By Farrah Samuels

10/5/16

I’m still riding high off the buzz I got from being at the 4th Annual PPF Membership Assembly (MA) — my first! I had no idea what to expect, but I’m incredibly grateful to and in awe of the organizers and members who made this an amazing and unforgettable experience.

Throughout the weekend, we talked in various discussion groups and through collective open forum about a concern many of us share: that we have a medical community, big pharma and legislators who are in it to make a profit, not to care for the people. I felt every word I heard of PPF members’ stories — many that were much like mine — made visible finally from their dark shadows via the unique, welcoming, and nurturing family atmosphere that PPF-PA provides. Over this weekend, I found a forum of like-minded individuals from all walks of life with a shared vision. And I was recharged, inspired, and invigorated to finally have found my tribe.

As I walked in, registered with Ben from Pittsburgh, and paid my dues, I heard the sound of some fierce music coming from another room at the Grace Methodist Church, luring me in. It was “Glory,” the poignant, Oscar-winning song from the Selma movie soundtrack. It was followed by some other liberation type tracks like those of my Marvin Gaye (yes, MY Marvin). PPFers were busy putting up signs, distributing supplies, and posing for my pics (thanks Maddie and Sheila), as other newer members from different organizing committees got to know each other and filled the seats. It felt like a really cool family reunion!

I met heroes, sheroes, and theyroes, who turned test after test into testimonies through guided group discussions led by volunteer group moderators. Collectively, we reviewed PPF-PA’s timeline of historical accomplishments and actions.  I’m grateful to those who shared stories with me and listened to mine. One in particular sticks out of one of our members who was a young teenager with sixteen siblings during the 1960s, when Johnnie Tillmon wrote her quintessential narrative on welfare, a guaranteed minimum wage for all, self-determination, gender equality and roles, etc. We read the piece aloud in groups reflecting on gender, identity, leadership, what has changed since the piece was written and what similarities exist today. And for a second, I felt a kindred spirit in Johnnie Tillmon just in reading the first paragraph and thinking of my current “situation.”

Through my conversations with others, I learned much that I will carry with me and spread to others. One example is the need to stop thinking of gender as simply binary or this or that. I don’t actually think that way, but I speak that way out of habit. And frankly, it can be insensitive and trivialize the lived experience of another person I care for. So I decided to pinch myself every time I forgot to use the pronoun, “they,” when referring to our family and friends who do not conform to binary gender norms. I also learned from the group I moderated and by observing the many roles members stepped up to fill, that leadership comes in many different forms and is not just the loudest lion that roars. I heard the rhythm of Carla’s drum during what I can only describe as an activist’s ideal revival moment put into a song in a musical intermission. Carla organized us as if we were a harmonious three-part gospel choir, with one group calling for freedom, another responding that it’s coming, and the beat of a collective human heartbeat going on in the background with every bang of that drum. It’s as if our own voices were pushing us forward with renewed strength and energy towards this freedom in its various forms.

During my assigned childcare shift in the playroom upstairs. We danced, played and I’m still picking traces of gold glitter off my face and out of my afro. I saw the future in the faces of our children, who will be ready to grab the baton when it’s time for us to pass it on!

I learned a couple really good dirty jokes from Bella and the feisty Mrs. Fletcher, who should definitely open a haberdashery and epitomizes who I wanna be like when I grow up. I made lifelong friends that feel closer to me than some I’ve had for years!

We were treated to a talent showcase and awards ceremony emceed by Terrence and Carla, while sharing a wonderful dinner together on Saturday evening. I was deeply moved and inspired by the great poets of our group, musicians, and sage voices of wisdom from award honorees like Danelle, Kim, and Anna and leaders like Phil, Willie and Gary. And I am grateful for the feeling of solidarity and the outpouring of love so readily given by everyone there. I particularly remember the warm, heartfelt, long hug I received from Munroe that still snuggles me in my dreams like a warm blanket these past few nights.

The greatest lesson of all from this weekend, is that when we work together for the greater good and lift each other up, we all win!

