State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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The Trump resistance works to find its feet in Pa.

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | May 15, 2017 5:09 AM
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Activists at PA Together's inaugural conference break off into groups to discuss the state of organizing across the commonwealth. (Photo by Katie Meyer/WITF)

(Harrisburg) -- On a rainy Saturday afternoon, a group of about 50 activists are gathered in a conference room in Harrisburg.

There are people from across the state here. Some are well-established, like Planned Parenthood or unions like AFSCME--which owns the conference center where the meeting's being held.

But many others are new--they popped up almost spontaneously after Donald Trump was elected president. 

As a whole, these groups form a new coalition called Pennsylvania Together. This is its first conference, and it marks the first time many of them are meeting each other in person.

"For me, as for many people, the day of the election was absolutely devastating," said organizer Hannah Burton Laurison when asked what prompted all this. "I remember waking up after not much sleep and having to tell my two daughters what had happened."

Burton Laurison is one of the group's primary leaders. By trade, she works in public policy. But like others in the room, she said she wasn't overtly political until recently.

After the election, Burton Laurison started organizing in Philadelphia for Tuesdays with Toomey, a group that holds weekly rallies urging GOP US Senator Pat Toomey to break the Republican party lines he usually votes along.

Tuesdays with Toomey grew quickly in connection with Indivisible--a national nonprofit that helps resistance groups organize. But Burton Laurison said it started becoming apparent such efforts could be better-used elsewhere.

"I really began asking the question of, what would it look like if we worked as a state to demand the same accountability of our state legislators that we're demanding of Donald Trump and our national representatives?" she explained.

And so the seeds of Pennsylvania Together were planted.

"This is the moment for us to ask what we want our democracy to look like," Burton Laurison said.

That's the main question of the day: how can dozens of disparate groups, from different corners of the state, with varying backgrounds and experience levels organize effectively?

The agenda for this first conference is straightforward.

The attendees break off into teams for open-ended discussions about what they're seeing on the ground where they live. What efforts are already underway? Where are the gaps? Are incumbents going unchallenged? Or elected positions going unfilled?

But the day's central discussion is on an even trickier, more entrenched issue--racial justice.

On at least that point, the Pennsylvania Together members are united: they say above all others, this problem will make or break the grassroots progressive movement. This is the key to the coalition.

"We can't overcome white supremacy alone," said Jude Denis. "People of color are not going to be able to do that. So we have to be able to reach out to white folks and energize and engage them in the work, and give them the foundational tools to do the work."

Denis is the executive director of organizing group POWER Northeast, and she said race isn't just the most important component of organizing a progressive movement--it's also by far the hardest.

 "I think the reality is, there was no reason for white people to wake up," Denis said. "Revolutions don't start because the status quo feels good. Revolutions start because people feel like, this is not the world that I thought I lived in. And so for people of color, it's always been obvious since the beginning because we've always had to struggle."

Nevertheless, looking around the conference room at the dozens of organizers, it's hard not to notice a trend.

While the group is both male and female, young and old, with some racial diversity, it's still mostly white--and that's especially the case among its organizers.

Alissa Packer, a scientist and college professor by trade who's one of the chief Harrisburg organizers, readily acknowledged the problem.

"We're not going to take over the work that [people of color] have already been doing for a long time," she said. "We want to use all these new group members and put them to work on the issues that [others] have been working on. We don't want to reinvent the wheel on any of this."

Racial barriers, of course, aren't the only things that bring different perspectives to the table.

Most of the organizers here are from Pennsylvania's big cities--Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Many are from Harrisburg or other smaller cities. But few are from the truly rural areas where Donald Trump is overwhelmingly popular.

Angela Aldous, a young mother who works as a nurse, is one of the only ones.

She's from the southwestern reaches of the state, in Westmoreland County. While some of the new advocacy groups from the bigger cities have hundreds or thousands of members, Aldous says her group--Voice of Westmoreland, or VOW--is lucky to get 10 at a protest.

"All of us who slowly started to meet each other, we all kind of assumed we were the only ones," she recalled.

Pennsylvania's rural areas are still politically powerful--and despite the fact that many people from these blue collar areas are still registered Democrats, many are fiercely socially conservative.

Aldous made the trek out to Harrisburg to figure out what more she can be doing. But she notes, what works in Philly--or Harrisburg--won't fly in her hometown.

"We're not going to talk about guns. You know, we're not going to win any argument there," she said. "We're just trying to find the things where, if we're going to have a conversation with most of my neighbors, we do agree on certain things. Like, wind and energy jobs would be good for our community. If we could have that, we would take them."

Organizing requires a lot of time and effort of people who, for the most part, have other full-time jobs. And it's not easy to get such a diverse group to fit under one umbrella.

Nevertheless, the activists repeatedly note that they don't underestimate the challenges. And as evening rolls around and the group wraps for the day, spirits are high. Everyone's communicating. And several present--most with no previous political experience--have committed to running for their local school boards and city councils.

But some participants do note, all that positivity sometimes feels like it borders on naïve.

Delores Ritzman is one. She's a longtime attorney who attended on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive bar association. She's a black woman who, she explained, has been doing this stuff for years.

At the end of the session, as many of the participants exchanged email addresses and posed for a group photo, she ducked out of the room to avoid it all.

As she sees it, the challenge will just be keeping up this momentum.

"I think that it needs to go deeper," she said. "I think that it's a good start, but they really need to do more of these."

Organizers are adamant: they plan to. This, they say, is only the first step.

The groundswell of activism after Trump took office has been frequently compared with the conservative backlash that followed Barack Obama's election in 2008.

In that case, it turned into real, institutional might--conservatives swept the midterms two years later, thanks to the rise of the Tea Party.

In the days and weeks to come, the groups plan to track bills as they move through the legislature, get their own names onto ballots for local office, and learn all they can, as fast as they can.

For all their varying priorities, one single mission is clear from the Pennsylvania Together crowd--whether they've been activists for years, or got involved on November 9th, they intend to have a hand in their own political future. 

Published in News, State House Sound Bites

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