Put People First members gather at the April 2016 Leadership Institute

Put People First members gather at the April 2016 Leadership Institute

by Krissy Mahan

I attended the Put People First Pennsylvania Leadership Institute on April 10, 2016, held at the Hafer Center of the Lancaster Theological Seminary. I am a new member of PPF, and I feel really lucky that I was able to meet so many dynamic people from all over Pennsylvania, and to learn in-person what PPF has going on state-wide.

The whole day was such a great way to see the scope and strength of all that Put People First Pennsylvania continues to build. I was flattered that I was asked to attend a leadership institute so early in my membership with PPF. But as I was there, I saw that one of the principles of PPF is to develop the leadership of its members, and for each member to see themselves as a leader in their geographic location and in their healthcare/social circumstances. This confidence in every member’s leadership capabilities made me feel very confident that I had made the right choice to join up with this organization.

I attended the morning session “Letter to the editor: How to use and leverage our voices in mainstream and local media to address the healthcare crisis.” This was particularly valuable to me, as my organizing activities often have to be done from home, because of eldercare. I learned about the large audience these letters can have, and how to write a letter effectively.

I also attended the session called “Sharing your healthcare story: Exposing the failures of the healthcare system through our personal story to organize and mobilize our communities.” This was an empowering session, because we learned a way to turn our difficulties into tools for movement-building and real change.

In the afternoon I attended the “Building Strong Organizing Committees” session with the Southwest Philadelphia OC. We talked about what specifically would be most helpful to build the movement where we live. Much of what we came up with could be grouped under “getting people we already know involved!” Another group of ideas centered around having information about PPF available at places where people go (and wait) who could bring their healthcare stories/strengths to PPF, for example hanging flyers at clinics, the pharmacy, and senior centers. After we returned to the large group, we discussed what makes a good “action” – an action meaning when organized people do an unusual activity in a public place to draw attention to their cause. We then moved into smaller groups based on topics for actions we were most interested in.

I moved back home unexpectedly last autumn to care for my mother as she endured a health crisis, and luckily found work. I don’t have a lot of time for extra things, but I am committed to social justice. I hoped to join a local movement that addresses and seeks to correct the unfair levels of vulnerability to healthcare problems, economic exploitation and incarceration that effect people both in urban and in rural areas. Put People First is fighting against all these problems. I love that that Put People First Pennsylvania is flourishing right here, in the birthplace of the genocidal, settler-colonial United States. I am proud to see PPF using compassionate grassroots organizing to create more just world.

by Karim Sariahmed

this piece was originally posted at In-Training.org

Almost every morning, one of our physiology lecturers asks a question. Usually, it’s a question to which most of my 200 classmates would know the answer. The silence lingers until finally they get a response, often whispered like an embarrassing secret by someone sitting near the front. The timid self-consciousness on display in this small ritual is a major part of the socialization that happens in medical school.

Sometimes, when I compare how I feel as a person outside school to the way I feel most days in class or the clinic, the prospect of community organizing in medical school seems like a losing battle. The community I work with in Philadelphia taught me to speak my mind compassionately, but without fear of my audience. Because of them, I don’t always wait for permission to speak. But at school, I often assimilate a meek deference to authority, even when people in positions of power say things which my own knowledge or experience would refute. These encounters will only become more frequent in my clinical years. Despite these dynamics, I think participation in grassroots movements from within or entirely outside of medicine can make us powerful.

Karim speaks out at the Fight for 15 Rally in 2015.

Karim speaks out at the Fight for 15 Rally in 2015.

The way that I’ve become powerful has a lot to do with commitment. A little over a year ago, I marched with Put People First PA (PPF-PA) at #ReclaimMLK in Philadelphia, a demonstration to recall Martin Luther King Jr.’s most important legacy: his lucid vision for dismantling racism, militarism and poverty. PPF-PA is a grassroots membership organization dedicated to meeting the needs of poor and working people by uniting across lines of division in our state. Our current campaign aims to make healthcare a human right in the state, as part of the larger Healthcare is a Human Right Collaborative. The foundation of our work is about changing what’s politically possible in the state by organizing people and creating deep connections across different communities surviving through the same crises of poverty.

