Listen to the interview here.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

Jeremie Greer: Hi, I’m Jeremie Greer.

Solana Rice: Hi, I’m Solana Rice. We are co-founders of Liberation in a Generation, a national movement support organization building the power of people of color to totally transform the economy — who controls it, how it works, and, most importantly, for whom. We at Liberation in a Generation are beyond excited to partner in guest editing this edition of The Forge

JG: The Forge is an online journal started by the Center for Popular Democracy. The mission is to elevate the strategy and practice of organizers through the sharing of ideas, methods, history, inspiration, and by building connection and community among organizers and between sectors of the progressive movement.

SR: For this segment, we’re talking to advocates and activists to provide their perspective on an array of topics that intersect with racial capitalism. 

JG: Solana, there is no talking about the wealth of this country without talking about land as a commodity. Wealth in this country is derived by extracting value from land at all costs. There is no talking about wealth without acknowledging the colonizers that stole land from Native people and the colonizers that enslaved African people for free labor to build the agricultural system to farm that land.  

SR: That’s right. So we talked to Chrystel Cornielus, Executive Director of Oweesta, a community development financial institution serving Native Americans. She will join us first to talk about this history of Native people’s relationship to the land, forced removal, and her take on the role of capital in Native communities. Click here to jump to our interview with Chrystel

JG: Most wealth in our families is also generated from homeownership — a right not afforded to Black people and other people of color due to redlining and exclusion from access to mortgages and insurance that made homeownership possible for white people. 

SR: We’ll hear from Cy Richardson from the National Urban League about this history and where it leaves Black and brown people today. Click here to jump to our interview with Cy.

We’ll hear from Tara Raghuveer, Housing Director at People’s Action and organizer with KC Tenants. She’s going to tell us about organizing for a homes guarantee that aims to decommodify housing altogether and ensure everyone is housed. Click here to jump to our interview with Tara

 

Several of these interviews were recorded before the uprisings surrounding the latest police murders.

 

JG: So we're here with Chrystel Cornelius of OWEESTA and before we really dig into talking about racial capitalism, I wonder if you could share: Why focus your life and career on racial and economic justice issues?

CC: Thank you very much for having me today. My name is Chrystel Cornelius. I'm a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in the United Nation of Wisconsin, and I currently am the Executive Director of First Nations Oweesta Corporation. But in regards to your question on why I essentially dedicated my life to fight for racial and economic justice: I think just within the terms of how I was raised and blessed — I honestly feel blessed to be a Native American woman. I came from a very prominent political family. My grandmother was the first woman chairman in the history of our tribe. She was also one of the founding members — although not necessarily noted — of the American Indian Movement. And our tribe actually was one of the first tribes in the 1950s to sue the government. So a lot of people don't know, but the government essentially is default of any legal recourse unless it's in regards to Indian Nation.

So at that time, and growing up, my grandmother and a group of our elders fought the government for over 20 years for land rights. So essentially, I'm growing up in a measure of really looking at the injustices of the federal government and, hand in hand, helping my family with this. But, essentially, what happened, we ceded over 100 million acres of land within the first treaty, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, in which, if you look at the area, it's essentially the whole Red River Valley, parts of Canada, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. So when we ceded that land, going rates at the time were $1 an acre. And we got 10 cents an acre. So upon going through boarding school, my grandmother's first — my grandmother grew up not speaking English. She was forcibly removed from her home. She was put into boarding schools two states away, which was purposeful too because a lot of our individual families did not have the financial means to make these long distances to, you know, see their children. So within this, I think boarding school broke a lot of people or it made a lot of people in a certain sense of, just the abuse that they suffered, the discord between trying to take out cultural values that are so deeply and still deeply ingrained within Native communities. So she got herself educated and looked at this great atrocity of the monetary descent that the government imposed on us. And with that, we were one of the first tribes, and we actually made precedent, we fought that for 20 years. And upon other tribes realizing, looking at the discord of what they were underpaid for their land, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, [sued the United States] for lost land claims. 

My history: I was a tribal planner for my tribe for about eight years. And then I started the first nonprofit on our reservation, which was a native Community Development Financial Institution, a CDFI, so, at that juncture, that's really the only course of capital that our tribal members could get that would not be predatory. So I think that platform really helped me look at things in a different measure and never think that anything was impossible because, a lot of things, what we did within our own reservation or with the government, it took a lot of time, patience, and tenacity — but we did it. So I think that really provided me a very strong platform to end up in a position where I fight for equity, justice, and capital all to align for Native communities.

JG: You mentioned that you're running a Native Community Development Financial Institution which provides capital and financial products to Native communities, and we'll get into that in a moment. But, before that, we'd love to hear: What's your definition of racial capitalism?

CC: In looking at racial capitalism, I think that this current system that we have of the structure of how capital flows. it was [premised on] white supremacy. When we look at liberty and justice for all, that was not truly meant for inhabitants of this nation — the original inhabitants, which are, you know, our indigenous people or, for the hundreds of thousands of Black people that got enslaved and basically built America. So when I look at what racial capitalism is, it's really a discord and a system that was intentional to have certain members of society not be able to create wealth, to be able to create assets, and really work on the backs of our land and our labor to propel America into what its dream of prosperity was, but based on founding fathers’ dreams that come from oppression. So racial capitalism to me is: Number one, really looking at history and how systems and processes were formed intentionally to disregard major parts of what we now see as America. 

SR: From my perspective, our curriculum in schools is slowly coming to acknowledge the history of Native people on this land, but I certainly would appreciate a quick walkthrough of the history of land and land stewardship and the relationship of land. Can you describe Indian land tenure in this country, going from the colonial period, removal, reservation…. Just a brief walkthrough of what is such a rich history could be helpful for our listeners.

CC: So let me start off by saying this is incredibly important to Native people. Our land has so much more value than a monetary value. They hold our sacred spaces. They hold where for eons we have held ceremonies. A lot of our creation stories — and each Native nation has their own independent creation stories — base land. We believe, collectively —and I can't speak for all of Indian country — in a higher power, but more so what ties us to that is our relationship and the respect that we have [for] Mother Earth. We could not even fathom owning the land when the land gave us everything we needed. So there may be fights among boundaries of hunting grounds or something. But even the concept of ownership of land was so unfamiliar — to say, I'm going to give you these beads and you give…. Even looking at that, we are at a complete disadvantage. And looking at colonization — and we'll get through these different purposes — but, first and foremost, the arrogance that came with colonization and, you know, we just found this amazing piece of land with these indigenous people who are savages and we'll just cast them aside and take it over and industrialize it. 

