Reflecting on the first Grassroots Organizing Exchange! Hosted by: Popular Education Project and Put People First! PA

July 12-15th, 2019 Put People First! PA hosted 30 people from 10 States for a base-building exchange in collaboration with the Popular Education Project. People came from Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey and New York. Everyone assembled in Harrisburg on Friday to kick off the weekend by getting grounded in Pennsylvania’s terrain and PPF-PA’s organizing practice. That night, the 30 folks headed back with local leaders to four regions to be a part of a weekend of base-building hosted by established and emerging Healthcare Rights Committees (HRCs) in Monview, Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Altoona, York, Lancaster, Philadelphia and Norristown. During the weekend, participants knocked over 1000 doors, completed 87 dental surveys, 56 petition signatures, and gained new 117 contacts from the actions around Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia and tabling. The exchange ended by convening in Harrisburg again on Monday before everyone traveled back home. Here are highlights from participants experiences from the exchange.

Tammy, Lancaster HRC, Put People First! PA:

We all gathered together on Friday in Harrisburg before dispersing out to our regions. We did introductions, workshops and had small group discussions. I had the honor of leading a small group discussion that was centered around media & communications. I told the group about the statewide Put People First! PA Media & Communications Team and the forms of media we use such as our Enews, website, social media and Newsletter. The others in the group shared what forms of media their organization uses and we were all so inspired by our group discussion that we decided to connect on a project going forward. The proposed project would be a podcast “Round Table” series where we would all take turns hosting it. 

About half way through the day a good friend of mine who is a Leader of MILPA,  “Movement of Immigrant Leaders of Pennsylvania” asked me if I would do an interview with her for Fox 43 so that in hopes that by working together we could try to change the narrative around the issues immigrants face and the untruths the people in power say about those who migrate here. I was humbled by her ask and grateful to help in any way she needed me to. Watching her take the lead with the reporter and swaying them to go from their desired piece filled with fear around pending ICE raids to one of changing the distorted moral narrative around poverty. Desi is an amazing leader and through her leadership that day and us working together, we did in fact help sway the narrative that day. (Link to media coverage here)

We had dinner with the leaders of MILPA Friday night and after dinner we sat around in a circle and talked about the Poor People’s Campaign a National Call for Moral Revival and the need to grow the leadership of MILPA leading up to the mass march on Washington D.C June 20, 2020. To follow the work MILPA is doing, support their efforts or get involved please see the link to their Facebook page here.

Saturday in South Central PA the Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee hosted a day long event in Columbia which is located in Lancaster County and right on the border along York County. 

We started out by gathering outside the old St. Joseph’s Hospital whose future is still yet unknown and we shared briefly about our fight to save it and our concerns for the future. We then made our way to the Columbia River Park where we spent the rest of the day. 

After breakfast in the park we were led in song by Charon from the Kairos Center who sang “Ella’s Song” then we did a round of introductions followed by further political education on the history of Columbia, how our fight around the hospital led us to Columbia and our struggle to unite the poor and dispossessed. 

In the afternoon we did some more training then headed out in teams to go door knocking. When everyone gathered back together we debriefed how the door knocking went. After dinner the Lancaster HRC shared how taking action on the hospital helped us connect with the community, grow our base and develop leaders. Once the Lancaster HRC spoke the leaders from the visiting organizations shared with those present what fight they are organizing around and what does the Poor People’s Campaign mean to them personally. 

On Sunday the York Healthcare Rights Committee hosted a day long event. We started the day out in a local park where we had breakfast, did introductions, talked about the history of York and went over the door knocking training.

In the afternoon, some of us went out into teams and went door knocking while the rest did some tabling outside a local grocery store. I had a great time partnering with my friend Kareena for the door knocking, we were able to get to know each other a little better and strengthen our friendship even further. We then gathered at a local pizza shop for some lunch and conversation before heading to the church where the evening event was to be held. 

After taking some leisure time we gathered back together to talk about the York HRC and how we could help them grow. We had a great time doing the debrief from the door knocking then we enjoyed a great dinner. After dinner York hosted a Healthcare Forum where we all shared our healthcare stories with each other. I found myself sharing parts of my story that I never said out loud before. 

Monday, many of those who attended the weekend exchange gathered back in Harrisburg for a debrief from the weekend and used the time to strengthen bonds while others started their journey back to their home states. 

The best part of the weekend for me was the new people I met and were able to connect with. It’s nice having an extended family from across the nation and I made it a point to follow up with them since the weekend has ended. I look forward to hopefully getting this “Round Table” podcast series going and I’m glad I was able to connect with some of our out of town guests on social media so we keep in contact and continue to build everlasting bonds. 

