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What does Black Freedom look like?

By Gabrielle Newell

This was the opening question of the 2014 National Convening of Black Workers Centers, a gathering that brought together labor activists from around the country.  I, along with 3 other ONE DC members and organizers, had the opportunity to attend and kick-off ONE DC’s efforts to create a DC Black Workers Center.  As a young, 22-year old, who has just returned to my hometown of DC after graduating from college in Chicago, I have energy, but what I need is a vision.  Organizing with ONE DC, I’m reminded that I am part of a powerful and historic legacy.


This is what I learned from the convening of Black labor activists: what we’re seeing today – in Ferguson, in Staten Island, and here in DC – is part of a larger trend, and our response must incorporate that history in order to illuminate the larger trends.  ONE DC is offering a space to do that.  Through Freedom Schools, listening sessions, and political education workshops, we as ONE DC are educating ourselves and exchanging knowledge in order to craft an effective response to the issues we face.


Now, we need to continue building momentum by drawing parallels between what different local groups are doing across the country.  For example, ONE DC is emerging from the Marriott campaign, an effort to enforce the First Source Law in DC, which states that any development project receiving more than a given amount in public funds is required to hire 51% DC residents in their new hires. In Los Angeles, the L.A. Black Worker Center is pushing for similar accountability.  To strengthen the national movement, we need to celebrate the wins and recognize the struggles happening across the country.


This is particularly true now, when the nation’s attention is focused on police brutality targeting black lives. As we come together to voice outrage over this issue, we must recognize this is part of a larger systemic trend.  We must contextualize police brutality within the larger issue of disparate social power, exemplified by mass incarceration; inequitable public education; vast differences in health, by neighborhood; and disparities in earning potential.


And this response must be united nationally.  This was a predominant message coming out of the meeting: we need a national political agenda that is directed by the needs of Black people in America.  And note the emphasis on the political – we must engage in the political process.


I have too many family members and friends who are disillusioned with the electoral process, and rightly so.  However, recent events in Ferguson remind us about the importance of voting. For example, Ferguson, MO is 67% African-American.  In the 2012 general election in which President Obama was reelected, 76% of Ferguson came out to vote.  However, in the last mayoral election that resulted in the selection of Mayor James Knowles (the current and controversial mayor), only 16% of Ferguson showed up at the polls. And this mayor has influence – including appointing power - over the (majority white) police force and city council.


We often feel like the electoral system and all of these messy politics don’t concern us, but they can, and they should.  ONE DC understands this.  The People’s Platform is pushing for a resident-led political process, one that would effectively communicate our demands to elected officials and hold them accountable.


And so, my conclusion coming out of the Black Workers Center National Convening is this: the current momentum and growing people power must result in a national political agenda, one that is committed to quality jobs for Black workers, and ONE DC has a valuable role to play in that. 

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