But at the same time, if you read history and you look at different parts of history, European original colonizers were so enamored with how kind we were, how generous we were, how we didn't hold possessions as a form of worth. So, for instance, in one measure, the richest person in the tribe was the one that gave the most away. When we look even at those intrinsic values, a leader or a chief wasn't somebody that wielded ultimate power and authority if they didn't lead well with good decisions, with kindness, and with redistributing wealth throughout the whole tribe. You could be a chief by yourself and nobody's following you. Western civilization was confounded on how we could live so peacefully with each other. Looking at the land aspect, we had thousands of years of trading systems going back and forth, we had our own very sustained economy and it was working really well.  

When we get to a point of removal and the reservation area — those are some of the most atrocious stories in history that you'll find. For instance, in the 20 years that my grandmother was going to the Library of Congress, and she would sit on a park bench because they couldn't afford, our tribe couldn't afford — when they sent her out to get all of this historical documentation — a hotel for her. So she would pack up bologna sandwiches, sleep on a park bench outside of the Library of Congress for weeks at a time. Bathe where she could. But, in looking at that, she found so many instances within the Removal Act, believe it or not, under Abraham Lincoln, under Grant. They didn't really want to deal with the sovereignty status of natives. So they would go out and eliminate every single person in that tribe. So when we look at a majority of East Coast tribes, Lincoln himself killed — and I'll just be honest — 13 tribes out of the state of existence. Every man, woman and child was murdered. There's no history other than little points that we can find. And looking at that Removal Act for larger bands, that's purposeful. Obviously the land was very valuable in regards to what we cared for. Those are very historical sites. We've got our ancestors buried in this land. That was overlooked as not of importance — and we had hundreds of thousands of Natives die during these removals. 

Within our language, reservation literally translates into “leftovers.” So if you look at any location where tribal nations are residing now, it was deemed at that point in time during the removal and reservation era, portions of land that had no value. And, in our case, I could say that's true and not true. We gave up the richest agricultural land in the United States. Our reservation was originally 32 miles by 16 miles. Now it's 6 by 12. And that was done for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tribes throughout the United States. Once they found value in that land they cut us down more. In our case, they came and they did a census, in the early 1920s, in the middle of winter — and North Dakota is very cold in the winter. They only found 16 full-blood families and they figured, you don't need the 32 mile by 16 mile reservation anymore. You just need six by 12. They didn't bother to go find the rest of the families that would gather together in bands. So the systematic stealing of land. And the atrocities that our Native ancestors had to go through — and many died — that was purposeful. There is no remorse, I think, in any regard in terms of how that was done and a majority of that is still shrouded in secrecy and not brought out to light for the nation. 

Twenty years ago, you wouldn't have found as many national Native organizations as we have now. The American Indian Movement and so many historical protests, for lack of a better word, has allowed us to gain this power for ourselves and to speak for ourselves. So I find that incredibly hopeful. But I think just the time period of colonization, reorganization, termination, are incredibly purposeful. It is meant to steal our wealth. We still may be looking at termination areas, based on what we're hearing from the Trump administration. So that's another fight that a lot of smaller tribes are preparing for if need be. But the government has ultimate authority. And I think the loss of our land or coming into another termination era could be devastating.

JG: There's two types of Native American land. There's trust land, which is: Federal government holds the title, but the beneficiary interest remains with the individual or the tribe. The trust land is held on behalf of individuals in things known as allotments. And then the other form is fee land, which is purchased by tribes, in which tribes acquire legal title and have statutory authority over that land. And, in general, most Native American lands are in trust land. About 50-60 million acres of land is held by the United States in trust on behalf of individuals and tribes. 

My sense in my quick reading on this is that there's a lot of different opinions about which is better for Native communities and that there's some that, well, there's some that would argue that the trust land has really stymied the prosperity of Native communities and that a better route would be the more sovereign and fee land. But this debate around these different forms of ownership is really an important conversation around self-determination and sovereignty. I just wanted to hear: One, whether there's holes I left in that explanation, which I'm sure I have. And then, two, where would you land on this debate? What's best for Native people? 

CC: That's a really good question. So, I think in addressing the first part of that question, when we see a lot of tribes that are buying back land and they're able to put it into a simple fee status, they're able to economically develop that on an easier stance than trust land or tribal land. What's interesting to note there too, though, is, a lot of times when we're buying back our land, we would like to have it in trust status, but that never happens, and it basically stops at the Department of Interior because that would be extending sovereignty. And that's something that I think they really don't want to do. 

My personal viewpoint is sovereign land is incredibly important. It's one of the last things that we have left and control over. At the same time, the governmental structures of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of Interior really hinder a lot of progress. But, on one hand, we have been seeing, based on our collective efforts as Indian nations, some of that change. I'll give a quick example. A lot of times when somebody wants to buy a house or build a house on either trust land or individual trust land or their own allotment, you have to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to get a clear title. So there's something called a title status report that's needed for you to finally be able to build or have this piece of land. For many years, it would take six months to a year to get that title status report from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to allow yourself to build that property. Being that we found that such a hindrance, we've worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that process now, in many regions, is taking three to six weeks. So there is some hopeful measures in which we see things changing. 

My personal opinion, though, if we were to completely alleviate sovereign status, which would take out the trust responsibility from the federal government, who has not been historically or even presently doing a good job of holding their end of the bargain — my main fear would be to take that sovereignty status away on both sides, we really lose a power of determination over our own lands, treaty obligations, and what that looks like for the future. So if we don't have sovereign land anymore: Does that erode trust responsibilities and former treaties that our ancestors signed under duress? So that's the basic things, like school systems, IHS [Indian Health Service] — all of these are underfunded anyway, by the way. Bureau of Indian Affairs, if they disappeared, that’d be fine. But my main fear would be eroding these trust responsibilities because in all honesty, the federal government is really tired of holding on to these for 500 years, but you know what, we are written into the Constitution. I don't know if a lot of people understand that. So unless you're going to do a constitutional change of the United States, that's there. 

But I also know, on another note, and I think a lot of this has to do with individual capacity building of tribes themselves. And that's not to paint a negative picture of Indian country whatsoever. But there are so many ways to work around and with sovereignty for development and for the betterment of Indian people in tribes. I've seen that done time and time again. So for instance, there's a larger CDFI that's non-Native. They've invested over $1 billion in Indian country. They have worked with sovereignty measures, had limited waiver of sovereignties, and they've helped build technological and broadband pipelines to some of the remotest Alaskan villages in the United States. There's Native American Bank, who works with tribes across the entire nation with their sovereign statuses land. And they've been able to develop huge enterprises and invest in these enterprises. So, I think a lot of times when we look at what's stymieing economic development. There's been so many models that have worked and so many tribes have used that in such a phenomenal measure. I still find our land and sovereign status very important. Because I think there's larger political issues that could really harm our native communities or tribes and what little bits of land we have left if we were to relinquish them.