Volney, Vermont Workers Center:

I want to thank PPF PA and the Popular Education Project a million times over not only for giving the Vermont Workers Center the chance to learn and share organizational tactics via engaging hands on exercises, but for the hard work and meticulous planning that obviously went into executing it. Everything from the political education pieces to the canvassing spots had such a sense of cohesion and created such a powerful,exciting learning experience i feel indebted. I was able to walk away with new outlooks and takeaways on leadership development,class warfare,the insurance industry and a wealth of other topics as well as share my experiences and skills as an organizer.

    Meeting and bonding with my comrades from all over the country in both Johnstown and Altoona was an incredibly fulfilling experience and I left with a stronger sense of connection to the work we do from trading stories of both triumph and struggle. Getting out there and doing the work with our team really pushed me to think about my role as a leader and how I see myself contributing to the battle to eradicate poverty.

   I have immediately begun to use a lot of the lessons that I have brought back from the exchange in my organizing efforts with the VWC. From planning strategies and delegation of responsibility to lessons in labor struggle and social skills,  there was so much I was fortunate enough to have experienced. This type of Organizational exchange is a powerful learning tool we must continue to use.

Rev. Tim Seitz-Brown, Faith Leader in the PA Poor People’s Campaign a National Call for Moral Revival 

There are 140 million poor and low income people in the United States, and this organizing exchange brought together activists from among these dispossessed from across the country to learn from each other how we might bring a healing justice to this land.

What I learned was that previous movements for justice being led by the poor had early, “easy successes” followed by defeat at the hands of those who are more organized in multiplying injustice. That means the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and Put People First! PA and other groups led by the poor must lift up and train leaders from the dispossessed who are “clear, competent, committed and connected.”

During the exchange, the Trump administration had announced ICE raids against immigrant communities throughout the US. Fox43 News interviewed Desi Burnette from the Movement for Immigrant Leaders of Pennsylvania (MILPA, Rev. Beth Reed from the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, and Tammy Rojas from Put People First! PA.) While the media sought to frame the raids through a narrative of fear, these three leaders from the exchange sought to create a new narrative of hope and courage. I witnessed these leaders speak in terms of human rights, morality, against dehumanization, and for the dignity of every human being regardless of their immigration status. They were clear, competent, committed and connected!

Meanwhile, I have a burning question from the exchange. Because our leaders come from precarious situations, I see the need to provide financial stability and consistent emotional support for them, freeing them to provide leadership. How do we do this? Are there models out there that we can learn from? What are creative ways we can holistically support the talented organizers among us? I am motivated to work for this.

When I saw the two minute episode on the ICE raids air on Fox43 at the end of the exchange, I saw that the media give 60 seconds to their “fear narrative” and then 60 seconds to the message our leaders wanted to give. So I see this work as a long journey requiring resilience and persistence. So I’m in this fight with all of you!


Pastor Tim Seitz-Brown

Spring Grove, Pennsylvania

My Education and Stay with PPFPA 

Zsa’ssata Williams, M.A.D Activist’s, Alabama

Thursday, July 11th, 2019: It’s 10am and I kiss my husband and 3 children goodbye as they drop me off at the airport in Mobile, AL, with my final destination being Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to attend the first annual Put People First PA Organizing Exchange. My husband Bomani Williams and I represent and are the founders of The M.A.D. Activists (M.A.D. being an acronym for Making A Difference), and also the literal term for our emotion associated with the oppression, policies, and exploitation of this capitalistic society. We are also proud members of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in the state of AL. The sheer anticipation of the unknown and meeting organizers from all over the country, is enough to make anyone second guess themselves in their personal contribution in the area of grassroots organizing. “Have we done enough?”, “Are we using the correct tactics and/or methods in our organizing efforts??”, were just some of the questions that rang in my mind as I was in mid flight. Once I arrived in Harrisburg, I was picked up by two members of PPFPA (Savannah and Hope), and a fellow out of towner from Dallas, TX was in tow as well. We then drove to the train station to pick up one more passenger from Boston, MA, (who by the end of my trip ultimately became my “Uncle James”), and made our way to our lodging quarters for the night at PPFPA event organizer Katrina’s home, which was a great way for us who had traveled to end our night. 

Friday, July 12th, 2019: Today I had the opportunity and pleasure to meet a host of organizers from across the states who are shaking things up in their respective areas in the fight for liveable wages, healthcare, farm workers rights, voter rights/restoration, and a host of other injustices that continue to plague our societies. Meeting PPFPA and PEP members Uncle Phil and Willie Baptist for the first time, was an amazing experience all its own, considering all of the accomplishments and political genius that they have to offer. The participants were given an introduction on how and why PPFPA was started, and were taught the characteristics and techniques that are required for Leadership Building. I particularly remember “The 4 C’s” that one must possess to become such a leader….. Clear, Competent, Connected, and Committed. In this work, I have learned it is important that we realize who our base group is before we engage in any action or political work.