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My eyes light up now when I see one of your posts on Facebook, or see an incoming call or text from a close friend who was a stranger to me just a short time ago! I know I am now part of a collective consciousness and family that truly has my back 100% no matter what!

The PPF-PA 4th MA was rejuvenating, life-transformative, and fueled with much needed hope, and inspiration to keep fighting on many fronts. We are not just numbers or names on a page. We are a diverse, unique, strong, compassionate, loving, intelligent, energetic walking, rolling, and crawling (baby Elijah) force to be reckoned with. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for; and in the words of the great Sam Cooke, “I know a change gon’ come. Oh yes it will.” For me, it already has just by showing up and participating in the 4th Annual Membership Assembly. Thank you all for sharing yourselves with me. Hope to see or hear from you soon.

This month, the Pennsylvania Insurance Department will announce health insurance premium rates on individual and small group plans for 2017, just ahead of the open enrollment period that begins in November. In July, the Department held its first annual public informational hearing on proposed rate increases following eight months of pressure from Put People First! PA (PPF-PA) members who engaged hundreds of impacted people and organizations across the state. At the hearing, dozens expressed opposition to rate increases, with story after story about how insurance companies are bankrupting PA families. Testifiers were supported by advocacy groups, public health organizations, unions and state legislators.

Citing rising healthcare costs, their own profit margins and not enough young and healthy people signing up for plans, insurance companies seek to stem profit losses by hiking rates on people who need access to care, and putting pressure on government regulators to allow it – something we saw in public for the first time during the hearing in July. At last month’s PA Health Access Network (PHAN) Conference in Harrisburg, Insurance Commissioner Teresa Miller foreshadowed the announcement of potentially large increases, lamenting that rates were kept ‘too low’ last year. But if increases of up to 26.7% are still considered too low to prop up big insurers, nearly a million enrolled in the Marketplace face a dastardly trick this fall.

In “Beyond Coverage, Putting People First In Pennsylvania’s Healthcare System”, a recent report based on a survey of people in 46 counties by PPF-PA, 82% of respondents indicated that last year’s premium increases affected their lives, while 37% indicated that the cost of medical care has forced them to skip paying for basic necessities like food and rent within the past 12 months.

As another round of increased insurance premiums impact family budgets, more Pennsylvanians  will be driven out of the marketplace, leading to a vicious cycle of more expensive yet narrower plans. Currently the individual penalty for not buying insurance of $695/yr., or 2.5% of personal income (whichever is higher), is well beyond what most people can afford.

July’s public hearing was a triumph for democracy in Pennsylvania. The Insurance Department responded to the organized power of people, and listened attentively to our struggles with out-of-control insurance costs. We called on the department to represent the interests of the people because proper regulation of insurance companies is necessary to protect our health and human rights. In our survey of PA residents, 9 out of 10 people agreed that the government needs to do more to protect Pennsylvanians’ health.

The people have already said loudly and clearly that insurance companies cannot be allowed to balance their books on our backs. There is no situation in which a company’s bottom line should come before the needs of a cancer patient or a pregnant person. Our lives are at stake – the health of people comes before the health of the bottom line. Put People First looks forward to the release of new insurance rates for 2017. It will be a pivotal moment to understand whether there is a place for democracy in our healthcare system, and if not, what must be done about it.

In the midst of a presidential contest in which 1.5 billion dollars have already been spent, West York Borough, a municipality in York County, is making national and even international news right now. The mayor of West York, who also is a Republican, posted racist and oppressive public images on his Facebook page that negatively target Black people, women and Muslims. The mayor was requested, but refused, to resign from office and it turns out, without criminal charges, the Borough Council can’t remove him. Put People First! PA and the York Organizing Committee condemn these irresponsible and dangerous actions on the part of a public servant, that set the stage for violence and fear in our communities.

The Mayor supervises police, sets public policy in terms of housing and public safety, breaks Borough council tie votes. If he is willing to publicly dehumanize community members for their gender, ethnic background, heritage, or religion, then he has no place making decisions on behalf of the community.