SR: I do want to move to the work of Oweesta. You, as helming that organization, have been tremendously successful at increasing the amount of capital available for Native communities. You mentioned earlier the discord between the individualistic nature of capitalism and the Native beliefs about communal ownership, and not even ownership, just stewardship and tenure. Can you tell us a little bit about Oweesta and how you approach this balance of working to provide more capital for the health and growth of your communities while still upholding the belief systems of Native people?

CC: That's a great question. I think the first thing to note, just in regards to Oweesta, our morals, our values, and our mission — and I think it's very helpful that we’re Native lead, we’re Native-run. Our governance board is one hundred percent Native American, our leadership, our staff members. So that's helpful. Number one. But two, I think that we understand that any marginalized community — obviously our pulpit is Indian country and tribal communities — have the answers to their problems, whatever that may be. They just don't have the resources available to implement. In coming to any organization that we're working with, we inherently know that. So when we mix that with capital, it's actually not as hard as it sounds based on that momentum and foundation of respect. 

To give just a brief history. Most Reservations are in, as I indicated, extremely remote rural areas. In looking at any individual having the opportunity to go get a loan, to start a business, to enhance their credit, to become a homeowner, those avenues of capital simply aren't there and a lot of that is due to lack of access, but a lot of that is also due, in all honesty, to prejudice and racial issues. So if you look at a majority of reservation communities, typically our avenues for any type of capital are predatory lending institutions that are outside reservation boundaries. Or, if we go to a bank and we say, hey, we want a loan to do something, most of these banks are agricultural lenders anyway. As Native people, we have not built up the wealth or collateral needed to be able to access larger amounts of capital. So we're left with nothing. I mean, literally, left with nothing unless you're going to do predatory lending type of endeavors. 

In 1998, Congress mandated a study throughout all of Indian country, and their question essentially to themselves was: We keep giving, based on treaty rights, millions and millions and millions of dollars to tribes throughout the United States. Why are they still mired in poverty? What's going on here? So what they did is, they did a listening session for two years, and they went throughout the entire United States and spoke with tribal chairmen, coalitions, anywhere, everywhere they could. What ended up out of that study was called the Native American Lending Study. And what they found was 17 major barriers to economic developments within Indian country. The first and foremost, out of all of the barriers, was a lack of access to credit, to capital. This is for tribes themselves, this is for individuals, period. You have a lack of access to capital and credit throughout all of Indian Country. 

The CDFI  fund was created based on that study. We were very fortunate to be able to get a set-aside within that budget for Native American communities to start their own financial institutions. So that has changed the economic landscape, first and foremost, of Indian country like we've never seen. In 1999, we had two Native CDFIs. Today, we have over 69 and 30 new emerging. Looking at that trajectory and having the ability to actually provide credit, to provide capital and to build community assets has and is something that most Native communities have never seen. When we talk about those two institutions, Oweesta was one, and we were meant to be the capital arm of Indian country. We were formed as an intermediary lender, which means we lend directly, and we provide capacity-building assistance directly to these Native institutions throughout the United States. That's our only target market and we don't deal with other CDFIs. We have helped build these organizations through our 20-year history, and we are the first [organization] generally to capitalize these organizations, to provide loans to their communities. So, in looking at what we do or how we recognize the cultural differences with capital: Capital is capital. People need capital. But we've seen the flow of capital change economic landscapes completely and not really mess with cultural values or mores, just providing opportunity we've never had access to before. 

SR: What's giving you hope? And what would you tell folks right now about what needs to happen in terms of rectifying our relationship to the land and to rectifying history?

CC: That's a great question. What gives me hope in this juncture, amidst all of this perpetual heartache that I think many marginalized communities and people of color have been feeling for generation upon generation upon generation, what's giving me hope in some sense is, with the atrocities that we're finding within governments, within police systems — when we're looking at the protest today and we see the amount of diversity of people that are just done. So many things are coming to a tipping point to where America is done. And we're really looking at how to fix that. So that, in and of itself, is giving me more hope than anything and looking intrinsically how that ties to land, how that ties to just regular justice: I think America really needs to take a hard look at itself. We need to rewrite our history books and we need really just to be honest. 

SR: Chrystel, thank you so much for laying out a clear connection between the oppression that we face under white supremacy, giving us an accurate rendering of our history and one of the key pillars of how this country became so wealthy around land and the theft of land and the killing and murdering of millions of people. And, after all that, still some hope and some real clarity about the fact that this is a different moment. And so I appreciate you — and thank you for taking time to chat with us today.

CC: Thank you so much. It was an honor.

 

And now, Cy Richardson, Senior Vice President with National Urban League, to talk about housing, discrimination, and the challenges ahead.

SR: Hi, Cy, it’s great to see you today, and we look forward to having a great conversation with you, as always. We want to just start with just getting to know you and why you have personally focused your life on the fight for racial and economic justice.

CR: It's an important question, a question that animates the long tenure I've had with the Urban League. I’ve been with the League 18 plus years. It's garaged in two main places, one personal, one professional. My interest in being in the arena — advocating, arguing for the interest of Black and brown people — relates to my own identity formation as an adult. I am biracial and have grappled with issues of identity throughout my entire life, not as a pejorative but as an opportunity to try to understand where I see myself in society. I was an athlete as a kid and always saw my value and my existence through my utility as an athlete. I went to college on an athletic scholarship and was quite an accomplished athlete. But after that part of my life, I drifted a bit because my identity was always rooted to my ability and the physical skills I had to play a sport. And so I struggled with my own identity as a young Black male and grappled with it and was drawn to issues and organizations and institutions that allowed me to be comfortable in my journey and to be in my own skin. I was drawn towards advocacy around social and racial justice because it allowed me to find a role for myself and the voice to be in the arena — chanting and advocating and arguing for the economic life chances of Black people. And in the nonprofit sector,  there are not a lot of Black males, and so I had a very unique perch to understand and assess the boosts and blocks to social-economic equality.

I say all that to say, the Urban League was not my first job, but I've been here a long time because it allows me the opportunity to be in the arena and to make other people uncomfortable around what is the prevailing issue in America, which is race and how it governs everything that we do and all the systems that we create and all the countervailing arguments within all that. It’s a long way of saying that my personal trajectory drew me to an institution and a line of work that not only allowed me to be Black but celebrated the fact that I am Black and have a unique legacy and history in that identification. So the Urban League is a perfect setting for me to find myself, and, as they say on airplanes, put your own mask on first before you can help others. This is what I've done over the last decade: I've gotten right with myself, personally, spiritually, professionally, and all of those dimensions, such that I'm now able to help others in service.

