Jasmine Gripper is the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education. Rosemary Rivera and Jess Wisneski are the co-executive directors of Citizen Action of New York, where Ravi Mangla is the political education program manager. Charles Khan is the organizing director and Michael Kink is the executive director of the Strong Economy For All Coalition, and both are leaders of the Wall Street accountability and financialization project of the Center for Popular Democracy. All of the panelists have played leading roles in the Hedge Clippers campaign, and in movement building and organizing for fair taxes and fair budgets in New York. This conversation has been lightly edited for readability.

 

The new book by Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez, The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay has just come out, and it makes a few things really clear:

  • Right now, the 400 richest people in America are paying a lower tax rate than average working people.
  • Tax policies have swung significantly and quickly throughout American history, with sharp swings to progressive policies driven by grassroots movements and policy innovation.
  • To really deal with inequality, it’s necessary to address wealth, income and corporate taxes all together.
  • Anti-tax rhetoric and regressive tax policies are grounded in white supremacy, and the fight for fairer taxes is an important part of fighting for racial and economic justice.

The billionaire class has taken all the wealth and income from whatever economic recovery has happened since the 2007 recession and used their wealth and power to rig the rules further in their favor in the Trump/GOP Tax Scam law passed in 2017.

Existing widespread disgust and dissatisfaction with the economy has gotten even worse, leading to an important moment in organizing and our movement building that can bring new attention and new perspectives to our fights for fairer taxes and fair revenue for things that all of our communities need in this economy of extreme inequality.

Michael Kink:  The U.S. tax system, that started out pretty goddamn unfair as Trump and the Republicans took control of the federal government, is getting even worse after the GOP tax scam and the Trump tax cuts. We’re in a situation now where billionaires pay lower tax rates than the working class; working and middle-class people pay 25 to 30 percent in taxes and billionaires pay 23 percent. It's regressive taxation. The 400 richest people in America pay a lower tax rate on their riches than working people with multiple minimum-wage jobs. And so, you know, there's a bunch of different angles to come at this. How did this make you feel? How do you think the people in our communities feel about facts like these?  How do people engage (or not) with these tax justice and revenue questions? I’d like to talk about what we've learned, what we've struggled against as we're doing these campaigns and how we think information like this can or should be translated and popularized in communities and in organizing campaigns. How is this relevant or not relevant to the everyday concerns of regular people and the work we're all doing to motivate more people to participate in grassroots campaigns, to tax the rich and pay for the things we need (including good schools, affordable housing), efforts to fight poverty, efforts to address climate crisis — with all of this linked to our struggle to address white supremacy and achieve racial justice? And I’ll just mention that the Zucman-Saez book includes a good chapter on how the anti-tax rhetoric we’re continually fighting — from Republicans and from some Democrats — has always been linked to white supremacy, and was originally the rhetoric of slaveholders in the South who didn’t want to be taxed on their “property” of human beings. I thought we might start with just going around on your initial take on the material, the idea that billionaires pay lower tax rates than working-class people, and how you think that might be relevant to our current and future work. 

Jasmine Gripper: Yeah, so as an education advocacy group focused on organizing parents and community members to have fully-funded and adequately resourced public schools, we see that parents are deeply concerned about the quality of public schools in their community. Everyone agrees that our schools do not have enough resources from the state to meet the educational needs of students. And every time we go to see the elected officials — about fully funding more than about investing more in our education — the constant pushback from elected officials is there isn't enough money to go around. And so New York State currently owes public schools about four billion dollars in the state's own Foundation Aid formula, and the state has yet to find a way to keep this promise to students to provide their constitutional right to a sound basic education by fully funding our schools. And the reason why the state hasn't done this is because the state refuses to change, or really even address, our tax policies. Parents are aware that there is deep inequality in our system. Sometimes they can't articulate how that shows up and the ways in which it impacts their lives and the ways in which they are paying more while the wealthy are paying less — but we all can feel the impact of the growing inequality in our communities, in our states and across this nation, and we see that when we see public schools that are in dire need of resources. We see it when we are in communities that aren't getting the investments that they need in order to provide enriching opportunities for all children. We see it when we are not providing high quality child care and pre-K for all 4-year-olds. And so we see the impact very clearly, but getting to the root of the problem in terms of having or not having progressive taxation is something that we people on the ground haven't fully been able to articulate, but we can definitely fully feel.

Michael Kink: Rosemary, do you want to give your ideas, responses, reactions?