Saturday, July 13th, 2019: It was a beautiful morning in Lancaster, PA, as we arrived at a local hospital that at one point was once a huge staple and safe space for the community. The hospital was recently shut down due to the greed of the elite class whose only concern is to keep up with their profit margins, and not the healthcare and welfare of its citizens, who’s time and physical labor makes the wheels of this economic machine turn. I was extremely moved by PPFPA member Tammy Rojas’s story of how her life literally began in that hospital with her grandmother (who was a nurse there) by her mother’s side, the way she described the homeless being housed and cared for on the 1st floor by the staff, and how her grandmother, the love of her life, ultimately took her last breath in that very same place. It is a story that will stay with me forever, and a wonderful introduction into PA politics and the citizen’s unwavering will to stay in the fight. We made our way over to the city of Colombia and received a brief history from PPFPA members Matt and Ann before going out into the community to door knock in the name of healthcare for all, which went better than many of us expected, and gave us the confidence that we needed to gear up for the next day’s activities. 

Sunday, July 14th, 2019: I have now spent three days with my team and we’re beginning to get more comfortable with one another as we start to engage in more personable conversations, (i.e., children, relationships,  upbringings, political viewpoints). On this day we meet up in the city of York, which PPFPA members Mr. Kim, Ms. Val, and Mr. Brett gave a great backstory on before we went out door knocking in the neighborhood. My partner, PPFPA member Richard and I made a great team and were able to engage multiple residents in the fight for dental care for everyone. One conclusion that we came to on this day that was different from our experience in Colombia, was that the individuals who were insured through their employment willingly signed our petition and were adamant about fighting for those who did not receive it. The conversations that we had along the way made our hearts smile, and gave us hope that humanity still exists and the fight must and shall go on! 

Monday, July 15th, 2019: Today is the last day of the Organizing Exchange and all of us organizers are brought back into one core group again for debriefing and reflections. Some main highlights for our group were the personal connections that were made between us in such a short amount of time. There is something very intimate about living in close quarters with one another when you don’t look your very best, haven’t had your coffee or what ever vice gets you going, and sharing personal and emotional stories that ultimately connects us more than they keep us apart. We learned that the poor and dispossessed are dealing with the same issues no matter what state we live in and that we must rid ourselves of the divisive lines that are put in place to keep us apart. It is not  often that I’ve went into spaces where I’ve taken away more resources than I’ve put out. PPFPA’s Organizing Exchange is definitely one of those exceptions. Not only did I gain more knowledge, skills, and techniques to better organize in our area. I returned home with a new respect for the work and sacrifice of all grassroot orgs across the globe. Most importantly I added more members to my activists family that will keep this movement sustainable, and always moving forward together, not one step back! 

Kim Altland, York HRC, Put People First! PA

On July 12 to 15, 2019 Put People first and several allied groups came together in Harrisburg PA for a membership exchange. The protestants came from PPFPA and groups from Massachusetts, New York, Alabama, Vermont, and more. This event included an educational exchange on Friday. Saturday and Sunday were a chance to experiences tabling and door knocking in new areas and in a new format. Several groups left Harrisburg to go to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other locations around PA.

Saturday started with a visit to the now closed St. Joseph’s Hospital to see what the Lancaster HRC is fighting for. We then went to setup a meeting place and starting point for our day of door knocking at the Columbia River Park. Small groups fanned out from the park doing door knocking and outreach. It the end of the day we had a potluck dinner open to any one who chose to come.

Sunday we met in York at Farquhar Park and again setup a starting point. We then went to Union Lutheran church for tabling and then fended out along West Market St and West Philadelphia St again to do outreach and door knocking. We then debriefed at Heidelberg Lutheran Church. That evening we once again we had a potluck dinner open to any one who chose to come. Monday we returned to Harrisburg for a debrief and to say our goodbyes.

Jae Hubay, Philly HRC, Put People First! PA

Leading up to the PPC/PEP organizing exchange, the SEPA region in PPF had been shifting a lot. In Philly, we changed from a neighborhood-based HRC to a citywide HRC, the Montco/Norristown HRC has been figuring out how to officially launch, and folks in the Fayette Justice HRC like all of us have been dealing with challenges, as we always do as poor and dispossessed people! And while we’ve been keeping afloat, maybe doggie-paddling around, the exchange presented a challenge for us to learn to do a synchronized swim routine. We hosted a doorknocking, a Leadership Across Difference training, a speak-out at Hanhemann Hospital, and several meals to get to know our partners in the PPC. I’m so proud of us for the new level of organization and collective movement we accomplished during the exchange! Forward together!

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