SR: The National Urban League is a historic civil rights organization dedicated to economic empowerment, and it's dedicated to elevating the standard of living for historically underserved urban communities. From your perch, what is racial capitalism?

CR: How I operationalize the concept and term in many ways is drawn from how my organization shows up and exists. The National Urban League is the nation's oldest and largest community-based movement dedicated to empowering African Americans to enter and sustain themselves in the social and economic mainstream.

Racial capitalism is a system of systems, or to Black America, the matrix. This is how we exist and how we live. [The curtain] has been pulled back through the COVID-19 pandemic where we've talked about the definition of what is essential, what is community, what is resilience, what is opportunity, and what are the redistributive policies that we need, not just  public policy but private policy. The Urban League sits at that intersection of trying to inform, guide, and advise private policy C-suite actors to be more progressive, participatory, and to democratize their spaces. The Urban League historically has been a conduit or bridge for that kind of social capital formation, which is really communicating to white America how you need to slow down sufficiently so that communities of color onboard at the right rate and pace so they can fully participate in modern America.

To me, it is a system of systems. And again, my understanding of that term is really informed by some of the colleagues that we have, some of the colleagues we have, PolicyLink for example. There is seminal work on the chain of systems that work to hold back Black and brown America. All the systems in civil society: health, the workforce development, the criminal justice [system], education — all those systems, hold Black and brown America on the margins and, permanently or semi-permanently, on the outside of the mainstream. So we have this whole series of cottage industries and ecosystems that have cropped up like barnacles on boats, preying on the notion that there are folks outside of these systems, and there's money to be made by virtue of their residence there.

To me, obviously it’s an academic term fraught with tension and controversy. However, I apply it to mean the systems of systems that govern civil society, which work literally, structurally, legally against the economic and social interest of Black America. The role of my organization is to mitigate those effects and smooth them but also not be uncomfortable making other people uncomfortable pointing out that these systems are not equitably advancing the interest of all Americans.

JG: You touched on something that is a good segue into the next thing we wanted to talk about. One of the features of racial capitalism is the exclusion of people of color from the systems that help Americans build wealth. You mentioned the wealth crisis that is happening. And one of the major systems that has been used to exclude people of color is through our ability to access land and home ownership in this country. There's a long history that really begins in the founding of this country and takes us to today. I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the critical moments in that history, the role that an institution like the Urban League played in responding to those historic systems, and what you all are doing to really help people get a foothold on building wealth and building wealth through access to ownership?

CR: I do think there are parallels to our modern work with earlier waves of understanding how America became bifurcated. We are in potentially the great bifurcation — or forking — where the economic life chances of some of us break away from the mainstream. And I think about the work 100 years ago in the tenements of New York, Jacob Riis, for example, How the Other Half Lives — the expose on immigrants, their existence, how they were living, how they were dying, how they were going through household formation, and how we got the public health crises in New York and how that was never on the radar of the elites. The expose of How the Other Half Lives really did a lot to change tenant laws, air and light standards in tenement housing, how they were constructed, safety around sanitation, basic things we now take for granted. Black America and brown America does not have the economic tools at its disposal in similar ways that the early Irish immigrants and the early Italian immigrants didn't have these institutions to facilitate their assimilation into American society.

I say all that to say: That early work is very important. It's what the Urban League does. We understand the quantitative, qualitative, and anecdotal data before us and we weave it to tell a story. So we’ve been helping [since] the Great Migration. We’ve been helping folks leave the South to move to the North, help find jobs so they can settle and build into generational wealth. We’ve been doing that since 1910. 

The key moments [that] are obviously seminal in our history include the post-World War II G.I. Bill. It has tremendous explanatory power about how that forking began for Black America, and how you could quickly fall behind. Public largesse really invests in the ability of white servicemen to return home, to buy homes, to finance education, to promote a middle-class existence; they can have the car, the white picket fence, the American Dream. That was denied to Black America for several decades. Then that comes to roost in a time of great conflagration and great turmoil of the '50s and the '60s. We’re talking about all the series of hurdles in the civil rights legislation. We’re talking about even things such as the Transportation Act, which decimates dense urban centers by requiring people to drive around cities. And then urban renewal demolishes communities where Black and brown households had grown: Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington.

All of these public policy responses, in many cases [developed] to respond to the effects of racial capitalism, but they’re also disproportionately affecting communities. In many cases, Black America is catching up. But then having to grapple with all of the attendant noise around affirmative action, quotas, and, now, in modern America, the diversity and inclusion space, which really is a cauldron, a crucible for racial capitalism today, in terms of the symbolism of having more people of color in organizations versus the substance as to what these institutions are doing to facilitate a welcoming atmosphere or to promote the interests of people of color.

SR: You mentioned that the mainstream is where we want to reside. We know that home ownership has traditionally been the way that people in this country build wealth. You spoke in your description of the arc of our history, the way that Black and brown people and immigrants, as well, have been excluded from residing in that mainstream, quite literally, residing in the mainstream both financially and physically. So the low rates of home ownership that we see are not by coincidence; they are absolutely by design. And you also mentioned the confluence of private actors and discrimination — and government-endorsed and -sponsored policies. 

Now, we have this Black home ownership rate at 42 percent or so, the lowest of all the racial groups. Black people were the slowest to recover from the last housing crisis. This disparity is definitely not a personal behavior issue. These trends are inherited, just like home ownership is inherited; it's literally inherited. I'm curious about the work that your team is doing at Urban League and some of the impacts that you see from the past and what you're doing right now to ameliorate some of these racist policies.

CR: You’re right, Solana, you've laid out the patchwork of blocks; this is not just a 19th and 20th century phenomenon or dynamic.

The Urban League of Long Island did a yearlong exposé into the fair housing ecosystem of Long Island [and] found how actively, even today, [realtors are steering black families away]. They had to go back to basic stuff of doing paired testing with different people walking in — a Black family, a white family, an Asian and Hispanic [family]. Realtors were three times more likely when showing Black families a house to steer them away. "This is not for you; you couldn't qualify." We've heard it before. But to see it, hear their voices and then look at the data…

So again, the fair housing challenge is that pockets of inequity endure today. People struggle with their understanding as to how that can be. Yet, as you mentioned, it is this confluence of public actors, private actors, and the ecosystems that support them. This status quo is alive and well. But again, I’m thinking more around home ownership, and it is central to generational wealth building. [We believe in] down payment assistance, for example. Working with the Asset Building Policy Network, we have learned that the time horizon for the average Black or Latino household to save the necessary down payment to afford a mainstream mortgage product is not counted in weeks or months. It's counted not just in years, but decades, in terms of the ability to save the down payment to begin to be credit eligible, credit worthy for a mainstream product. Now is the time to begin repurchase conversations, to go back to basics on financial literacy, financial coaching. And hitting our lending partner as to how risk-based pricing is an inadequate way to judge creditworthiness today.