Rosemary Rivera: Number one is I think that, yes, progressive taxation, or the lack thereof, is certainly a problem because we do not have a level playing field in this country whatsoever. When you add to that the wage gap that is happening in our country and in our communities, it’s even worse. If you're asking if communities at this point would be shocked that the wealthy are paying less, I have to clearly answer no, they wouldn't be shocked at all. Are they aware that they're getting the short end of the stick? Yeah. There's no one in a community that I know of, that does not espouse the saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer all the time, and that they have to work harder and don't see the growth or the ability to move economically in our communities. Are people really concerned about the economy as a whole as they try to put food on the table? And do they resent the fact that millionaires and billionaires are able to put food on the table? And do they have a hint that millionaires and billionaires pay less than they do in taxes? I think the book talked about the billionaires actually paying 23 percent in taxes while the regular mass, 99 percent of us, pay like 30 percent? Not a shock, not a shock at all. Knowing what to do about it, on the other hand, is what stumps communities. And the reality is that taxes do not seem to be a really sexy kind of an issue to talk about on a day to day basis unless they're working people complaining about how many or how much taxes they see coming out of their paychecks. So the narrative around taxes to me is "let's not just raise taxes." What we're talking about is “Who are we thinking about raising taxes on?” Can we name what we're talking about as we're moving throughout our communities in order to essentially provide the things that we need? Jasmine was absolutely articulate on the needs for quality education for our students. Health care, mental health — all of the things that we need and want and desire and actually deserve in our communities as working people are really something that can be provided through additional tax brackets and wealth taxes on the millionaires and billionaires. It can be provided by really looking at some of the constant needs. And the fact is, under the Trump administration at this point, taxes on the rich are actually lower than ever before. We're talking about the village needing to take care of each other. We're talking about leveling the playing field. If that's the case, then we need to do something about it now. And those conversations and how we have those conversations would resonate if we're pointing to who we are talking about.

Michael Kink: Jess, you want to jump in here?

Jess Wisneski: The first thing I would say is, I think our greatest challenge and the reason I actually appreciate looking at this new material, looking at the data, is because we have a real job on our hands to beat back the dominant narrative around taxes and to dispel this. Even though I think a lot of people definitely feel it in their gut, they let the narrative seep into their thinking around the haves and the have nots, who works hard and who doesn't. Who is paying taxes and who's sucking off the system. All of that crappy narrative that the uber-rich and those in power want us to believe. As long as we've had a country, it's the division that the super-rich have wanted to sell and corporate America has wanted to sell into our communities between working class and middle class, black and white, immigrant and nonimmigrant. Dispelling those myths is really our job. I think as organizers and agitators and community members we know. But then people want the backup, they want the facts around it — because dispelling the narrative, dispelling the myths that they're hearing also takes the facts, because they need it to believe it. So many folks have been so brainwashed for so long by the TV sitting in front of them every night that wants them to believe a certain thing about taxes and about inequality and about the economy. And, you know, the same for the economy, like this faraway thing that is somebody else's business. How do I get that down to the kitchen table? You know, paycheck kind of talk and what's that mean and what's fair and what's not fair? So I'm about the narrative and I'm about shifting it. And that's, I think, our primary job, but having these constant and new and updated facts is critical to making that happen. So I appreciate that. I'll stop there for now.

Michael Kink: Charles, you want to give your impressions and thoughts?

Charles Khan: I'm answering the question, is this a surprise? No, it's not a surprise. Not to me, and I don't think it's a surprise to most people. Any parent of any of my friends or, you know, the community they come from has realized they are getting a raw deal. But I do think that to some degree, people don't know why. We feel the impact of a broken tax system and we feel the impact of communities that have been systematically divested from and have suffered from forced austerity. But do you know the “why?” As Jess and Rosemary and Jasmine said, a lot of times it's hidden — and that leaves space for other alternatives that are about immigrants stealing people's jobs or lazy people of color over there or those folks over there destroying our economy and making our situation worse. And so I think this kind of information is extremely helpful in explaining the “why.” But at the end of the day, I think the most important thing to me is not necessarily the tax code. It's what are we fixing the tax code for? What are the actual changes that we're trying to make? And how is this story of taxes in our country, and where we want to take taxes, how is that a part of the recipe that gets us there? To see that billionaires are paying less than people working minimum wage is crazy. And I think for this information, it's extremely important because what I've seen talking as a black person and what makes me very upset is — everyone understands the system is broken, but not as many people understand how to fix it, or have faith in our democracy that our folks are able to fix it. And so the two things that I think about are taxes and democracy. How can we fix our democracy so that when we are taxing these folks, the money is going to the right place? Because I think, you know, the government is supposed to be for the people, but the way it works currently is like it is totally providing welfare and a lot of benefits to billionaires and corporations. So how does fixing this help repair communities? Because so many people at this point have in some ways become apathetic or given up and are now subscribing to, you know, a lifelong goal of becoming a ruthless, cutthroat business person who finds every loophole and skips out on all of their responsibilities of paying taxes, because that's the only way that they've seen to get ahead. Taxing the wealthy and actually providing real opportunities for people to have the help they need is part of it. But then also developing morals, like the more that you’re benefiting from the economy the more you should pay that forward and pay that back in. How we can work for a more just society is something that I'm really interested in. And this kind of research is a perfect foundation to build on top of.