Before marching with a few thousand others that day, our members got together to discuss what the action meant to us and why our work must not separate health care justice from the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Most importantly, we knew that the march, the way it made us feel and the way it brought us closer to each other, would carry forward into work on political education and leadership development in our own communities. This was one of the most meaningful actions I’ve ever participated in because it was with a community in which I had a stake. I work with these people not because it’s the logical community service correlate to a successful medical career, but because I want to live and work in a place where living with dignity is actually possible for everyone. The people who can make that happen are already here. The uninsured and under-insured all around us are already experts on our profit-hungry health care system, and there are a million ways to support their leadership while developing our own.

Knowing this, I am not waiting for something to happen. I am always thinking about what I can help make happen. With longstanding commitments to organizations like PPF-PA as a backdrop, I can always ask myself: is this work making my community more powerful? Is this work creating discrete opportunities for more people to participate in their own liberation, to become stronger leaders? This holds while I’m in medical school, it holds during election season, and it holds when, all of a sudden, the debate around healthcare has flared up to a national stage. I think we can do this long-term work with all kinds of communities, even from a position in medicine. The medical chain-of-command tries to convince us that we have no power, and that our values have no weight — but despite this, we need to actively practice using our voices. At no point will this health care system invite us or give us permission to do that, no matter how many degrees or accolades we might accumulate within it. It’s on us. By practicing being powerful, we will make real change happen, even while the system we work in tries to keep us cynical and self-conscious.

For me, Students for a National Health Program is an important vehicle for students to find our power, and we are already flexing our muscles. Recently, we kicked off our national Bird-Dogging Campaign in Philadelphia. We’re making candidates talk about single payer health care not only in the presidential election, but in state and local elections as well. Listen to my friend Emily talk about a recent action we took as part of the campaign:

For a few reasons, I do hope you’ll get involved with SNaHP’s campaign. First and foremost, we have an unprecedented opportunity to push the conversation on making our healthcare system truly “everybody in, nobody out.” Equally as important, I hope you’ll get involved because we will make each other more powerful. We’ll cheer you on the whole way, and whether or not we win in this particular moment, the process will help us speak together more meaningfully, and move together more powerfully. Making healthcare a human right will require a fundamentally different set of power relations. For that, we need an ambitious policy vision, but equally, we need to transform the way we think about ourselves, the people we care for and our collective power.

Whatever means you find for doing this work, it can be grounded in a long-term commitment to working alongside leaders in communities most affected by health inequity. When our greatest allies in transforming our healthcare system are those with the most to lose in it, we no longer need anybody else’s permission to speak. To win the world we want, where caring for each other is the means to its own end, we’ll need to get more powerful, and we’ll need to do that together.

FHJ Progressive Summit

On Saturday, February 20th, members of the Fayette Health Justice Campaign from Put People First (PPF), the Center for Coalfield Justice (CCJ), the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) and HOPE for La Belle (via video) presented at the PA Progressive Summit in Harrisburg. The panel, entitled Uniting PA for Health Justice, Decarceration and a Just Transition, was well-received by 20 attendees who listened eagerly to the campaign’s framing of the intersections between mass incarceration, health justice and environmental justice. Bahjah and Richard from PPF presented along with Caitlin from CCJ and Devon from HRC; Nijmie from PPF moderated. Jeremy of HOPE for La Belle could not attend in person but did send along a video message. Audience members offered enthusiastic support to the campaign’s work to bring together impacted communities, including those currently and formerly incarcerated at State Correctional Institution Fayette, family members of incarcerated folks, residents of La Belle, prison workers, and others who are being impacted by the poisonous coal ash dump owned by Matt Canestrale Contracting in La Belle, PA. If you would like to get involved in the Fayette Health Justice Campaign contact sheila [at] putpeoplefirstpa [dot] org