We used to have character lending. We used to have local lending offices in communities. That was too hokey, that was too Normal Rockwell. And we got to automated underwriting computers and algorithms and all that. There is an acceleration which has hurt Black America. We do need to come back to, what are the other indicators that will judge and confirm creditworthiness and the obligation. Non-traditional reporting mechanisms. We're also looking at renters, what is their disadvantage here because they never really have the ability to get over the hump, to be able to set aside dollars, to be able to transition to home ownership, absent these purchase programs or different schemes to get them on that pathway.

The notion that Black people don't want to own homes is poppycock. But the ability of the marketplace to respond to the unique cultural demand of a community that has not had 200 years of being born on third base, 200 years of your parents went to college and they owned homes and so that's just normally what you necessarily have to do. That mind shift, that kind of behavioral confidence, does not organically spring. We need interventions. We need organizations like ours and yours to be able to point out the challenge and the pathway to traverse it. And again, the primary issue is: Home ownership facilitates wealth building, intergenerational wealth building. It's incentivizing home ownership and really trying to increase income. It's building wealth, it's reducing debt, and it's really trying to disrupt mass incarceration as a major challenge and dismantler of Black households and future household formations.

SR: I’m hoping you can share with listeners, what are strategies to fight against discrimination, exploitation, and exclusion? And what are some of the other words of advice for activists out there today?

CR: Three things that I've learned. The first thing is: like we are meeting here, like we have shared interests, like we are colleagues in this conversation, there are twice as many folks meeting somewhere, possibly like this, meeting and strategizing and getting commitments contrary to everything that we are talking about and everything that we value. This is hand-to-hand combat in a way. One takeaway is: We cannot be certain of our rightness, and there’s no monopoly on understanding how to address an issue. That can only be done in league and in concert with others.

The second thing I've learned is that [we advance] only in alliance with others who have shared interests. I've always talked about the shared racial fate because I do think our residential patterns... We're living cheek by jowl with other communities of color. The fight over turf, blocks, tracks — I do think this is the next front on the physical dimension to civil rights. I think we'll leverage what we've learned from the community land trust folks, land bank folks because in many ways, we have to build in systems that transcend our professional life here. We're in our prime, yes, but we need to build in for my kids' kids' prospects. I'm interested in structurally and institutionally building systems that respond to their needs in an increasingly browning America. So, one, that there's always a countervailing weight on the other side with deeper pockets, deeper resources, far more cynical, and far more experienced in getting their way, so there's that. 

The second thing is, coalition building is key. Ten years ago, for example, there was a lender who really was in tough shape. They had acquired a suite of failing mortgages and were hemorrhaging, and so they wanted to partner with the Urban League to do home rescue fairs, to do principal reduction, to do workouts, to be able to solidify their own balance sheets. They realized, in doing these rescue fairs, there was a lot we had in common in the provision of this work that our colleagues at Unidos had, that our colleges at NCAPACD had. And so all three of our organizations created a singular collaborative called the Alliance for Stabilizing Communities. We did fundraising, we gave congressional testimony. It was not the Urban League or Unidos or National CAPACD. We subverted our own business interests and arguments to the greater good of communities of color because we have so much in common, and we're all taking it on the chin. And so we subverted our own interests in the moment, but what we did was build a sustainable long-term collaborative that exists to this day because the needs and injustices are still evident. In fact, I think that structure and infrastructure we’ll be able to use and utilize that leverage now because we are allies, we're friends, we're colleagues, we're partners. And so I think it'll help with philanthropy, it'll help with investments and officially getting those investments in the street. So that's two.

The last thing I will say that I've learned is that we really need to do a better job of harnessing data — quantitative, qualitative, and anecdotal — to be able to do the storytelling and narration. That's very important. We need to say what has happened to us. And we've also learned not to go for the “okie doke” with our investment partners. They want brand reclamation. They want to say, "Look, the last time, maybe we were at fault, but now? We've not done anything wrong here, so we're to be held harmless." Yes, but, again, if you're leading with risk-based pricing as the primary way that you determine who you will do business with, well that can only be racialized. We're only going to be on the boot end of that conversation. There are different ways to judge risk. Maybe there are different ways to judge creditworthiness. Maybe there are different non-traditional ways to look at data.  For example, if someone is sending remittance back to Mexico every Wednesday every two weeks, that can demonstrate commitment and discipline.

JG: I'm going to wrap it up with this question because I think it's hard looking back on the history, just reading the news today, just walking around the communities today. It's really easy to get down and be like, there is no hope. You know that we can't move forward if we don't have hope. So what is a thing that is giving you hope and keeping you going in the belief that we can get through this, and we can get to that last point of revolution. What is that thing that is driving and giving you hope?

CR: Ultimately, I am an optimist. The glass is half full for me as well. This is where I am hopeful. I am hopeful that there has been an awakening amongst the younger generation. And not just an awakening of young people of color. An awakening of a younger class that has a different notion on opportunity and a different notion on what civil rights is. We have the chance to be able to create that Rosetta Stone that is understood in the modern sense. But I do believe people's antennae are up and open to understanding that everything can be reduced through haves and have nots, opportunities and challenges, boosts and blocks. I do think that the pivotal moment — we are in that now. The classroom is this crisis, and so the degree to which people are tuned in and not tuned out, they're checked in and not checked out, that gives me hope. 

JG: Thank you, Cy, for all of your years of work in the struggle. And thank you for joining us today and sharing your perspective with The Forge and its audience.

CR: Absolutely. I read The Forge, and I read both of your work. Your colleagues and allies are mine. I appreciate you engaging me.

 

SR: Now joining us is Tara Raghuveer, Housing Campaign Director of People’s Action and Director of KC Tenants. She’ll talk about the movement to cancel rent and advance a national Homes Guarantee. 

Tara, it's great to have you with us. We want to get started with just getting to know you a bit. You are Director of Kansas City Tenants and the Housing Campaign Director for People's Action, which is a national network of state and local grassroots power-building organizations united and fighting for justice. Why, Tara, have you personally focused your life and career fighting for racial and economic justice?