Ravi Mangla: So I go around and often do these “Reversing Runaway Inequality” trainings. And one of the first things we do in the training is asking people to guess the gap between worker wages and CEO pay.  What we find is that people know that there is a huge gap, but what they ultimately settle on proves to be about one tenth what the gap actually is. So I think that people don't fully understand the expanse of the crisis. They know that there is a crisis of inequality. But when they start seeing these numbers, it's even worse than they can imagine. So we've spent a lot of our time campaigning on the outputs — on the need for affordable housing, health care for all and good wages.  And this is thinking about the inputs — the way that we're funding those programs and the way that money and resources are allocated in our society. So it feels like these revenue campaigns and this renewed talk about inequality is kind of closing the circuit. I'm glad that these important conversations are being had around taxation and taxing the rich. It feels like a huge, huge step forward. And as far as what has changed over time, one thing that came to mind is the aura that's around billionaires and millionaires has kind of gone away. We used to think of them as these great philanthropists and now people know that Jeff Bezos is not a hero or this aspirational figure and that his wealth is a policy failure. A lot of people recognize now that the system is not broken, but it's working, in fact, exactly the way that it's supposed to work. It's extracting wealth from black and brown and low-income communities and putting it in the pockets of the extremely wealthy. So that type of awareness, I think is moving us forward in a big way, and we see people's analysis just deepening every day, and it's exciting. And I really hope it's moving us towards seeing the changes that we've been waiting to see in our communities.

Michael Kink: All of us are I think quote, unquote, veteran organizers. Almost all of us have worked together, through economic ups and downs, through the Wall Street-driven 2007 economic collapse and since.  We were engaged with the Occupy movement both at Zuccotti Park and around the state in New York. I'm wondering if you might each be able to talk a little bit about how this issue and these conversations have changed over time? What was it like ten years ago? What has happened in the last decade or so? What kind of mark did the larger dialogue on inequality around Occupy make? How have the conversations in racial justice spaces about fairness and justice made a difference?  And do you see a sort of through-line that points to a future that allows a broader movement to support tax justice issues?

Charles Khan: I think what I have seen in the years that I've been organizing is a movement and the orientation of people's politics towards bigger macro-level actors. Our local work is impacted by our state work. And our state work is impacted by federal work. And our federal work is impacted by these  multinational players. And so I think that what I've seen is people starting to think, how do you change the dynamics totally? How do you completely transform the dynamic? I think that's been indicated by the growing support for folks like AOC and Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, who are thinking about large wholesale changes to the way that our economy works and the way that taxes are levied. And so that's been really interesting to see. And I think it's helped in many ways to have organizing that's happening at different levels, in different communities, moving generally towards more systemic change.

Michael Kink: Yeah, I think that's part of it. Jasmine, you want to jump in here at all?

Jasmine Gripper: Just looking at the Democratic primary right now and what messages are bubbling over and what messages are penetrating people really shows how there has been a shift in what people believe about income inequality or equity. There's been a shift in people realizing that the status quo is not working for many of us. And there's this real clear target, that there is a difference between all of us and the one percent. We are struggling because the one percent aren't doing their fair share and they live in excess, while everyone else is working harder but yet has little to show for it. And so when you see Elizabeth Warren's platform and Bernie Sanders’ platform are really focused on ending income inequality, when they focus on ideas that are considered socialist ideas and the mainstream masses are flocking to them. It shows that there's been a change on the ground. I think we're now at a point where radical change can happen and should happen.  And some of the old gatekeepers are trying to do this slow, incremental change — not really shaking things up. And I think people are really frustrated by those politicians and we see them being booted out of office more and more. And we see that here in New York politics, with the Queens Machine no longer being in existence anymore, right? Or, you know, struggling to be relevant. And I think what people are saying is that we want something different and we are now more clear than ever about what the problem is. And the problem isn't that people aren't working hard — because people feel that they are working harder than ever before and yet have little to show for it. And I think just the growing shift in narrative in the national debate really shows how much people's hearts and minds have shifted on the ground.

Rosemary Rivera: When I actually started organizing 15 years ago, it was clear to me that people were predominantly concerned about what was happening in their own backyard, and the connections to the state and the federal government were there, but they didn't really see themselves as part of really transforming the economy.  They couldn’t really imagine big, transformative changes that could happen that would affect and impact everyone. I think the Occupy movement and the advent of better technology — I remember when I first started and I was going door to door, I had literally index cards and had to run back to the office with a big clunky computer in the outlook e-mail and this access database — with the advent of technology, Zoom, Facebook, the social media boom actually made the world a bit smaller, and when it made it a bit smaller, it made it more possible to have transformative things happen. I think that, I'll be honest with you, when the Mike Brown uprising happened in Ferguson, that also had a real impact.  Where the Occupy movement transformed thinking around the economy, the Mike Brown movement transformed the race conversation in this country. And I think that right now people are really trying to figure out how to interact with each other and trying to crystallize the vision in communities of color who basically have felt the brunt of a lot of inequities in this country. And anger is swelling and it's threatening to explode. I think particularly since Trump arrived, communities of color are starting to see themselves and starting to see that they are tired of being ignored. They're tired and they have not been seen. They want to be seen. They want to be heard. And they're starting to understand that in this country, they have become a threat to white supremacy simply because of numbers in this country. By 2043 or something like that, this country will actually be majority minority in this instance. And that threat to white supremacy has got many white people really inching forward to try and protect their power and status in this country. And that also includes wealth. So this is where race and the economy come together in what we deem as racial capitalism, in a narrative that shows how they're not two separate things, but intricately sewn together into the fabric of this country. So while people are trying to figure this out — and while technology moves and while people see transformation happening in mass protest, in mass mobilizations that we haven't seen really since the 60s and the height of it is getting more urgent, the cry of it is getting more urgent — I think that this affords us the opportunity to really talk about the economy and really get to talk about this kind of progressive tax system that allows people to thrive and begins to level the playing field that has not been level in so long.

