A new generation of activists learn, build community in Philadelphia

    Amit Schwalb, 19, is a biology and education major at Swarthmore College, where he has spent much of the year outside of the classroom working with the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT), a group of Quakers based in Philadelphia dedicated to using nonviolent direct action to pressure PNC Bank to stop financing mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia and surrounding states.

    Lauren Ballester, 21, is an engineering student at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has dedicated much of her spare time to Penn for Palestine, a student group dedicated to raising campus awareness about the occupied Palestinian territories.

    This summer, Schwalb and Ballester joined six other student activists and organizers in Philadelphia for a two-month program called the Young People’s Just Transition Project, organized by the Maypop Collective for Climate and Economic Justice, a group of recent graduates from Swarthmore College. The goal of the program is to form “a multiracial, economically diverse group of young people who have the potential to become committed leaders in the struggle for climate and economic justice.”

    “We’re bringing together young people interested in social change to learn about how people have worked for social change in effective ways in the past,” said Hannah Jones of Maypop. “We’re also learning how to build healthy community together. As students graduate from college, they are hit with student loan debt, very few job opportunities. And it’s not always easy to see a way to continue to do organizing, especially not in community with other young people. In the face of such challenges, we’re trying to come together to learn from the wisdom of older generations, while developing our own wisdom and skills to keep doing this work effectively.”

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    The project was conceived after the members of the Maypop Collective discussed and ultimately decided against trying to mobilize an act of civil disobedience in the summer with hundreds or thousands of people. Instead, they decided to take a step back to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the climate justice movement.

    A focus on climate justice

    While the climate movement has been able to mobilize thousands of protesters in recent memory, Jones says it has been less successful in crafting effective political strategy and developing key relationships with other social justice movements.

    “We thought that a way our movement could really become more powerful would be through intentional development of strong, smart organizers who know how to take strategic action, organize more people into the movement, connect with frontline groups, and work effectively across issues in the larger movement for social justice,” said Jones.

    Appropriately, the name of Maypop’s summer project comes from the climate justice movement, which seeks a “just transition” away from an economy powered by fossil fuels to one powered by clean energy and local grassroots economies. By bringing together activists involved in different political and social issues, Maypop hopes to connect climate change to issues of racial and economic justice, “including food justice, immigrant rights, school closings, workers’ rights, gentrification, and mass incarceration.”

    “We were learning a lot from the Climate Justice Alliance, an alliance of organizations fighting environmental injustice in communities of color and working class communities, who were using language around a just transition,” said Jones. “These organizations are not only fighting existing institutions that poison their communities, but are also building up community-owned alternatives to our exploitative economy that center people and planet.”

    Immersive activism, with early success

    Maypop’s Just Transition program offers its participants the opportunity to intern with a social justice organization in Philadelphia, participate in a study group on the history and varied tactics of social change work, and engage in a weekly intentional practice of support and care for each other personally and emotionally.

    Schwalb was able to continue working with EQAT, helping plan a large demonstration held in Pittsburgh in early July.

    “It was a logistically complicated action and involved a lot of folks who hadn’t been involved in an action or political protest ever before,” said Schwalb. “It was a new experience for a lot of people, including myself. Now we’re trying to follow up by trying to get Quakers to take concrete actions against mountaintop removal in their own communities.”

    Schwalb also spent some of the summer working with the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS), a coalition of more than a dozen organizations who have spent much of the past year protesting school closings and Gov. Tom Corbett’s cuts to the education budget.

    “It feels like a really important moment to get somebody in office who will be an ally to the students, families and teachers of Philadelphia schools,” said Schwalb. “We’re going to be doing a canvassing push, and we’re thinking about some different actions that we can plan and organize for the next months.”

    A practical and personal off-campus education

    A major component of the Just Transition Project has been its weekly study groups dedicated to understanding not only political strategy and the history of social movements, but also the relationship between personal identity and political activity.

    Nora Kerrich, 20, a junior history major at Swarthmore College, joined the summer project because she felt frustrated with the abstract nature of political discussions at Swarthmore and wanted a space to develop more concrete political skills.

    “I realized that the education I was getting at Swarthmore was having difficulty moving past heady theory into practical methodologies,” said Kerrich. “My political education has been predominantly self-induced, and I was looking for a group of people doing political education together.”

    Each two-and-a-half hour interactive study group workshop is developed and facilitated by one Maypop member and one Just Transition student-participant. The first two sessions connected the current global ecological crisis to the global recession, highlighting the impact that both have had on people’s lives and livelihoods. Another week, the group tackled a question at the heart of social movement theory, going as far back as the civil rights movement: What is the relationship between creating structures for social change versus creating momentum for social change?

    The group also held a more intimate discussion concerning the connections among emotions, healing, and trauma as an integral part of activism. The readings included a meditation on love and freedom by feminist author Bell Hooks; writings on sexual violence, including one from the seminal 1981 feminist anthology “This Bridge Called My Back;” and a manifesto originally distributed by ACT-UP during New York City’s Gay Pride parade in 1990.

    “I’m gaining real-world experience and knowledge on what it’s like to organize outside of a school context,” said Ballester. “I’m getting a lot of knowledge about the history of different movements and different models for organizing and movement-building, as well as some practice in what it means to take care of myself and my community while I’m doing this work.”

    Ballester has spent the summer working with New Sanctuary Movement, a faith-based immigrant rights organization based in Philadelphia, and helped coordinate logistics for their “National Day of Action to End Deportation” at York County Prison. Jones and other members of the Maypop Collective and the Just Transition participants joined Ballester at the protest.

    “Immigration is not typically linked with climate issues, so it might not have been apparent why climate-oriented organizers would show up to that event,” said Jones. “But people are being torn away from their families and homes everyday. That is reason enough to take action. And what’s more, as the climate crisis worsens, as we’re hit with drought, floods, as water gets poisoned, as ecosystems are destroyed, an essential part of a just transition is that people are able to migrate without fear of deportation. It’s vital for so many people’s survival. At that action, it was just so clear how interconnected all these different issues we’re all working on through this project are.”

    For Ballester, the most meaningful part of Maypop’s summer program has been getting to build relationships with a community of young activists who come from different backgrounds and political experiences, but who nonetheless share many of the same values.

    “We were at the Maypop house, eating cake and drinking wine and being silly, and I realized that I had picked up on a few of the participants’ idiosyncrasies in my voice and my mannerisms,” said Ballester. “It suddenly dawned on my how important all these people had become to me in such a short amount of time. Then the conversation devolved into a long discussion about organizing, which then devolved into a conversation about our families and our emotional baggage, and I was just like: Damn. I trust these people with every part of me. This is big.”

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