TR: For me, it's personal, as it is for many of us in this work. My family are immigrants and, before my family emigrated here, my grandparents were part of a generation of freedom fighters in India fighting colonial oppression and rule over their people. So it's in my blood to a certain extent. And I come from a family of rebels and righteous rabble rousers. And then, I think, the real core of my interest in this work at this point is a deeply rooted anger about power and people who have power and use their power over and above to exploit people who don't. And, as is true with a lot of organizers, that has to do with many aspects of my personal story and the experiences that I've had in my life. Then, there's a way in which, as we ask our grassroots leaders to transform personal pain into public power, my personal pain and some of the struggles that I've experienced and my family has experienced, I've been able to transform and politicized into the political analysis and ideology that guide me in my work now.

SR: That’s fantastic. I like the idea of righteous rebels and transforming personal pain into political power. Absolutely necessary. In your eyes, what is racial capitalism?

TR: It's such a tough concept to define. We actually do popular education trainings on racial capitalism and housing policy for our base in Kansas City. And usually what I do is, I'll draw some circles on the easel chart and there are two circles, one with an R in the middle and one with a C in the middle. And there's option A, where the R circle and the C circle are separate and they don't intersect at all. So racism and capitalism as separate systems. Option B: The R circle and the C circle intersect a little bit. So there is some intersection between racism and capitalism. Option C: The R circle is way bigger than the C circle or the C circle is way bigger than R circle. Racism informs capitalism, or capitalism informs and creates racism. And then option D is where the R and the C circles completely overlap and they're intertwined systems, always have been. And that would be the visual representation of racial capitalism in my mind. 

I think it's important to talk about racial capitalism in a nuanced way. So the way that I understand racial capitalism is a particular American strain of racism and capitalism built together, intersecting at every point from the beginning of how we can understand both of these systems in the U.S. I don't think that's necessarily the case across the world, but I think here there are many stories that we have from our history as a country about how our economic systems of oppression and our racial systems of oppression were built together. And the system of racial capitalism is actually the system that we need to contend with. It's not racism by itself or capitalism by itself, but both together that we need to figure out a strategy to combat and ultimately overthrow.

JG: I love the imagery around intertwined. One of the knots that comes together in that system of racial capitalism is around housing and the way that housing has been used to make sure that people of color have not been able to have wealth, have not been able to have security in their physical space. And one of the things that People's Action has done, which is a huge step forward, is putting forth the Homes Guarantee proposal. I wonder if you could talk about the genesis of how that proposal came together and what it would do to create that kind of security and unwind one of those knots in racial capitalism?

TR: Absolutely. I think when we talk about housing, we see it — housing and land — as one of the core distorted creations of racial capitalism in the U.S. And it starts at the very beginning. The theft of native land is the beginning of racial capitalism and its impact on housing and land policy for years to come. Property rights in this country that were originally written by white landowning men who also owned people as property, those same property rights in the frameworks that those men wrote into law, are some of the same frameworks that exist in our law today. So you're totally right that housing and land policy are at the crux of this really gross American racial capitalism. 

The Homes Guarantee is exactly that. It's our vision to combat and dismantle racial capitalism in the context of housing and land policy and it came directly from a base of brilliant grassroots leaders in the People's Action Network. These are residents of public housing, tenants of private corporate landlords, unhoused people from across the country. And there's actually a story that I love to tell about the genesis of the vision of the Homes Guarantee, which was summer 2018. About 50 of us gathered at a retreat center in upstate New York, and a bunch of us organizers from around the country came to the grassroots team with some proposed issue cuts. We were like, you know, let's ban developer money in local elections. Let's fully fund capital repairs in public housing. We thought these were really righteous ideas for campaigns that we could run. And I think they totally are, but we brought these ideas to our grassroots leaders and basically all of them were like: “Nah, none of this is big enough to meet the complex, nuanced, massive ways in which our lives are impacted by racial capitalism and housing policy. So we need to do better than this." 

And they basically threw a wrench in the whole retreat, staged a coup, took it over, which, in retrospect, I'm really grateful for. At the time, it gave me a massive headache because I was like, there goes my perfect agenda. But I think the brilliance that they had in that moment was something that's now played out for the last couple years of building our campaign. Basically, they were saying, we are sick of chanting in the streets, "housing is  a human right," without having a vision for what that can actually look like in the United States, within or above this system of racial capitalism that's so particular and entrenched in this country. And, furthermore, they had this vision that was the seedling of the Homes Guarantee, which — it's actually very simple. We live in the richest country in the history of the world. We can and we must guarantee that everyone has a home. They were like, we need the Medicare for All type of vision for housing. We need a Green New Deal for housing. We need that big systemic vision that we can imagine and then rally other people around. Because, until we can imagine it, there's no way we're winning anything. We can win some of these small incremental things, but the system remains the same. So that was the genesis of the Homes Guarantee. And since then, it has blossomed into this really beautiful project of imagination, but then also a project of transformation. We're starting to see how these ideas can be implemented  and advanced as well.

JG: So you mentioned that the people's real challenge to what you were doing before was that, you're thinking too small, that this isn't going to have an impact. I'd love to hear: What has been the reaction of the broader network once you branched out from that core group of folks that it started from?

TR: Well, I think a lot of the ideas in the Homes Guarantee sound really radical. The very theory of the Homes Guarantee is that instead of treating housing as a commodity that can only be delivered by the private market, we must treat housing as a public good and guarantee housing as a human right. And we can say those words in theory but then when we start getting into the policy, like what does that actually mean about our conception about private property and whether or not that should exist? Or landlords, whether or not the business of landlording  should be a thing? It starts to sound really radical because the idea of the Homes Guarantee unravels these notions that have become so entrenched about housing and capitalism and the way that money works in our economy and who deserves what. So the reactions have been mixed. I think a lot of housing organizers and tenant organizers saw the Homes Guarantee and were like, yeah, this is it. This is the wish list of stuff that we've been fighting for and organizing for for years. And here it is in one place, anchored by a grassroots vision, and with the potential to break through in a new and different way. And then, I think, for a lot of other people, there's  still some struggle to reach the level of imagination that we're pushing people to reach.

But for us, these ideas were never radical. I think the example of the story that I told about that retreat center and our leaders staging that coup, that's happened like ten times over in this process. And when leaders tell us we're not thinking big enough, it's not because they are some crazy radicals. It's because they're clear on what they are owed. They're clear on what has been taken from them and the ways in which they've been exploited. And the things that they're demanding are not radical; they are what they are owed. It's the stuff that they are super clear that they need. And so that's happened like ten times over. And I think it's just the reality that we as a movement, we need to put forward really bold, radical-seeming ideas in order to push the limits of what's possible. 

The last thing I'll say on this is. We often meditate on this quote from a Brazilian popular educator, Paolo Friere: "What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we cannot do today?" And I think that's some of the theory of the Homes Guarantee: We can imagine today the world that we all deserve so that tomorrow we can go win that world because we can't win it today.