Jess Wisneski: I'm going to answer in two parts: back to the time of Occupy and how things have changed over time. You know, I feel like when we were doing the tax fight when Occupy was happening, it was the first time organizations, like institutions like ours, who did organizing in this kind of work, were thumped with, if you will — an organic, the organic thing that Occupy was, right? And I feel like since Occupy, there's like a million organic movement things that are happening. And we as organizations and institutions who all have similar visions, have been learning over time how to work with each other. And like Rosemary said just more recently, with the rise of Trump and then the rise of the resistance to Trump. It's like that maxed out. And one of the things that I'm noticing going into what will be, I think a ferocious fight in New York state to redo taxation in the coming year or so is that even now, our individual issue campaigns, whether it's housing justice, education justice, healthcare — everybody's got a revenue edge. Everybody is going after revenue. It's like everything has been so starved for so long. Everybody's got a revenue ask. And so it's like a distributed organizing model among the campaigns of the revenue fight, right?  Because everybody is doing their own thing. So that's an interesting new dynamic that I see this year. Second thing I'll just hit on is: Man, history repeats itself! I'm like three episodes in the History of New York documentary on PBS, and right now they're in the Roaring Twenties, and it's just like the disgust of capitalism on steroids and what is happening and that gap. And I think back — God, we've seen this playbook over and over again, since the friggin Dutch West India Company hit the Corporation Inc. The United States of America, also known as Manhattan, right? And we as organizers in New York are dealing with that history, right? That's where the slave trade was, that's where things like the worst of the worst blew up. But our history shows us that it's also the epicenter of transformation, of worker rights, of unionization, of movement, because things get desperate under this oppressive, capitalist, racist system. And the people rise up. And we always have. And this is a new iteration and things are getting desperate, desperate now. They have been. They continue to be, and I think history shows me that anything is possible, and we can actually make a dramatic shift in less than a generation on this stuff.

Michael Kink: In Chapter Two of The Triumph of Injustice there is a short but very powerful history of tax policy and politics in America. The chapter is called “From Boston to Richmond,” and it demonstrates that the structure and fairness of tax policies in American history is marked by sudden reversals — huge movements for justice, sharp attacks by billionaires. Jess is completely right that this has happened over and over again. It's also particularly powerful to understand that in the early days of America in the North, in Massachusetts, some of the northern colonies, taxation was profoundly progressive. Rich people paid a lot and working people paid less. It was more progressive than many countries in Europe, and other parts of the world. And in the South, where 40 percent of “property” was human beings held in forced servitude against their will, the southern economic interests fought against taxation. And this rhetoric that Americans are against taxes and it's in our DNA has white supremacy absolutely baked into it. It’s clear that one of the real challenges for turbocharging our organizing and our narratives around tax justice is the need to confront racial capitalism, white supremacy, and economic inequality all at the same time. How can we fight for economic justice and racial justice? Because they are so deeply intertwined, as Rosemary mentioned. And so I was wondering if folks could talk a little bit about the prospects of synthesizing racial justice and economic justice narratives together. What are we already doing? What does this new opportunity with more kinds of distributed engagement of all these campaigns on tax justice issues, bring us opportunities to do in terms of racial justice?

Ravi Mangla: I think that a lot of economic justice campaigns have failed in the past by neglecting to understand how race is just fundamental to the kind of extractive capitalism that we've seen, that communities that are going to be hit the hardest, that are preyed upon by predatory landlords and developers, by a lack of school funding, are black and brown communities — and the people that benefit from our regressive tax structure are wealthy, white and usually male individuals. And when we look at the five wealthiest people who control as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent, they are all white men. So we can't look at this problem without looking at the race dynamic because that is not an accident, it's entirely intentional and it's entirely part of the plan. When we are talking about economic justice, about taxing the rich, we have to have a strong race-centered narrative that is interwoven throughout that because you can't split apart these issues.

