and voter suppression and structural reform that would encourage all citizens to vote.
CPD built an organization called Local Progress that works with local progressive elected officials, since they are a vital part of the equation in getting things done. We knew that if we could support public education campaigns in multiple places, we could rise all tides.
And then in 2016, after the election, it became clear that we needed to organize defensively too around federal attacks on frontline communities: attacks on healthcare, immigrants, women's reproductive freedom, and the very core democratic structures that allow participation by all.
Our vision is a democracy that centers the needs of people of color, and ensures all of us the freedom to thrive in the process -- a true democracy that we can believe in.
NYXT: Which communities do you support and/or work with?
OC: We work primarily in Latinx immigrant and African American communities and with working families in this country -- groups that are impacted deeply by public policy, but whose stories in their own voices are still too rarely heard.
Since 2016, we have trained over 10,000 newly activated folks, primarily women, across the country, in federal fightback work against some of the most outrageous attacks we are seeing and in support of a vision of true equity in this country around healthcare, justice, education, tax policy, democracy reform...
NYXT: Why do you think marching and organizing protests is so important? Could you share your experience during the first march you attended (or your first activist experience in general) with us?
OC: CPD uses both inside and outside strategies. My team at CPD focuses on building up the capacity and voice of our state-based affiliates. We believe that personal connection is vital, and we help our affiliates to scale their work so we can grow our power together.
We also need to be present and show our voices, without the "connections" that have become so ubiquitous in our democracy today. That means helping with communications - via the media or social media or our own word of mouth. It means protesting and showing up to make the point that this stuff really matters, and also to feel the comfort of standing up with others in solidarity. That's what democracy is all about.
I've been to so many protests myself, but the ones that make me the happiest reach a certain positive pitch. It's so joyful to be surrounded by people who share concerns, such a relief to know that none of us are alone, to come out of the shadows, and it's so moving to be with people who are a hundred times braver than I am -- and to feel that I can offer a modicum of support.
NYXT: What are some of CPD's recent accomplishments?
OC: Here in NY, our affiliates (Make the Road NY, NY Communities for Change, VOCAL-NY, Churches United for Fair Housing) and other partners like Urban Youth Collaborative, and amazing local elected officials (Councilman Brad Lander is a leader of Local Progress) -- have been at the forefront of efforts to make real and positive change, from decreasing the criminalization of students in schools and increasing restorative justice and social emotional learning practices, to safeguarding rent control and affordable housing to getting driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, to very positive environmental and voting laws. Across the country, we have seen minimum wage, fair workweek and paid family sick leave wins; a win we hope to maintain on leaving citizenship off the census, and several states are moving forward with meaningful democracy and voting reforms that will make it possible for more people to vote. We have also seen the incredible major banks JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and most recently Bank of America divesting from private detention centers and prisons.
We've also seen devastating attacks - on immigrant families, on structural democracy, on women's reproductive rights and healthcare, and of course on families and children at the border. It's more important now than ever to get involved.
NYXT: What are CPD’s main challenges?
OC: It's been scary to see many people in our communities be dehumanized by opposing forces. But I think we knew that hate was out there. Our response has been to tell more stories, and it has made a difference. But some of the folks who are sharing and on the frontlines have also been attacked. We need to stand by them.
Frontline groups have been activated- that's inspiring. We still have a way to go, but hundreds of thousands of people who never voted went to the polls in 2018, and there is a sense of hope that we need to foster and make good on. I've never seen anything like it before.
Of real concern is also how many people who are not directly impacted are scared to get involved or don't know how to. If you are not going to get involved now, then when will you? Even if our lives are not on the line, those of our children and grandchildren really are -- we all need to act.
Seeing people moving from the sidelines to the center is our goal and our hope -- it's also our challenge.
NYXT: Do you work with other organizations? Could you give us some examples?
OC: CPD is fundamentally a network - now of 55 affiliated organizations. They are amazing state-based power building groups with grassroots bases. They are all listed on our website populardemocracy.org -- and we'll be meeting with them in Detroit July 25-27 for the People's Convention.
We also partner with lots of different movement groups. We worked closely with Women's March and Planned Parenthood and Ultraviolet and #voteprochoice and many others during the Kavanaugh hearings. We are working with Lights for Liberty and United We Dream and NILC and many others on protesting the abuse of families and children at the border. We have a coalition of some 30 organizations - national and grassroots -- who are reenvisioning safety in our communities and reimagining criminal justice reform. For every issue we work on, we try to build together and enhance our collective voices and impact.
NYXT: Can you tell us about your activity in Detroit, "Our Vision, Our Future: People’s Convention"? Why did you choose Detroit? What is the political and cultural context there? Why are these types of activities so important?
At the end of July we'll be gathering with all of our affiliated organizations and some funders and friends to consider our wins and losses, strategize and build better for 2020 and beyond, celebrate, learn and find strength in each other. Detroit is the home of our affiliate Detroit Action (formerly Good Jobs Now), and a city that has seen some of the worst and the best in our country. We are there as a statement to the city and region and to each of us that when we stand together, we are stronger.
NYXT: Are there other protests or activities that you would like to highlight?
OC: We want people to join us as we protest the cruelty at our border, and demand that our elected officials change the family separation policies and that companies stop profiting off of these shameful policies.
We want people to join us as we insist on healthcare for all in this country, including women's reproductive rights.
And we need your help, no matter where you are, in building grassroots organizations that can get neighbors involved, including getting folks out to vote. I urge everyone to get involved and to support these efforts. Rebecca at email@example.com is our head of fundraising and a good guide for how to make a difference, and check out populardemocracy.org
NYXT: What do you ultimately want to see the CPD become in the future?
OC: We envision a country where all people have the freedom to thrive. It's that simple and that complicated. CPD can play a role in leading our country on that path, but ultimately, the voices of the people we serve must be front and center.
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