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Galvanizing the Grassroots

People of color communities build capacity for a global campaign

In November 2003, locally based community organizations came together in Miami to confront the ministerial meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Autonomous from the usual list of anti-globalization warriors—labor organizers, environmentalists, direct-action activists, anarchists—the community groups created something different and historic: RootCause, Global Justice from the Grassroots.

As one of the convening organizations of RootCause—along with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and POWER U for Social Change—the Miami Workers Center (MWC) took on the task of preparing our base for the anti-FTAA campaign. The MWC is a strategy and resource center that helps build and empower grassroots organizations and leadership. One such organization is LIFFT, or Low-Income Families Fighting Together. LIFFT is comprised of the urban poor: current and former welfare recipients, low-wage workers, retirees, and public housing residents—the vast majority of whom are women and Black. Throughout the United States, this sector is economically depressed and under an ideological attack that blames the victims of historic racism and structural inequality for their condition. In Miami, the poorest city in the United States, they teeter on the edge of homelessness, and are harmed by police brutality and government policies that lead to evictions and forced displacement.

To LIFFT members, abstract theories of global neoliberalism are not the best way to crystallize the connections between trade and oppression. Macro-economic policy arguments are disconnected from the pain and suffering they experience on a daily basis. Consequently, the poor and people of color often endure conditions without a systematic understanding of the processes that oppress and exploit them so harshly. The challenge for the MWC has been to make real and tangible the concept of corporate globalization, and its connection to those most affected in low-income communities.

Goals and Groundwork
There were three core objectives driving MWC’s decision to join RootCause and take on the FTAA campaign: 1) to make concrete the connections between the concepts of imperialism, corporate globalization, and the everyday lives of poor people of color; 2) to deepen connections and identification among oppressed people of color, thereby transforming individual and local struggles into collective global struggles; and 3) to assert people of color as leaders in the growing global justice movement.

As part of the ongoing process of consciousness-raising, the MWC offers weekly political education sessions, based on the popular education model of active participation and learning from one’s own experiences rather than from textbooks and monologues. The sessions are known as the Circle of Consciousness. The first Circle of Consciousness in preparation for the FTAA, held one year prior to the ministerial, was a ten-part series on imperialism. Participants utilized a world map to identify Third World countries, the subjugating colonial power, the desired natural resources, and the resistance movements that grew in each historic and contemporary colony. The exercises were a hands-on way of illustrating the history of conquest and resource extraction in the Third World, and the historical progression from the slave trade and colonialism to present day neocolonialism and neoliberalism. That map remains on our walls to this day.

The purpose of the series—and the ones that followed on the topics of white supremacy and patriarchy—was to help LIFFT members place their economic and social conditions in an historical and global context. We believe the significance of the FTAA, as the latest version of imperialist public policy, can only be understood in this context. Three months prior to the ministerial, the MWC’s series delved into the FTAA itself. In addition to focusing the Circle of Consciousness on the FTAA, we added a few daytime sessions for deeper study, and organized community meetings, which featured a combination of guest speakers, local allies and grassroots leaders with a developed understanding of the local-global connections.

Sharing Our Stories
LIFFT, POWER U and Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)—in addition to participants from  Haitian Women of Miami and others—gathered weekly for two months. That feat required a four-hour round-trip drive to include the farm workers from Immokalee. We talked about globalization, corporate power and the FTAA. We talked about ideas, facts and dates. Most important, we connected with each other through the telling of heart-wrenching stories of abuse of immigrant farm workers, fear and violence experienced by Haitian refugees, and poverty and a sense of powerlessness expressed by members of POWER U and LIFFT.

It was an incredible progression of exchanges made possible by the help of multiple interpreters and a growing sense of respect for people we could barely communicate with, but were identifying with more and more. Those beautiful exchanges made our worlds seem simultaneously larger and smaller, as people traveled from their own communities to the homes of others and back.

While the background political education was important, people learned and retained more, and were far more emotionally moved because of the shared real-life stories. Together, community members were able to place those stories in the context of global imperialism and its effects on people who may have looked different and spoken differently, but felt the same as they did about inequality and oppression.

Model for a Movement
There’s no magic formula for mobilizing, inspiring, and organizing grassroots people of color into broader social movements. It’s all about time, dedication and utter respect. Building LIFFT to this level has been a five-year project, accomplished with intense amounts of time and energy. Both POWER U and the MWC began work in 1999 and CIW has a 15-year history of organizing and popular education. Collectively, we have invested literally hundreds of thousands of hours of door knocking, phone banking, meeting, planning, research, and listening to people’s stories—not hearing them like you would hear traffic or background noise, but listening to them like you listen to your favorite song or public speaker, looking to make the connections to broader systemic processes and taking every opportunity as a teachable moment.

All the advanced preparation produced incredible results at the FTAA protests. The RootCause March, a 34-mile march from Hollywood, Florida to the heart of Miami; and the People’s Tribunal, where social movements throughout the hemisphere put neoliberalism on trial, were among the most powerful expressions of grassroots people of color in the U.S.-based global justice movement.

The RootCause campaign activities were small compared to other mass mobilizations, and its militancy was not expressed through direct confrontation with the police or “the fence” around the ministerial. Rather, we confronted the unprecedented militarization of Miami on our own terms. Our campaign caught the imagination of its participants and the broader mobilization through commitment, culture, flavor, unity and dedication of our grassroots leadership. RootCause members continue to speak of the March in religious and life-altering terms. The experience has galvanized our leadership, built our base, and provided a model for the global justice movement.

Max Rameau is the director of Leadership Development for the Miami Workers Center in the Liberty City section of Miami.