Rosemary Rivera: I think about the movement around reparations a lot. I think about, what has been the economic plight? And that has been the theft of property since the beginning of time to the natives, I think about that history, I think about reparations that are owed to Native Americans here in this country as well. I also think the reality is we've had, as Ravi mentioned, runaway inequality and the complete and massive building of those who have put themselves in power through means that are not what we would consider ethical in today's day and age. I think about corporations and I think about the very, very wealthy and how they got there, and part of me says “they had to oppress someone down the line in order to get to the place where they are now.” And many of these folks in power today are thinking, “was I responsible for what happened in the past? Was I responsible? Was I even alive when the slave trade began,” etc. But I'm wondering how many of them are actually accountable for it? So, you know, you may not have been responsible for it as the white man in power today, but you're definitely accountable to the fact that you've been able to amass such wealth at the expense of others. And so I think that in thinking about that, we have got to change the narrative from one that has some people talking about the 47 percent of the country who were takers versus the rest of the world. I think I even read that somewhere in your materials this morning, Mike. And I'm thinking, how is it that they are takers? Who are the real takers in this scenario? And if we're not using the history and not using the plight of what has happened in order to advance our narrative of actually leveling that playing field now, then we're missing an opportunity.

Michael Kink: Totally. And, you know, just to mark that 47 percent. That was right-wing rhetoric that Mitt Romney was caught using behind closed doors that basically erased all collective investments in productive goods that make rich people rich and claimed that “taking” was the public benefits — transfer payments for child tax credits, supportive housing, things like that. So it was a right-wing effort to do that divide and conquer strategy and exploit racial and class divisions in a way to continue the dominance of the super-rich. So not my rhetoric, but definitely rhetoric that's out there.

Jasmine Gripper: Yeah. I think the one thing I want to add is that when I'm having conversations with parents and community members about taxation or the state budgets, which seem overwhelming, one thing that people always point out is that budgets are about priorities. Our state, our cities, our governments make a choice when they say, “I'm not going to fund schools, but I'm going to give a tax break to the wealthy.” They make a choice to say, “we're not going to value pregnant moms and support them with childcare when the children are born or paid family leave while we know the wealthy are the ones that aren't paying their fair share.” And so every time we don't have the programs that we need to support communities and support families, support children, it is literally a choice that someone is saying, "we are prioritizing this wealthy individual over the needs of the many." And it's our job and our responsibility to demand that those who are elected to office truly represent our best interests and shift the priorities. And we need a government that works for all of us, and not just the one percent. We need a responsible government that is accountable to all of us and prioritizes the needs of not just people who can donate to their campaigns — right now we’re all working on a “fair elections” public financing effort, which is Jess' number-one issue — but how do we really prioritize the needs of children who can't vote? How do we prioritize the needs of working parents? How do we prioritize the needs of the elderly and our seniors? How do we prioritize the needs of those who are disabled and physically can't, you know, work a full day? How are we okay with someone who's working 40 hours a week and still not having enough to pay to meet their actual needs as a human being and can't afford to eat or have decent housing? And all of these things are a part of our budget and a part of our priorities, and so our state taxes should be used or the tax revenues that we have in our state should be used to support all of us, as opposed to the corporate welfare we consistently see over and over again.

Michael Kink: Charles, you want to throw in your thoughts about priorities and organizing and racial and economic justice?

Charles Khan: Yeah. I think about this a lot and there aren't really any simple or clean answers, but I really like Ravi's answer.  We've all said that racial and economic justice are intertwined and in this country, they're always gonna be intertwined. I've been listening to the 1619 Project,  the amazing project in The New York Times. And I read The Empire of Kind, and, you know, the biggest transfer of wealth from black people to rich white people happened during slavery. The entire U.S. economy was built on the forced labor of slaves, and in many ways, the wealth that exists today is a descendant of that wealth. And so there is no other way for me to think about economic justice — it is also racial justice. So when I think about the solutions, I always take the mindset that if when we can prioritize and create a policy that helps and aids the most marginalized people that exist, then we're doing well for everyone. And that's always my organizing priority, that's always my policy priority. And when I think about funding for schools or when I think about, you know, fighting the homelessness crisis that's going on within New York and across the country, like it's because it's going to help the most deeply impacted and oppressed people, and there's gonna be a lot of other people that benefit from it — and I think that's a good thing. I think that that is also part of the solution. I think that part of the reason why dog-whistle politics and racism take such deep roots is often because when we think about the status of our economy, there are a small group of mostly white men that are making a lot of money. And then there are ninety nine percent of people that are completely screwed over to different degrees and they're all just trying to make it. And so when I think about policy solutions, I think that narratives that are cognizant of racial justice are absolutely important. And so those are the kind of things that are going to really push for the types of bold transformative change that we need. Policy solutions that are broad-based, but also specific policy solutions that can address inequities, and I think those are the only ways that we can really build in a way that grows our movement.

Michael Kink: There are a number of us here who were previously organizers and activists and now we are executive directors, getting comfortable with creating budgets and finding resources, and being responsible for other people's livelihoods, and I was going to ask Rosemary and Jess and Jasmine maybe to talk a little bit about what resources you would like to have to do this kind of work? What kinds of things would you like to do? Do you need more resources? What kinds of opportunities would there be in your organizing if you had more zeros in the bank account to devote to people and materials and time and advocacy?