Members of the York organizing committee, armed with signs, passionate speeches, and the power of their presence, joined a peaceful protest at the West York Borough City council meeting. The people power generated by Put People First, along with several other local groups, led the council to unanimously censure the mayor and authorize the Borough solicitor to seek any possible legal means to initiate removal proceedings.

It wasn’t enough, and will not be enough until this mayor resigns or is removed from office. Members of the York organizing committee will be gathering letters from West York business owners and petition signatures to submit to statewide legislators, but we will also be there, speaking truth to power, until Mayor Wasko is no longer in office.

This isn’t just about a publicity stunt during an election year. Pennsylvania is considered a prize for either party in this election, but once election day is over and the cameras go away, we’ll all still be here. Put People First is a non-partisan organization. It’s not about the Democratic or Republican parties, neither of which represent the interests of everyday people. It’s about standing up to a climate of hate which is fed to the people through the actions of so-called leaders and amplified by the media, which infects the people and turns communities on each other. Put People First brings everyday people of all backgrounds together while the social media posts of Mayor Wasko, and the laws and policies of the powers that be that threaten our everyday survival tear families and communities apart.

“We always hear about these proud proclamations of racism by public servants across the nation and as bad as we want to be with those being affected, a demanding life and long distances keep us from physically being there. When I heard Mayor Wasko of the West York Borough was one of these proud racists, a twenty minute drive from my home to the borough seemed like a walk down the street. I had to be there. As a black male, everyone who spoke against his hatred told a fraction of my story. Soon it became clear that even the most seemingly reclusive individuals garnered the best of themselves to denounce the racial divide in our nation. Everyone understood that Wasko was merely a symptom of what needs to be fixed. Borough council created a space of respect and community. They understand division inhibits growth, and if division must happen, it must be with the ones who refuse to grow within themselves. Mayor Wasko’s term was needed as the catalyst for what will become one of many revolutionary movements against racism to affect change from the ground up.” – Terrell Turner, York Organizing Committee Member

Put People First just came back from our fourth annual Membership Assembly in Harrisburg, PA. We spent the weekend discussing our campaigns, reflecting on what it means to be a member of PPF, sharing about gender power and gender oppression, and celebrating our victories and each other. We are invigorated for another powerful year fighting all across the state for our human right to healthcare!

Put People First is a multi-generational organization. Among the nearly 100 people who joined together in Harrisburg, 20 were children. These young people bring life and energy to our movement, and they help us stay grounded and remember what we’re fighting for. We are so happy for their presence and participation!

Azzare (age 10) has been to two membership assemblies. During our celebration on Saturday night, she talked to 26 different people and asked them each what their favorite part of PPF is. Thank you Azzare for your hard work reporting on this beautiful night! It’s so important for us to document the love and joy in our movement.

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What is your favorite part of Put People First?

“How wonderful the people are.” – Ben

“That everyone gets to participate.” – R.

“Everything!” – Bahjah

“Meeting people from all over Pennsylvania.” – Zack

“That we are so powerful together.” – Noah

“The people, the energy, the commitment.” – Rebecca

“Everyone can be themselves.” – Maddie

“I love that it’s people of all ages.” – Anna

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“I love the people, and everybody is so awesome!” – Menvekeh

“Being a big family” – Jacob

“The people.” – Kate

“Learning from other members’ stories.” – Ash

“How it brings people of different races, ethnicities, sexualities and religions together.” – Rick

“The people.” – Jamie L.

“Everyone I work with. Also, you can do it for free.” – Karim

“All the people.” – Danelle

“How it brings out self-respect and leadership.” – Sean

“Community.” – Mihir

“Family.” – Quinha

“The people.” – Jamie B.

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“Connecting with everybody.” – Alex

“The community.” – Suzi

“The unity, love, support.” – Laile

“The best people take care of people.” – Dan

“People’s humility.” – Maní

“Working with people of all ages.” – Clarissa

Check back soon for more from the 2016 Membership Assembly!!