SR: You mentioned changing the relationship of land — of land ownership, of land occupation, of who gets a home, who gets to stay in a home. And we know that speculation of land and housing makes tenants vulnerable to eviction. We're seeing it right now in real terms. The speculation of land also prices people of color out of ownership and owning a home. One of the principal goals of the Homes Guarantee is to decommodify housing. I'm hoping you can share a little bit more detail about the long-term steps. How do we get there?

TR: It's a really complicated project. And I think the first step is this project of imagination that we've been talking about. First, folks need to understand that there is another way that we could do things. And, in addition to everything I already said, another reason that this set of ideas is not radical is because a Homes Guarantee is something that's practiced in other places in the world. In Vienna, for example, there's a hundred-year-old project called Red Vienna that's a social housing project. And, in the middle of the city in some of the best neighborhoods, the most lucrative areas, two thirds of the city's residents rent social homes — homes that are actually not privately owned and for profit but part of a social housing system. So the core components of the Homes Guarantee that would take us towards this vision of decommodifying housing: One is building 12 million units of social housing. And, actually, this number probably needs to be increased by quite a lot in the wake of the COVID pandemic and the kind of wreckage that it's brought to our communities. But our idea was that, prior to COVID, there were about 12 million households in the United States who were paying over 50 percent of their income to rent. So they were extremely cost-burdened, meaning that a flat tire or their kid getting sick might be the difference between them being able to pay rent in a given month or not. And that we see as a fundamentally flawed systems design. So we want to build, basically, for those folks, 12 million units of off the private market [housing], permanently and deeply affordable to all of the people who need that type of housing. We would consider that social housing. 

Then another core component of the Homes Guarantee is a massive investment in existing public housing. There are about 1.1 million public housing units that still exist in the United States, and a huge amount of capital and operations backlogs to maintain those units as dignified, habitable, safe places for public housing residents across the country. And that's not okay. I think everyone in this conversation knows that, when public housing was initially constructed, it was a dignified place to live because it was constructed for white working-class people. And then when we subsidized white working-class people to move to the suburbs and subsidized their mortgages so they could own homes, we secured white wealth for the rest of time. And, meanwhile, Black and brown people moved into public housing and it is not a coincidence that that was the moment in which public housing started seeing budget cuts and facing austerity, and it has been disinvested from ever since. And public housing is in the condition that it's in now by no fault of the residents of public housing but rather by the fault of a system of racial capitalism that intentionally disinvested from the public deliverance of housing as a good. So the second component of the Homes Guarantee is investing in public housing, repealing the Faircloth Amendment that bans the construction of public housing that's existed for about 20 years — wild. 

And then the last couple components of the Homes Guarantee are enshrining tenant protections across the country, including universal rent control, just cause evictions, other things that can protect tenants in their homes in the speculative economy today while we build this future of the Homes Guarantee for tomorrow. And then there's a core component around ending real estate speculation. So actually ending the practice of real estate and land speculation, the treatment of housing and land as commodities, by levying a whole set of taxes against the actors that do that and currently make massive profits from it.

I think the other two major components of the Homes Guarantee that are throughlines through all of this: One is that, because of our groundedness in the long history of racism as it relates to housing policy, we know that we actually just can't start from a blank slate today and pretend like this massive injustice has not occurred for the last several centuries. So we actually have to think about the Homes Guarantee as a reparative policy as well. Not to say that it would provide reparations writ large, which are of course needed, but rather, what is the particular way in which we need to repair the damages and the exploitation done by housing and land policy and make sure that Black and brown communities that have been on the receiving end of those oppressive policies for generations get a leg up this time around through a Homes Guarantee policy. And then, similarly, as we're looking to the past and repairing those damages, we also need to look to the future. 

Another throughline of the Homes Guarantee is that we can't build 12 million new units of social housing while ignoring the ongoing climate catastrophe. We have to think about how we are building housing units, maintaining housing units, building housing policy and land policy in a forward-looking way that protects us against climate catastrophe and actually helps to end the impending disasters of climate change. So we've got a whole Green New Deal component of the Homes Guarantee that's aiming to do that.

SR: That's great. It sounds like creating more supply, more units, more places for people to live that are not private, that are more in the public sphere, and then also marrying that with actual protections and just outright saying no speculation — it puts us on that path to decommodification.

JG: You mentioned the 12 million cost-burdened renters — and that was before this most recent epidemic of COVID-19. Since then we've seen, I think now it's up to 39 million people filing unemployment benefits, there's people getting sick and family members getting sick, and all of this is just increasing the number of people that are cost-burdened in this way. And, like with the Homes Guarantee, activists across the country came up with a solution, which was to cancel people's rent during this pandemic. And then worked with Congresswoman [Ilhan] Omar to introduce the Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act. I wonder if you could talk a bit about how that came together and what has been the response. It is, again, one of those radical ideas that upsets the conventional wisdom of how we should do housing policy.

TR: Yeah, so our grassroots leaders — you know, we got together with our leaders within a couple of days of the shutdown policies beginning and people were starting to get laid off. We developed a set of initial demands that included things like a nationwide eviction moratorium and a ban on utility shut-offs. The number one thing on our list of priorities, from the beginning of the pandemic, was a rent and mortgage cancellation. Because people were really clear from the start that if they weren't earning income, they weren't able to go to work and earn money, they just couldn't pay their bills. There was no way they could pay their bills generally, and especially not their biggest bill, which is their rent. Most Americans, and this is actually across race and class lines, most Americans, their biggest expense is their housing. So this is one of the first things that people were concerned about at the beginning of the pandemic. 

And then, as the week's went on, to your point, millions of additional people have filed for unemployment every week since the pandemic began, and we're now experiencing historic rates of job loss. And people are in a really, really dire financial situation. Forty percent of Americans couldn't afford a $400 emergency before the pandemic, and now people have lost so much more money than that. And it's not even just job loss. I've got leaders in my base in Kansas City who are essential workers. There's one leader in particular who works the overnight shift at a QuikTrip. And so she's been lucky to still have her job, even though, of course, she's concerned about her health and safety every day. But she has two kids at home, two six year olds who aren't in school anymore. So while she's working overnight shifts, she then has to come home and take care of her kids and try to educate her kids all day. So basically, for the last two months and change, she hasn't slept more than two hours within a 24-hour period. She's completely exhausted. She's had to pay out-of-pocket for additional childcare to try to get some sleep when she can. She's donating plasma to pay the rent. It's really bad. And she has a job. She's one of the lucky few who still have a job during this time. 