Jess Wisneski: Really, the big thing that I'm thinking about is how important it is that we ask for the stars in this coming cycle and that's in the next year, two years, four years — in New York in our demands around revenue that we just don't hold back. For a while, I've been hesitant, and we gotta do this, we gotta do that, we gotta take our time, yada, yada. And now I'm just like, ask it all, let's ask for the 30 billion or 40 billion dollars in new tax revenue that we need in New York State — or however big it is, I don't know, maybe it's more. And not ask for piecemeal, but ask for what's truly necessary and how to get there. So I'll say that, of course, that's a big demand. So how do you match your second question? The resources we need in organizing an organization to do it. I mean, when you were asking that question Mike, what I imagined in my mind was another full time organizer that is playing a role similar to what Ravi does and what Sam does on our staff, someone who digs deep into the political education, someone whose job it is to run full time work in “Reversing Runaway Inequality” trainings to be able to take the necessary time to dig deep and get people to reveal their lived experience in the world and how it matches up with the truth and the history of our economy, of racism, of capitalism. But then also to have the organizing element as well. So we have however many organizers in eight different regions across the state. I would double it for this revenue campaign. I would double it. It kind of goes with Ravi's plate around the inputs and outputs, right? We are demanding a whole lot of output, housing for all, health care for all, fully and equitably funded schools, right? All of that. But we need as much energy and drive. And what we end up doing is trying to combine those two things with the same amount of human organizing resources instead of doubling our resources to double the amount of work and put it all together. And then I would have people whose job it is to just pay attention to the overall coordination among the distributed organizing campaigns of the revenue fight, like all of us play a piece in that, but it's not a whole campaign staff full time job, right? And that's what we'll truly need to do it in a way where we continue to cultivate and respect the roles that our organized labor allies play in the world and build relationships among the new organizing models of what grew out of Occupy — the Indivisible groups, all the different groups that are popping up — and pull all those pieces together.

Rosemary Rivera: I love everything Jessica said. I guess I'd also want to be incredibly bold in our stance. I think about our organizations and whether or not they are nimble enough to actually address things as they pop up. And sometimes when you have organizations like ours where we're not quite as nimble as other organizations that are more online, etc. So there is a part of me that says yes, do I want to double up and do mass education on the ground? That also allows a creative space for this battle of big ideas, because the dominant narrative has been so pervasive that people literally need to unpack their brains of what they've been taught and heard and repackage it in a way that allows for them to see a vision of a world with progressive taxation, where people and human beings are actually valued and where they have their needs met. What I really would like for Citizen Action, I'd love to have chapters that are incredibly vibrant and that don't have just one or two people in them, particularly in Upstate. A lot of things I see get driven from Downstate, but there's some mass number of people, I'd love to have people that are kind of roaming in areas that we are not in. Where else do we need to be in order to tip the point of victory? Where are the rural areas? Where are the places where people are also suffering, where  we need to have this kind of message and actual tools and toolkits provided that they can use their creative juices and allow them to flow, to rise up? And then finally, I keep thinking about how everybody is seeking revenue and that this is the space where we all come together adding that we all know that we need that revenue. And it would be great to have real coordination across the state and hire some folks that would be actually coordinating, not only bringing a whole bunch of these tables together, but coordinating it in such a way where these intersections actually come to life. So at the end of the day, you know, we talk intersectionally, but how do we move and work intersectionally in the capital, in many areas, as we really sit down together and really say, “these are the things that we need to get to that 30 or 40 billion dollars that New Yorkers really need in order to succeed.”

Ravi Mangla: If we can increase our capacity, if we can cover more space, all of it would help us to make our message, and our push to get these things passed and to change our tax system so much more powerful. So I think it's essential that we're making big asks and also thinking internally about how we strengthen and build our own organization.

Jasmine Gripper: Yeah, when you say, “what would we do if we had more zeros in our bank account?” I think of a lot of what Jess and Rosemary pointed out about expanding capacity and outreach, but I also think of what it takes to get those extra zeros in our bank account in the system we’re in now? Like the amount of time that organizations have to spend fundraising. How we are funded — that a lot of these corporations who don't have great policies have foundations, and that's how we get a lot of our funding. And so you know, it's weird trying to dismantle a system while also being a part of it or using it. And so you know, being able to get money in a different way or get resources in a different way. The other part of it, is really honoring the staff we have and making sure we are not replicating some of the harmful practices we see in the world of people being overworked, and we've seen that in the movement so much because people are passionate about this and because we have limited resources, but we want to have good practice. If you want to practice what we preach, then people who are in this movement should work a 40 hour work week or perhaps less, they should have time to take a vacation. They should be paid well and adequate wages. They should have proper health care. And, you know, we're fortunate that we're able to offer a lot of those things, but a lot of those grassroots organizations aren't able to offer their staff those things. I think it's really important that we model the world we're trying to create as much as possible. You know, it was really disheartening in like the Fight for $15 movement to see nonprofits saying, “well, we can't afford to pay for the 15 dollars an hour” — knowing good and well that your staff need it. It's not that you can or you can't, but that people need it and they deserve it. And so really, how do we always honor people and their full humanity when we do this work? And yes, of course, we want to be in every community, in every part of the state. You know, I think about the education organizing group, there's 700 school districts across the state. Long Island is a major political player right now and we don't have enough of a presence there, and we need to be up on Long Island more. And I think we are always, always feeling stretched too thin. You know, who can go to the meeting at night, who can be at this event or this breakfast in the morning. And we have to meet the people where we are. And so we go above and beyond to do it. But we need more hands on the ground doing the community outreach, doing the parent engagement. And, of course, I think the other part of it is the messaging, taking advantage of social media platforms like Rosemary has pointed out, that technology is so much more advanced and we have so many new ways of connecting with people. And we need to be able to capitalize on that and really be able to reach people via social media and be able to produce high quality content. And we need to be able to make more connections with grasstops and influencers to help get our messaging out there. We're half the size of Citizen Action, and that's probably an overstatement. But we are small but mighty. And I think, you know, we want to continue to grow and to have an impact, not for the sake of growing, but in order to influence change for children in New York.

Charles Khan: I guess when I think about resources, I kind of think about the restraints on not necessarily the scale of the work that we do, but the kind of the work that we do. And I think with more resources we'll be able to be bold. You know, there were, there are political fights that happen every year in local governments and state houses and in federal government. And so much of our organizing is often constrained by the financial repercussions of the policy stances that we take. And there are definitely times where, for our organization to be there next year or the year after that for our communities, sometimes we have to make a decision that may not be the decision that we feel is best, movement-wise. And so when I think about resources, I think about the possibilities of being able to be bolder and take more risks that would have more transformative benefits for the community that we're organizing with and for. And I think in a lot of ways, that takes funders being able to lean into, in a meaningful way, being uncomfortable, right? Sometimes you have to be uncomfortable. Like, why are you funding this work there? You know, it was already said, some of these people that are funding these foundations are not necessarily our friends. And I think it’s clear that we have to be able to, in many ways, pull less punches in order to grow and really attract people. I think many people are going through apathy, beyond it. And right now we're seeing in the presidential campaign that people are pushing for bold ideas. And I think that as a movement, we need to have the resources to be just as bold as the changes that need to happen to help people. And so that's what I think about with funding. Yes, we can be bigger, but more so, we can be bolder. How are we actually going to go after capitalism and really make the change? That's really what I look at as resources.

Michael Kink: There is a particular billionaire figure that ties so many of these strands together:  Paul Tudor Jones, the billionaire who grew up in a cotton brokers, cotton trading family from Memphis, Tennessee. That's where his family wealth came from, that he started his hedge fund with on Wall Street. He’s been on the bleeding edge of financialization and hedge funds. He has been driving school privatization, charter schools, and austerity in his political work. And he also runs one of the most admired and admirable foundations in New York City. The Robin Hood Foundation — they fund a lot of really good stuff to fight poverty and to create economic opportunity. But the contradictions are there because they’re refusing to engage in tax justice — you cannot get a grant from the Robin Hood Foundation to tax billionaires and do the deep popular education that we’ve talked about. And then there’s the larger question of how billionaire philanthropy is really just designed to greenwash the reputations of unethical individuals and destructive corporations. And, you know, there are members of NYCC and CANY and VOCAL-NY who have been to protest at the Paul Tudor Jones mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, who can talk to you about carried interest — both because they are smart people who can get their heads around tax policy and justice issues, but also because a huge mansion on the waterfront in Greenwich, Connecticut, that you have to take a bus a couple hours to get to, is a good visual aid in talking about inequality. And so I think every person that we work with — every person from the best educated to the least educated, the people who have opportunity to the people have no opportunities — can open their eyes to these issues of justice, of economic justice and racial justice. But in order to get the people and feed them lunch and let them have a cigarette and get on the bus and go to Greenwich and talk to the cops and have the press folks that could reach out and do the preparation —  so folks come to those actions informed and ready to talk and ready to confront you — it takes resources. We've all been part of actions where if you ask any particular person in the crowd, they can talk in a meaningful way about their personal perspective, their connection to that issue. And those are the kind of campaigns we want to run.