So, as the week's wore on, the key thing that seemed like it needed to be central to our fight was canceling rents and mortgage payments. And we worked with lawyers to determine whether or not that is constitutional at the federal level. The determination of the lawyers that we worked with was that, yes, it was indeed constitutional. So we worked on a piece of legislation with Representative Omar that was introduced on April 17th [2020]. And the idea was pretty simple: Cancel rents, cancel mortgages, meaning no payments, no late fees, no debt penalties for any violators. And then there were two really important pieces of it that I think have gone under-discussed since we introduced it. One is that there would be a relief fund for property owners. Not for all property owners and it wouldn't just be free money for corporate landlords, but there would be a relief fund, with a priority for non-profit and small owners to apply and get some relief to recoup their losses. But the money would come with conditions so it wouldn't just be free money. It would come with conditions to freeze rent and provide other types of tenant protections if you were going to benefit from the government money. 

And then the other key part of it, which is related to our long-term vision for a Homes Guarantee, is that there would be an affordable housing acquisition fund. Meaning that we know that there are actually a lot of owners who simply won't be able to sustain the losses that they face during this time, or might just want out of the market altogether after all of this is said and done. And the huge risk there is that we face another 2008-style disaster capitalism, where the vultures are swooping into our communities and buying up all of these foreclosed properties, turning them into corporate investments and just totally neglecting and extracting from our towns. So to guardrail against that we have this affordable housing acquisition fund in the Omar bill, which would allow the government the first right of purchase to actually buy the properties out from the owners who want to sell them, and then maintain them and operate them off of the private market forever. So the beginnings, the seedlings, of a social housing program.

JG: I love the way that last point bridged the Homes Guarantee with this moment to try to get something. I really like that.

SR: As you reflect on the process and the bill itself, and now what we're seeing as the next relief package, the HEROES Act, what takeaways do you think are important for activists in the audience to know?

TR: I don't have a happy story to tell you. I think the lesson that I've learned in the last couple weeks is a lesson about our power as a movement. We have a ton of people power. We have power to move people into the streets. We have power to take radical direct actions. And this time has really challenged us because obviously we cannot move people to the streets in mass numbers as we normally would. We can't take the types of radical direct actions that we have been building the muscles to take for the last several decades. And, meanwhile, these deals around the stimulus packages are being cut behind closed doors. And we don't have the kind of power that gets us in behind those closed doors yet. Even as we have some friends like Representative Omar who've been elected to Congress, those friends are few and far between. And they don't necessarily have the power to be impacting decisions at the level that they're being made right now. So those are some reflections. It's a bad story for now, but it's a good lesson for us to learn. Because we have to be clear on what power we do and don't have in order to figure out how we need to build power, and how we need to express our power in the months and years moving forward. 

The concrete takeaway, the call for action from folks across the country, is that I don't think people in Congress yet understand the depths of our pain. Let's be real about something. The people making policies in Congress are of a property-owning class. Period. Members of Congress are rich people. They're not people who necessarily are in community with all of the millions of folks who have been laid off. They might be hearing from some of their constituents, but it is not something that's felt personally by the folks who have the power to change our circumstances. And that is an organizing challenge. We are challenged by the circumstances of this moment, but there is a challenge that we need to rise to meet, which is making the outcry from our communities an outcry that is heard by the people who have the power to change our circumstance. And I won't pretend like I have all of the answers there yet, but we're working diligently to try to figure out how to translate the pain in our communities into something that our representatives take seriously. Or, how to organize the pain in our communities into sufficient enough, threatening enough, public power that they have to take us seriously. That's some of the theory of the nationwide rent strike that's happening right now: If they won't listen to us because they empathize with our pain, we will make them listen by orchestrating the largest economic disruption in American history. Which is a mass inability to pay the rent that's politicized as a rent strike. 

SR: As they say in my circles, you better preach! I really appreciate the idea that you brought in around power. Because we can't — I would almost think that we might want to add another circle to that Venn diagram that you talked about at the beginning, that it’s racism, it’s capitalism, and it's also about power. And when do we see power just disrupting everything or when do we see power holding in those two forces of racism and capitalism together? I really appreciate this idea of reflection and not giving up hope. But just being real about what's happening.

JG: You said you didn't have a happy message because it isn't a happy message. But what is giving you hope? What does motivate you to look in the face of all of these challenges, real life and death challenges, and persist?

TR: Well, I think I'm very lucky relative to other national organizers in that I also have a job where I organize a grassroots base in Kansas City. Frankly, I don't know how I'd be surviving right now if I didn't have a really deep connection to a grassroots base of leaders. Because it's impossible to not feel hope every Saturday in our two-hour long tenants meeting where people who are directly impacted by these issues, who have been living unhoused, who have been living with deep housing insecurity, join to strategize about what we can do to take care of our own in the absence of more established power structures taking care of us. 

So right now in our tenants meetings at KC Tenants, we're talking about designing an eviction blockade program that would be community run and our people would put our bodies on the line to stop evictions from being carried out in Kansas City if we're not effective in winning an extension of the eviction moratorium. Our folks are talking about Moms for Housing-style home occupation to take over vacant properties or corporate-owned properties and put our unhoused siblings in those properties and stand with them to make sure that they can keep them. Because it's actually a complete abomination that there are 10,000 vacant units in Kansas City while there are 2,000 people sleeping on the streets every night. There's five homes for every one person who needs a home. And that is immoral and can obviously be solved but for the lacking political will from our leadership. So that gives me hope, is the consistent clarity among a base of directly-impacted people about what they and we are owed and how we're going to get there in the absence of real leadership from elected officials and other folks with more established power.

And the other thing that gives me hope is the idea that the communities that we’re fighting alongside are resilient, have developed means of self-determination for generations, and will continue to do so. Which is not to say, I mean this is a completely devastating moment in which people are literally dying. People will never recover financially. [But] it's humbling to know that our ancestors have faced moments like this with power and with clarity and come out of it stronger. And my hope is that we will do the same. It's intimidating to think about what that literally looks like right now, but I have some faith. I have some faith that we will get there.

SR: I really like some of the themes that you've woven throughout. This idea [that] these are not radical ideas. These are ideas with clarity. That we have to bring our imagination to this moment, even in grief and sorrow. And also that we have power. We will continue to build power. And we can get through because our ancestors have seen it before and have done it before. And so I really appreciate your time today, Tara. This was a fantastic conversation. And thank you so much for all the work you do and for joining us today.

TR: Thank you. This was fun.

 

SR: Thank you for listening. For more conversations like this one, visit forgeorganizing.org.  We’ll see you on Twitter @ForegOrganizing. For more about Liberation in a Generation, check out LiberationinaGeneration.org and hit us up on Twitter @LiberationIn. Thank you to Nino Moschella for audio post production and editing. Thank you to all our guests for breaking it down with us. Stay well, everyone.  

 

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