Rosemary Rivera: Your last comments really got me thinking about a book that I was recently reading. It's called “Winners Take All.”  And the author Anand Giridharadas asked some questions. And one of the questions that he asked is, "Should our gravest problems be solved by the unelected upper crust instead of the public institutions It erodes by lobbying and dodging taxes?" And I think it's incredible to me how many of our very own philanthropic institutions, I raise the question again, in order to have amassed such a breath of money and power in this country — I question what happened in order to get there? And I feel that again — it may not have been your responsibility, but you're being held accountable to it. But to think that we are going to resolve all of our problems simply with the funding of those who are in the upper echelons who are saying, I see what you are doing and yet not…. I think honestly, we need a different model of people actually committing, and the math is actually generating the funding themselves in order to take on the movement. It's part of the reason why I believe so strongly in membership. It brings me back to when I didn't have a pot to piss in at one point in my life, and the fact that I would walk from one end of the city to the other in order to participate and give you my bus money because I feel you need it — like this was the place that I was and that was a political home and that I was with like-minded  people, and you better use my dollar and a quarter in a good way because I just walked. And I seriously still believe that people will move fast if they see and if they are engaged, I will not invest if I am not engaged, if I am not learning and I am not growing and I'm not exploring something. And so we as organizations have to invest in our people and we have to engage our people more so than ever. And then I think our people will invest and engage with us as well.

Jasmine Gripper: Yeah, I have a ton of thoughts. I'm trying to figure out what's the best way to land the plane here. I think leading with vision going forward is going to be deeply important to the movement and to the work. And like we just said, we are leaving behind the shackles of what’s a “reasonable win” or “a realistic victory” and really creating the communities and the schools that we want there to be and that we know we deserve. And so I think about what that means for education advocacy and I think about what it means to create schools that are really preparing children to think in a revolutionary manner, so they question the status quo, to be our future leaders. And I think, you know, we've seen young people will always be at the helm of a major movement in our society and we see them even rising up now. But imagine if all kids have access to high quality schools, what the movement could really look like. Imagine if all kids really had the energy to challenge the status quo and rethink and reimagine what our world could and should be. Just imagine what could be possible our kids aren't hungry and worried about housing and can really be allowed to be free to think and free to be kids as well, and be free to imagine a new society and a just society. And so I think we have to leave this knowing that investment in children is one of the best investments we could ever make and we can never lose sight of that. And so how do we, as a society, really anchor and invest in our future and make sure that our children are set up to succeed, that they are inheriting an earth that can still thrive and flourish, and that they have all of the resources to meet their full potential. And if we ground ourselves in achieving those things, we can really create dynamic change. And I just think that  anchoring ourselves in our future, in our children, is just one of the best things we can do, and supporting parents as they are raising children is something that we need to be better at, and these are things that need to be centered and grounded as we do this work.

Ravi Mangla: Yeah, I love what Jasmine was saying about leading with the vision, rather than thinking about what's the next step. Starting by thinking what is the last step, what's the world we want to see, what is that bigger picture, and then working backwards from there. And I'm excited by the kind of changes we're seeing and the campaigns that are being built. And the one thing that connects them all is that we need revenue. We need to be able to tax the extremely wealthy to create that kind of society that we all want. So I'm really grateful that we're able to have this conversation and I'm looking forward to seeing where we go from here.

Charles Khan: Yeah, I'm really energized and excited by conversations like these when I think about revenue and when I think about taxes, and when I think about the implications of those wins, I get really excited because they make me think about incubation of new ideas, on how we can create a new world to live in and how those resources can be spent. I'm a big believer in, you know, “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” And so, when I participate in discussions like these and when I organize, when I'm talking to people, I think what I've seen recently is all of the new ideas that have been spreading and becoming more popular. And that's what makes me really excited to do this work, and it gives me a lot of hope for the coming years and the kind of l huge transformative wins that we're working towards. And so I think the revenue conversation is the gas for the car, but I'm really excited about the destinations, what the destinations are looking like and where we're going.

Jess Wisneski: Man, I'd follow Jasmine anywhere. And I also appreciate her reminding us earlier in the conversation that the systems around the white supremacist systems and money and politics are such an integral part of the dismantling the status quo. And she also breathes a bit of climate justice and climate change, environmental racism. Earlier, Ravi talked about the extractive economy and we haven't given a lot of space to the planet, in this conversation and the intersection of how it's ruining people's lives or just being ruined every day — their health is being stolen from them, their livelihood is being stolen from them. And so the people and the planet stuff sticks with me. All of my climate justice-focused friends would be like, “what are you guys doing having a whole conversation without that?” So I know we all know it and it's on our brains as well. And I second Charles in that a lot of this has circled back to relationships and even ourselves as organizers, activists, members, leaders in the movement, in our own organizations and the members of our organizations and activists at large needing to also be those children, right? Needing to build relationships, have dialogue, have time and space for creative energy. I'm with Charles, that you sometimes just fall into the campaigner’s mode, right? We don't take the time to just stop being active for a second so we can have dialogue like this. It's regenerative, right? It gives us energy. It gives us hope. And it gives space for creativity and new ideas and new ways of thinking about our work. And I think that we need to replicate this over and over again, because that's what it really boils down to: being in relationship with people and pulling from there everyone's combined lives, wisdom, and experience is what's going to fuel our ability to be in action in a way that changes the world.

 

Transcription by Carolina Agan

Share

Created with Sketch.

Comments

You must create an account to join the discussion.

Registration